How to Design CrossFit Workouts for Building Muscle

Here’s how to design workouts to get you jacked like Games athletes.

If you’ve ever watched the CrossFit Games, you know — professional CrossFitters are unreasonably jacked. And though you might typically associate big biceps with barbell curls, that’s not where CrossFitters get their bulging arms from.

Sure, you might hammer out a hammer curl or two as a CrossFitter, but your biceps are going to come from elsewhere. Think high-volume pull-ups, endless rowing, and an absurd amount of pushing and pulling on air bikes.

Two people perform barbell snatches in the gym.

But there is a time and place to train specifically for hypertrophy as a CrossFitter. Focusing on muscle growth can dramatically improve your performance during your WODs (workouts of the day). Here, you’ll learn how to design CrossFit workouts for building muscle — and how to maximize both hypertrophy and recovery.

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

Do CrossFit Workouts Build Muscle?

There is no one body type associated with CrossFit — you’re likely to see a lot of different folks in your local CrossFit box. The sport is meant to be scalable to be accessed by people with various degrees of fitness experience and body types. 

That said, professional CrossFitters do seem to have a body type. Bulging traps, impressive V-tapers, and a solid set of abs seem to characterize pro CrossFitters. This is the case even though CrossFit workouts are not designed for aesthetics-related goals. Instead, CrossFit as a sport emphasizes work capacity, strength, and endurance.

A person performs seated dumbbell presses in the gym.

Still, the demanding multi-modal nature of CrossFit is often a recipe for building solid muscle mass. CrossFitters tend to stimulate hypertrophy from facing down huge fitness feats in their regularly-scheduled WODs. All those high-volume, high-intensity compound moves count for something. And CrossFitters often have the traps to prove it.

Should CrossFitters Train for Hypertrophy?

CrossFitters can — and often do — build beefy traps and bulging biceps from all that time doing metcons. But CrossFitters can still benefit from accessory training geared specifically at muscle growth. Bigger muscles aren’t always stronger muscles, but training for hypertrophy can be a big help when you have a lagging muscle group you need to bring up to par. 

Recovery time is the biggest potential drawback of hypertrophy training for CrossFitters. CrossFit is an extremely intense and demanding sport. Your regularly-scheduled WODs will often literally bring you to your knees. Recovery is key in a sport this intense. Adding extra training volume to your program can spell disaster.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t add hypertrophy training. Accessory work can help you, especially with the strength of your smaller muscle groups. That can pay big dividends during your WODs, as can the extra volume. As long as you program intelligently, you can maximize recovery and add hypertrophy training to your routine.

Benefits of Building Muscle for CrossFitters

If you’re committed to your WODs, you’re likely to build muscle. You’ll perform compound exercises frequently. You’ll do so at high intensity, either with high volume or heavy loads — sometimes both in the same workout. These are recipes for muscle growth.

But these workouts aren’t designed to specifically build muscle. If you want to add hypertrophy-focused accessory exercises to your training, you may be able to ratchet up the muscle growth even more. Doing so can come with a boatload of benefits.

Accessible for Beginners

CrossFit is an intimidating endeavor for even the fittest of athletes. Performing more traditional muscle-building exercises and programming can help new CrossFitters practice moves and build strength outside of high-intensity WODs.

A person performs a box jump in the gym.

By improving your overall muscle strength — especially for undertrained muscle groups — you’ll make your WODs more accessible. Struggling with your first muscle-up? Bigger, stronger triceps are bound to help.

Performing a given number of sets and reps without the intense demands of a metcon may be more accessible to beginners. This hypertrophy training can help prepare your muscles and your mind for the battles to come.

Reduce Muscle Imbalances

CrossFitters are no strangers to unilateral training. They typically do a lot of work with dumbbells and even some with kettlebells. The unilateral beast known as the walking lunge often plays a huge role in devastating WODs. But the majority of a CrossFitter’s time will be spent with bilateral movements.

From barbell work to muscle-ups and GHD sit-ups, CrossFitters — like most strength athletes — spend a lot of time working both sides of their body at once. This is excellent for overall strength and power production. But over time, bilateral training can lead to your dominant side taking over and growing bigger and stronger.

