By FRCF Coach John San Filippo


Today wraps up our strength series. We’ll be talking about how long to rest between sets, and how to choose weights in CrossFit workouts.


Welcome to the final installment in our strength series! Today, we’ll mostly be talking about a topic that CrossFitters aren’t very good at–resting. Rightly, most CrossFitters default to continuous movement. As Dan Bailey once said, “it’s always for time.” However, though many Crossfitters agree with Dan, taking this approach will actually stunt true strength gains. At the end of this article, we’ll also talk about how to scale weights in workouts.

Strength under fatigue is a staple of CrossFit. We lift with high heart rates, tired muscles, and scattered brains. While traditional strength and conditioning often decries this as unsafe, anyone who has had to spend a saturday landscaping knows that life demands the ability to exert force when we’re sweaty and tired. However, this doesn’t mean we should always lift under fatigue. While there are many levels of rest periods appropriate for strength training, today we’re going to focus on two groups of recovery periods: metabolic recovery and neurological recovery.

As we’ve discussed previously, smaller rep ranges (<5 reps per set, and less than 30 total reps) primarily train absolute strength, which is expressed as our neurological efficiency. As CrossFitters, we tend to see these rep ranges either in a standalone strength program, or as part of a strength portion during the workout of the day. If it is part of a strength portion, it’s often supersetted with another movement or warmup progression. A typical day may look something like this:

5×3 Front Squat, up to a heavy set for you.
Kipping pull-up progression

Often, as a coach, I see members treat this as five rounds for time. However, this approach will leave strength gains on the table. Full neurological recovery takes between three and five minutes1. That doesn’t mean you can’t be moving during that time–but if you perform a heavy set of Front Squats, then take 60 seconds to perform the kipping pull-up progression, and jump right into your next set of squats, you won’t allow your body to fully utilize its potential to move heavy weight. Instead, I coach members to treat that portion like this: As you build through your warmup sets, treat your pullup progression as your rest between front squats. Once you get to weights that feel heavy (around 75% for most people) start to add a few minutes of extra rest in after your pull-up progression. This added rest will let you add more weight to the bar, and perform more challenging sets. Over time, this will lead to substantial strength gains.

Once we get above 5 reps per set, we’re mostly concerned with metabolic recovery–our muscles ability to recover and exert force for the next set. Somewhat counterintuitively, this requires less rest. Our muscles are almost fully recovered within three minutes after finishing a set that’s 6 or more reps. When we’re training hypertrophy and muscular endurance, it’s important not to rest too long, or we begin to lose the training stimulus we’re looking for–and our workouts begin to take so long it feels like we’re never going to leave the gym! While this doesn’t mean that we should treat these sets as AMRAPs, it does mean that we can move a bit more briskly, especially if supersetting other movements in a warmup style.

What about strength movements in workouts–how should we scale the weights for those metcons that have barbell movements in them? The first step is to look at the total number of reps we’re going to be performing. For time workouts are easier to do this with–Grace is 30 clean and jerks no matter how long it takes you. AMRAP workouts may be a little trickier, but they are (or at least should be!) written with a desired range of work that can be accomplished within the given time domain. Ask a coach what the ballpark range of total movements should be. If that total volume is more than 20 or so reps, we’re no longer trying to lift heavy weights under fatigue. When this is the case, we need to scale weights such that the primary limiting factor is fatigue–NOT strength. Remember, we don’t get fitter with our hands on our knees looking at a barbell. A good rule of thumb for most CrossFit workouts is to scale the weight to around 50% of our one-rep max23–since most CrossFit workout have between 20-40 reps for externally loaded movements. For workouts with more than 40 reps, we can begin with 40%. For anything above 60 reps, use around 30%.

In conclusion, true strength gains happen with proper amounts of rest. When we’re training strength–give yourself the best opportunity to truly get stronger! Conversely, when we’re trying to get fitter, we need to move. Don’t try and struggle through 50 reps at 70% of our max. Scale to move consistently, and make our breathing the limiting factor.