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Training Strategies For Protecting Muscle Mass

You WOD to get faster, to lift heavier, to make your body function better. The muscle all that exercise builds is just a beneficial side effect. But it needs attention, support and maintenance or else all your effort in the box will be wasted.

Don’t get nervous. We know you intend to use your muscles for what they were designed for — i.e., moving. But in order to achieve maximum performance, you need to maintain maximum muscle mass. In the last issue, we looked at nutritional strategies to help maintain the muscle tissue you’ve developed over many grueling WODs. In this issue, we look at the other half of the equation: training strategies for maximum muscle maintenance.

Why are we going on and on about this? Well, remember, CrossFit requires an athlete to excel in strength (low-speed muscle force), power (high-speed muscle force) and aerobic conditioning (met-cons). While we accept this statement as fact, it’s also often framed as a warning — the implication is that excelling in one will naturally limit another.

Case in point: Consider muscle-mass development. Many CrossFit athletes, particularly women, have more muscle than they ever had in their lives. And that’s great — it’s called into use every time you get out of bed, stand up from your chair or walk into the box. However, is that muscle mass limited and at risk because of other aspects of CrossFit training? In other words, does doing “Nancy” limit performance in “Fran”? The answer is yes, it can, if you’re not careful.

Naturally, the next question is: How can CrossFitters train to maintain the muscle mass they develop? The answer lies in borrowing training concepts from other fitness communities.

Maximize Motor-Unit Recruitment

But first, some physiology. The amount of force that can be developed in a muscle is dependent on a number of factors, including the size of the muscle (specifically, its cross-sectional area) and the number of muscle fibers recruited in the contraction. Regarding the latter, the more fibers recruited, the more force is developed and more of the total muscle is activated.

Muscle fibers are recruited through motor units — a motor neuron (nerve) and all the fibers it innervates. Some motor units recruit a small number of fibers, while others recruit a large number, but in general, when more motor units are activated, more of the muscle is activated. And that’s important because activation means adaptation. That is, one cannot develop muscle or maintain it without activating it — calling it into contraction.

When you go for a week or more without activating specific motor units or maximally stimulating a particular muscle — perhaps because you’re working on met-cons, gymnastics skills or movements not specific to that muscle — the muscle in question can begin to lose its adaptations (meaning size, strength, etc.). What we’re saying is that hard-earned muscle mass can atrophy, or shrink, and that, ultimately, will impact performance.

Fortunately, there’s a straightforward solution, and that is to regularly perform movements that recruit as many motor units as possible. So in addition to any WODs you do during the week, consider doing these three exercises, each of which recruits a significant number of muscles.

Low-Bar Back Squat


In this squat, the feet are placed in a standard squat position — just outside shoulder width (or in the athlete’s power position). During the movement, the general motion is the same as a standard squat and, as in any squat, the feet remain stable and flat. The difference in this squat is a function of the bar placement.

The bar sits lower on the athlete’s back — perhaps by as much as 3 or 4 inches. By bringing one’s hands in closer, the rhomboids and muscles surrounding the shoulder blades shorten and become more pronounced, allowing the bar to have a ridge to sit on. It may take some practice before you feel comfortable with the bar in that position.

The descent should begin with the hips moving backward, and the speed should be slow and controlled. Remember, this is a low-speed movement for a reason. Concentric (shortening) muscle force is greater at low speeds. And the more force you can develop, the more you can ensure maximal motor-unit recruitment.

Near the bottom of this squat, you’ll notice a need to flex at the hip more than in a high-bar or regular squat. That is, you’ll naturally feel a need to balance the bar by shifting your weight to the front because not only has the bar been lowered on the back, but it has also been moved a bit more to the rear of your body.

But this hip flexion is beneficial because it allows for greater hamstring, gluteal and erector spinae activation. While this squat may feel more like a pull from the floor rather than a front squat or clean in its mechanics, it calls more muscle fibers into contraction. Just ask any powerlifter. The low-bar back squat is a powerlifting squat, and as you get used to the movement, you’ll feel the production of greater force and will eventually be able to lift more weight.

Bent-Over Barbell Row


This is a great exercise for overall back mass and one that CrossFitters unfortunately don’t perform on a regular basis, if at all. The primary movers in the bent-over barbell row are the latissimus dorsi, teres major, brachioradialis and middle trapezius. The adaptation of these muscles to regular training is a wide, thick, muscular back and increased pulling strength.

With your feet shoulder-width apart, bend slightly at the knees and keep this slight bend throughout the movement. Next, bend at the waist, dropping your torso to an angle that is just greater than parallel to the floor. Maintain that natural arch in your lower back and keep your abs tight. And yes, you will likely be feeling a bit of tension in the hamstrings.

Hold a barbell with a pronated (palms down) grip with your hands closer to a snatch width than clean width. To execute the exercise, bend at the elbows to bring the bar up to your lower chest, focusing on pulling with your lats. The motion should be slow and controlled. Excessive yanking of the bar upward will reduce the stress on the prime movers, cause poor positioning and render you more prone to injury.

Common errors include increasing the angle of the hip during the ascent (i.e., standing up with the bar), dropping the torso down to meet the bar, straightening the knees and rounding out the lower back.

Dumbbells and kettlebells can be used as alternatives if shoulder mobility makes it difficult to perform this exercise with a barbell. However, most studies have shown greater muscle activation with a barbell.

