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Barbell training for strength using the Starting Strength method is hard work and a common occurrence that gets in the way of this hard work is shoulder and arm pain. In many cases this pain is a result of technical problems with the low-bar squat (the lift that is generally performed first in the training session). Here are some points to consider before you begin your training or if you have started to experience problems.
Causes: Shoulder pain is fairly common when low-bar squatting because the position demands a great deal of flexibility. When you first learn how to low-bar squat you will be instructed to position the bar in the middle of your traps with all your fingers on top of the bar and your wrists straight. Those that lack the required flexibility will either 1) not be able to comfortably get the bar low enough or 2) have bent wrists once the bar is settled. See below:
In my experience, if you are forced into an improper placement or bent wrists, you will likely develop shoulder pain as your training progresses. Even if these sub-optimal positions don’t bother you much in the beginning, you should still regularly work on improving your flexibility.
Corrections: The best way to correct this problem of inflexibility is to, from very early on in your training, stretch the low-bar position. A video of how to conduct this stretch can be found HERE. This stretch works well, but it will take time. You should plan on doing it as much as possible. This means on your training days before your squats (or after) and also on some of your non-training days if possible.
Causes & Corrections: Arm pain (bicep, elbows, etc.) can result from a variety of incorrect positions while squatting. In many cases, the lifter won’t even be aware they are in these positions:
Lack of Shoulder Flexibility: As mentioned above, if you can’t get in the correct position or have bent wrists in this position, it will place extra stress on your arms which can result in pain.
Excessively Rounding Your Upper Back: During the squat the upper back (thoracic spine) should not be rounded. Rounding puts extra rotational forces on the upper back/neck and commonly results in the lifter’s arms carrying excessive tension. See below:
Overextending the Upper Back: The opposite of excessively rounding your upper back, overextending it means the chest is pulled up too much creating a curve in the other direction. We want the back to be flat during the squat and overextending it can result in pain. See below:
Excessive Tightening of Arms/Wrists: When low-bar squatting, the goal is to balance the bar over the mid-foot. If the bar is positioned correctly on the back and it is kept in balance during the lift, there is no need to aggressively stabilize the bar’s position on your back by tightening your grip/arms/wrists. Doing so on a regular basis can result in pain.
Raising Your Elbows Too Much: As was just mentioned, the goal is to balance the bar during the lift. If the bar is positioned in the correct place, you don’t need to raise your elbows much to stabilize it. The elbows should be raised just a touch – just enough to keep the bar from sliding. Your arms should not be actively pushing up/elevating the bar. Raising the elbows up too high can result in pain. See below:
Retracting (Pulling Back) Your Shoulder Blades: The tightness we want in your torso when you squat should be coming from taking a breath and contracting your abdominals. Pulling the shoulder blades back doesn’t create this type of tightness and can result in pain. See below:
Slamming Your Deadlift: As an aside, arm pain can also be aggravated (and possibly caused) by returning heavy deadlifts to the ground with locked-out arms. If you are getting a sharp pain when your deadlift makes contact with the ground, consider letting go of the bar about an inch or two before it touches the ground.
As you can see there are many ways that your lifting technique and bar positioning can contribute to shoulder and arm pain. Many of these errors are interconnected and the resulting pain/discomfort will often carry over to the other lifts (bench press, deadlift, etc.). If you do fix your technique/flexibility and are still dealing with pain, consider purchasing a compression sleeve and performing regular massage on the affected musculature.
Every year around February the CrossFit community is abuzz with talk of the CrossFit Open. This 5-week event is the first of three stages that ultimately crowns the “fittest” men and women alive. When the Open was first introduced in 2011 it was more of a community fitness event. Everyone of all skill levels was encouraged to participate and although some harder movements would appear (i.e., muscle-ups), they would generally appear towards the end of the 5 Open workouts enabling most people to get several scores in before being “eliminated.” Fast forward to present day and the Open is truly a competitive sporting event, but one that still tries to integrate all members of the CrossFit community. This shift in emphasis towards competition was inevitable as every year new challenges must be created to tease out who is the Fittest on Earth. It was therefore only a matter of time before the Open became significantly more challenging.
What we see now is an Open that requires significantly higher levels of conditioning, skill and strength. This is true even for the scaled versions of the workouts. At the same time we are seeing interest and participation in the Open steadily increasing every year. This can become problematic as the pressure or desire to perform well in the Open is often at odds with the long-game of CrossFit training for health and fitness; every year the Open comes around and may tempt CossFitters to tackle weights, movements, and training volume that they simply are not yet ready for. So, what can be done?
