Ask Greg: Olympic Weightlifting & Conditioning
Greg Everett

Ryan Asks: I have a question on your workouts. I like your programming for the Olympic lifting and find that extremely valuable and necessary. Do you recommend high intensity metcons too? I follow your lifting but find my metcon lagging. Do you recommend both? I want to train for next years CF games.

Greg Says: The answer will depend entirely on the athlete's intentions, so in your case, wanting to compete in the CF games, the answer would be "yes". (to be clear, if you’re a weightlifter, my answer is no). If you're training for a competition that involves high-intensity conditioning events, you're going to need to train high-intensity conditioning at some point. How you actually program that training is a much bigger question, and I don't have a perfect answer for you, although I do have opinions about it (links to related articles are at the end).

First, strength drives everything. That's your foundation, even if you run marathons. How much you develop that foundation will depend on the needs of your sport. For the marathoner, that won't be very extensively; for the competitive CrossFitter, it will be considerably more extensively, although less than a strength athlete like a weightlifter.

As CrossFit™ has evolved, it has unquestionably shifted more toward endurance and stamina, and strength has been playing a smaller role. We can see this just in the games themselves. The first year had an actual total competition: max singles in the squat, deadlift and press. In more recent years, any "strength" elements have been handicapped in various manners like time constraints. In short, pure strength is valued less and as a consequence, gamers need to shift their training emphasis somewhat, although that foundation of strength will remain critical.

So what we see is a big need for local muscular endurance or stamina; what could also be called strength endurance. What's the foundation of strength endurance? It's right there in the name, and it's not endurance. If you take a guy who can squat 400 lbs 5 times and a guy who can squat 50 lbs 50 times, which one would you guess could squat 200 lbs 25 times more easily? I would say the 400 lb squatter. 200 lbs is a fraction of his best squat, and the smaller percentage of a max effort a given movement is, the fewer resources the body needs in order to make it happen. Of course, there is a balance here too – no matter how strong you are, if your stamina isn't developed adequately, you can be sidelined by things like poor lactic acid buffering and clearance; if your cardiorespiratory endurance isn't developed, you can be sidelined by poor gas exchange.

This just means that on top of the strength foundation, you need to develop the athletic qualities that will cover the needs of the event. In basic terms, this will be local muscular endurance across the body, cardiorespiratory endurance, joint/connective tissue conditioning, and event-specific skill.

Local muscular endurance needs to be developed through repetition volume in a compressed timeframe. That is, repeating a certain movement for around 15+ reps with minimal or no rest. There needs to be a decent number of consecutive repetitions, not just a total volume spread across the entire workout. For example, we achieve the same volume by doing a workout that has 3 rounds with 15 push-ups in each round and a workout that has 9 rounds with 5 push-ups in each round (45 push-ups). However, doing 45 push-ups 5 at a time with breaks in between while you’re doing another exercise will not develop much local muscular endurance unless 5 push-ups is a lot for you (or the other exercises in between are using the same muscles used in the push-up). Doing 15 consecutive reps will more effectively develop that stamina.

Cardiorespiratory endurance can be developed in more than one way, although in the context of CrossFit, it’s largely done through mixed-mode circuit training. This is where manipulation of the workout structure can do some interesting things. Using the above example, we might have a workout with 3 rounds of 15 push-ups, 15 squats and 15 pull-ups. This gives us a total of 45 reps of each. The emphasis of this workout will be local muscular endurance because of the larger number of consecutive repetitions. If we take the same total numbers and do 9 rounds of 5 push-ups, 5 squats and 5 pull-ups, an individual who can do the first workout essentially unbroken will be able to do this one without any limitations of stamina. That is, he or she will be able to do each round of 5 reps without breaking them up because this is well below the stamina threshold for those movements.

However, what this means is that he or she can move continuously from movement to movement without rest during each one. Before one body part can get fatigued enough to slow down the reps or force a break between reps, the athlete moves on to an exercise using different body parts. In this way, the demand on the cardiorespiratory system is continuous and builds throughout (if the exercises are not difficult enough, the demand will not be very high). Add in some monostructural work to such a workout, such as a run or row, and you’ve basically just extended the cardiorespiratory effort (unless you put in long enough of either that the effort is limited by local muscular endurance).

