Strength Training: Basic Principals

Over the next four weeks we will dive into basic strength training principles that hopefully not only coach’s but athletes as well will take something away. We will not be discussing periodization of strength training, assessing strength, or tapering and peaking in this four-week knowledge series, however that is soon to come closer to the end of the 2018 CrossFit open. I hope you can all learn something from these next four blog posts. Enjoy!


I do not agree with many CrossFit principles, the major one is a quote by CrossFit Founder and CEO Greg Glassman “Optimizing physical capacity requires training at unsustainable intensities”. We cannot get a client and simply begin training at high intensities and expect optimal results. Building a base is the most important thing you can help a client with to ensure long-term success. What I mean by that is their training in the beginning needs to be largely focused on building an aerobic base, building motor control, and building absolute strength. Have you ever heard someone say “the pyramids peak is only as tall as its base will allow”? well this is a perfect example of that. Having a large aerobic base will support anaerobic mechanisms and having good absolute strength will support all other forms of strength expression, but one thing is for sure, if you’re are not strong you cannot play the game. One area CrossFit did get right is the idea that the most elite athlete in the world and your grandma’s exercise needs vary in degree not kind. Everyone needs to in some capacity squat, push, pull, hinge, perform core stability, and perform unilateral exercises. An Olympic lifter at the international level during a squat session may do eight sets of two at 85-90%, while your grandma might repeatedly stand up and sit down from her chair, two very different goals and stimuli but still performing the same movement patterns. In this article, we are going to assume that our client has adequate motor control, relative strength, and a base of muscular endurance to perform strength training. It is important to remember that a client’s training program is dependent on their function, goal, current training status, and assessment which we will go through in another series.


Strength is key in an athlete’s success in the sport of fitness. If a workout calls for a 225 snatch and your 1RM is 230…. you’re going to lose that workout, no matter how good your engine is. There is no magical formula or rep scheme that we stick with that will always yield magical results and sky-rocket you to the games. Optimal rep schemes will largely be dictated by an athlete’s neuromuscular efficiency, gender, and training age. However, there are a few principals we can stick to that will ensure we are heading in the right direction in the journey to strength. science has shown that singles to triples in the 85-90% range have the highest force production and recruit the most motor units, if strength is the ability to produce force than that means this is a highly optimal repetition and percentage range to train in. A down side to this is we cannot JUST train in the 85-90% range all the time, that is a quick way to over train. One highly effective method that DOES allow you train like that year around is Westside Barbells Conjugate method. Weekly variance in exercises allow the body to stay in this range for long periods of time with very good results. This method is for advanced lifters. If you are not familiar with it I’d suggest considering it, The Westside Barbell book f methods would be a good start. Much like strength we can determine the rep and percent range we train at for hypertrophy, or better known as the muscle getting big. Studies show that training in the 65-85% range of your 1RM for 8-12 reps yields the best results for muscle growth. Hypertrophy is important to consider, to an extent a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle since strength and muscle cross-sectional area are related. However not always the case otherwise bodybuilders would be the strongest humans on the planet. But if you have an athlete who is very small it’s going to be hard to get strong, it would be wise to consider dedicating some time to putting mass on said athlete. Power production, a HIGHLY important aspect of the sport of fitness, also known as Strength speed. The objective here is to produce the max amount of force in the quickest time possible. To achieve this the bar speed must be at max velocity that is possible. Studies show this is optimally achieved in the 50-75% range for singles to triples. At dark horse performance, we spend our time developing this with the Olympic lifts and their variants as well as using accommodating resistance. In the sport of fitness athletes are required to display many efforts of power in a short amount of time, this anaerobic endurance or also known as CP battery is supported by…you guessed it absolute strength. This kind of power endurance is best achieved by performing many sets of low reps at moderate percentage’s. We have found that the most affective and easy method of training this is alactic/aerobic training or also known as EMOM’s. Local muscular Endurance is basically an athlete’s ability to tolerate the pain for repeated muscular contractions  at a submaximal level of 30 seconds to several minutes. This can be improved greatly through strength training by performing high rep sets of 15 or more at submaximal weights with minimal rest. This will improve the ability to contract while fatigued. Once again, what supports muscular endurance? Absolute strength…The stronger you are the more muscular endurance you will be able to achieve. It is important to remember that training muscular endurance will have little to no added benefit to absolute strength and if trained to much can negatively impact it.


