The overarching premise of cross training is to vary your workouts and intensity to achieve the goal of exceptional all-around fitness. What defines “exceptional” is, by and large, unique for every athlete, so the concept of doing every WOD Rx without regard for your abilities seems absurd. For example, an athlete training too close to his or her 1RM in a WOD (simply to perform the workout as prescribed) may sacrifice form and safety just to put up more weight, entirely missing the point of why we train.
Regrettably, this is happening every single day, in gyms all around the world. When you look at the top competitors in our sport, they will tell you that the road to glory was oftentimes bumpy. While they may have arrived there by pushing the limit in a gradual fashion to achieve a specific result, from time to time it was necessary to deviate from the plan. Although I typically try to stay in my lane and write about nutrition theory, I am going to venture off that path a bit during this article and cover new ground. There are a few points I am hoping to make, but the emphasis of this piece will be to outline effective methods of modifying your WODs for a specific goal. Today, I’ll be focusing on strength.
Strength Goals: Prilepin’s Table and The Conjugate Method
Strength is an extremely valuable asset in any sport. Endurance is also vital, but if you put up a heavy WOD, some of the more cardio-focused participants will struggle. The concept is simple really: As you train closer to your 1RM, you run up against greater levels of neurological fatigue, resulting in haphazard technique or failure to complete the WOD altogether due to muscular failure. If you’re constantly working super-heavy in relation to your ability and find that you’re having difficulty recovering from your workouts, I may be able to suggest a better approach.
In 1974, a Soviet Olympic weightlifting coach named A.S. Prilepin compiled a chart (“Prilepin’s Table”) which outlined a range of optimal load, repetition and set parameters for training maximal strength without generating so much fatigue that the athlete cannot adequately recover. Based upon exhaustive research of thousands of sportsmen, Prilepin’s Table is a major component of Louie Simmons’ Westside Barbell “Conjugate Method.” While absolute strength is not the sole goal of our sport, Prilepin’s work provides a great template that you can utilize to modify your workouts. What I hope to introduce you to is a concept that you can easily use with your own data to get a more optimal result. These tables should help you identify some of the trends in your coach’s programming and help you adjust.
Percent #of Reps #Lifts Per Workout Optimal # per Workout
70% 3-5 12-24 18
80% 2-4 10-20 15
90% 1-2 4-10 7
Before we discuss real-world application of these principles, I’d like to suggest that you think of the above chart as more of a guideline than a hard set of rules. The concept of biochemical and biomechanical individuality that this method is based around is directly applicable to our programming. There isn’t always one best way to accomplish a goal and different athletes have different innate strengths (as well as weaknesses).
To that end, theory is oftentimes not enough; to break new ground, we must take what we know works, figure out why, and constantly reassess the method to arrive at a new paradigm. Great coaches like Louie Simmons, Boris Sheiko, Dave Tate, and many more have taken this table and given it life, producing extremely strong athletes through practical application of science.
How to Get Stronger
When I look at a WOD, the first thing I do is ask myself, “What are the coaches trying to do here?” There are basically three types of WOD’s: “maximal effort”, “dynamic effort” and “repetition effort”. Maximal effort WODs are the workouts that make you strain; any day that we lift slow for a 1RM or 2x2x2x2x2 is a great example. These push the limits of your strength and provide you with insight into the progress you’ve already made, as well as how to progress in the future. Maximal training will pit you against the heaviest of loads (90% of your max and beyond) for 1-2 reps across 2-5 sets, which will test your strength and stress your central nervous system (CNS) just enough to keep progressing.
Although rest intervals become necessarily longer when lifting in the 80-90th percentile, a well-designed maximal effort WOD will allow you to train with intensity while incorporating short rests (between 90 and 120 seconds). Most weeks, I train maximally only once, occasionally pushing the envelope a bit more often (depending upon how I feel). Newer athletes can usually get away with more max effort work because they have not yet learned how to recruit as many available muscle fibers during a movement. A seasoned athlete (I will use Rich Froning as an example) training for 7-10 reps at 90% of his 1RM (compared to a deconditioned athlete doing a similar workout) will likely walk away from that workout a bit more exhausted because he can recruit more muscle. I’m not actually sure Rich gets exhausted, so you will just have bear with me for the sake of hypothesis. As you progress, programming every one of your workouts as maximal effort work becomes a recipe for a fried CNS, which will hinder your results. It becomes necessary to incorporate a new stimulus.
Dynamic WODs come into play as an athlete reaches intermediate levels of advancement. According to the Conjugate Method, dynamic effort workouts are performed between 50-70% of a 1RM for 2-3 reps, across 8-12 sets. The goal of these WODs is to build explosive strength to power through sticking points; if the bar is moving too slowly (a great way to judge speed is whether or not the weights clink at the top of the movement), you are lifting too heavy. Don’t be fooled; although you’re lifting “easy” weight, a great dynamic WOD will challenge your strength, coordination and conditioning.