One solution is to bias and cycle aspects of your training at different times of the year leading up to the Open. In sports this is known as Periodization – a systematic planning of your training so that you are in the best possible shape for your target competition each year. In the rest of this article I will detail a plan for periodizing your training leading up to the Open.
Who This Plan Is For
I want to emphasize up front that this programming is not for everyone. In particular, this programming is NOT for:
Beginner CrossFitters (less than 6 months of experience). If you are a beginner, you should not periodize your CrossFit training.
Those only interested in health & fitness. No matter your experience level, if your focus is only on health & fitness (the long-game) and don’t have a desire to compete or perform well in competition, there is no need to periodize your CrossFit training.
The above said, periodization is an option for Intermediate CrossFitters with an eye on the Open, especially those that feel like they are falling behind every year. Intermediate CrossFitters are familiar with all the movements in CrossFit, but are generally lacking in one or more of:
Technical skills for moving efficiently/safely.
Stamina to complete larger sets successfully.
As it turns out, the above areas of weakness/concern are directly tested in the Open. This is why many Intermediate CrossFit athletes underperform (or can’t perform) in the Open.
The Year At A Glance
A possible yearly breakdown for periodized Intermediate CrossFit training might look like this:
Note the blocks listed above represent the training emphasis for each of those months. As will be detailed below, they don’t necessarily indicate that only those types of training will be performed.
The Blocks In Detail
April-May: Strength: In April the Open has come to a close and summer has not yet begun. This is the perfect time to focus your training on getting stronger. The vast majority of Intermediate CrossFitters are nowhere near their strength potential – they are still Novices for strength. This is readily apparent if they take several cycles of linear progression strength training as detailed in the Starting Strength method. The gains they can make are striking. Just ask anyone who has done a cycle (check out my Client Success Stories for specific examples).
June-August: CrossFit: For a CrossFitter, actually doing CrossFit as much as possible is important, so there is a 3-month block here where you will just focus on CrossFit training. I’ve placed this large block of CrossFit training during the summer months because it is during these 3 months that people are most active and “outside.” Vacations, sports, and laying on the beach are popular activities during these months and CrossFit training will enable you to look your leanest (abs for the beach) while giving you flexibility to train in a variety of locations on different days should your schedule vary due to summer activities.
September-October: Strength: After summer I recommend returning to strength once again. You will likely need several 8-week cycles to exhaust all of your Novice strength gains and placing a second one right after beach season is perfect. If this is not your first strength cycle, small amounts of conditioning can be integrated into your strength programming.
November-December: Speed Strength (Olympic Lifting): The Olympic Lifts (clean & jerk and the snatch) are staple movements in CrossFit; they appear in every Open and are extremely technical. Technical movements require constant practice in order to maintain proficiency and while you will have been practicing them in CrossFit during the summer, it will benefit you greatly to focus on your form and efficiency as the Open nears. Thus, during this winter block enrolling in a dedicated Olympic Lifting cycle is highly recommended. Slightly more conditioning can and should be added during this time.
January: CrossFit (Weaknesses): A month before the Open you should be immersed 100% into CrossFit training and it is time to take stock and focus heavily on your biggest weaknesses. You should have a serious eye on what you need to improve for The Open and plan how you will work on those elements. Perhaps it’s double under proficiency, or squatting stamina, or your kipping skill. Whatever your biggest weaknesses are, make sure you target classes that train them and put in extra time on your own to round things out.
February-March: CrossFit Open: The event you have been training for has arrived. The focus now should be on doing whatever is necessary to perform at your best during each of the Open workouts. This means monitoring your nutrition, sleep, stress, and training volume closely.
Why is there so much strength work? Strength is emphasized more than once because it takes a very long time to develop and affects nearly every aspect of performance in The Open. For example, although pull-ups, chest-to-bar pull-ups, ring muscle-ups, and bar muscle-ups require skill, if you don’t have the pre-requisite strength, the skills won’t get you very far (and you actually could get injured if you attempt them without the necessary strength). In addition, the stronger you are, the less fatigued you will be from a given weight. For example, imagine how light 95lb thrusters will feel if your squat and press 1RMs are 355lbs and 150lbs, respectively versus if they were only 255lbs and 125lbs.
Should I always be doing cycles with barbell lifts (i.e., the Starting Strength method) during my strength blocks? What about other types of strength work? You should definitely make the major barbell lifts a priority until you obtain all of your novice strength gains. This is the most efficient way to build overall strength. I offer these strength cycles as both small group classes and through remote, online coaching. Once you have run your Novice strength gains out, you can add in specific/positional strength work.
