Monday, February 4, 2013

Implementing MEBB and 5/3/1 into CrossFit

Hi Barry,
I see you have done both 5/3/1 and Max Effort Black Box at your gym. How has the 5/3/1 been working for your guys so far and how do you mix among the 8 different strength movements you are using? How do you determine which strength movements to incorporate for the given week?  Also, how would you incorporate someone who comes in during the middle of one of the cycles? Say we have a new member who joins when we are in the middle of lift 1 cycle 3? I know there isn't an easy answer for this and probably a lot depends who that person is.  I would handle things different with someone who is new to lifting andsomeone who has lifted before or who is experienced with CrossFit.  As we all know, "I have done CrossFit before," can mean just about anything depending where that person worked out before.  Any input would be appreciated. Thank you. -Bryan, CA

A strength training program should be the cornerstone of every CrossFit program and a stronger CrossFitter is a better CrossFitter.  Period.

How a coach implements a strength program is up to them and many claim that they have the best program around.  But a solid strength program that institutes progressive overload and uses basic barbell movements will get you stronger each and every time.  There is NO MAGIC PROGRAM!  Lift heavy and you will get stronger.

Episode 2 of the SSC touched on the details of the Max Effort Black Box and Wendler 5/3/1 programs and outlined the pros and cons of each.  For today’s post, I wanted to dive into the use of those programs in a Strength and Conditioning program and more specifically, in a CrossFit box.  

At CrossFit Generation, I use both the Wendler 5/3/1 and the Mike Rutherford Max Effort Black Box (MEBB) programs.  In five years of programming, I have found that these work best with athletes of all levels and can be manipulated to suit those levels, regardless of age.

  We lift on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and this does not change throughout the year because the strength program serves as the foundation of the gym’s programming.  Without sharing CFG’s entire programming template, the strength template breaks down as follows. I'll start with a yearly overview in conjunction with the sport of CrossFit:

  • May to October: MEBB - time to get maximally strong (1-3 rep maxes)
  • November to April: 5/3/1 - time to handle heavy loads for higher rep ranges (3-12 rep ranges)

The MEBB program works because it allows people to find their maxes in the 12 Olympic-style lifts that I use with the program, specifically squats, deadlifts, and overhead movements.   Within the program, some athletes do not go after a new max because, in some cases, they shouldn’t.  With certain individuals, I recommend that they perform “sets across” at a lower percentage (75% - 80%) for around 2-5 reps of a previous max, depending upon the lift.  That range allows athletes to maintain their strength without putting too much wear and tear on the joints. 

With the MEBB, an athlete can lift based upon “feel” for the day.  If they “feel” like maxing, they go for it.   If they don’t have it in them, just hit up some sets across and call it a day.

The 5/3/1 program, on the other hand, works because of the progressive overload principle and the sub-maximal loads you work with during the program.  As with the MEBB program, you can dial back the intensity and Jim Wendler advises that you stick to 4 lifts per cycle. I use 8 lifts, but break them down into the 4 per cycle, which allows me to follow the plan, while putting my own spin on things.   

I perform the 5s, 3s, and 1s for the first 4 movements, switch up the movements and repeat.   After completing both cycles, I start over with the first set of movements and add more weight to the training max.

I also break the cycles down into movement patterns rather than body parts.  This allows me to implement a Lower Body Push, Lower Body Pull, Upper Body Vertical, Upper Body Horizontal.  The Upper Body movements can be both push and pull and I can even include pull-ups with this approach.

Introducing someone to any strength program can be a bit tricky, but handled correctly, it can build tremendous lifting confidence.   You just need to exercise caution.  If an athlete has never lifted before, you shouldn’t have them immediately go for a new max.   These athletes are at a greater risk of injury than those with a base of strength and need to build things up with submaximal loads first.   Only then should they go for a max.

For athletes with that good base, encourage them to find a heavy single to see where they are with the lift and stress form to ensure that they can do the heavy single properly.  As a general rule, I use a % of their body weight to determine what load to go of for the lift, depending upon the individual.  The following standards should work:


  • Back Squat: 75% of body weight
  • Deadlift: Bodyweight to 1.25x body weight
  • Shoulder Press:  50% - 60% of body weight
  • Power Clean:  60% - 75% of body weight

Every gym gets new members every week and most of them have no CrossFit experience.  If they say they have done CrossFit, ask them if they have done Clean & Jerks or a Snatches.  Ask them to define an “AMRAP”.  Chances are, they’ve done a high intensity interval or boot camp program, but not CrossFit.    If they seem to have some experience, find out if they are coming from another box and hopefully, they’ll have some numbers for you to work with.

You can easily implement a strength program if you safely and intelligently do so in conjunction with your the rest of your CrossFit program.  Just make sure that the complete program makes sense and that strength does the driving. 


  1. This is several months after your post, but on top of the movements involved with Sandler, what lifts are you incorporating for the other four?

  2. Damn auto correct; wendler not sandler