When I first started CrossFit, I was a bit... lost. It seemed like there was so much to learn and so many things to practice. Where do I even start? Learning to decipher the whiteboard was like being back in high-school Spanish class! “Today’s Metcon is a 20 minute AMRAP called Cindy”. WHAT?! Nevertheless, I was determined to become like the meat-titans I had seen at the CrossFit Games - or at least a somewhat scrawnier version of them. However, after a few weeks of constantly varied, functional movement, at high intensity, I realized it would take me lifetimes to get anywhere close to my idols. With complex movements like snatches, double-unders, and kipping gymnastics programmed once every few weeks I simply wasn’t doing exercises regularly enough to make any progress. Sound familiar? As I dug into how top athletes trained I realized that they had deconstructed CrossFit in a way that allowed them to systematically build strength, develop skills, and prime their engine over time. In other words, they were getting good at CrossFit, by not doing CrossFit.
Training for Performance versus Training for Health
Now before you stop reading this article because you think I´ve lost my mind, let´s consider how the Level 1 Training Guide defines CrossFit: “CrossFit is constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.” It is a core strength and conditioning program aimed at preparing you for any task that life could throw at you, be it carrying a sofa down the stairs or picking up your grandchildren without breaking your back. Athletes are prepared for the “unknown and the unknowable” by constantly varying workouts - and this is where the “sport of CrossFit” begins to diverge from the “methodology of CrossFit”. CrossFit competitions allow athletes to test their abilities at “exercising for time”. Through a variety of grueling workouts, the sport of fitness will test your strength, your ability to control your body, and how well your lungs pump oxygen. However, to master the movements tested at competitions means you need to train like a weightlifter, a gymnast, and an endurance athlete. This simply can't be done on a program that is "constantly varied".
Okay - CrossFit philosophy aside and back to my story. I was overwhelmed by everything there was to learn but was determined to become more like the chiseled heroes I had seen dominate the CrossFit Games. In order to become like them, I realized that I would have to train like them. This meant following well-established strength programs, gymnastics progressions, and aerobic cycles to gradually master everything. In doing so I’ve managed to become a “jack of all trades and master of none”. Here is what I have learned over the past years of training for CrossFit (the sport), and how you can apply these lessons to become a better athlete yourself.
1) Building a Strong Foundation
Every CrossFit workout includes some type of strength component, regardless of whether you are moving a barbell, a wall-ball, or your body. I am not about to revolutionize exercise science with the following statement, but it needs stating nevertheless: the lighter a weight is in comparison to your 1-Rep-Max, the more times you will be able to lift it… Duh… As obvious as this statement is, we should not overlook its implications. The stronger you are, the easier metcons will be.
Let’s look at an example. Having a 400# Clean & Jerk means that “Grace” (30 C&J for time at 135#) is a measly 34% of your max! In other words, the weight feels like a toy!
It doesn’t matter how poorly conditioned you are, you’ll be able to do the entire workout without putting the bar down. If you don’t believe me, take 34% of your 1RM Clean & Jerk and do Grace. You’ll fly through it! Now let’s compare that to an athlete with moderate strength gains. Someone whose 1RM Clean & Jerk is 225# will be lifting 60% of their max 30 times when performing Grace. That’s going to be a completely different stimulus! Their heart rate will spike immediately, the weight will begin to feel heavy, and their form will break down as fatigue sets in. Strength is the difference between a 50-second and a 5-minute score.
This means you need to get serious about getting strong! If you have never done a strength cycle of squats, deadlifts, and presses then you haven’t even begun to unlock your body’s full potential.
2) Moving with Purpose
When teaching the burpee to new athletes I like to make the joke that CrossFit athletes are wildly lazy. We will find the easiest and most efficient way to do any movement. That’s why so much of a competitive athlete’s training is dedicated to mastering highly technical movements - of which there are many! The Level 1 Training Guide encourages athletes to pursue virtuosity which it defines as “performing the common uncommonly well”. The pursuit of virtuosity can range from the most mundane - ensuring that no energy is wasted when performing a burpee - to the highly complex, such as fully extending ankles, knees, and hips during an olympic lift.