CrossFitters can benefit a lot from programming hypertrophy training to target and reduce strength and muscle asymmetries. This will mean a lot of work with dumbbells, kettlebells, and cable machines.

Unilateral exercises that make you use one side of your body at a time can help strengthen your weaker side.

As your weaker side gets stronger, so does your potential to improve your bilateral strength. Think about it: if you’re trying to snatch with lopsided shoulder strength, it’s not going to be very pretty. The more even you can keep your development, the more likely you are to crush your next WOD. Hypertrophy training can help you do exactly that.

Bust Through Plateaus

You’ve been training in CrossFit for a while now, but you’ve hit a plateau. Maybe your shoulder-to-overhead just isn’t getting any better, no matter how hard you hit it. The culprit may well be assistance muscles like your triceps.

Your triceps play a tremendous role in locking out all your overhead presses, not to mention muscle-ups. Targeting your triceps with hypertrophy training can help get them bigger and stronger to eliminate the weak point in your big lifts.

The same logic applies to issues with your grip that may be preventing you from crushing those high-volume kipping pull-ups. Your quads or glutes might not be up to par when it comes to walking lunges and endless front squats. Whatever your plateau may be, accessory work targeting hypertrophy for relatively smaller muscle groups may help.

How to Design CrossFit Workouts for Building Muscle

There are plenty of options for what kinds of workouts to create when you want to build muscle as a CrossFitter. Here’s how to figure out what kind of workout will work best for you — and then create it.

Assess Your Current Recovery Plan

Recovery isn’t just cooling down after an intense workout (although that’s important, especially for CrossFitters). It’s also about getting plenty of sleep and eating enough high-quality food to fuel your workouts. Thinking holistically about the stress levels in your life and how your training plan fits in is a big part of being a successful CrossFitter.

If you currently don’t feel like you have enough time in your program for adequate recovery, it’s probably not the time to add hypertrophy training to your plate. Instead, you might opt to go back to the drawing board to prioritize things like sleep, nutrition, and mobility training. These practices will pay you back by helping you get bigger muscles during your regular WODs.

On the other hand, if you feel like your recovery is dialed in, you might be ready to up the ante with muscle-building. Before you proceed, make sure you consider whether you’ll be able to adequately fuel any additional workouts with sleep and food. Make any adjustments you need to your schedule to ensure that your body can keep up with what you’re asking of it.

Choose Your Muscle Groups

Remember that CrossFit is a total-body sport. If you’re adding extra hypertrophy-specific sessions to your plate, you might want to keep them more focused on a particular muscle or muscle group. That way, you’ll be maximizing your recovery potential. So narrow it down.

Where do you want to build more muscle? If your major weaknesses are in your overhead lockout, you might want to target your triceps and rear delts. On the other hand, you might be lacking the posterior strength you need to handle high-volume GHD sit-ups. In that case, your glutes and hamstrings might be a priority for muscle growth.

Plan to focus on that particular muscle or group for four to six weeks. Then, you can move on to build out another muscle group.

Select Your Exercises

Your recovery plan will help you figure out which exercises to choose. For example, if you don’t typically take more than one or two rest days per week, you’ll likely want to avoid heavy compound lifts during hypertrophy-focused sessions

Focus instead on single-joint movements — like hamstring curls or leg extensions, for example — to get the best of both worlds. This way, you can slide in an extra hypertrophy session without taxing your body too much with more heavy compound lifts.

On the other hand, you might typically perform three to four WODs per week. In this case, you might be interested in adding additional compound movements into your hypertrophy sessions. When you’re training with more intense WODs three or four times a week, you may more easily add an extra muscle-building day complete with big compound lifts.

To figure out which exercises might work best for you, BarBend has a list of some of the best muscle group exercises for CrossFitters. Check them out here:

How to Program Hypertrophy for CrossFitters

To stimulate hypertrophy, you need to put your muscles under enough mechanical stress to cause some damage. Then, you need to fuel your muscles with enough nutrients to build themselves back up stronger.

