Somewhere along the line, I dismissed good old fashioned “bro work” or “bodybuilding” as something inferior to training CrossFitters. Boy was I wrong. For the past year I’ve been doing personal experiments on myself with mobility and different types of accessory work. I’m going to highlight how including these bodybuilding movements in your training will help you put on lean muscle mass AND improve your strength big time.
The truth is that we all came from doing bicep curls and bench presses from the globo gym. When we started doing CrossFit, we developed a filter that saw bodybuilding movements as “non-functional”. For whatever reason, it has a negative connotation in the world of CrossFit.
My personal experiments started simply because I wanted to test what I thought would work. I wouldn’t say this is statistically significant enough to be published in a study, but important enough to notice the trends.
My left hip flexor was always tight and my hips just felt out of whack. I spent 3 months doing one hour of mobility every single night. Yes, I was the mobility nerd sprawled out in a frog position to smash my inner thighs. Still am actually, but I’ve figured out some things that I think are super important to dealing with mobility.
Although I felt like a million bucks after every session, the next day I’d be back to square one. I figured let me give it at least three months and I’ll be golden.
You can only imagine how annoying it was to spend all this time untangling myself only to find that I have to do it again tomorrow. Short term, this was magical. But I personally didn’t think it was addressing the root problem.
I’ve always been very conscious of my movement quality since I herniated a disk in my lower back. I was okay in this area.
So my next assumption was that I have a muscular imbalance. And this was something that I discussed with various professionals to validate my thinking and hear different opinions.
I realized I had all the mobility I needed. But I lacked in stability and strength. I dedicated the next three months to focus on a few things.
- Eccentric and Isometric work
- Unilateral training
- Building buns of steel
- Hypertrophy training
During this period, I cut down my mobility time significantly so that I could focus on strengthening all the gaps.
To my surprise, I felt the strongest I ever have in all of my Olympic lifts. More importantly my body felt great. I felt “balanced” as cliche as that may sound. The tightness was no longer in my left hip flexor. Any tightness I did have was more so something I could relieve with a little bit of mobility. Not hours of foam rolling.
I felt unshakeable. I felt explosive. And people around me were noticing that I had put on some lean muscle mass too, which is always a plus. The wheels were growing.
Then I stopped doing this because I thought I was set. Why would I stop doing something that’s working? I don’t know. Good question. I had gotten to a point where my training time was limited, and I wanted to focus more on my core lifts.
- Front Squat
- Back Squat
When I stopped, this tightness slowly crept back. And I went through another round of relieving this “tightness” with more mobility. Didn’t really work again.
Don’t get me wrong, mobility is vital to your recovery if you are training like an athlete. And if you do CrossFit at least three times a week, I would put you in this category. It’s not the only part of the equation though. Many times, it’s a short term fix. The other part of the equation is the strengthening or “stability” of all your other muscles, tendons, and ligaments that don’t get the attention they need.
Obviously I shouldn’t have stopped what was already working. So I will be placing an emphasis on my accessory work, which is what my coach Jon Zajac is very adamant about. This will mean that I’m going much lighter on the Olympic lifts so that I can have time to get them in.
What Can You Expect
A few months ago, I was standing around a group of women after the WOD just listening. They were talking about how they wanted to “look.”
One of the ladies said, “I just want to look athletic. Like I actually do something. I feel like I work hard in the gym, but have nothing to show for it.”
In a world where we focus on performance based outcomes, some people might see this as shallow. But it’s actually the complete opposite. It’s totally normal to want to look good as a result of your training. The majority of the population started doing CrossFit because they wanted to see physical changes. For some, this is a primary goal and for others it’s just an added benefit to training. This is something I’ve discovered in my own research from interviewing women who have been doing CrossFit for over a year.
Gentlemen, I know you want to get strong too. You know that sometimes you look over at the dumbbells in your gym and miss chasing the pump. CrossFit is not a program to build bodybuilders — we get that.
As you get stronger and faster, you will see physical changes. But probably not at the rate you want to. That’s why supplementing your training with a variety of bodybuilding movements might be just what you need.
So yes, if you are smart with your nutrition, expect to improve muscle definition and put on some lean muscle.
Obviously, we’re not ONLY doing this for aesthetics. We’re going to see functional and physiological responses too.
You can also expect to start feeling a difference in your movement after only a few weeks. Balance, stability, and control are all positive results that I’ve noticed.
My assumption is that you will come out of this training with healthier joints so you can keep doing what you love for a longer period of time. You will also improve your overall muscle quality, which will lead to PRs in your core lifts.
Let’s dive into the nuts and bolts of my audacious claims.
Types of Adaptations
There are two types of adaptations in our training.
Functional adaptations take place in the central nervous system that allows us to improve certain skills or tasks.
