The Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Stronger for CrossFit (Plus, the Strength Pyramid Explained)

Strength is a cornerstone of CrossFit and functional fitness. It’s not just about how much you can snatch, clean, or jerk. True strength involves a range of abilities that form the foundation of a well-rounded athlete.

In this article, we’ll explore the strength pyramid, a model that breaks down the components of strength necessary for CrossFit success. By understanding and developing each level of this pyramid, you’ll be better equipped to excel in your fitness journey.

Understanding the Strength Pyramid

Absolute Strength

Absolute strength forms the base of the strength pyramid. It’s your ability to move external loads, which in CrossFit often means heavy barbells. Developing absolute strength involves exercises like the deadlift, shoulder press, bench press, front squat, and back squat. These lifts don’t rely on your body weight but on how much weight you can lift, period.

Focusing on absolute strength is crucial because it establishes the raw power needed for more complex movements. Without a solid base of absolute strength, progressing to higher skill exercises becomes challenging.


Power is the ability to move weight quickly and efficiently. This level includes dynamic movements like the snatch, clean, jerk, and thrusters. These exercises require both strength and speed, combining them to generate explosive power.

In CrossFit, power is essential for performance in workouts that demand quick, efficient movements under load. Developing power not only improves your lifting technique but also enhances your overall athleticism.

Relative Strength

Relative strength measures how well you can move your body weight. This is crucial for exercises like strict pull-ups, handstand push-ups, and ring muscle-ups. Relative strength is about strength in proportion to your body weight, making it a key factor in gymnastic movements.

Athletes with high absolute strength might struggle with relative strength if they haven’t balanced their training. Excelling in relative strength ensures that you can handle bodyweight movements with ease, which is essential for a well-rounded CrossFit athlete.

Gymnastic Skills

Gymnastic skills sit at the top of the pyramid. These high-skill, high-volume movements include Kipping pull-ups, Kipping ring muscle-ups, and bar muscle-ups. These exercises require a combination of strength, coordination, and technique.

While gymnastic skills are less about raw strength and more about skill application, they still depend on the foundation built by absolute and relative strength. Mastering these skills allows for more advanced and efficient performance in CrossFit workouts.

Importance of Building a Strong Foundation

Many athletes make the mistake of prioritizing high-skill movements like snatches and muscle-ups without first developing a solid foundation of absolute strength. This approach often leads to stalled progress and potential injuries.

The Problem with Skipping Steps

Focusing solely on high-skill activities can be counterproductive if you lack the raw strength to support these movements. Without a strong base, your body isn’t adequately prepared to handle the demands of complex lifts and gymnastic skills. This can lead to inefficient movement patterns and increased risk of injury.

The Role of the Offseason

The offseason is the perfect time to build your foundation. When competitions are not on the immediate horizon, you can dedicate more time to developing absolute strength. This period allows for focused strength training without the pressure of maintaining peak performance for competitions.

Spending time on exercises like the deadlift, shoulder press, bench press, front squat, and back squat will pay off when the competitive season begins. A stronger base means you’ll be better prepared to handle the rigors of CrossFit competitions and more advanced training phases.

Consistent and Progressive Training

To effectively build absolute strength, consistency and progression are key. This means regularly incorporating foundational strength exercises into your routine and gradually increasing the load as you progress. Tracking your progress and setting incremental goals can help ensure continuous improvement.

Focusing on these foundational elements now will enhance your ability to perform high-skill movements later. As your absolute strength improves, so will your power, relative strength, and gymnastic skills, creating a well-rounded and resilient athlete.

A Plan to Develop Absolute Strength

To build a solid foundation of absolute strength, integrate key exercises into your routine consistently. Aim to perform exercises like deadlifts, shoulder presses, bench presses, front squats, and back squats regularly. These lifts target major muscle groups and are fundamental for overall strength development.

Assessing Strengths and Weaknesses

Evaluating your absolute strength is crucial for identifying areas that need improvement. Here’s how you can assess your strengths and weaknesses:

Test Your One-Rep Max (1RM): For each of the six key exercises, determine your one-rep max. This will give you a baseline for your current strength levels.

Compare Against Standards: Use strength standards based on your body weight and sex to see where you stand. Websites like Strength Level and other fitness resources can provide these benchmarks.

Identify Weak Areas: Look for exercises where your 1RM falls below the average or desired standard. These are your weak areas that need focused training.

Assessing Absolute Strength

To determine your strengths and weaknesses, create a spider graph plotting your performance in each of these movements. For example, a hypothetical male athlete lifting 225 lbs across these exercises might find:

Bench Press: 50th percentile

Deadlift: 25th percentile

Front Squat: 35th percentile

Back Squat: 25th percentile

Strict Press: 75th percentile

Pendlay Row: 40th percentile

This graph reveals areas to focus on, such as the deadlift and back squat, to become a more balanced athlete.

Practical Application

Using the spider graph, tailor your off-season training to address weaknesses while maintaining your strengths. If your deadlift and back squat are weak, incorporate more of these exercises into your routine. Meanwhile, continue to build on your strong points, like the strict press.

Improving Absolute Strength

Once you’ve identified your weak areas, you can follow these steps to improve your absolute strength:

Progressive Overload: Gradually increase the weight you lift to continuously challenge your muscles. Aim for a 5-10% increase in weight every few weeks.

Compound Movements: Focus on compound movements (e.g., squats, deadlifts) that engage multiple muscle groups and provide a greater overall strength benefit.

Consistent Training: Train each of the six key exercises regularly, ensuring you have a structured plan that allows for adequate recovery.

Accessory Exercises: Incorporate accessory exercises that target weak points and support the primary lifts. For example, if your bench press is weak, add tricep and shoulder exercises.

Proper Technique: Ensure you use proper form to prevent injury and maximize efficiency. Consider working with a coach or using instructional videos to refine your technique.

Nutrition and Recovery: Support your training with proper nutrition and adequate rest. Consume enough protein to aid muscle repair and growth, and ensure you get sufficient sleep.

Sample Training Plan

Here’s a sample weekly training plan to improve your absolute strength:

Day 1: Upper Body Strength

Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 reps

Pendlay Row: 4 sets of 6 reps

Accessory Work: Tricep dips, bicep curls

Day 2: Lower Body Strength

Back Squat: 5 sets of 5 reps

Deadlift: 4 sets of 6 reps

Accessory Work: Lunges, hamstring curls

Day 3: Rest or Active Recovery

Light cardio, stretching, or yoga

Day 4: Upper Body Strength

Strict Press: 5 sets of 5 reps

Pull-ups: 4 sets of max reps

Accessory Work: Lateral raises, push-ups

Day 5: Lower Body Strength

Front Squat: 5 sets of 5 reps

Romanian Deadlift: 4 sets of 6 reps

Accessory Work: Leg press, calf raises

Day 6: Rest or Active Recovery

Light cardio, stretching, or yoga

Day 7: Full-Body Conditioning

Circuit of compound movements at lighter weights


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