Will lifting weights before a metcon make you stronger?

Ah, the age-old debate. And one that — with a basic understanding of physiology — is beginning to look like the recent Flat Earth movement.

The answer to this question is NO. Definitively no. To even entertain this statement as true demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of strength training. 

(But in all fairness, lifting weights doesn’t make you stronger either)

Ask a better question.

More often than not, this debate descends into “but Rich Froning…” or “When I was doing ____ I was the strongest I’ve ever been.”

But these anecdotes don’t really answer the actual question. So let’s start with a better question:

“How do I get stronger?”

Answer: Recover from resistance training.

This isn’t a “recovery is more important than training” post. My goal is to help you understand the fundamentals of how your biology actually works.

When you run, jump, lift, do push ups, or ride your bike, you’re causing a bunch of tiny little tears in your muscle fibers, bones, and connective tissue. After you do this activity, you consume energy (food), breath oxygen, and rest. Through a web of interconnected organs and hormones, your body magically repairs those tears with a stronger bond than previously existed. Your body becomes stronger during the repair — or supercompensation — period of recovery. 

The bubble athlete

If I had unlimited resources to get someone as strong as possible, I would do a series of blood tests immediately prior to a training session to calculate the exact minimum effective doseNotice I said minimum… not maximum. Remember, the goal from training is recovery which means WE ACTUALLY WANT TO MINIMIZE TRAINING AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.

Immediately after the training session, I would feed my bubble athlete a perfect combination of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Adequate carbs so bubble athlete has insulin in their bloodstream and adequate lean protein so the insulin can do it’s job of delivering amino acids to bubble athlete’s muscles to repair the damaged we just caused.

Bubble athlete would go back into the hyperbaric bubble to sleep, get massages, practice mindfulness, and get ready for our next minimum effective dose.

So where did the Lift then Sweat come from?

Lifting and then doing some type of sprint or plyometric exercise has been a mainstay in strength and conditioning for years. Then, CrossFit came onto the scene. It wasn’t too long before CrossFit became a full blown sport. And, just like strength and conditioning, what the pro’s are doing has trickled down to high school athletes (that’s us in this analogy).

In a day-long test of fitness, competitive CrossFit needed to measure strength, endurance, power, and speed in the same setting. CrossFit has never been interested in absolute strength, but relative strength. In essence: “Cool. You have a 500 pound deadlift. But can you run a sub-20 minute 5k?”

So athletes needed to train to be able to hit ~90-95% of their 1 rep max deadlift in the same day they do Fran. So, that’s how they started to train.

But they always knew that doing so meant that both their deadlift 1 rep max AND their Fran time would suffer as a result. The question of competitive CrossFit has never been “how do I get stronger?” It has been “how can I perform good enough on game day?” 

So competitive CrossFit coaches started getting their athletes ready for game day accordingly. And the programmatic effects have trickled down to those of us trying to be the fittest person in the cubicle bank.

So what’s the answer?!

The answer is simple: if you want to get stronger, you need to begin the process of recovery as soon after the lifting session as possible. Some of you may have experienced my weird, hippy breathing drills after hard workouts. This is an intentional signal to your body to begin to super-compensate – or recover.

But, yes, there are days where we’ll program a lift with a Metcon. Here’s another peak behind the curtain: we don’t do it because it is effective, we do it because it is efficient. Seriously… we have a discussion along the lines of “yeah… this isn’t ideal, but there’s a short WOD today and we want our athletes to leave feeling like they ‘got a good workout.'”

So… the answer: Lifting before a Metcon gets you better at lifting before Metcons. It does NOT make you stronger. 

This has a place, however. If you’re doing an exercise competition where there is a strength piece BEFORE a metcon, you should begin to train accordingly ~6 weeks out from competition. If the workout is Metcon – Strength – Metcon, you should also train that way.

The novice effect

The reason the “Lift, then WOD” has had a lot of us (including myself) getting stronger is due — almost exclusively — to the novice effect. This means that any stimulus — no matter how ineffective — will have favorable results. This has been the dirty little secret of the fitness industry forever. It doesn’t matter what you do for a reeeeeallllllllllly long time. And most gyms know that folks won’t stick around for long enough to move beyond the novice phase to where we actually need to start having the discussion of minimum effective dosing and recovery.

In the world of the barbell, the novice is generally someone with less than 10 years of consistent training. Consistency means uninterrupted, intentional practice. Those weird starfish power cleans with wrist wraps you did in high school don’t count toward intentional practice.

Do I need to WANT to get stronger?

This is the beauty of the entire thing – NO!!! We have a major rule amongst the coaching staff: we will never project our own goals onto you.

Does lifting before a WOD make you feel strong, powerful, and capable? Then freaking lift before your WOD! I will be your number 1 supporter. Just do so knowing that it is not the best way to get strong.

As I’m sitting here writing this, each of your coaches PR’d their deadlift today. We’ve each been under a barbell for a really loooong time. If you told me I could add more than 5 pounds a year, I’d be the happiest guy in the gym. Today, I PR’d my deadlift by 15 pounds! How? I lifted waaaay less (~24 reps per week) than I ever have and put all my focus into recovery.

If you’re still crushing PR’s left and right – don’t change a thing! If you love hitting the WOD each day and high-fiving your squad after – don’t change a thing! But if you feel like something is missing; that your “gainz” are stalling — holler at me! I’d love to take a look at what you’re doing and provide any guidance I can.