Building Size and Strength With Crossfit
I’m going to start by making a generalization, a sweeping statement that no doubt does not include everyone but will hit home with a lot of the smaller framed individuals who have been doing, or have just begun Crossfit. And it is this:
Many guys who got into Crossfit did not do so with the intention of becoming a more ‘functionally fit’ human being. The goal of covering every aspect of fitness so that they could handle any task life threw at them was possibly not the sole reason for embarking on such a testing fitness regimen. Rather, it was to look like Rich Froning, Dan Bailey or Jason Khalipa…and what’s so wrong with that?
If aesthetics didn’t play a large part in Crossfit—or many other sports for that matter—then we wouldn’t have all the lads here in the freezing cold United Kingdom tearing off their shirts at any given opportunity and running down the street in the middle of a blizzard to impress the locals with their shaved chests and six-packs.
I’ll never forget the first-ever Crossfit certification held here in the UK and the look of complete bemusement on the American coaches faces when, in mid October, an outdoor workout was set and each and every guy stripped half-naked and started swinging their kettlebells in the rain. Anyone who hails from this part of the world will attest to the fact that the sun appears to be on a semi-permanent sabbatical to Egypt, returning for two weeks a year to do battle with our ever-present grey skyline before retreating (defeated), to more inviting climbs.
So, let’s delve in to some home truths.
Firstly, if you are naturally skinny, Crossfit will not make you bigger.
Secondly, the only people who are genuinely content with having a six-pack are the ones who were big (and tubby) to begin with, who then worked their way down to being lean. If you were svelte from day one, then you’re not content with being shredded, because it’s always been easy for you to accomplish. By that same token you will also likely be the guy who has never been strong.
The hardest part of starting on your quest to becoming ‘Kali Muscle-Massive’ is letting go of certain things. I’m sure you’ll expect me to say abs, but no. You can keep those relatively intact. There is absolutely no reason to get fat whilst getting stronger.
The first thing you are going to need to do is break your addiction to the endorphine high you receive from your daily ‘metcon’ indulgence. I’m fully aware that many will chime in to say you can maintain a certain level of conditioning whilst building strength, and you can. But this will come from the increased work capacity of lifting progressively heavier weights and also increasing your volume over time, not from short, sharp WODs or hill sprints. Believe me when I tell you that if you are a bag of bones then these will simply slow your progress. I know. I’ve seen it, done it and bought the extra small t-shirt.
The second is tricky.
Let me preface this by saying that I have the utmost respect for Crossfit. I train at one on a regular basis and the trainers there are some of the best I have ever known. They were coaches before Crossfit and are open to all training methods. They are definitely not the ‘Kool-Aid drinkers’.
That said, Crossfit thrives on the fact that it is a community. And that’s great. But the love you receive from your ‘fitness family’ is not unconditional. By embarking on a powerlifting program you are essentially not doing Crossfit any more. This has potential to separate you from the pack. Those who do Crossfit, LOVE Crossfit and support those in the community. If you go against the grain, then there is certainly potential for things to change. I’m not saying that they will abandon you, but the reception you receive from within the community may start to become a little cold.
This is the point where you need to sit and evaluate what it really is that you want out of your training. As a natural extrovert, this could be a problem for you and may not be the best route for you to take if you need to be part of the box-born ecosystem. If, on the other hand, you’re entirely introverted like I am, it might well be the best thing you’ve ever done. I have been very lucky in this regard. Some of you may not be.
The next step will be to choose a suitable training program. For some reason, the Crossfit community gravitates toward two different methods of strength training. One is the conjugate system from Westside.
I find this baffling.
For one, this style of training is designed specifically for people who use power lifting gear. The assistance work is chosen to build the muscles utilized whilst wide-stance box squatting or benching in a shirt — neither of which have any relevance in the context of a Crossfit competition. I see many weedy guys doing hundreds of reps on band pushdowns and other ‘constantly varied small exercises’ on a weekly basis. Look, if you’re a Crossfitter you’re already doing hundreds of reps on lots of different exercises anyway. The very last thing you need is more exercises and more reps. But many like it because they get to bypass doing any actual heavy work.
By all means if you head exclusively down the strength route, then go ahead and use Westside. It has, after all, built some of the strongest men in the world. But don’t mix it with Crossfit. Westside deserves the respect to be used as it is. Not as some bastardised hybrid shit storm.
As far as strength work for Crossfit athletes goes, I’d be much more inclined to recommend 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler. It’s low enough volume that you can potentially make some progress on it alongside all the conditioning work. You also train in a low enough rep range that you might actually end up lifting some relatively heavy weights. The issue at this point is that you are essentially a plate spinner who. without 100% attention to diet and programming, is attempting to perform this difficult task with the lights turned off.
As someone who is dropping Crossfit altogether for a year in order to build a decent level of strength, 5/3/1 is a superb choice. A while ago I did the same thing and took my squat from 350 pounds to 500 pounds in a year.
But this article is really geared toward the skinnier male and the volume addict. So I believe some tweaks are necessary to build a solid physique and also allow you to feel that you’re doing enough. This is the number one complaint from all newbie Crossfitters starting such a program. They want to rest 30 seconds between each set and always hit 20+ reps on their final set.
I’m not going to tell you exactly what to do, because Wendler has catered for your needs in his book ‘Beyond 531’. Have a look at the some of the options he includes to add more volume with ‘Joker sets’ plus other options. You could also use the ‘Boring but Big’ method. Simple and effective.
Diet is the final topic I want to discuss. This has to be very well planned in order to gain solid muscle without adding any sloppy fat to your gut. For many Crossfit guys who follow a strict Paleo/Low Carb/whatever diet, the temptation to do a dirty bulk is ever-present. Everyone does this at some point or another, as demonstrated by pictures of snickers bars on Instagram with the hashtag ‘bulk’. It’s a nice mental break to be able to do so in the name of getting bigger and stronger. The reality is, of course, that they want to go off the rails for a few weeks and then as soon as the razor-sharp definition starts to fade, they’re back to chicken, sweet potato and greens. Hashtag shred.
This is the wheel spinning cycle that goes on year in, year out. Nothing ever really changes, no one ever really gets any bigger or stronger. By definition, performance stays stagnant. As a newly born powerlifter, it’s up to you to be smart about arguably the biggest missing piece to the puzzle.
Calculate your calories! At the very least, this will provide your baseline, ground zero from which to build a solid physique. Why put so much thought into every minute detail of training and then half-ass such an important part of the process? I’ll tell you why: Because you can’t be bothered to go to the hassle of working out a plan. It’s just too much effort. And that says it all. If you really want to be better, then you will do what is necessary to get the job done.
Monitor your weight on the scales and in the mirror. If a month goes by and you haven’t gained a pound, then increase your calories by 50-100 per day and then check your weight again in two weeks. You should have gained 1-2 pounds if you are doing things correctly (two pounds being the very top end). If you gain five pounds in a week, you are getting fat. You might not see it due to looking more pumped than usual, but you are. At that rate you will be a sorry-looking tub of sadness by the end of six weeks. Reduce your calories back by 50-100 per day and reassess in a month.
If you have all of these factors in check, your strength should start to climb nicely due to not needing to recover from endless WODs and the increased calorie consumption. PRs will fall, muscle will be built, and fat should stay well within range.
Now give it one year.