And of course for cardiorespiratory endurance, there is always long duration monostructural work like distance running. Normally I’m not a big proponent of it, but the reality with CrossFit™ is that they like throwing wrenches into big strong peoples’ engines with distance events, so you need to be prepared by doing these kinds of efforts periodically.

Joint and connective tissue conditioning is achieved over the long term through smart and progressive exposure to the stresses that come along with heavy lifting, repetitive motions, ballistic loading and impact absorption. If you never run more than 400 meters in training and suddenly find yourself at the CF games facing a 7 km trail run, you might run into some problems with your knees, ankles, shins and hips hurting (and might have some trouble with the endurance aspect as well).

Finally, skill development. At the risk of offending a lot of people, I’m going to say that CrossFit™ is a low-skill activity. However, before you get upset, let me explain, because it doesn’t have to be that way. As the emphasis has changed over the years, there has been less and less focus and attention paid to developing higher-level skills such as gymnastics movements and the Olympic lifts. The suggestion to regularly learn and play new sports has fallen by the wayside as CrossFit™ itself has become the sport. This simply means that motor skills are not being developed and practiced as much as they once were and the movements used most frequently are relatively simple, and the ones that are more complex are often performed with simpler interpretations (or simply poor execution).

I’ve argued for years, and have been berated and even had my CrossFit™ affiliation revoked for it, that skill development needs to play a larger role and offers nothing but benefits to anyone, from the recreational fitness enthusiast to the CF games competitor. I’ve talked about this at length in other articles, so I won’t do it again here. I’ll summarize a main material point by saying if you can perform a given skill well, you can also do it poorly, more quickly, etc if you decide for some reason that the circumstances warrant it; the inverse is not true. Suffice to say that it’s absurd to believe being more technically proficient at anything involved in CF would do anything but improve your performance in the games.

So, this is a circumlocutory way of saying: Yes, you need to do metCons if your intention is to compete in the CF games. The workouts I post on the website are not intended for CF games preparation other than as periods of strength and weightlifting focus within a longer term plan—they do have 1-3 brief conditioning workouts each week, but they are not sufficient for high-level CrossFit performance. One or more times a year you might use one of the cycles on our site, then return to more conditioning-intensive training; you might also use one of our cycles as a base and modify it to allow more conditioning work. This will help you increase your strength and weightlifting technical proficiency without wholly sacrificing your conditioning. You’ll be able to bring your conditioning back up quickly.

Two articles to take a look at that might help further are:

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November 29 2011
I was wondering if I was the only one noticing the shift away from strength in CrossFit. I moved on to Military Athlete who has got Coach Burgener's son up there working with them on their oly lifts and are stressing skill. Advice is spot on.
Blinky Lingham
November 29 2011
Greg Glassman doesn't work out. Why not?
Matthew Fried
November 29 2011
"TM" ... Greg in addition to being a weightlifting guru, you are also the master of subtlety. As usual, when you write something, I learn & laugh at the same time. Thanks!
November 30 2011
Nice post. I liked this one a lot.
November 30 2011
Great post, Greg. You make an interesting statement at the end - "You’ll be able to bring your conditioning back up quickly." I'm curious if you think this works both ways - if you take a break from strength training to focus on conditioning, can you come back up to your prior strength levels quickly as well? I'm in the midst of moving from powerlifting and general strength training to CrossFit, at least for a few months, so this post is particularly relevant for me.

Also, as someone who travels a lot and regularly visits CrossFits in different cities, I've observed that many have broken with the Mainsite WODs and implemented separate "strength" WODs to supplement the endurance-oriented WODs.
Greg Everett
November 30 2011
Mark - No, and that's exactly why I and others push for an emphasis on strength for periods of time and then always maintaining regular exposure to strength training. Strength takes longer to develop than conditioning. It will come back faster than it originally took to build it, but it's not as easy as conditioning, at least in the CF sense. If we're talking about the high-level endurance of a triathlete or marathoner or cyclist, that's not as quick of a comeback.
Jared Cohen
November 30 2011
Another great article, Greg. Aspiring CrossFit, Olympic lifting, strength and conditioning, athlete and coach myself.... I am always impressed with your careful, deliberate, intentional, and purposeful approach to how you work to make people fitter as well as better athletes.

