1. Build strength intentionally.
One of the biggest mistakes that CrossFitters make is not making time for consistent strength work. Some gyms program strength cycles into their class programming, but others are still a little behind. A well-designed strength program will create more resilient muscles, tendons, and bones that will be able to handle more weight for more reps in the future. This is especially important for pull ups, which are rarely programmed strict, and even more rarely programmed regularly for a full 6-week cycle to build capacity.
If you have a movement that you want to build strength in (I suggest pull ups, a hip thrust, front squats, and/or strict pressing), get to the gym ~20 minutes early 2-3 times per week for a quick lift. After you warm up, start with 2 sets of 8-12 challenging reps. Each week for 6 weeks, add 1 extra set OR add more weight OR add more reps than the previous week. After 6 weeks, take a 1 week break from that lift then repeat! Over time you’ll build strength, which will directly transfer to your performance in the gym and reduce your risk for injury
2. When you lose your ability to produce strong reps, break up your set.
You know what strong reps feel like. Your form is on point, you’re only using as much momentum as you need, and your recoil from the rep is equally as controlled as the original rep. Weak reps look more like flailing movements: think kipping pullups where the chin barely clears the bar despite a massive amount of body movement, or a deadlift that is dropped as soon as the bar slides up to the hips.
In general, your muscles and tendons/ligaments have a certain capacity, or a certain amount of force they can withstand or produce at a time. Above this capacity, tissues become weakened or injured beyond what a few breaths of rest can restore. Your goal is to stay in the zone BEFORE this point. Once your reps start to look significantly different than those before them, you’re flirting with the line. Worst case scenario: you catch that last clean and get crushed in the bottom of the squat, tweaking your wrist, knee, or back. The best CrossFit athletes usually pace and most of their reps look clean, so follow suit and break up your sets before you start hitting ugly reps.
3. Find your glutes and hammies to save your knees and back.
Do your quads usually burn out when you’re rowing or doing wall balls? Do you get back pain with kettlebell swings or deadlifts? If yes, you could probably benefit from finding and using your hamstring and glute muscles. Glute and hamstring strength can make a huge difference in your lifts. Instead of being held a prisoner by your quad dominance, strong glutes and hams can help you out of the bottom of the hole in a squat. Your deadlift can also feel relatively easy on your back (what?) if the only thing your back muscles have to do is lock your spine into a rigid lever for your hips to move.
The easiest way to start to strengthen hamstrings is by using a hip hinge to find a hamstring stretch then slowly load it up for a barbell good morning. You can hit your glutes with a chest-elevated hip thrust, which has near perfect carryover for your triple extension in cleans, deadlifts, and snatches. Don’t forget about the GHD (Glute Ham Developer): You can perform hip extensions when you’re belly down on the GHD: if you’re training glutes and hammies, push your hips hard into the pads and stop before parallel rather than arching your back toward the ceiling.
4. Don’t choose a WOD weight that you haven’t trained for strength.
The whiteboard today says 21 thrusters at 135/95#. You struggled through an EMOM the other day of 8 thrusters at 115/75#. I think we can all see what might happen here. Many of us conveniently forget how a WOD makes us feel: competitive, more inclined to take risks, and pumped up on adrenaline. Unfortunately, WOD circumstances are not the best times to be repetitively hitting high percentages. It’s ALWAYS better to save your high percentages for direct strength training when you are focused, not fatigued, and in control of your breathing. Once you’re able to confidently hit those numbers, then you’re much more likely to handle them with grace during a WOD. Or, if you know you eventually want to be able to handle a certain weight for touch and go reps during a WOD, set up a plan to build strength in that movement (EMOMs, accessory strength work, etc.)
5. Take 2 rest days per week separate from each other: active recovery and full rest.
Many CrossFitters like to go hard 6 days in a row and take Sunday off. However, if you want to train hard and improve your performance, you might feel stronger and perform better if you have an active recovery day rather than a WOD mid-week. This will allow you to continue working hard into the later part of the week when you’re normally beat up from 4 consecutive days of training.
You should also take an additional day of full rest to allow your nervous system time to calm down and reset. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mental fatigue builds up during the week as well as physical fatigue, and training is a stressor. Give your body and mind a chance to rest fully at least one day per week and connect with friends and family to decrease your chance of overuse injury and improve your mindset going into the next week.
As always, we hope this helps! If you have any questions or if you would like to read about certain topics, feel free to send us an email at TeamSP@SportsPerformancePT.com.
-Dr. Marissa Rescott, PT, DPT, CF-L1
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