How To Build Muscle As A CrossFitter

2 April 2022
Andy Tait

You’re reading this because you likely do CrossFit, and you’re frustrated because you’re not as big as Rich Froning yet.

After reading this article you still won’t be, but you will understand how building muscle works, and what you can apply to your training and nutrition to ensure you’re maximizing your chances of gaining muscle.

If your primary goal is to lose fat then your best bet is to download the free fat loss guide in the top right corner of the page (or at the bottom if you’re using a mobile device).

But if you want to build muscle, let’s dive in…

Who the bleedin’ heck am I?

I am no mere ranger from the north.

Andy competing in Crossfit, Vancouver

 

I did CrossFit for 6 years and I was a Level 2 coach for 5 of those years. I’m not here to hate on CrossFit like many other people in fitness because I love it and think it’s had a massively positive impact on the industry.

I do however see the frustration CrossFitters have when they struggle to gain muscle by going to classes on a regular basis, while they watch some of the biggest guys and gals on the planet compete at the CF Games.

I was able to gain muscle doing CrossFit but it wasn’t done through just turning up for classes 3 times per week.

To read more about my story check this out.

 

Is CrossFit Good For Gaining Muscle?

First, let’s very briefly discuss how the body builds muscle.

Male muscular system anatomy

Resistance is applied to your body (in the form of weights), your muscles move that resistance and that provides your body with a stimulus to adapt (muscle growth).

If the resistance used is harder than the body is used to and you’re having to push the capabilities of your muscular system, you will get more stimulus for growth.

Muscle growth is maximized when you’re pushing exercises and sets very close to muscular failure.

 

Here’s the problem with CrossFit

During a WOD, it’s your job to avoid muscular failure at all costs.

Why?

Because if you reach the point of failure on an exercise mid-workout then it takes too long to recover, it’s game over. You know the feeling, I know the feeling… it’s not good!

If your coach has done a good job they’ve told you to break before you reach the point of failure, otherwise, the rest of your workout is going to be Les Misérables.

And here’s the other thing…2 men exhausted from doing CrossFit

You’re also limited by your aerobic capacity.

It’s much harder to accumulate more reps when you can’t breathe!!

With that said, every single rep you do does contribute to building muscle. However, you need to provide your body with progressive overload in order for it to keep making progress otherwise you will hit a plateau.

And that’s difficult to quantify during WODs due to the very nature of CrossFit’s varied workouts.

The other thing to consider is that a lot of the movements are not great exercises to build muscle.

Here’s what I mean…

Andy doing Thrusters at CrossFit Competition

 

A thruster works the legs and shoulders, it’s very lightweight for the legs (so little stimulus for growth), it’s heavier weight on the shoulders (more stimulus), but you’re limited by how out of breath you get (which if you have done this exercise before you know the answer to this is VERY out of breath).

What about high rep snatches, great for CrossFit but not conducive for growth.

Muscle growth is maximized when taking a muscle to failure.

So in summary of that, although CrossFit is not “optimal” for building muscle, it’s certainly still possible and when I was doing CrossFit, I gained muscle.

But I was a cool-aid drinker for sure and trained outside of class time doing extra strength, skill and hypertrophy work.

 

Nutrition

Before we get into the applicable tips let’s quickly talk about nutrition, because this can often be an overlooked piece of the puzzle when it comes to:

  • Performance

  • Recovery

  • Muscle Building

  • Mood

  • Sleep

  • The list goes on.

Good nutrition is so important because you need to be fueling your training session properly, recovering well, and providing your body with the nutrients it needs in order to grow muscle.

When you’re training hard your body has increased demand for protein as that’s what your muscles are made up of, and if you want them to grow then you need to provide more of the building blocks.

More on this is below.

 

How to maximize muscle growth as a CrossFitter

Training

You obviously love CrossFit and so I don’t recommend you stop doing it because following a program you actually enjoy is way more important than anything else in my opinion.

Man taking dumbbells for hypertrophy training

But what can you do with your training in order to help you gain muscle?

