the spaz of fitness has arrived

Evaluating CrossFit Strength Programs

In Training on August 16, 2012 at 11:29 pm

Fickle Jomad that I am, I’ve decided on another strength protocol. After borderline obsessive research, I can confidently say that I’m at least conversant with all the strength programs popular among CrossFitters. There are actually a limited few upheld as the “most effective.” Even the lifting regimen that I was following (70’s Big Strength and Conditioning) seems to be falling out of popularity. Here’s the breakdown:

Starting Strength: Simple, brutally effective and pretty much universally recommended for any true novice lifter. It allows you to optimize those beginner gains. However, the high volume virtually eliminates your ability to incorporate any actual CrossFitting. I have no doubt that there are individuals who– against general wisdom– add their own metcons, but the efficacy of that is to be debated…

Crossfit Football: Strength-based CrossFit designed particularly for athletes in power-based sports (football, rugby, etc). Its website provides a daily workout paired with a strength workout. Easy-to-follow– just go to the webpage and find your workout for the day, and doesn’t get too complicated. It also has three options: a basic level for the amateur athlete, another one for individuals who compete in their given sport at the collegiate level, and one more for professionals. It also offers an in-season and and off-season option for those who are actively participating in their sports. I think its simplicity, paired with the fact that it allows for more CrossFit-esque workouts explains its extreme popularity.

The Outlaw Way: A relative newcomer that’s made a huge splash. Rudy’s Outlaw programming produced an impressive amount of Games competitors this year– including third-place finisher Talayna Fortunato. Though the website claims that athletes of any level can follow this program, it is specifically designed for Games hopefuls and looks very much like an advanced training program. It incorporates not only many Olympic lifts, but also the supplementary exercises for those lifts and I worry that an inexperienced athlete could just rehearse his own mistakes without the eye of a knowledgeable coach.

Catalyst Athletics: A highly respected resource for Olympic lifting, Catalyst offers daily workouts as well as an archive of different training cycles for people particularly interested in improving their Olympic lifts. As with Outlaw’s program, though, I worry that the beginner here would unknowingly repeat too many of his own mistakes.

Greyskull Linear Progression: A linear progression program that reduces the squatting frequency and allows for a bit more conditioning.

Wendler’s 5/3/1: More of an intermediate program, this one raises your lifts by smaller increments and is thus more useful for people who have progressed beyond their beginner gains. Its absolute simplicity and adaptability make it an easy choice for CrossFitters. It also pairs well with metcon-ing.

Westside Barbell’s Conjugate System : more on this later

After my last post, I posed a few questions on the CrossFit forums about CrossFit Strength Bias, whereupon a few people responded pointing out that CFSB has fallen out of favor lately, which could be interpreted as a sign of inefficacy (there are a probably a lot more factors at play, but with my limited knowledge… I must defer to those who know more). Anyway, after that I decided I’d just return to the 5/3/1 programming that our box follows…  but someone more knowledgeable than I, whose opinion I respect, pointed out that Wendler’s program technically isn’t the best fit for my goals. As I mentioned in my last post– I want to work on being more explosive– faster sprints, more powerful O-lifts, generating more force at once… At the end of the day, 5/3/1 is a powerlifting program, which is not quite what I’m looking for.

I knew that the Conjugate system had a lot of loyal followers. Moreover, I knew that it had a power/explosive component, but I’ve always been scared away from following it. With the exception of the Conjugate system, all the programs I listed above are pretty much “plug and play.” You find your lift numbers, and the program or the website will give you a lifting protocol to follow… exactly which lifts, on what days, and how many times. The Conjugate system is more complicated than that. It’s based off “Max Effort” (1-3 rep maxes) and “Dynamic Effort” (explosive movements with 40-60% of your 1rm) days. There are no specific prescribed lifts nor specific “assistance exercises,” but rather, a very long list of possibilities from which you can configure your own program. It’s the choose-your-own-adventure option. While I could easily see how this is often the most effective program (customizable to your personal weaknesses), I could also see how it allows for the greatest margin of error. I felt that I didn’t know enough about lifting to know how to target my weaknesses, to know which lifts to choose, let alone which assistance exercises to help me with those lifts. Worse yet, there’s a myriad of Conjugate derivative programs that stray from the original concepts– including CrossFit Conjugate by Chris Mason, which eschews the Dynamic Effort days, and Westside for Skinny Bastards, which replaces the DE days with a “Repetition Effort” day.

Anyway, after trying to make sense of all this information overload, I was ready to call it quits. I should also add here that I feel a bit like an ass so avidly pursuing my own programming. The box uses Wendler’s 5/3/1, which has produced fantastic gains in many of our athletes… and I don’t think I’m special or different in any way. I just… also happened to have figured out my specific goals and have the time and will to engage that right now, and I’m very lucky in that our box allows me the resources to do that. I particularly owe so many thanks to Jefe who has demonstrated superhuman patience in fielding my many, many questions, and helping me figure out what type of programming I could do while still participating in the box’s WODs.

Very fortunately, I ran across a “Beginner’s Guide to Westside” that broke down the Conjugate system even further… after reading those forty pages, cobbled together with the bits and pieces I’ve gathered from other CrossFitters’ Conjugate templates, as well as Chris Mason’s CrossFit article and Westside for Skinny Bastards, I’ve come up with a very tentative idea for what I want to do for my own Conjugate system. This is very much subject to change…

The basic principle of the Conjugate system is that you vary your exercises on a 1-3 week basis. Here, I agree with Chris Mason in that CrossFitters (or maybe even just me) are not proficient enough/advanced enough that they need to switch it up every week. So I decided to start with a 3-week block. Also, though I know many Conjugate programs actively avoid using the four major lifts (Squat, Deadlift, Press, Bench) as the “major lift” for their max effort days, I’m going to start there just because… it’s what I know and it’s a new program and I’m nervous about screwing this up. After my first 3 weeks, I plan on evaluating how I feel and then deciding on my next set of exercises. So here’s what my first three weeks should look like:

ME Lower Body

Squat 7×1 (start @ 70% and move up)

Accessory Work:

Sumo Deadlift: 3×5 (@ 80ish percent?) (I’m not sure about this one– about the percentage, or the set counts… I chose this exercise because I saw it listed under good accessory movements for when you have problem getting out of the bottom of the squat, which I do)

Glute Ham Raises 3×10

Pistols 2 x 15 (alternating)

ME Upper Body

Press 7×1

Accessory Work

JM Press 4×5 (I have weak triceps)

Pull-ups 3×8

Dumbbell Press 3×10

DE Lower Body

Box Squat with Chains 12×2 (bar with chains 50%, then 55%, then 60%)

Accessory Work:

Sumo Deadlift: 3×5 (@ 80ish percent?)

Glute Ham Raises 3×10

Pistols 2 x 15 (alternating)

DE Upper Body

Bench 12×2 (start with 50%, then 55%, then 60%)

Accessory Work

JM Press 4×5

Pull-ups 3×8

Dumbbell Press 3×10

Some people have different accessory exercises for DE days than those of their ME days. But for now, for the sake of simplicity, I think I’d like to keep them the same. Just figuring this out took an enormous amount of research and effort– at least for someone who’s still a relative newcomer to strength training. But I like it… I feel like I’m actually taking charge of my own training, and it’s forcing me to learn even more about 1) the many methods of strength training and 2) the way my own body adapts to different stimuli. So… promising developments ahead. Thanks for reading, all.

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  1. Starting Wendler on Monday. We’ll see how this goes.

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