A Quick Lesson in CrossFit Programming
When it comes to fitness, there are many ways to skin a cat. Thanks to this freedom, there have been roughly 10 billion weekly/monthly fitness magazines published in the course of human history. Some methods are better than others, and some are total garbage. Most have some merit. The beauty of belonging to a CrossFit gym is that the programming is done for you. All you have to do is show up and reap the benefits. To quote a great olympic lifting coach:
“What makes a program successful? Your hard work and dedication.” – Greg Everett
But beyond just showing up, it’s worth understanding the method behind the madness of the daily WOD.
Coaches take pride in crafting high quality programs and workouts, and every workout has a purpose. From my experience, athletes who understand the big picture complain less, skip fewer workouts, and attack workouts harder. So let’s quickly go over what CrossFit programming is all about.
At this point, it’s worth reading What is Fitness? again. Let’s review the three fitness standards.
- Skills: The 10 general physical skills
- Hopper: Preparing for unknown and unknowable tasks
- Pathways: The 3 metabolic pathways: phosphogen, glycolytic, and oxidative
To be clear, this is classic CrossFit philosophy. If your chosen fitness standard is maximum weight lifted for one repetition, or fastest change in body composition, or something else, then classic CrossFit may not be the most effective program.
So starting with the three fitness standards that CrossFit seeks to address, let’s go through an exercise. What we want to do is see if classic, high-variance CrossFit programming really is an effective way to develop fitness according to those three standards.
A lot of CrossFit fans gravitate to a style of programming that looks more like bodybuilding or bootcamp class. Is that necessarily a mistake?
Let’s pick a handful of movements, and create a week of programming, inspired by three different training philosophies: Strength & Conditioning, High Intensity Circuit Training, and CrossFit. These are not intended to be complete programs. This is just enough to get a sense of the style of a certain training philosophy, and enough to make a short critique of each. We will apply the 3 fitness standards and see how each program stacks up. Put on your thinking hats.
Strength & Conditioning
Back Squat 3×5
10 min AMRAP (20 Sit-ups, 10 Light Push Press)
5 rounds (10 pull-ups, 20 push-ups)
Front Squat 3×5
4x 400m run, 1 minute rest.
Power Clean 5×3
3 rounds for time (20 Wallballs, 20 Light Kettlebell Swing)
Skills: Heavy strength bias with some power work, stamina and endurance are not tested beyond a short time frame, and coordination, balance, accuracy, and flexibility are only explored to the extent that they serve a handful of lifting elements. Anything too technical is dismissed.
Hopper: Workouts are very similar. Volume is carefully controlled. Athlete is not ready for the unknowable, unless it is short and heavy or short and light and low-skill.
Pathways: The phosphagen pathway is highly developed. The glycolytic pathway is developed with moderately challenging rep counts, but not for the major lifts. The oxidative pathway is only explored under 10 minutes.
Review: This is a great style of programming for a powerlifter or bodybuilder. The careful attention to classic, big lifts will bring about major strength gains, especially for a novice. For the general population, however, this style of programming will bring about little new skill development and leave athletes unprepared for long/grueling tests. Tough luck with a 5k or pick-up soccer. And if the elevator breaks and you’ve got to climb 10 flights of stairs to get to the office? Sick day.
Circuit Training (Boot Camp)
Day 1: 25 min AMRAP:
10 Light Front Squat, 20 Sit-ups, 10 Light Push Press , 1 Minute Rest
Day 2: 7 rounds for time:
10 Ring Row, 10 Medium Deadlift, 10 Push-Up
Day 3: 20 min EMOM :
1: 10 Burpee, 2: 10 Light Clean and Jerk, 3: 10 Box Jump, 4: 15 Cal Row
Day 4: 20 min AMRAP:
9 Light Power Snatch, 15 Light Front Squat, 21 Sit-Ups
Day 5: 10 rounds for time:
5 Medium Power Clean, 10 Wallballs, 15 Light Kettlebell Swing, 1 minute rest.
Skills: Heavy stamina and endurance bias. Strength and power are not developed in a real way. Coordination, balance, accuracy, and flexibility are only explored to the extent that they serve high-rep movement. Anything too technical is dismissed.
Hopper: Workouts are very similar in time domain and in rep ranges. Athlete is not ready for the unknowable, unless it is long, light, and low skill.
Pathways: The phosphagen pathway is ignored. The glycolytic pathway is barely tested, because rep counts are usually too short to induce serious muscle fatigue. Aerobic endurance (oxidative) is developed to a surplus.
Review: This is a great style of programming for someone who really likes exercise. The constant cardiovascular conditioning will condition the lungs and heart well. For the general population, however, this style of programming will leave athletes unprepared for difficult tasks. Moving to a new home? Make sure all of your boxes and furniture are under 15lbs, and alternate lifting and carrying with an ab exercise of some kind, because otherwise, real-life tasks will get heavy and hard real fast.