Arguably, you do that pretty well during your average WOD. But if you’re just doing WOD after WOD with no programming connecting your workouts, you may not be progressively overloading. You need progressive overload — gradually increasing the intensity of your workoutsto continue to improve while staving off plateaus.

That progressive overload can look like adding more weight on the bar, doing more reps with the same weight, or decreasing your rest time. It can also look like using intensity-boosters like drop sets, 1 ½ reps, and other methods to approach failure

But how do you progressively add intensity to your muscle-building workouts without burning out entirely? Here are some strategies for programming hypertrophy as a CrossFitter.

Prioritize Recovery

If you’re committed to your gains, you need to be just as committed to recovery as you are to pushing through that last rep. Once you’ve decided to add some hypertrophy-specific training to the mix, you need to commit to enhancing your recovery, as well.

Maybe that means doing some extra meditations in the morning to help reduce stress levels. It might mean stretching just a bit longer after each training session. You may decide to eat a little bit more, add a post-workout shake to your supplement stack, or commit to going to bed an extra 15 minutes earlier each night.

Whatever you do, make sure that your recovery is strong enough to support those budding new muscles.

Add a Training Day

Let’s say your recovery game is on point. No force on earth can get you to stay up past your 10 PM bedtime. Your meal planning is immaculate. Congratulations — you might be ready to add another training day or session to your program.

Depending on what muscle groups you want to target for hypertrophy first, you may choose to add another training day to your program. You might swap in some weight training when you’ve currently been doing active recovery. In this case, you’ll be — for example — going to town with chest hypertrophy exercises instead of (or in addition to) those easy miles on the exercise bike.

Add an Extra Session to Your Day

If your schedule doesn’t allow you to get to the gym on an additional day, you might commit to two-a-day workouts. Try to keep at least a few hours between your sessions to maximize the energy you can commit to your hypertrophy training.

You might not have the time to commit to a full two-a-day workout. Once you leave your box for the day, you’re just done. If that’s the case, consider adding a hypertrophy-based finisher to the end of your WOD. 

Take a significant break after your WOD — catch your breath, rehydrate, and shake off that residual muscle burn. Then, tack on some extra sets and reps that target the muscle groups you’re looking to build.

Swap Out a WOD

You might not want to take any emphasis away from your WODs. But if muscle-building is a big priority for you right now — or you don’t have extra recovery time to dedicate — you might choose to switch out one WOD per week with a hypertrophy-focused session.

All your muscle groups will be recruited throughout WODs. However, because of the unpredictable nature of CrossFit programming, you’re never guaranteed a focus on any given muscle group

So instead of doing whichever workout of the day will come up on Monday, instead dedicate Mondays to bringing up your lagging calves, forearms, and biceps. This will guarantee that your target muscle groups get intense focus each week.

Your Takeaways

More likely than not, you’re going to build muscle while battling your way through your WODs. But if you’re in the game specifically to beef up your lean body mass, here are your biggest need-to-know insider tips:

  • Yes, CrossFitters can benefit from hypertrophy-specific training — even if they’re already jacked.
  • Focusing on hypertrophy allows CrossFitters to reduce weaknesses or shortcomings in their performance, helping to bust through plateaus.
  • When you’re dedicating extra time and energy to building muscle, make sure you’re also devoting extra time and energy to recovery to fuel your new gains.
  • Use the principles of progressive overload to program muscle-building sessions.
  • You can work out on an additional training day if your nutrition, sleep, and stress levels allow for that kind of extra volume. 
  • If you can’t add an extra session, swap out a WOD each week to focus specifically on your muscle-building goals.

Building Muscle in CrossFit

Everyone has different reasons for starting CrossFit. Some head into a box searching for a fitness community while others are looking for their next — or first-ever — training challenge. Certain CrossFitters sign up for changing the way their body looks, seeking to become more muscular.

If you’re looking for even more hypertrophy, use these strategies to design CrossFit workouts for building muscle. You’ll reap that sweet swoleness, and you may even find yourself busting through those old plateaus. Your CrossFit game is about to get better. Choose your accessory moves and get going.

Featured Image: Vladimir Sukhachev / Shutterstock