The CrossFit Quads

It’s funny how CrossFit has such a staunch anti-bodybuilding sentiment, yet it’s participants clearly share a narcissistic vibe. Early on the workouts were short, intense, and effective and the high enthusiasm laid the foundation for how well CF has expanded. True athletes like my friend Eva Twardokens and Greg Amundson excelled and were highlighted, and everyone wanted to be like them. There was that element of “showing some skin”, but an argument could be made that it was for the sake of utility. For example, in this video, Amundson starts fully clothed and sheds the shirt mid-workout.

I’ve done a lot of CrossFit and high intensity training in climates that are much harsher than California, and I can assure you that life is easier without a shirt on. But nowadays, fashion — whether it concerns the clothing or the body — is the norm in CrossFit.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with this.

I’d rather it be that way. Let’s be honest, we like seeing attractive people. Lots of people also like clothing fashion as it relates to CF. I know nothing of fashion, but I know this because I see, “Can’t wait to see what everyone is wearing in the CF Regionals comp this weekend!” on Facebook.

I, of course, have a bias in that I appreciate well built folk who are exceptionally strong, powerful, and athletic. It’s why this website exists. So when I see people fawning over a 170 pound guy’s quads, I’m not really impressed. And it’s not just because he’s 170 pounds (though it doesn’t help). It’s because he severely lacks a posterior chain — hamstrings, adductors (groin), and gluteals. This isn’t relegated to males, because I see it equally in females.

Most of the CF training progressions are anterior chain dominant. There’s the air squat, front squat, and overhead squat. Press, push-press, and push-jerk. Deadlift, sumo deadlift high-pull, and med-ball clean. All of the squats are anterior chain dominant. The way that the push-press/jerk is taught is anterior dominant (bend knees). Other than the deadlift, the SDHP and med-ball clean typically turn into anterior chain movements. In reality, the deadlift is supposed to be a posterior chain movement, yet it hardly ever is (especially in almost all CF environments). Whether it’s fatigue, going to heavy too soon, or bad coaching, lumbar flexion is overly common in all of lifting, but especially CF, and this results in slack, non-working hamstrings. You can read more of my thoughts on this topic in this Q&A post.

These teaching progressions aren’t necessarily bad, especially when compared to the lack of compound movements in the conventional fitness world, yet they don’t inherently build a posterior chain. Being an athlete requires a balance of musculature around the hips to achieve optimal performance and prevent injury. CrossFit is an activity that, for better or worse, allows trainees to ignore their muscular weaknesses and still “get by” or excel; you can have good CF performance and still have weak hamstrings.

It’s easy to see when someone has a weak posterior chain because their quads will be quite noticeable while the backs of their legs are not (you can see this in some weightlifters too). When they are in action, you’ll see them shift their mechanics to put an emphasis on using the quads and alleviating the tension on their hamstrings; it’s because their hamstrings are unable to withstand the load and tension due to lack of development.

When I work with CrossFitters I like them to peform two posterior chain movements each week, not counting deadlifts. My favorites to program are RDLs, banded good mornings, and glute-ham raises. Of course, regular good mornings could be used, and reverse hypers are very effective (though they are more focused on the lumbar/gluteal area than the hamstrings). Each movement can be done for 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 15 reps (depending on which exercise and the goal). Strengthening and building the posterior chain is the single most important thing athletes can do to improve their performance, and that’s infinitely more so for a CrossFitter.

As an example, my friend Shana Alverson is someone who has performed at a high level in CrossFit, is someone that has a pretty good posterior chain. At this point, she doesn’t do any direct accessory work, but she has a good balance of musculature (read: balance across anterior/posterior chains) that has yielded a 66kg snatch, 77 clean and jerk, 102kg squat, and 148kg deadlift at a 60kg body weight. It’s all paid off because she’s qualified for the CF Games for the 4th year in a row.

Any shortage of posterior chain on Shana?

Train CrossFitters? Are one? Make sure the posterior chain gets proper attention.

25 thoughts on “The CrossFit Quads

  1. That is my kinda lady.

    In my own experience, I’ve found the Low-Bar Back Squat to be quite good at balancing the posterior/anterior musculature as my quads continue to balloon along with my ass and hammies. Granted I’m not a crossfitter…

  2. +1 on this message man. Since the DC workshop I have been doing RDLs every week starting light and doing 3 sets of 8 to doing a six week set of 531 for RDL just to see how it works and my hamstring meat-age has increased tremendously and I feel much better doing the movements. Also another thing you touched on- looking good and being strong. I gotta say that sometimes I read the SS boards or pendlay forum and the pendlay one at least has been a very good source of info. My only beef is that frequently the people who gripe the most or go into long rants about technique and shit are very weak themselves or not jacked and good looking like some crossfitters I see. I am not advocating either way, but I love to see the beauty of God’s creation in as little clothing as possible (female preferably) unless your quads are like mines

  3. Justin,

    do you support Rippetoe’s claim that the Overhead squat (and thus from hole to lockout of a snatch) is closer to a low bar squat and uses hip drive? I see where he is coming from, and there are videos that support this claim, but i also believe it depends heavily on the athlete’s flexibility, i.e. whether or not they can get the bar far enough behind their head to mimic the placement of a low bar back squat.

    thank you for your time.

