By FRCF Coach John San Filippo

Last time we talked about neurological strength gains and why new CrossFitters need CrossFit. Today we’ll talk about when to add in a standalone strength program, and what’s happening when we make physiological strength gains. Most of the hypertrophy information in this article is sourced from the CSCS textbook.


Last week, we talked about why new CrossFitters need CrossFit. So when IS the appropriate time to start adding in some extra lifting? The short answer is–when you have to in order to keep making progress. As previously discussed, we can only get stronger from that which we can recover from. The flip side of that is–as long as we are continuing to progress, there’s no need to add extra work in. Focus on your intensity and effort during class, and progress for as long as you can. Once you begin to plateau, then you’ve earned the right to think about extra work.

So how do we build strength once neurological adaptations start to slow down? Through our ten-cent word for the week: hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is an increase in the size of skeletal muscle. Essentially, you have to make your muscles bigger. We do that by increasing protein synthesis and building new muscle fibers. When we train, we cause small amounts of damage to our muscles. This increases hormone production, and those hormones do two things–they cause our bodies to increase protein synthesis, and decrease the bodies natural regulation of muscle fiber growth. This natural reaction to muscle damage from strength training is our bodies’ way of trying to adapt and strengthen in order to resist future damage. This leads us to the most important concept in strength building: the concept of gradual overreaching. Because our bodies are creating new muscle, we need to increase our stimulus in order to continue making progress! We can increase that stimulus by increasing the weight we lift, the reps we perform without a break, or the total volume that we accomplish in a lifting cycle.

We know that we have to increase our stress gradually over time in order to drive muscle hypertrophy–but what specific types of stress do we need to introduce? The simplest way of understanding strength building is to look at the reps and time under tension of a training program. We can think about low reps as maximal force recruitment–training our brains to fire as efficiently as possible. Because the time under tension is very low–even the grindiest of squat PRs doesn’t take longer than 10 seconds–there is fairly negligible hypertrophy created. This is why, without the use of performance enhancing drugs, simply lifting to a max every day will eventually lead to plateaus. We can think about hypertrophy as really beginning to occur around the 40 second mark of total time under tension. This may seem like a lot, but remember, time under tension begins when we begin our lift, not just during the reps. If we take the bar out of the rack, pause for 1 second, spend a few seconds on the way down, and then pause again before beginning our next rep, the average rep will take between 5 and 7 seconds. Indeed, the best combination of strength and hypertrophy happens in the 6-8 rep range. This rep range is the best combination of neurological and hypertrophy based strength gains. However, once we get above the 8 rep range, we begin to get into the realm of pure hypertrophy and muscular endurance. This strength endurance is extremely important for CrossFit, but in terms of building absolute strength and functional hypertrophy, we should stay between 1-8 repetitions.

So, is getting stronger as simple as adding a few pounds to the bar or squeezing out a few extra reps? At the beginning, it may be. However, as the term muscle growth implies, we need fuel in order to continue building new muscle. Nutrition is a future multi-part series worth of information, but suffice to say, building strength once you start to plateau is going to require eating more, and gaining some weight. This can be a sensitive subject, since so many of us (myself included!) lost a lot of weight when we got into CrossFit. In my opinion, this circles back around to the idea of goal-setting. Will being stronger make your life better? It will improve bone density, help you protect against injury and decrepitude, and help you look good naked. If you decide that the extra mass required to break through plateaus is worth those changes, then a standalone strength program is probably for you.