Strength is one of the most desired elements of fitness. The idea of moving significant weight during a workout—not to mention the aesthetic benefits, is very appealing. It’s a vital component of the majority of CrossFit workouts, and we spend a lot of time working to become stronger every week. But sometimes our strength stalls. The PRs stop coming and the numbers aren’t moving in the right direction. What s going on? Well, several things could be going on.
#1. Your technique is broken.
There are many ways your technique can break down: bad posture, poor form, improper weight selection, lousy coaching (though I hope that’s not the case). At first, you may be able to literally ‘muscle’ through a movement and build strength, but there’s no way you’re ever going to be able to move much weight overhead when you hyperextend your lower back instead of tightening your core keeping a neutral spine (just one example). This can also lead to other issues and a high risk of injury, which means that you’d literally be regressing in your overall strength. The fix sounds simple but requires consistent work.
First, check your ego and lower the weight so that you can perform the movement efficiently. Learning how to move the barbell properly will allow you to put more weight on. Spend time working on your mobility and enlist the help of your coach so that the proper mechanics of the lift are engrained in your mind. Once these foundations are locked in, you can start to progressively add more weight, eventually blowing past your previous PR. The perfect example of this is the clean. A lot of athletes struggle with getting under the bar due to poor flexibility, technique or fear—or all of them, so they stick to the power clean. Sadly, there’s going to come a time where they can’t power up the weight that’s on the bar anymore. It’s at this point they’ll wish they learned how to perform the clean as it was intended, so they’ll have to go back to the drawing board while the athlete who took their time to learn the particulars of the lift surpasses them.
#2. You’re sticking to what’s fun, not what you need.
Everyone has a favorite lift, and they’ll never miss a class when it’s programmed. At the same time, everyone also has a lift that they despise and/or they’re weak at, and avoid it like the plague. You can’t avoid the truth. Being good in one or two lifts won’t take you far. Your split jerk is nothing without your push press, it’s going to be difficult to get out of a heavy clean if your front squat is weak, and so on. These lifts are more closely linked than you may think. Each builds strength in different areas that you’ll need to break through a plateau. No one enjoys performing a movement they suck at, but that’s why practice is so important.
#3. You’re not doing the accessory lifts.
There is an infinite number of accessory lifts that you could work into your training to help improve your big lifts and beef up your smaller synergists—your helper muscles—resulting in more significant strength gains. For example, the Glute-Ham raise is an excellent way to increase muscle mass and power the posterior chain, which matters for any exercise that requires squatting and/or jumping. The behind the neck press targets a specific group of your shoulder muscles (the middle deltoids) because your elbows move out to the side in the movement, rather than straight out in front of you as is done in a regular press. That means you’ll be providing an extra boost to your shoulder and lat strength, which is essential for any overhead work as well as the fun skills like muscle-ups, pull-ups, and handstand push-ups. So if you’re struggling with increasing your strength, spend more time working on your accessory lifts.
#4. You’re not giving yourself time to recover.
When you perform resistance training, your muscles undergo microscopic trauma—the fibers of the muscles tear. When you stop working out, the fibers repair themselves, the body adds more tissue to the muscle so that the risk of repeat damage is reduced. This is how your muscles grow. It is also why progressive overload is essential to continued improvement. For all this to work effectively, you need time for the body to repair. This is where things like proper nutrition, sleep, mobility, and active recovery come in. These are vital elements of your recovery—and therefore your strength development—that can’t be overlooked. If you want to get stronger, be willing to rest.
#5. You’re not focusing on your mobility.
We already know how critical good mechanics are to being able to move weight efficiently—the better you can move your body around the bar the more weight you’ll be able to lift. But people forget that our flexibility and mechanics are intrinsically linked. The overhead squat requires proper mobility from the shoulders, wrists, hips, and ankles. If you’re lacking in any one of these areas, you’ll have a ceiling as to how much you can lift—if you can perform the movement at all. So then, it is critical that you dedicate time to increasing mobility and learning how to move your body effectively all the time. Sam Dancer, who deadlifted 655lbs at the Games last year, once spent three hours working on his mobility every day for three months. You don’t have to do that, but you get the point.
#6. You aren’t emphasizing strength.
CrossFit is about being skilled across multiple areas of fitness. The aim is to be balanced, but sometimes people will drift towards improving specific skills at the expense of others, either intentionally or unintentionally. There is nothing wrong with wanting to become a more mobile athlete if you can’t put yourself in the correct positions to move heavy weight. But if you’re spending the majority of your time working on your flexibility without actually moving heavy loads, your strength will stagnate. The same goes for people who want to improve their cardiovascular endurance. Yep, there is a thing as too much running, rowing and double-unders. While your engine may be developing, your muscles aren’t being put under enough stress, and they aren’t moving heavy loads; which means your muscle fibers aren’t undergoing micro-trauma and repairing themselves as they should be. Of course, if you spend too much time working on your strength, you’ll decline in other areas. So it is about creating balance. But if you know that you have a severe imbalance in your fitness and your strength is limiting you, speak to your coach and develop a plan to provide more focus on improving it.
#7. You’re not eating well.
Part of the process of increasing your work volume, adding poundage and letting yourself recover is adding more fuel into your body. When you have a hard workout session your metabolism is boosted for hours after you leave the gym, so you need to provide your body with the nutrients it needs for your muscles to repair and grow. If you don’t, your body will start burning both your fat and your existing muscle tissue, which apparently isn’t very good. If you’re having trouble breaking through a plateau in your strength, consider adjusting your diet to allow your body to handle heavier loads. If you’re unsure how your diet may be impacting your strength, consult a coach immediately to take a look at the whole picture.