I suggest you add in some hypertrophy accessory work to supplement your training. This can either be done at the end of your WOD or on a separate day altogether (make sure you’re getting at least 2 rest days per week).

Pick some muscles you want to develop and then aim to get 6-12 sets for that body part per week.

Here’s an example: Pick some muscles you want to develop and then aim to get 6-12 sets for that body part per week.

You want to develop your chest

Accessory day 1


Bench Press 3 sets of 6-8 reps and be 1-3 reps shy of failure
DB Pec Fly 3 sets of 10-12 reps 1-2 reps shy of failure

Accessory day 2


Incline DB Bench Press 3 sets of 8-10 reps 0-2 reps shy of failure
Dips 3 sets of 10-12 reps 1-2 reps shy of failure

Now you have 12 sets per week of chest work where you’re pushing very close to muscular failure. You can add other muscle groups to the same days but don’t do too much, you’re already doing lots of training, but you still have to be smart.

Maybe just focus on 2-3 muscle groups per yearly quarter.

 

Nutrition

Ok, this is probably the most important section for you to read.

Your body needs protein to grow muscle.High Protein High Carb Meal for Recovery and Muscle Growth

How much?

I suggest aiming for around 1g of protein per pound of your estimated lean body mass. So if you’re 200lbs and 20% fat then you would have 160g of protein per day.

But that’s not all you need.

You need to fuel your training with carbohydrates.

And you need to provide an energy-dense environment for your body to maximize muscle growth

  • Calorie/energy deficit (eating fewer calories you burn per day) – This will equal weight loss which is what some will want but doesn’t provide a great environment for growing muscle as nutrients are limited.

  • Calorie/energy maintenance (eating the same calories as you burn) – You will maintain weight and have more potential to gain muscle and potentially lose fat. The more advanced you get the harder this becomes.

  • Calorie/energy surplus (eating more than your body burns) – You will gain weight and run the risk of some of that being fat but really maximize the chances of muscle growth.

Why do bodybuilders go through cut and build cycles? Because they maximize their chances of gaining muscle when they’re in a surplus of calories.

Will you gain weight?

Yes

Will some of that be fat?

Likely

Will some of that be muscle?

YES!

Putting your body into a surplus of calories, with a good amount of protein, carbs and fats will pay dividends when it comes to gaining muscle.

To limit fat gain and maximize your muscle-to-fat gain ratio, I suggest you take things very slowly as you only want to gain 0.25-0.5% of your total body weight per week. So for someone that’s 150lbs, you should aim for a weight gain of between 0.375 and 0.7lbs per week.

What about meal timing?

Meal timing is not as important as hitting your daily calorie and macro totals. Try and get some food in 2 hours prior to and after training and you should be fine. If you train first thing don’t worry about it too much.

Can you still gain muscle while eating at maintenance?

Yes, you certainly can, you can even build muscle in a calorie deficit if you’re new to training and are new to dialling your nutrition. But you maximize your chances the more calories you have.

To calculate your exact calories and macros to get started, whether you eat at maintenance, eat in a surplus or a deficit then download my calorie calculator below.

 

Conclusion

Andy Coaching A Class of CrossFitters

From my years of coaching CrossFit, I could tell that people were disheartened by the lack of muscle gain progress they saw.

The truth is that although you can build muscle doing CrossFit, it’s certainly not optimal or guaranteed.

The guys and gals at the CrossFit Games are doing way more than 3-5 classes per week, they train for hours per day and we’re probably already huge before they came into the sport. These people are also genetic freaks and who knows if they’ve ever taken any “special” supplements to help them in their journey.

My advice to you is to start tracking your nutrition, download my calorie and macro calculator to help you ensure you’re getting enough calories along with protein, carbs, and fats.

If you really want to gain muscle then go into a slight calorie surplus and if you gain any fat you can do a cut down the road.

Then supplement your CrossFit classes with some hypertrophy/bodybuilding style training where you’re taking muscles closer to failure with the goal of gaining muscle.

My calorie calculator also comes with some training templates that you can use to help.

I hope this was helpful. Please feel free to ask me any questions below.

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