Recently been doing separate oly lifting training aside from CrossFit for the past 3 months... Been incredible experience. My coach teaches the Tommy Kono style of lifting, and I know you come from a Mike Burgerner background...

Would love to here you speak to your thoughts on the two and or comparing different styles of weightlifting in general!


Greg Everett
December 1 2011
Jared - That's a pretty extensive topic... I'll keep it simple and say that my guiding philosophy is that I use whatever works and try to avoid being dogmatic about anything. I don't believe there is a right way and a wrong way, and any given "thing" may work at one time for one lifter and not at another time or for another lifter. I'm happy to listen and try to learn from any coach or lifter and while I agree more with certain coaches and methods than with others, I'm not at all black and white about it.
Ben Margolis
December 2 2011

Thanks for this great article and the two referenced articles. I recently quit my local crossfit box and started collecting equipment for a home gym. From all the stuff I'd been reading online (Whole9, robbwolf, Dan John), I had been getting the sense that not all of the CrossFit(tm) philosophies were necessarily the best things ever. These articles really helped clear up which approaches are actually helpful for training and which are just business moves.

One that I'm still confused about is the idea you can build strength from metcon type workouts. Is this just not true? From "classic" journal articles, Glassman seemed to say that high intensity, high volume programming increases absolute strength. If this is true, is it because of a Pavel/"Grease the groove" type strength development process? Or do those types of workouts exclusively build muscular endurance and cardiovascular capacity?

Or can you build a "metcon" type workout that uses weight and rep patterns for each movement that build strength (say from another program), but in a circuit to also build CV capacity? For example, doing heavy (BW) cleans with limited rest sure FEELS like it's building CV capacity.

For that past month, my wife and I have been working out about 3 times a week. Each day we'll do a 3x5 (weight across) of a major lift (front squat, press, or deadlift) and then do a 5-10 minute Metcon trying to emphasize weighted carries, sprints, explosive gymnastics (box jumps, burpees), and proper form on pushups and squats. I definitely feel fitter for it, but I'm wondering if it's most effective protocol for developing "general physical preparedness."

I just got my second issue of the performance menu and I'm loving it. Thanks again for your resources.
Greg Everett
December 5 2011
Ben - If you're untrained enough, anything will make you stronger. You take a completely sedentary person and make them pick their nose vigorously 3x/week, they'll get stronger. This is why the CF high volume thing seems to increase strength and why you can see testimonials by people of their strength increasing; but again, you can't judge programming by how it improves complete novices, because anything will make them improve. The trick is getting improvement out of people who have established training histories and a decent level of ability already.You may have noticed that a common theme with CF is that beginners see huge gains, but those gains suddenly stop, and this is where you have these huge sets of people looking for ways to incorporate more strength training into their CF training. That said, you can make "metcons" more strength-focused by using heavy weights and fewer reps, yes. There is certainly a cv element to heavy lifts with little or no rest. But this format also limits your ability to produce strength, which means you can't develop it as well. Again, there is a reason that virtually no one who does CF for more than a year sticks to metcon only - they all peel off looking for ways to improve on the program.Your set up of doing a heavy lift then a short conditioning workout is good. This is very similar to what our fitness classes do at Catalyst. You can always hybridize elements to have smoother transitions between abilities, but you will never get maximal development of a physical trait without specialized work on it.
I am confused
April 25 2014
I see most games athletes and other examples (like Rudy's Outlaw programming) that seem to be focusing on strength and weightlifting. The CF box I have been going to has shifted to this more (sane) mentality - which seems to align more with what you are saying...

That said, I can understand what you mean when you say less games events are 'pure' strength events - last year's clean and jerk ladder being an example - brought the conditioning aspect in for sure.

To also be fair, our box essentially had two tracks going on simultaneously - if the main skill/strength component is 3 position snatches or front squats, the beginners are working technique and intermediate and advanced folks are working percentages etc.