The Importance of Absolute Strength For Crossfit Athletes

August 25, 2021

Article written by Christiaan Mattheus

So, you’ve been doing CrossFit for a couple of months. Your diet resembles that of your Palaeolithic ancestors (or so you tell yourself), organic coffee is all you drink, and you finally cracked that 225lb Back Squat.

Yes, all is well in the world of “Gluten Free Protein Shakes” and now that you have the 7th best squat in the box, it’s time to take the next step. You have now joined your gym’s “HPC Crew”: High-Performance CrossFit Crew (better known as the bunch of assholes in the corner).

Together you and your crew follow programs like “Smolov”, and “Competitors Training”. Maybe you do them both at the same time – after all your T-Shirt does say “High-Performance Crew”.

Equipped with your non-GMO Reebok water bottle nothing can stop you. It’s time to compete… or is it?

You’re Still A Novice

This is the part where I burst your bubble. The T-shirt they gave you was a lie – who knew? Turns out almost all respectable strength & conditioning coaches would agree that any athlete who has been practicing their sport for less than 5 years is still a novice.

Now, this might come as a shock to you but a 225lb Back Squat should serve testimony enough; after all, it’s only 225lb. By this definition, I believe it’s possible to find Regional level athletes who would still be classified as “novice athletes”.

How is this possible? Well, the sport of CrossFit is rather young relative to the sports it’s composed of i.e. powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and gymnastics etc. It’s to be expected that most of the athletes competing in CrossFit have not been practicing the sport for 10 years; after all, it’s barely 10 years old.

I don’t want you to be under the impression that only “professionals” can partake in the competition. If you wish to “get under the bar” and have your performance measured, by all means, do so.

I simply wish to reduce the number of “Epic CrossFit Fails” videos on YouTube, and I believe that by making smart, educated, and non-ego-driven decisions, you too can help the CrossFit community as a whole.


Benefits Of Competition And Choosing The Right Division

Now that we have established that you’re not the caliber of athlete that your t-shirt suggests, I vote we get straight to the point. You may have gotten the impression that I do not advocate competing in CrossFit. This is false.

I myself have competed in many, many CrossFit competitions, ranging from the “Open” to national level “RX Only” competitions. I love competition, and when any of my athletes show competency and willingness to participate in a competition, I encourage them.

The amount of knowledge and experience gained from the competition is not something that can be acquired by simply training. No, there is something about having your performance measured and ranked against other competitors that cannot be replicated in any training environment.

With that being said, I believe your performance should be judged relative to your abilities, and you should be ranked against competitors with a similar skill set. Here are some tips that might help:

Be Realistic

If 225lb Back Squat is your number, rethink the RX division entry. Most competitions place a lot of attention on their RX competitors, and the workouts are designed to showcase the athletic prowess of said competitors.

A 225lb Back Squat and 135lb Snatch does not demonstrate any prowess worth showcasing.

Choose Wisely

With the ever-growing popularity of CrossFit, more and more competitions are being held. By virtue of the sheer number of competitions, it goes without saying that most of these events are sub-standard.

Every year, local competitions try and best each other by making the workouts more “unique”. They believe that jumping over 6ft hurdles and doing single-legged pistols, whilst breathing fire and solving a Rubik’s cube, trumps running a safe, well-organized, on-time event.

If you need to travel, do so!

Have Fun

You’re not being paid to compete. On the contrary, you’re paying to compete. You may as well get the best bang for your buck, and have a laugh.

What (Almost) All New CrossFit Athletes Lack

This is a topic near to my heart. I am fortunate enough to work with athletes of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the 45-year-old stay-at-home mother of 4 to the 25-year-old Regionals competitor.

The biggest surprise to you might be the fact that both of the athletes that I mentioned essentially follow the same program. Obviously, the mother of 4 does not train at nearly the same intensity, or relative intensity, as the regionals competitor, and she tends to spend far less time inverted.

But both of these athletes adhere to one principle: basic heavy compound lifting, done with absolutely perfect form. At least once a week I receive emails and messages from athletes across the country asking for advice.

I hear stories, and see training cycles that resemble Egyptian hieroglyphs. Coupled with all of this is an athlete with sore knees/back/shoulders, and an injury list that could fill up a scroll. They also seem to be stuck at the same back squat and deadlift for 2+ years.

And they wonder why everything hurts and progress has stagnated…Here’s the ugly truth: most CrossFit athletes lack sheer, absolute strength. They seem to be under the impression that a 500lb squat is “unnecessary”, and a 2:00min Fran is more desirable.

Guess what, Sunshine? No one has ever written a book about “21-15-9” anything and probably never will. You’re injured and progress has stagnated because your strength numbers are inadequate.

If you can only front squat 305lb, you’re not going to be clean and jerking more than that anytime soon. The solution to this epidemic is rather straightforward – get stronger.


How To Acquire Absolute Strength

The acquisition of strength is vastly underrated and greatly underestimated. When you front squat 440lb, Fran is a lot easier. When you snatch 285lb, Isabel becomes manageable. When you clean and jerk 350lb, Grace is fun. These numbers might sound preposterous, but I can assure you, they’re not. Allow me to provide guidance.

Go Back To The Roots

Basic barbell exercises have been shown to be quite effective when it comes to the acquisition of sheer strength. These exercises include, but are not limited to; back squat, front squat, bench press, strict press, deadlift, sumo-deadlift.

Find A Coach

If your gym lacks the necessary guidance, then seek out a coach that’s willing to help. You have a dentist who looks after your teeth, and you have an accountant who looks after your taxes. Get a strength coach to look after your strength.

Be Patient

Due to the physiological adaptations that need to take place in order to get stronger, it will take some time. Typically strength cycles will last 8-12 weeks; this is what is required to get stronger. Don’t like it? Take up jogging.

Calm Down With Conditioning

When you commit yourself to get stronger, you’ll have to cut down the 52 metcons you’re doing every week. Don’t worry; your legs won’t fall off. You can still do some conditioning but I suggest you keep it to once or twice a week, and stick to short HIIT.

Correctly Performed Heavy Compound Lifting Will Always Be More Important Than A Burpee Or A Double Under

The reality of the matter is that the very best CrossFit athletes are strong, and place just as much emphasis (if not more) on their strength training as they do on their conditioning.

It has been my experience that the things in life we work the hardest to acquire, are usually the things we value the most. I should not need to list reasons for you to get stronger – get stronger for the sake of getting stronger.

After all, when everything is said and done and you’re sitting around the dinner table listing your life accomplishments to your children, do you really want to be the guy who says “Son, I could never squat 500lb. But man, I was really good at burpees…”


Author Bio: Christiaan Mattheus

Occupation: Gym owner – Strength & Conditioning Coach

Sport: CrossFitClean & Jerk: 352 Snatch: 286 Squat: 506 Bench: 341 Deadlift: 575

About: Co-owner of Perish Strength & Conditioning. I have competed in 2 sports on an international level, 3 at the national level, and multiple national level CrossFit competitions.

Hometown: Pretoria, SA

Current city: Christchurch, NZ

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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