Do I have to do strength blocks twice a year to start and then keep doing them year after year? Not necessarily. Two blocks are suggested to accelerate the process and help you get your Novice strength gains quicker. You can just use one block per year – the process will just be slower. Once you have all your Novice strength gains, you can switch to once a year blocks or even remove the strength blocks entirely, opting instead to spread your strength work out more evenly across the April-December months. If you choose this latter option, you will need to be mindful of how you integrate strength work into your regular CrossFit programming so as to maintain it adequately.
Won’t I lose my conditioning with two strength blocks and a weightlifting block during the year? I noted above that you won’t always be removing conditioning during strength and weightlifting blocks. However, it will be noticeably less prominent during these blocks. Try and take your very first strength cycle in April-May. You shouldn’t be doing any extra conditioning, sports, or outside activity during this first cycle and yes your conditioning will drop somewhat, but for the rest of the year you will be able to train & develop your metabolic conditioning in some fashion.
Can you explain in more detail how this training & development of my metabolic conditioning will happen? Assuming you begin with your first strength cycle in April as a rank Novice the progression will look like this:
As a rank novice (first time) taking a strength cycle in April you should not be doing other outside activity. The program will demand all of your recovery potential outside of lifting. Your conditioning will drop slightly, but getting strong is worth it (your 80-year-old self will thank you).
When summer follows you will ramp up conditioning extensively and will see improvements beyond the levels you had before your first strength cycle.
In September, since you are no longer a rank novice taking strength cycle (you have one cycle under your belt), you can probably get away with one day of conditioning a week. This will help you maintain more of your conditioning.
In October, as you move to Olympic Lifting, you will be able to do even more conditioning on a regular basis, but you should stay away from movements that mimic/overlap with the class lifts and you should limit the time domains of your conditioning pieces to 5-15 min (high intensity, low volume).
Finally, when January comes around, you are back to CrossFit full steam with about 1.5 months of focused preparation for The Open.
The more strength cycles you have under your belt, the more conditioning you can safely work into strength cycle blocks, so looking at the big picture you are simply making a few small, early sacrifices for greater long-term performance gains.
Am I supposed to only be working on my weaknesses during January? Is that enough time? January is just a month for you to focus on weaknesses as they stand at that time of year – with the Open right around the corner. You can and should be working on weaknesses throughout the year. The strength blocks as written are helping you with one of your weaknesses, but you can work on others. For example, if you need to develop/improve your double unders, they can be practiced on a regular basis, if pull-ups are a weakness, you can work those into your strength program, if your overhead flexibility is lacking, that can be improved on a regular basis as well, and so on.
Do I have to complete the blocks in the exact monthly order you have listed them above? Not at all. Every athlete is different in both their skill level, training goals, personal responsibilities, etc. Invariably you will have to adjust the above plan in some way. The purpose of this article was to introduce you to the periodization concept and give an example of how it can be applied. If you need further assistance in developing a plan that works for you, just drop me a line. I will be happy to help.
A very common question I receive from athletes who have just completed a dedicated strength cycle is how they can maintain their strength gains when they go back to CrossFit. This question arises because the athlete notes correctly that peak levels of strength attained while strength training cannot be maintained when, in the case of CrossFit, programming seeks development of nine skills sets in addition to strength. So, what is one to do? The answer is a complicated one. In this article I will discuss a variety of considerations so that you are better equipped to create a plan that will work for you.
Do I have to do additional work beyond CrossFit classes? No, you don’t. This may seem counterintuitive, but keep in mind that if you return to CrossFit you will be training 4-6 times/week across a variety of movements, weights, rep ranges and time domains. This is hard work and it will be a strong stimulus for your body to maintain a reasonable amount of strength. How much will be maintained exactly? It will vary form person to person, but in my experience you can maintain 75-80% of your maximal strength levels by returning to CrossFit with no extra work. Obviously, this is a reduction from peak levels, but the stronger you are, the less practically significant this reduction becomes. For example, if your 1RM back squat is 405lbs, maintaining only 75% still leaves you with a “typical day” 305lb 1RM which is still solid strength for CrossFit. Nevertheless, even if your max lifts aren’t at top numbers, any loss of peak strength by returning to CrossFit can easily be regained should you take another strength cycle in the future. Remember, it is much easier and quicker to build back up to your previous levels of strength than it is to develop that strength for the first time.
