What is this article about?
Defining strength as “context dependent”
Identifying factors that influence the expression of strength
Dispelling the myth that strength is broadly transferable in CrossFit
Lay the foundation for categorizing strength training along a speed-strength continuum
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Ask your average CrossFit athlete to define strength and the answer will almost inevitably involve something about a 1RM Back Squat or Deadlift. This nearly sport-wide perspective on strength also agrees with the prevailing consensus in the the sport-science community: that strength is a measurement of the muscles ability to produce force, defined further as Force = Mass x Acceleration (F=M*A). This is likely why heavy Back Squats are given as the answer to nearly every strength related problem an athlete can face in the sport.
Have trouble cleaning under fatigue? —> run a Hatch squat cycle
Struggle with high volume wallball? —> Back Squat 3x per week
Miss all your snatches forward? —> run a conjugate squat cycle
The idea is so elegantly simple that it may fall victim to its logic: if you improve your 1RM back squat it will make cycling reps of lighter and moderate loads easier since they will, by definition, be at a lower percentage of your 1RM. Now this is true to a point, if for example your 1RM back squat is 225#, it is quite likely that driving that metric up through heavy strength training will increase your chances of finishing a clean ladder with a top weight of 225#. However is the same true of the athlete who’s back squat 1RM is 425#? The answer is maybe at best.
The problem with this definition is that while strength may be measured as absolute force production - the expression of strength is context dependent. Take the strongest squatter in the world, make them row 1000m for time immediately into a 1RM Back Squat, and that athlete no longer looks much like the strongest athlete in the world. This is because strength is CONTEXT DEPENDENT. There are a multitude of factors that impact an athlete’s ability to express their strength including:
The contraction velocity (fast vs slow)
Joint angles (think degree of knee flexion in an Overhead Squat vs Low-bar Squat)
Prior fatigue inputs (barbell ladder vs running)
The type of resistance (think: bands vs bars, fixed load vs variable)
How familiar they are with the strength test (imagine a powerlifter lifting an Atlas stone)
Furthermore an athlete’s adaptation to a training protocol is SPECIFIC to the context in which they were training. This is why heavy Back Squat training has some positive transfer to heavy Front Squat performance, but has less of an impact on light thrusters to exhaustion, and even less still on a pistol squat. Even though all four movements share similiar global movement patterns (deep knee and hip flexion), the differences in contraction velocity, loading, and muscular tension between them results in very different patterns of muscle fiber recruitment and fatigue type (among many other factors!). To the point that an athletes 1RM back squat likely has very little relationship to their performance on a 50 pistol for time test.
One of the key differences here lies in the force-velocity relationship in the muscle. During the concentric portions of a lift our muscles are capable of producing the most force at slow speeds (hence why it looks like people are “grinding out” their 1RM’s) and less force at high speeds. This is why it people “grind out” the final rep of an RM set - because muscles are capable of producing more force at slower speeds. The force-velocity relationship is an inherent property of muscles and not something that we can alter - however we CAN improve an athlete’s ability to produce force at specific velocities through specific training.
Understanding that the expression of strength is context dependent allows us to create a system for targeting specific adaptations. Rather than just blindly trying to increase a CrossFitter’s force production through the use of heavy, slow strength protocols, we can narrow our focus improve the limitations of the athlete and train for the demands of the sport. In order to accomplish this we need two things:
An analysis of the strength demands of the sport (strength-context)
A strength-training system that allows us to develop those demands
Part-2 of this blog, located in the TTT Classroom will look at one way to analyze the strength demands of the Sport of Fitness as well as present an introduction to our current model for developing a broad spectrum of strength qualities.
Written by Kyle Ruth