  4. Justin, just to hammer you with some more questions…

    What are your thoughts on the placement of heavy KB swings in a program? I’m talking about heavy Russian KB swings, not the CrossFit over-your-head-with-bottom-of-bell-facing-the-cieling style.

  5. I think Doug Young nailed it when he said it’s important to both be strong and look strong.

    I may or may not be proud of having several “top comments” on youtube crossfit videos (aka crossporn) that say somethign to the effect of “it’s important to never wear a shirt while doing crossfit” and “it’s important to always tear calluses and show them to your friend’s camera while doing crossfit.”

    I only had about 45 minutes to lift on Saturday so I did a crossfitish workout/WOD/complex/conditioning, except I did mid-weight for me low bar squats followed by front squats. I don’t understand why low bar squatting isn’t ever included in crossfit WODs. Maybe it is? Anyway, low bar lets me lift more weight so I do low bar. It went like this and kicked my ass.

    –10 minutes of warming up on rowing machine, dynamic stretches, mobilizing–
    275# Low Bar Squat x5
    –quickly unrack weights–
    135# overhead press x5
    –quickly unrack weights–
    275# Low Bar Squat x5
    –quickly unrack weights–
    135# overhead press x5
    –quickly unrack weights–
    275# Low Bar Squat x5
    –quickly unrack weights–
    135# overhead press x5
    –quickly add weight–
    185# front squat x5
    Chin Ups x10
    –momentary pause to not puke–
    185# front squat x5
    Chin Ups x8
    185# Front Squat x5
    Chin Ups x6
    –5 minute break–
    Bicep Curl Machine 3×12 (bro)

    I didn’t look at the clock before starting but it took about 25 minutes and I kept my shirt on until I got to the parking lot. Woman did it too in the rack next to me. I listened to the new Tenacious D album while doing it, so it was pure bliss.

  6. @crkilgo What I think Justin means is bending at the knee with knees travelling forward of the toes, thus taking the hamstrings and glutes out of the movement. You will still bend at the knees, but if you push your knees out you maintain tension on the posterior chain and for most folks it is a far more explosive movement for that reason. I find that I’m also able to keep from leaning forward when I do this.

  7. @criedthefox. You didn’t ask me, but I don’t buy it. Most weightlifters who have appropriate flexibility will catch and rise from a snatch with a decently upright back, certainly more upright than during a low bar squat. More importantly the depth at which you catch a (heavy) snatch is typically far deeper than permitted in a properly executed low bar squat – the low bar won’t build strength through the complete snatch ROM imho.

    I see a lot of crossfit programs utilizing LBBS as their strength work of choice these days.

  8. Agree with all of that. I figured that was how crossfitters taught it (I guess I should never assume that important parts of a movement are correctly taught.) I just didnt know of a good method to “dip at the waist” which is what I thought Justin was saying (should have assumed Justin knows what he’s talking about).

  9. In my limited coaching experience, it is still possible to be low-bar back squatting in an anterior dominant way. (Especially with inexperienced and inflexible people) Any good cues and coaching points to help people “discover” their posterior chain and cue this correctly? Keeping weight on the heels and hips back sufficient? Start soon with RDL’s and good mornings?

  10. Is it possible to be too flexible for RDL’s? I have pretty damn flexible hamstrings and when I do RDL’s I really don’t “feel” them in my hammies. I can get the bar to the floor without feeling the so called stretch. It helps if I widen my stance a little bit and let the bar travel farther away from my shins just a smidge.

  11. @Maslow – that Tenacious D album is amazing. Well played.

    @splchris – have you tried doing them with a snatch width grip? That could buy you a few inches of ROM without having to stand on plates or something.

  12. If I’m doing:
    A)Squat, Bench, Row
    B)Squat, OHP, DL
    C)Squat, Bench, Row

    Where should I throw in posterior stuff? I take 2 full days off after C.

  13. There is a pic of some volleyball player going around on Facebook, the text says something about her ass. It has to be the worst ass they could have chosen: a round, non-athletic butt, and absolutely no hamstring development. Actually, this girl doesn’t even look athletic in the slightest. It makes me sad people think she looks good. I’m definitely a glute/hammy man.

  14. Pingback: » Weekly Recap, PR Friday

  15. Pingback: Derby City CrossFit | Louisville | Workout of the Day – Thursday 5/24/12

  16. Pingback: Quality Over Quantity | 70's Big

  17. Pingback: Good reads to grow your box | The SocialWOD Blog

  18. Pingback: Le ici et maintenant - CrossFit CapOp

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.