Rest between sets is a major factor when considering the intended stimulus of the training session. If absolute strength is the intended benefit than 3-5 minutes of rest between sets is recommended. This amount of rest is necessary to allow your body to fully recover its CP stores before the next lift is executed. The recovery rate between the sets is largely depended on the intensity of the set and the nutritional status of the athlete. If muscular endurance or hypertrophy is the intended stimulus very little rest is needed, 45 seconds to 90 seconds, this is also very affective for training CP battery, teaching your body to recover quicker between sets which will be a huge factor in many events in the sport of fitness and strongman.  Workout frequency we will discuss in detail in the next three weeks of this knowledge series.


Below is a link to a great article showing the Prilepin’s chart which will help guide you on choosing optimal reps and sets for given intensity zones, it also points out flaws in the chart and how to not allow them to foil your training program.


Exercise selection it is important to consider What the training goal is, the time of year, and the level of athlete. We will go into greater detail on exercise selection and the athletes experience level in the next three weeks. It should be no arguments that the best way to develop strength and power are through the Squat, Bench press variants, Deadlift and its variants, Press variants/jerks included, Pull/row variants, power clean and snatch and their variants, and full squat snatches and cleans. Every successful strength program for any level of athletes who competes in any sport that requires Certain level of strength and power will more than likely include these main exercises as the bulk of the program with snatch being the exception, not including exercises for structural balance needs which will likely be added as accessory work and be very specific to each individual athlete. Different levels of athletes will perform the main lifts different amounts of times within the week or cycle, which will be covered in detail in the next three weeks.


Exercise variation is where majority of strength training programs go of the track in my opinion. Most variation in a program through a bulk of the year should mainly happen by altering intensity, rep, sets, exercise order, frequency, and rest. If squat strength becomes less of a focus compared to barbell cycling in the snatch during a certain phase of training that does not mean we stop squatting or change the kind of squat we do weekly, it just means it’s not a priority so the volume it is trained in as well as where it is placed in the session will be different. A lot of programs in the sport of fitness resort to switching exercises and stimulus very regularly for the sake of “Constantly varied” and excitement, however this never truly allows the body to adapt to the stimuli to an optimal level. Optimal progression in strength training is gained by progressively overloading the same core group of exercises effectively allowing the body to adapt thus getting stronger, this is a very important concept for beginners who are trying to develop motor controls in the core exercises which is gained by exposing them to the lift repeatedly. Beginner and intermediate lifters will benefit form a greater amount of exercises in some cases since their CNS ability to learn new tasks is at its peak. Assistance exercises should never replace an athletes core lifts, unless injury or ability dictates this change. An exception to exercise variation is the Conjugate method used by Westside barbell. The conjugate method is a un periodized method of training, meaning there is very little progressive overload outside of dynamic effort days which occur twice per week. On the two-other main training days the lifter will build to a 1RM effort, one day being a lower body lift, the other day being an upper body lift. In other words, they train at 90% or above all year-long for if they are on this program. This constitutes exercise variation weakly to avoid overtraining, Studies show that if you train at 90% or above for three plus weeks with the same movement you will likely over train, cycling movements weekly has shown to beat that affect. The conjugate method is highly affective but only recommended for advanced lifters. In linear periodization, all new exercises added to the program must have a purpose and must contribute to the success of the athlete in their given sport.


Exercise order in a training program should be organized in a way that lets you train the exercise of priority first thing in the day while the CNS, and body is at its most fresh state. This will depend on the lifters ability, time of year, and sport that is being trained for. As some basic guidelines to follow, if strength is the priority of the training program then lifts such as Squat variants, Bench press variants, or deadlift variants should come first in the day. If power or technical proficiency is priority, than it would be wise to place the Olympic lifts first within the days training. Exercise selection, order, and technical drills that you choose for your athletes will always be based on the needs of the athletes. As another general rule full body compound movements should come first within the day followed by accessory work that may resemble body building type movements, which are great for correcting structural balance issues or aiding in working through injuries. An important concept to remember is that fatigue will decrease the speed, precision, and skill in barbell movements therefore high skill movements such as the snatch should be performed first. But, as mentioned that will be dependent of the time of year and the athlete’s needs.


Stay tuned for the next three weeks to learn how to apply these basic concepts to beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifters. Interested in working with a professional coach? Follow the link.

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Justin Biays

Justin is the founder and head coach of Dark Horse Performance. He is a former United States Army 11B (infantry). He served 1 tour of duty in Afghanistan, realizing quickly that standard gym routines did not cut it for the duties he was expected to perform. He found his love for "Functional Fitness" returning from Afghanistan, then he decided it was time to try CrossFit. After leaving the Army in 2012 he attended the Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in exercise science with a minor in nutrition.