What if I want to try and maintain more than 75-80% while taking CrossFit classes? In this case you have some options, but you need to consider a few things: What is the CrossFit programming at your box like? Do you have the flexibility in your CrossFit schedule to target class days that have strength pieces? Do you have the free time to perform extra lifting on your own? If so, how many days/week are you willing to commit to lifting? Are there specific lifts/types of strength you are more concerned about maintaining? You need to have a handle on these questions in order to enact a plan for maintenance.
Can you give me any pointers on how to answer these questions? Here is a breakdown of the key points:
The Lifts/Types of Strength That Concern You Most: CrossFit tends to be very lower-body dominant. There is generally some form of squatting or pulling every day, so your squat and deadlift strength (as well as your power clean) are likely to be the most stable and protected strengths. On the other hand, strict pressing and bench pressing is seen far less in typical CrossFit programming. If you couple this with the fact that your shoulder muscles are much smaller and harder to develop, you might want to make them a focus of your extra work.
The Type of CrossFit Programming at Your Box: If your box has a strength-biased program where a squat, press, and pull strength piece are programmed every week, you are likely good to go with minimal (a little extra pressing or benching work) or no extra work. If your box uses a traditional CrossFit programming template where there is a dedicated strength piece only once every week, you will want to target that day if possible and then supplement the other lifts on your own based on your goals. Finally, if your box has a conditioning bias (strength appears less than once a week), you will almost certainly need to perform extra lifting on your own (particularly in the press and bench presS) to maintain strength at levels above 75% of your max. Note, if your box is conditioning-biased in this manner, it is very likely that your strength levels will fall below 75% if you don’t perform any additional strength work.
If I do decide to conduct extra lifting on a regular basis, what weights, sets, and reps should I use? You have a lot of options. One approach is to reset your top working weights down to 75% and slowly build your way back up over time taking small jumps. With this approach make sure you take weight increases less often (i.e., every 1-2 weeks instead of every session). Another option is to have fun with the lifting and just rotate rep schemes every session. For example, you could do 3×5 one session, 1-1-1-1-1 another session, then 5×5, 4-3-2-1 after that, and so on. Regardless of which option you chose, you may need to make certain days light days based on how you are feeling from previous CrossFit workouts.
If I do decide to conduct extra lifting on a regular basis, should I do it before or after CrossFit Class or on days I don’t take CrossFit? Rest and recovery is essential for any kind of training. Therefore, I do not recommend doing your extra lifting on non-CrossFit days if that means you will be left with only 1 or no rest days each week. Instead, do your extra lifting on your CrossFit training days so that your rest days are protected. When conducting lifting on CrossFit days, the order is up to you. In back-to-back sessions the work you do first (strength or CrossFit) will get the best results as energy levels will be high and you won’t have bodily fatigue. Whichever one you do second will have less of your body’s resources to draw from and performance will be less than optimal. Each day you should think about the CrossFit class programming and decide which order will best help you reach your goals. Of course, if you don’t have the flexibility to choose the order, then you will just have to make do.
Can you give me an example of what a week of training with maintenance would look like? As discussed above, there are a lot of factors to consider. You will have to think about what is best for you, but here are a few examples:
Example 1 – Maintain all lifts, slight emphasis on Press
CrossFit Class: Mon, Tues, Wed, Fri, Sat
Rest Days: Tues, Sun
Strength In Class Programming?: Yes, once a week. Day and lift rotates weekly.
Extra Strength Work:
Mon: Squat and Press
Wed: Deadlift and Bench Press
Fri: Press and Chin-Ups
Note: If intended extra strength lift appears in CrossFit class as a strength piece on that day, will just perform that lift in class as programmed.
Example 2 – Maintain bench press and press only
CrossFit Class: Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri
Rest Days: Sat, Sun
Strength In Class Programming?: Less than once a week.
Extra Strength Work:
Tues: Bench press moderate
Thurs: Press moderate
Fri: Bench press heavy
Note: If intended extra strength lift appears in CrossFit class as a strength piece on that day, will just perform that lift in class as programmed.
Final Thoughts? Strength maintenance is a bit of an art because there are so many variables – likely ones you haven’t even considered yet. The most important thing is to stay active and keep training. As long as you do that, no matter what you do, you can build up your strength again with a focused strength program in the future. If you read this article and have decided you want to be even more diligent and effective in your maintenance strength, feel free to drop me a line and we can discuss a programming package that more specifically addresses your needs and goals.