- Muscle Ups
Then we have structural adaptations, which are building the raw material to be able to do what we want to do. They are physiological and physical changes.
This is why we all hit a ceiling at some point in our training. This is why after about a year of CrossFit, progress starts to slow down or diminish completely. You can learn how to do kipping pull ups. But once that technique is there, you won’t go anywhere if you don’t have the strength to perform multiple reps together.
Same concept with Olympic Weightlifting. Aside from doing the Snatch, Clean, and Jerk all the time, we focus on Squats and Pulls too.
We build structural adaptations that allow us to push the functional adaptations.
Long story short…we’re building more muscle so we can get stronger and keep moving the needle forward.
Types of Strength
There are three different types of strength that we need to be successful.
As Crossfitters and Weightlifters we are insanely proficient with our concentric strength. Think about every movement you do.
- Muscle Ups
- Toes To Bar
- Kettlebell Swings
- You name it
These are all focusing on being explosive and contracting as much musculature as possible.
Eccentric strength is the lowering portion of any movement. So when we descend into the bottom of the squat, our muscles are lengthening. When we lower the bar onto the shoulders from Push Presses, we’re not usually focusing on lowering down with control. When we do heavy singles in the Snatch, there’s no real eccentric portion because we’re dropping the bar. When we do Touch and Go Reps, you’re missing that midrange because of the rebound.
Isometric strength would be something like:
- Holding an L-Sit.
- Stabilizing yourself at the top of a Ring Dip for a while
- Pausing for 5 seconds in the bottom of an Overhead Squat
We play the game of contraction, and that’s okay. But to keep playing the game, you’ve got to focus on supplementing your training with these other forms of strength that contribute to your overall muscle quality.
I found that I was really lacking eccentric and isometric strength. And I’m not the only one. If this goes ignored for too long, tendonitis can start to develop or injuries become more likely.
The fact of the matter is that you are out of balance. Your concentric strength has outweighed your eccentric and isometric strength. It’s only a matter of time before you get injured. Or find that you’re not really going anywhere.
So why would you want to improve eccentric strength if you’re not really using it in your given sport?
- You can strengthen the tendons much more than concentric and isometric work.
- You can increase your capacity to recruit more fast twitch muscle fibers.
- You will feel unshakeable when trying to maintain good positions for your movements.
- You can strengthen the core and stabilizers to prevent injuries.
- Read more of Christian Thibaudeau’s explanations here
Doing Squats, Pulls, Presses are all bilateral movements. This simply means that we are using both sides of the body.
Unilateral movements would be something like
- Single Leg RDLs
- Single Arm Presses
This sounds crazy, but the total strength of both your limbs are actually less than the strength of your individual limbs. This is something called bilateral deficit.
We all have a weak side. There’s studies that show these strength differences can be as high as 25%.
Bilateral training allows us to hide these imbalances. Your body is a machine. It’s going to get the work done no matter what. The question is how? You will overcompensate with some part of your body, which over time can lead to injury.
Hip imbalances are something I’ve dealt with so let me give you a scenario. Cindy Lohmann from SSPTDC explains this perfectly in this article.
Your mobilizing muscles (hamstrings, quadriceps, TFL, and Adductors) tighten up over time for obvious reasons. You’re using them pretty often, sitting all the time, etc.
This inhibits your stabilizers from working, which causes them to become weak and lengthened. When they aren’t being used, they’ll lose their endurance over time and stop doing their job — stabilizing.
Your body won’t stop there though. It will get the job done like a champ. So your mobilizers will redline and work harder than they need to in order to complete the task. That’s not their job though. So now you’ve overloaded your mobilizers which causes them to become even more tight.
Now you have an imbalance. Some of these mobilizers are completely inactivated and some are overcompensating. This could be beyond just the hip joint.
Try doing a Single Leg RDL with control for 10 reps on each side. You’ll notice right away that you might feel completely off balance. We’re strong athletes…but we can’t balance on one leg?
Your body recruits deep stabilizing muscles to control and pull you back to center. Read more here on the benefits of unilateral training.
Buns of Steel
The glutes and core are two of my favorite body parts to focus on. Why? Because it is the powerhouse of your body. And if you have a buns and abs of steel, what more could you possibly want?
The glutes can shut down very easily. From long periods of sitting, pain caused from even stubbing your toe, or just inactivity. The thing is they don’t just turn back on unless you purposefully train them to. You have to re-activate, re-strengthen, and re-coordinate them to perform in everyday activities and movements.
During daily activities, you’re not activating your glutes to their fullest capacity. That’s why Physical Therapists and Chiropractors prescribe glute activation drills to teach people how to fire them hard and fast when duty calls.
And if you are training in the gym…duty will call. Trust me.
