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Why so much strength work at RWS?

March 17, 2013

“Why do we work on strength when we could just do nothing but metcons?” …Seriously? I really have to answer that question? (sigh) Fine, just for that I’m going to dissect why we do what we do at RWS. I’ve come to realize that, while shitty programming is becoming slightly less common, even now the majority of CrossFit boxes still do not do any sort of consistent intelligently-programmed strength work, opting instead to pulverize bodies with high-volume competitive exercise on a daily basis. That’s some bullshit, and I’ma tell you why.

I consider myself one of the torch-bearers of old-school CrossFit, and I suppose whether that’s good or bad is a matter of opinion. Anyway, according to the 2002 CFJ article “Foundations” CrossFit is a “core strength and conditioning program.” Strength and conditioning. Can’t have that without “strength,” now can ya? Look folks, strength is the foundation upon which useful fitness is built, and without improving it there’s a very low ceiling on how far your physical capacity can advance. Can’t complete a workout as prescribed? It’s going to be from a lack of strength, not endurance. [Mobility and skill may also present limitations, but in such cases they merely inhibit the expression of strength through a given movement.]

Let’s talk about muscular endurance for a moment. Endurance is your ability to resist fatigue and is measured in either relative or absolute terms. Relative endurance is the ability to lift a given percentage of 1RM repeatedly, while absolute endurance is the ability to move a given load repeatedly. As you may have guessed, relative endurance is a useless standalone metric while absolute endurance (also called “work capacity” when you throw cardiorespiratory endurance into the mix) is the single most important metric in CrossFit. Relative endurance relies on pain tolerance, dominant muscle fiber type, sarcomere size, and lactate threshold, amongst some other things, and can be improved through training up to a certain point. Work capacity is a function of relative endurance and max strength (and cardio, but we’ll ignore that since it’s so quick to gain or lose); if one stays constant and the other increases, work capacity increases. Max strength can be improved far, far more than relative endurance can and is a much more persistent attribute–muscular endurance starts to go away in weeks, cardio in days, but strength takes months to significantly deteriorate. It also takes a comparably increased length of time to develop, but I submit that it’s time well spent.

You know what results people want? Universally it’s to be leaner with better muscle definition; more muscle, less fat. You know what builds dense muscle better than anything else and burns fat for days after the fact? Lifting heavy things. [I use "heavy" as a relative term, of course; if you're a newbie what's heavy for you might be a warmup for me, and what's heavy for me is an easy warmup for an elite 85kg lifter.]

What if you just want to be a good competitive exerciser? Look at the program of anyone that makes it to the Games. I would bet my _____(redacted) that their program involves heavy lifting in AT LEAST 50% of training sessions. The really good ones, like Froning, lift 4+ days per week. You cannot get the results you want, whether for life or for competition, without getting stronger. If you’re past the novice stage and still think doing Fran will get you stronger, you’re retarded–light-to-moderate weight metcons will build muscular endurance via sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, not the myofibrillar hypertrophy and neurological efficiency required for significant strength gains. Yes, you could do a bunch of heavy metcons, but you wouldn’t be lifting as much weight (therefore not getting as strong) nor would you be moving as quickly or sustaining as high of a power output (therefore not getting as well-conditioned); you’d be limited more by cardio than by anything else. Plus, technique is best developed under a heavy load without a near-max heart rate and hypoxia. If you want to move more safely and efficiently, the time to learn is not with everyone around you screaming at you to move faster and ignore fatigue. There is a place for metcons of all loading patterns to improve endurance at given intensities, but nothing can replace focused strength and technical work as far as safely training loaded movement is concerned.

Of course you still need conditioning, that’s a given, but there is no substitute for strength. I’ll give you an example. Being able to quickly and repeatedly move 135# means that it automatically can be considered relatively light. With that said, who do you think has a faster Grace time–someone who can clean & jerk 300#, or 185#? How about Fran between someone with a 250# max thruster and 20 dead-hang pull-ups, or 135# and 5 dead-hangs? Assuming the stronger athletes have a modicum of cardio and muscular endurance it’s no contest–stronger wins.

At RWS, everything we do is designed first and foremost to help you move better, taking steps to minimize injury risk and maximize personalization of our program. As much as I would love to have an elite team of competitive exercisers, it’s a pretty low priority compared to ensuring steady gains through safe consistent training. Plus, most people don’t give a shit about exercising for points; they just want results.

Want to lean out? You need to lift heavy things, do intense met-cons, and eat clean.
Want to compete in CrossFit or any real sport, ever? You need to lift heavy things and do met-cons. It’s a lot easier and quicker to improve a strong person’s endurance than it is to develop strength in a weak Energizer bunny.
Want to get bigger? You need to lift LOTS of heavy things, eat everything not bolted down, and do just enough cardio to stay hungry so you can eat more (and to stay in shape).
Want to move better with more mobility in your daily life? Guess what, you need to lift heavy things (especially emphasizing good form) and constantly work on flexibility.

Now I will freely admit that if your goal is solely to improve relative endurance and/or long-duration cardio then the RWS model of strength-work-plus-moderate-length-conditioning is not the best thing for you. This is because those goals are stupid for anyone without a tremendous strength base, and I have never encountered a single person that could not benefit from practicing lifts with a very heavy barbell.

Pros of including regular focused strength work:

  • improved muscular development
  • improved work capacity at all durations via increased limit strength
  • easier to burn fat due to elevated metabolic rate
  • better technique under heavy loads
  • practices safe lifting habits in a controlled setting
  • improved anaerobic capacity in short duration time domains
  • more immediate feedback with regards to overall progress

Cons, as far as long-term progress is concerned: NONE.

Potential perceived cons for the athlete:

  • masochistic bunny rabbits that HAVE to be moving all the fucking time get restless (these people are usually weak since they clearly don’t grasp the importance of lifting heavy)
  • may not be sweating buckets until the end of the workout (this is a pro for me, personally, but the strength workouts I’ve been coming up with lately have me sweating like a whore in church within ten minutes)
  • can’t get away with half-assing it–either the load is heavy enough to objectively be a challenge or you need more weight on the bar

Potential perceived cons for the coach:

  • requires knowledge of how to actually program smart workouts, including relevant exercise science regarding volume and intensity
  • requires knowledge of quickly improving the finer technical points of movement regardless of how many people are in the class
  • can’t pile 30 people into a class without possible catastrophe unless four or more proficient coaches are present OR safe heavy lifting is an integral part of the gym’s culture (like at RWS)

Now, am I saying that every CrossFit coach that doesn’t implement at least some strength work is inept or that every trainee averse to heavy lifting has backward priorities? Of course not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a positive correlation.

To my fellow coaches and box owners:
I’m not saying that our way is the only good way to program. I’m not nearly enough of a pompous ass to make that claim and there’s myriad ways to implement an effective strength program. I realize that every box has a different emphasis and you may disagree with how we do things, and that’s fine–you totally have the right to be wrong (tongue in cheek)–, but if you do not at least give your members the option of a legit strength program you are doing them a colossal disservice. We’ve actually shifted more toward a cardio emphasis lately due to the evolution of my programming (dialing the strength work back to only 80% of the workouts rather than 100% so we can spend a little more time on extended-effort workouts with a “prehab” emphasis), but we will NEVER ax dedicated strength work at RWS, no matter what. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if we did.

Viva la snatch. T-Bo out.

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