Building the Middle

By Jon Gilson

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 10, 2008.]

The relationship between rep scheme, load, and the resulting physical adaptation is well documented.  At one end of the continuum, we find high repetitions performed with low to moderate loads.  This training style produces increased muscle cross-section (hypertrophy) with little concurrent increase in strength.  At the opposite end, we find very low repetitions performed with maximal loads, producing little change in muscle cross-section with tremendous concurrent gains in motor recruitment (innervation).  Between these two extremes, we find combinations of volume and load that produce a blending of our two desired attributes, hypertrophy and innervation.  

When we consider athletic performance independent of bodyweight, it becomes obvious that both attributes should be developed.  Muscle cross-section and motor recruitment both play a role in making us stronger, faster, and more powerful.  Spurring hypertrophy gives the athlete more muscle mass to recruit, while subsequent innervation makes optimal use of the newly available muscle tissue, thereby increasing contractile potential.

Striking a balance between the two becomes necessary when bodyweight enters the picture.  Maintaining a large physique requires caloric intake well beyond the natural eating patterns of most athletes, and mass can become a burden for bodyweight-dependent activities such as gymnastics and sprinting.  For the smaller athlete, reduced mass produces a collision-time disadvantage during contact sports and makes it difficult to lift large loads during training.

CrossFit takes these disparities into consideration, employing workouts that do not favor either type of athlete, typically combining gymnastic and sprint-based activities with weightlifting.  This ensures that the balanced athlete—one possessing a high strength-to-bodyweight ratio—meets with the most success during non-lifting-specific WODs.

Because of the emphasis on high strength-to-bodyweight ratio, CrossFit athletes tend to lift toward the low repetition/maximal load end of the continuum, developing strength without a subsequent increase in mass.  This is embodied in the rep schemes of the 10x1, the 3x3, and the CrossFit Total, where total working volume rarely (if ever) exceeds ten repetitions.

While training in this manner clearly benefits the CrossFitter, it produces a glaring deficit in certain lifting situations, specifically the ability to move sub-maximal but substantial loads for moderate volume.  This area lies just short of our maximal load, low volume sweet spot, and is particularly troublesome for male athletes.

The oft-cited predicted load within this area, represented using five sets of five repetitions, is 80-85% of one-rep max.  Nonetheless, our male athletes, trained to lift high loads at low volume, consistently fall short of this mark.  Without intervention, their maximum working load during the 5x5 trends below 80%.

The remedy is as simple as the problem:  to develop the moderate load, moderate volume strength, we have to lift in this part of the continuum.  This idea is by no means novel—CrossFit has touted the benefits of Mark Rippetoe’s “Starting Strength” program, a five-by-five masterwork, for over a year.  Unfortunately, this came long after many individuals were well into their CrossFit development, leading them to believe that they had advanced beyond the simple linear programming Rippetoe describes.

Per my observations, this is not the case.  When the middle of our load/volume continuum is not visited, we find otherwise well innervated athletes who are hampered by their lack of muscle mass.  While these athletes possess wonderful strength-to-weight ratios, their lack of hypertrophy limits their real-world ability to move sub-maximal loads in line with those predicted by their one-rep max.  Embracing the five-by-five, and working toward 80-85% for all 25 repetitions erases this deficit in the otherwise advanced CrossFitter.

The net effect of this change is a more complete athlete, confident and capable throughout the entire load/volume continuum.  Given CrossFit’s stated goal of increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains, neglecting the substantial gray area between hypertrophy and innervation makes little sense.  Working the five-by-five produces a modicum of each without sacrificing the benefits of a high strength-to-bodyweight ratio, warranting its inclusion in a balanced strength and conditioning program.

Jon Gilson is the founder of Again Faster and former member of CrossFit’s Level I Seminar staff. Photograph of Austin Malleolo courtesy of Evan Saint Clair at the JournalMENU.