Strict Shoulder Press


Also called a “military press” or just a regular old “shoulder press,” this exercise differs from push presses and jerks in that it does not involve movement below the shoulders. When performed correctly, strict shoulder presses are an excellent way to keep muscle mass in the upper body (specifically, all three portions of the deltoid, the triceps, serratus and the clavicular fibers of the pectoralis major) while staying away from exercises that can place undue stress on the shoulder joint, like bench presses and behind-the-neck presses.

To do the exercise, take a pronated grip on a barbell in a hand placement that is similar to the clean. Your hands will likely be just next to the shoulder when the bar is lowered.

As you initiate the pressing movement, extending the arms in a direct line above the head, squeeze your glutes and quads, keeping a minimal bend in the knees and tight abs. Be careful not to lean back more than a few degrees; however, a slight lean backward is unavoidable because you have to move your head out of the bar’s path. But as soon as the bar clears your head, shift your torso forward a bit so the bar is directly over your head. If you were able to see yourself from the side with the bar fully pressed overhead, you would be able to see your face, not your entire head, in front of your arms. If you don’t execute this shift, the rear delts are effectively left out and less of the musculature is activated.

This is the perfect exercise to involve a spotter on. The strength curve here is such that the mechanical disadvantage occurs when the bar is about 4 to 5 inches off the shoulders. This is the proverbial “sticking point.” A spotter can be used to help you through the sticking point by providing just enough assistance to keep the bar moving until the triceps can be engaged more completely near the top of the movement.

Bodybuilding-Style Training

We all agree that CrossFitters are not interested in developing muscle mass as an end in and of itself. However, when it comes to the development and maintenance of that muscle tissue, bodybuilders have a little edge on us. These three techniques, borrowed from a bodybuilder playbook, can help with the maintenance of all that functional muscle you’ve built.

Repetition Ranges

Bodybuilders develop mass by training in the 8RM to 12RM range. The abbreviation “RM” stands for repetition maximum. This means that when a bodybuilder performs a set and reaches a number in that range, he or she cannot physically perform another rep. That is, a 10RM weight is one at which an athlete can perform exactly 10 repetitions — not 11 and not 15 but he or she just decided to stop at 10.

The point here is that these are hard sets taken to failure, which leads to greater muscle breakdown, repair and adaptation. And the specific adaptation that muscles experience as a result of lifting weights in the eight- to 12-rep range tends to be an increase in muscle mass.

Short Rest Periods

CrossFitters often experience different periods of recuperation depending on the WOD, but they are typically not used to resistance training outside a WOD with minimal rest between sets. If they do, it is with an EMOM and then rest periods are variable. But rest periods between sets of exercise can be critical because they influence many things, including how well you perform on the next set, the energy system that the body uses and the specific adaptation of the muscle.

Scientists aren’t sure why, exactly, but limiting rest periods between sets of lifting has been shown in research to yield muscle mass increases. It may have to do with the amount of time the muscle is engorged with blood or the stimulation of specific protein-synthesizing structures within the muscle, but it is clear that shorter rest periods — about 30 seconds to a minute — are a great way to increase muscle cross-sectional area.

Speed of Movement

Unlike CrossFitters, who are often pitting themselves against the clock, bodybuilders tend to perform reps with slow, controlled movements — and for a few reasons. First, concentric muscle force is greater during low-speed movements. In short, they can exert more force and lift more weight, calling on more of the muscle for work.

Second, the slower the movement, the more the prime movers are likely to be fully engaged. In high-speed movements, acceleration forces often cause stresses to be placed on connective tissue. This is seen in the difference between a ballistic squat and a low-speed squat — in the former, tendons and ligaments around the knee handle much of the stress. Doing movements at low speed, then, allows bodybuilders to concentrate on full muscle contractions under constant tension.

Hormonal Considerations

There are smaller changes that you can make to your routine, too, in the quest to improve your body’s muscle maintenance. Two involve creating a more muscle-friendly hormonal environment.

Time of Day

Most research shows that testosterone levels are highest in the morning, which has led many to hypothesize that morning training is more conducive to maintaining muscle. But that’s not necessarily so because the hormone that opposes anabolic (muscle promoting) testosterone is the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is catabolic (muscle destroying) and is also highest in the morning. So it’s a wash, right? Also wrong.

The key indicator of the body’s anabolic state is the ratio of testosterone to cortisol, and it turns out that this ratio is actually highest in the evening. In other words, the increase in cortisol in the morning is more detrimental to one’s anabolic capabilities than the dip in testosterone in the evening. So consider training in the evening for the best muscle-preserving benefit.

Cardio Training

Look, “Nancy” is going to come knocking eventually. And when she does, you’re going to open the door and she’s going to tell you that CrossFitters can’t avoid cardio training. Met-cons are part of every box’s programming, and no CrossFit athlete is going to get far without developing exceptional cardiovascular endurance. But still, you should be careful. Endurance training can become excessive, and hard-earned muscle tissue can be lost.

Research shows that intense cardio training more than three times per week can negatively affect muscle tissue adaptations. Add to that the fact that frequent high-intensity endurance work has also been found to depress testosterone levels and there is ample reason to be vigilant about the amount and intensity of cardio training if preserving muscle mass is a goal.

Photography by Robert Reiff

Clothing courtesy of Virus Action Sport Performance