Maintaining Strength In CrossFit After Your Strength Cycle

A very common question I receive from athletes who have just completed a dedicated strength cycle is how they can maintain their strength gains when they go back to CrossFit. This question arises because the athlete notes correctly that peak levels of strength attained while strength training cannot be maintained when, in the case of CrossFit, programming seeks development of nine skills sets in addition to strength. So, what is one to do? The answer is a complicated one. In this article I will discuss a variety of considerations so that you are better equipped to create a plan that will work for you.
Do I have to do additional work beyond CrossFit classes? No, you don’t. This may seem counterintuitive, but keep in mind that if you return to CrossFit you will be training 4-6 times/week across a variety of movements, weights, rep ranges and time domains. This is hard work and it will be a strong stimulus for your body to maintain a reasonable amount of strength. How much will be maintained exactly? It will vary form person to person, but in my experience you can maintain 75-80% of your maximal strength levels by returning to CrossFit with no extra work. Obviously, this is a reduction from peak levels, but the stronger you are, the less practically significant this reduction becomes. For example, if your 1RM back squat is 405lbs, maintaining only 75% still leaves you with a “typical day” 305lb 1RM which is still solid strength for CrossFit. Nevertheless, even if your max lifts aren’t at top numbers, any loss of peak strength by returning to CrossFit can easily be regained should you take another strength cycle in the future. Remember, it is much easier and quicker to build back up to your previous levels of strength than it is to develop that strength for the first time.
What if I want to try and maintain more than 75-80% while taking CrossFit classes? In this case you have some options, but you need to consider a few things: What is the CrossFit programming at your box like? Do you have the flexibility in your CrossFit schedule to target class days that have strength pieces? Do you have the free time to perform extra lifting on your own? If so, how many days/week are you willing to commit to lifting? Are there specific lifts/types of strength you are more concerned about maintaining? You need to have a handle on these questions in order to enact a plan for maintenance.
Can you give me any pointers on how to answer these questions? Here is a breakdown of the key points:

The Lifts/Types of Strength That Concern You Most: CrossFit tends to be very lower-body dominant. There is generally some form of squatting or pulling every day, so your squat and deadlift strength (as well as your power clean) are likely to be the most stable and protected strengths. On the other hand, strict pressing and bench pressing is seen far less in typical CrossFit programming. If you couple this with the fact that your shoulder muscles are much smaller and harder to develop, you might want to make them a focus of your extra work.

The Type of CrossFit Programming at Your Box: If your box has a strength-biased program where a squat, press, and pull strength piece are programmed every week, you are likely good to go with minimal (a little extra pressing or benching work) or no extra work. If your box uses a traditional CrossFit programming template where there is a dedicated strength piece only once every week, you will want to target that day if possible and then supplement the other lifts on your own based on your goals. Finally, if your box has a conditioning bias (strength appears less than once a week), you will almost certainly need to perform extra lifting on your own (particularly in the press and bench presS) to maintain strength at levels above 75% of your max. Note, if your box is conditioning-biased in this manner, it is very likely that your strength levels will fall below 75% if you don’t perform any additional strength work.
If I do decide to conduct extra lifting on a regular basis, what weights, sets, and reps should I use? You have a lot of options. One approach is to reset your top working weights down to 75% and slowly build your way back up over time taking small jumps. With this approach make sure you take weight increases less often (i.e., every 1-2 weeks instead of every session). Another option is to have fun with the lifting and just rotate rep schemes every session. For example, you could do 3×5 one session, 1-1-1-1-1 another session, then 5×5, 4-3-2-1 after that, and so on. Regardless of which option you chose, you may need to make certain days light days based on how you are feeling from previous CrossFit workouts.
If I do decide to conduct extra lifting on a regular basis, should I do it before or after CrossFit Class or on days I don’t take CrossFit? Rest and recovery is essential for any kind of training. Therefore, I do not recommend doing your extra lifting on non-CrossFit days if that means you will be left with only 1 or no rest days each week. Instead, do your extra lifting on your CrossFit training days so that your rest days are protected. When conducting lifting on CrossFit days, the order is up to you. In back-to-back sessions the work you do first (strength or CrossFit) will get the best results as energy levels will be high and you won’t have bodily fatigue. Whichever one you do second will have less of your body’s resources to draw from and performance will be less than optimal. Each day you should think about the CrossFit class programming and decide which order will best help you reach your goals. Of course, if you don’t have the flexibility to choose the order, then you will just have to make do.
Can you give me an example of what a week of training with maintenance would look like? As discussed above, there are a lot of factors to consider. You will have to think about what is best for you, but here are a few examples:

Example 1 – Maintain all lifts, slight emphasis on Press

  • CrossFit Class: Mon, Tues, Wed, Fri, Sat
  • Rest Days: Tues, Sun
  • Strength In Class Programming?: Yes, once a week. Day and lift rotates weekly.

Extra Strength Work:

  • Mon: Squat and Press
  • Wed: Deadlift and Bench Press
  • Fri: Press and Chin-Ups

Note: If intended extra strength lift appears in CrossFit class as a strength piece on that day, will just perform that lift in class as programmed.
Example 2 – Maintain bench press and press only

  • CrossFit Class: Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri
  • Rest Days: Sat, Sun
  • Strength In Class Programming?: Less than once a week.

Extra Strength Work:

  • Mon:Press heavy
  • Tues: Bench press moderate
  • Wed: None.
  • Thurs: Press moderate
  • Fri: Bench press heavy

Note: If intended extra strength lift appears in CrossFit class as a strength piece on that day, will just perform that lift in class as programmed.
Final Thoughts? Strength maintenance is a bit of an art because there are so many variables – likely ones you haven’t even considered yet. The most important thing is to stay active and keep training. As long as you do that, no matter what you do, you can build up your strength again with a focused strength program in the future. If you read this article and have decided you want to be even more diligent and effective in your maintenance strength, feel free to drop me a line and we can discuss a programming package that more specifically addresses your needs and goals.

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