Here’s my solution to encompassing the types of training and strength we are missing. Good old fashioned “bro-work.” We get in plenty of work at 80% or above with strength training and the Olympic lifts. We also get plenty of work below 60% with the loads we’re using in metcons. Adding in a solid block of hypertrophy training can help you fill these holes.
Hypertrophy is just a fancy word for muscle growth coupled with an increase in the size of muscle cells.
There’s two types of movements you could use for hypertrophy training. And there’s no good or bad. There’s a place for everything. You have single-joint exercises like bicep curls and tricep pulldowns. Then you have compound exercises like Push Presses or RDLs.
Balance was my biggest struggle with the Olympic lifts. The Pull from the floor to the hips was fine. The Catch was okay. But the explosion phase is where I felt thrown off.
If you can focus on being more balanced throughout your lifts and your movement, you can transfer energy much more effectively. Doing dips and tricep work can strengthen your lockout for Jerks and Snatches.
It’s totally possible to work on your different types of strength with one movement. An easy way to do this is by adding pauses. For example, Back Extensions with a 3 second pause at the top. Or Back Squats with a 3 second pause in the bottom.
Not only can you build absolute strength at your weakest point, but you’re still building explosive strength through the range of motion.
High rep, low load work can help improve your overall muscle quality by increasing the
- Muscle’s endurance
- Resistance to injury
This occurs because these types of reps help flush the muscle with blood which aids in the recovery process. Sets mostly consist of 6-20 reps.
At the end of the day, we want to focus on improving overall muscle quality.
The Chinese Weightlifting team is a great example of using bodybuilding movements to supplement their training. There was a case study on Wang Zhongyong who was injured and unable to perform the Snatch 8 Weeks from a competition. During this time, he prioritized back work such as Lat Pulldowns and Back Extensions.
Very close to the competition date he was cleared to Snatch. He ended up setting a Chinese National Record despite being unable to Snatch for a long time. He credited this to keeping a strong back position so he could effectively transmit force. Zhi Xiongwei confirmed this correlation later on with research.
We can focus on training two different motor patterns with RDL’s for example. On the way down focusing on taking twice the time to lower the weight as we did to Pull.
Something that directly relates to CrossFit is that you will be able to perform more reps at lower weights without getting fatigued.
Accumulation phases of a cycle allow you to prepare your tendons, ligaments, and joints for the intensity that’s about to come. Joint health is obviously extremely important if we want to keep doing this for a long time.
Coach: Misbah Haque, USAW-SPC, CF-L1 Trainer
The objective is to increase your structural strength with a variety of movements. We’ll be focusing on doing things that will improve pushing, pulling, pressing, squatting, and carrying.
We’ll perform tests for things like:
- Single Arm Shoulder Press
- Front Racked Bulgarian Split Squat
- Pull Ups
- Back Squat
- Bench Press
- Push Press
- Overhead Squat
- Front Squat
- And a few others
The cycles will run in 4 week blocks. We’re going to see what 8-12 weeks of this will do. During this period, you’ll be logging your workouts so we have data points. The workouts will take about 30 minutes per session with the assumption that you are going to be doing other types of training such as metcons, strength training, Olympic Weightlifting, etc. This program ideally requires 4 days per week.
The equipment you will need for a cycle like this can be found in your local CrossFit affiliate, barbell club, or globo gym:
- GHD Machine
- Resistance bands to attach to a rig or a Pulldown apparatus
The 4 days of your training will have this emphasis:
- Day 1 – Full Body
- Day 2 – Upper Body
- Day 3 – Lower Body
- Day 4 – Full Body
Here’s what a sample workout may potentially look like:
Front Racked Bulgarian Split Squats
Single Arm Shoulder Press
Barbell Hip Thrust
12 w/ max pause on last rep
1:00 for distance
I pride myself in having buns of steel. I could definitely use more core work. But those two things are going to be a huge emphasis in this cycle. This alone will allow you to start feeling a difference in your performance.
At the end of the day, I think you’re going to have a lot of fun with this cycle. Which is something important we often overlook. That being said, this is most ideal for the CrossFit athlete who trains to have fun and stay healthy.
- If you have fun, you’ll keep training.
- If you keep training, you’ll get results.
- If you get results, you’ll have fun.
- It’s a pretty effective circle.
If you’re interested in reaping all the benefits we just talked about, enter your email below to become apart of this test run. I’ll give you more details, and we can see if we’re going to be a good fit for each other.
Disclaimer: AirborneMind is not affiliated with or endorsed by CrossFit, Inc. or any other organization. The advice given in this article is in no way intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Discontinue any exercise that causes you pain, severe discomfort, nausea, dizziness, or shortness of breath and consult a medical expert. Start slowly and at the level that is appropriate for you. Not all exercise plans are suitable for everyone.
Misbah is giving away a free gift to Metcon’s readers to help you master the Snatch.