Improving Strength

Strength is something that is often sought after by competitive CrossFit athletes these days, but there are a lot of approaches (successful and not) for achieving it. A well-designed strength program must build stability in the component pieces of each movement. When each component acts in unison, a strength program has the potential for success; it then falls on the athlete and their desire to push, dig, and fight for every PR.


Improving Strength in the Pieces Creates Strength in the Whole

One approach that I have found to be quite successful with my weightlifting and CrossFit athletes is to address the pieces and break down the movements in order to strengthen each of these pieces. I am approaching this from a standpoint of coaching the Olympic lifts, but it is equally important in all other strength movements. In the classic clean, for example, it is important to strengthen the first pull, build speed and stability in the second pull, and emphasize speed and tension in the third pull. Addressing each of these components with sufficient regularity will build strength in the whole movement.

For example, working strictly on the first pull to the knees off the floor is extremely beneficial, assuming that this pull is performed correctly. I will often program halting first pulls at the beginning of complexes, especially early on in an athlete’s development, in which a two or three second pause is taken at the knees with maximal tension in the body. Once athletes get comfortable with the feeling of tension and power in this position, their maximum clean almost always increases. We continue this progression by introducing clean pulls and low hang cleans from just below the knees.

Having the athlete begin the lift from a low hang instead of the floor forces the athlete to focus on accelerating the bar towards the hips from a position of tension. If the training load is particularly demanding, the bar can be placed on blocks, which elevate the bar to this low hang position. For newer lifters, I almost always recommend NOT using blocks as they typically need to develop the back and core strength necessary to stabilize a load through the entire range of motion.

While strengthening the first and second pulls, cleans from a tall position are also beneficial for building proper tension and speed in the third pull under the bar. The tall position is identical to the dip in the jerk in which the knees are driven out slightly so the hips can partially close while the torso remains perfectly upright. This starting position forces athletes to change direction quickly while rapidly pulling under the bar – this is not possible unless they maintain proper core tension throughout the movement.


Strength Gains Require 3 Types of Conditioning

Lastly, there are three key types of adaptation that must take place, particularly in newer athletes, for any strength program to be successful.

  1. Physical – the body must be trained to push through consistently heavy and challenging training. A good program will be designed such that the daily workload follows an ebb and flow. This pushes the body to near failure but also allows the body to recover adequately enough to reap the benefits of each training session; walking this fine line is the job of any successful strength coach.
  2. Emotional – strength training is not easy if done correctly, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. Easing your newer athletes into the program is necessary so that they can learn to deal with the peaks and valleys of any training program. You should NOT be hitting a PR every day if the program is designed properly, and accepting this fact takes emotional maturity.
  3. Nervous – there must be a CNS response to any training program so that the nervous system can adequately fire and respond to the strain you are placing on the system. This is why I always have my newer strength athletes squatting comparatively heavy weight very early on; learning how to dig the heels and push against an impossibly heavy load trains the body to pursue the fight response and not the flight. All of this is relative, and it is important to challenge your athletes early without pushing them to absolute failure.

By strengthening the pieces of each movement and by designing a program that allows your athletes to grow in the three key areas, you will be successful in coaching your athletes to new levels of strength. This is crucial when working with competitive CrossFit athletes as the sport continues to evolve. The fact is, stronger athletes consistently perform better amongst other top tier competitors. If you are looking for tips on where to begin or would like to pursue further education on the subject, please visit my website at

Justin Wright | Wright Performance

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