Back Squat 5×5
200 Sit-Ups for Time
5 rounds for time (10 Pull-ups, 15 Medium Deadlift, 20 Push-ups)
35 minute run for distance. Every 5 minutes perform 15 burpees.
Push Jerk 3-3-3-3-3
10 min AMRAP (8 Medium Front Squat, 12 Toes to Bar)
50 Medium Power Cleans, 75 Heavy Kettlebell Swings, 100 Wallballs
Skills: All 10 skills are tested and developed. Ideally there is no bias, except to address an individual athlete’s weaknesses.
Hopper: Workouts are all very dissimilar. Over the course of a month or longer, an athlete is exposed to a variety of time domains, movements, loads and formats. The athlete is prepared for the unknown and unknowable.
Pathways: All pathways are developed. Trained athlete can outform most others at one repetition, twenty repetitions, and two hundred repetitions.
Review: You guessed it, CrossFit wins for the general population. This style of programming can get you very strong, but not at the expense of developing great aerobic fitness. Furthermore, the mentally challenging, high rep-count workouts will condition the glycolytic pathway very effectively. High-skill weighted and unweighted movements are explored, because coordination, balance, flexibility, and accuracy are treated as ends in themselves, not merely as prerequisites for heavy lifting or high-rep cardio.
Unfortunately, as you know, this is very a challenging style of programming. Few are those with the discipline to lift uncomfortably heavy weights, to run harder despite aching lungs and legs, and to fight for harder and better quality gymnastic movement. Few are those who can look at all five of the above workouts, and not instinctively table one or two for not-anytime-soon. For those few, the results are obvious.
CrossFit is very popular in the military and law enforcement communities, because these professions demand broad fitness capability. Their day job is the unknown and unknowable. No matter what your current fitness level, or your day job, strive to keep in mind the big CrossFit picture at all times: Constantly Varied, High Intensity, Functional Movement. It’s not called BarbellFit, and it’s not called CrossFHIIT. (But if either of those sound like fun, you can scroll up and find a week of programming for either one.)
One last thing to point out. We started off this exercise with a strange constraint: we picked only a handful of movements to illustrate three different training philosophies. Generally strength/conditioning programs favor some movements, circuit training classes favor others, and CrossFit gyms pick and choose (typically the ones with the most clear standards). By looking at a small set of movements, we’ve illustrated that programming variance can be independent of movements, i.e. doing all of the CrossFit movements does not mean you are doing CrossFit; you might actually just be circuit training (CrossFHIIT), or following a structured strength and conditioning program (BarbellFit). As always, when you decide to come up with your own workout for open gym time, or when you are on vacation, assess your biases:
If your gut tells you to do a 15 minute AMRAP of 5, 7 and 9 reps, maybe what you really need is 50, 70, and 90 reps for time to push that lactate threshold and build mental toughness.
If instead your gut tells you to squat for 5 sets of 5, and then do some cardio, maybe what you really need is 5 rounds of 10 moderately heavy squats and a 400 meter run to push your workout into a longer time-domain and desegregate a contrived segregation of strength and conditioning.
And in either case, do more handstands. They’re fun!
CrossFit Open Finish Party – Saturday, April 1st at Beer Karma in Brooklyn
Bodyweight Skill of the Month
Each month I select one gymnastics skill for you to focus on.
This Month’s Skill: Continue to work on your goats
The Open has been very low-skill so far. Expect challenging bodyweight (and barbell) movements in the next several weeks. Here again are the movements you might need going forward, in order of importance. I’ve added some new ones as well, because you should always expected the unexpected:
- Double unders
- Chest to Bar Pull-Ups
- Toes to bar
- Ring Muscle-Ups
- Handstand Push-Ups
- Bar Muscle-Up
- One-legged Squats (AKA pistols)
- Handstand Walks
We at CrossFit Metropolis believe that skill development should be a very important part of any fitness program. The gymnastic movements we do in CrossFit are not special; they are basic bodyweight movements that most athletes can aspire to perform. There are infinitely many movements we do not typically program in the daily workout, and you should explore those too.
The intention is not to learn how to perform the CrossFit movements. The intention is to learn how to learn. To think with your core and your hips and to master the overarching movement patterns and qualities that apply to every form of human movement. In that spirit, here are 6 more movements that are just as worthy of your time as the previous 6:
- Jump rope crossovers
- Pike jumps
- Bar pull-overs
- Wallball 2-fer-1s
- Pegboard climbs
- Butterfly stroke (swimming)
Never stop playing!
Great reads from the web
Stability in the Bottom of the Snatch & Jerk – Catalyst Athletics
The Push-Up – including “A Cheater’s Guide to Lousy Push-ups”, from the CrossFit Journal
Breaking Mental Blocks in the Snatch & Clean and Jerk – more great tips from Catalyst Athletics