Progressions are the key to achieving virtuosity in virtually every skill. They are incredibly powerful because they reflect the way we naturally learn. We’ve all done at least one progression in our life, whether we realize it or not: we learned to crawl, then we learned to walk, and then we learned to run. The same step-by-step approach can be leveraged to build up much more complicated skills, such as snatches or kipping pull-ups. For example, a simple Ring-Muscle-Up progression might be-
Notice how each week builds on the preceding progression. Dedicating time to build your technique, piece by piece, can have an exponential impact in your athletic output. Have you ever seen an incredibly muscular athlete who is hardly able to snatch 100lbs because of bad technique? In this case, it’s not a lack of strength that is holding them back, but rather an absence of efficient movement mechanics. Assuming that athlete invested a little time into learning how to move correctly, they would be able to double their snatch in a matter of weeks! If that story sounds familiar then it might be time for you to tighten the screws on your technique. Whether it's your olympic lifts or gymnastics that need refining, take a few moments out of your training to break a movement down into a series of progressions.
3) Priming the Engine
Now that we’ve covered strength and technique we come to the element that usually comes to mind when people think of CrossFit - metabolic conditioning, aka “Metcons”. However, this is a major misunderstanding, as endurance is only one aspect of our training. Rather than looking at metabolic conditioning as a series of couplets and triplets that jack up your heart rate, we will take a more fundamental look at developing endurance. Conditioning work should be focused on optimizing how well your lungs can intake and deliver oxygen - regardless of the time-domain, modality, or exercise choice. How well can your body deliver energy during a 10K run, the benchmark "Cindy", or a 30-Cal assault bike sprint? These tests represent three distinct types of conditioning training - Aerobic, Threshold and Redline training. If we truly "fail at the margins of our experience" then we must ensure that our conditioning training includes elements from all three time-domains.
When setting out to improve our aerobic capacity we need to focus our training on longer efforts (18+ minute). These types of conditioning workouts should not leave us rolling around on the floor, gasping for air. Instead, the aim is to keep our heart rate elevated at around 75% of our max, and sustain that for an extended period of time. These workouts are traditionally done with monostructural movements (running, biking, swimming, etc.) but don’t need to be. Get creative with your programming. Any combination of movements which allow you to “cruise” for an extended period of time can break up the monotony of traditional cardio. A recent post from ProvingGrounds featured the following aerobic conditioning workout:
The majority of our training should fall into the "threshold zone", in which our heart is pounding at 80-90% of its max. This time-domain ranges from approximately 8-18 minutes and, when done correctly, forces our body's VO2 max to increase. This zone is ideal for CrossFit because the time range allows us to easily incorporate multiple modalities. By using various exercises in a single workout we are able to practice several skills at once and keep the intensity extremely high. An example of a threshold WOD would be:
Finally, redline training is the shortest, and most intense form of conditioning. This type of training relies on repeatedly pushing towards 100% of your max heart rate before giving your body a few moments of reprieve. The work periods for this type of training range anywhere from 10 to 120 seconds. The rest period, on the other hand, should be long enough for a full recovery (up to 5x the work period) so that each round can be attacked with maximum effort. An example of redline conditioning would be:
One of the key things to keep in mind when approaching your conditioning training is that we need to keep moving. It does us no good to stand in front of a barbell for 60 seconds while we wait for our heart rate to stabilize. Instead, identify the intended stimulus of every conditioning workout and scale intelligently. If the goal is to finish in under 4 minutes, then make sure you chose a scaling option that allows you to finish the workout in that time. Remember - no one built an engine by standing around.
Strength - Technique - Conditioning
While there are still a few training sessions separating me from Rich Froning or Mat Fraser I have made tremendous progress since deconstructing my training. Focusing on strength, technique, and conditioning separately has allowed me to optimize each with the best-practices of world-class weightlifters, gymnasts, and endurance athletes. If you’ve never gone through a focused strength-cycle or implemented aerobic capacity training into your workouts then you haven’t even begun to tap into your potential! If you want to see what a full program based on these principles looks like then check out Proven Training - 6 days per week of functional workouts aimed to help you get stronger, move faster, and feel better. Click here to get your first week free!
About the Author: Phillip Stucki
Phil is a Level 2 CrossFit Coach and the founder of Proving Grounds. He fell in love with training during his time at college (Go Hokies!) and even managed to brainwash his wife to start lifting too. His passions involve helping people shape better lives for themselves and yelling at them to "pump it up" in an Austrian accent.