Rest intervals should be kept as short as possible (between 30-60 seconds). Training this way will allow you to perfect your technique while you to fine-tune the strength you built with the maximal effort method and work on your GPP (General Physical Preparedness). Since dynamic effort work was popularized by geared powerlifters at Westside Barbell, a 1000lb squatter training at 50% may still be working with loads in excess of 500lbs on these days. As a general rule of thumb, the stronger you are, the lighter (as a percentage of your max) you will need to train on dynamic effort days. For our purposes, we can benefit from training slightly heavier, as long as the bar speed is maintained.
Last but not least, we come to the repetition method. Repetition work is performed as quickly as possible, for as many reps as necessary. These are the WODs that leave you in a pool of sweat, your muscles burning and your heart pounding. The goal of repetition days is to work on conditioning/GPP, speed up recovery, reduce lingering soreness that may have been produced in the max/dynamic workouts, and promote muscular growth. Many WODs seem to fall into this category (when they’re done at the right intensity). You’ll ideally want to work at loads of 50% or less for between 10-20 reps across 3-5 sets. Like the dynamic effort method, the weight may not intimidate you but your disposition will quickly change as you pump out 30-50+ repetitions of a movement with very little in the way of rest between sets (15-30 seconds).
Putting It All Together: Identifying Where you Need Work
You’ve armed yourself with a few new tools to keep you progressing; the question now is, “How do I apply these methods and theories to my workouts? How do I know when to modify my WODs?” The best place to start is to analyze your performance during a benchmark workout like Fran. Because it incorporates mixed movement types (a barbell thruster and a bodyweight pull-up) back-to-back for multiple rounds, Fran is a great example of a workout that can show you where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
If an athlete performs Fran Rx in 4 minutes, it is a repetition WOD at or below 50% of their max and they’d probably benefit from increasing the load on thrusters. An athlete that finishes Fran in 9 minutes may be resting a lot to maintain good form; the bar may be moving fast but towards the end, they may be doing the last 9 reps in sets of 3 and working on their dynamic strength. In the future they could add weight to the bar and work on their raw strength at 80% of their 1RM, or drop the load to 60% so that they can get more work with less rest.
Going further, an athlete that completes Fran in over 10 minutes at 80% of their max may struggle to complete their thrusters, burning themselves out before the pull-ups each round. They need significantly lengthened rest intervals during the WOD to complete it at the prescribed weight. Dropping the load on thrusters to the 70% range will even out the level of exertion and allow the athlete a bit more energy to dominate their pull-ups.
When modifying a WOD, you know that you were successful when the top athletes in the gym finish at about the same time as the athletes running the modifications. The level of intensity will be about right for everyone involved. Bells should be going off in your head when you read this; most days, you should use weights and rep ranges that let you finish at about the same time as the big dogs (and with energy to spare). I was privileged to have Chris Spealler at my level 1 certification and he explained this concept very well.
In the end: What really makes us better?
Look, if you want to grind out a WOD, you have my permission. I do it all of the time. The goal of every WOD is not specifically to test strength, endurance or speed. A big part of this whole “fitness” thing is in your head; pushing the limits of your mental capabilities has as much value as pushing your physical abilities. Strength athletes define intensity in relationship to their maximal lifts. It’s a quantitative measurement, not some nebulous concept. Improvement through concentrated effort should be the goal of most of your workouts; you should have a plan that works on your weaknesses while maintaining your strengths.
This does not mean you can’t improve by accident. If you want proof of this concept, simply recall your first few months of doing lifting; you may have been inefficient, sloppy, training without a direction, but sure enough, you got better. Unfortunately, that style of training has its limitations. To continue progressing, you need some combination of a measured approach while occasionally testing your limits. The way you do that is to modify your workouts to your abilities and check your ego at the door.
Like I said, I had a few points I wanted to cover, but as I’ve tried to emphasize throughout this article, training heavy is not always necessary. If one of your goals is to get stronger, struggling under maximal weights 5 days a week is not going to cut it. You need a concerted approach that tests your limits occasionally (maximal method), builds efficient technique and speed-strength (dynamic method) and also incorporates general physical preparedness (repetition method); by combining these methods, you can push your strength levels higher and higher without burning out.
When the time comes to really push it, I like to work at 90% for doubles and triples rather than true 100% maxes. I test my maximum lifts every 2 months or so. Since I’m not looking for massive improvements and prefer gradual and consistent gains, I move up 5 or 10 pounds on a lift and do not often try to re-test higher. If I am stronger it, will probably still be there in a couple months, so no big deal. Always try to leave some gas in the tank for next time. I also train alone most days, so safety can be a concern. If you are in a gym setting with spotters and you only train maximum lifts once every six months or so, go ahead and try to get the most weight possible without hurting yourself. With all that said, do not be afraid to strain a bit under a heavy load. If it is not a little hard, it’s not your max.