By Coach Jason Struck
Since 2016, Full Circle has experimented with a few approaches to programming the Workout of the Day (WOD). In the early part of the year, we were following the same basic template we have been utilizing pretty continuously since maybe 2012. It served us well as far as balancing the basic demands of CrossFit programming with regular and productive strength training. However, it also meant that each week had certain patterns to it, and some clients were either always missing certain types of training on days they consistently couldn’t attend, or frankly people just didn’t like how predictable certain aspects of the training had become. So we switched it up!
Greg, Matt, and I worked together to come up with a new template that met our ongoing needs training wise: regular strength and skill work, development of the energy systems, and more variety, which we all felt was a lot of fun from the client perspective. However, there were drawbacks to that as well. When 2017 rolled around, it afforded me the opportunity to fix some of those drawbacks, while keeping things that were really working for everyone and to apply some of the feedback I had been getting about programming.
Before I delve into an explanation of why some things are the way they are today, I think it’s relevant to quickly explain what CrossFit is, and how Full Circle intends to uphold those CrossFit principles in a way most beneficial to our clients. Then with that in mind, I think most readers can understand where I am coming from.
What is CrossFit? CrossFit HQ says, “CrossFit is what CrossFit does. And what CrossFit does is constantly varied (if not random) functional movement performed at high intensity.” For a pedantic exercise physiology nerd like me, those two sentences are loaded with potential meanings and pitfalls. While it might sound reductionist, it’s important to pause for a moment and consider the literal meaning of the first sentence. CrossFit isn’t any more or any less than what you do in the gym each day, and what your definition of CrossFit is, is defined by your personal experience. Your definition can and must be totally unique to anyone else’s. It also negates most generalizations about CrossFit.
It actually sounds a lot like Full Circle’s motto: “You are what you repeatedly do.”
Now, about that second sentence: constantly varied functional movement performed at high intensity. Constantly varied means that each and every day should be different. We can introduce variance in a number of ways, like the number of reps, the weight on the bar, and the times of the WODs. Functional movement in CrossFit terms means a natural or athletic movement that mimics life or sport movements. They tend to be multi-joint, compound movements that move moderate loads big distances in short periods of time. Functional movements are the safest and most efficient ways for the human body to complete a movement task. Finally, intensity. In CrossFit, we define intensity by power output. The goal acutely of most training days is to elicit the maximal amount of productive work given the constraints of the task, i.e. the time limit, the number of reps etc. The goal chronically of CrossFit training is to progressively increase the amount of power you are able to put out over a broad amount of time and modal domains. There should (must) be a measurable increase in power output of pre and post tests. Weights lifted go up, Fran times go down, etc.
In order for a CrossFit program to be a good one, it has to meet these simple yet lofty goals. One thing we do well at Full Circle is teach the classic lifts (Clean, Jerk, and Snatch) and help people understand how long term strength training can improve their performance reliably across a large number of tasks. This leads to a lot of coach and client focus on things like 1RM performances and improvements. But this is only 1/3rd of CrossFit, at best. The principle modal domains of CrossFit are weightlifting, gymnastics, and mono-structural. So, consistent progress in gymnastics and ‘cardio’ are just as important as lifting heavier weights, and in fact, all three can be supportive of the others in a well-balanced program.
While there is no ‘typical’ CrossFit workout, nor one single test that defines your ability as a CrossFit athlete, there are a few things you can look to as examples of these kinds of tests. The Open and the Games are a good place to start. They consist of 5 and 10 events respectively, and that’s a good way of thinking about your own performance and how to test it. If you’re not concurrently improving on workouts that last 10 seconds, 3 minutes, and 20 minutes, then your CrossFit program is not properly balanced. You can pick a few things in the gym that can help you define your progress, too. Maybe look at your CrossFit Total, your time on a short heavy WOD like Grace, a more balanced sprint like Fran, a longer WOD like Chelsea, and a pure cardio metric such as rowing a 5K. If 5/5 of these improve in a given training year, I’d say your program is awesome, and you’re doing great. Four out of five sounds decent to me. Anything less sounds like you may be specializing too much, cherry picking your workouts, or maybe there’s a glaring weak point you need to work hard to improve quickly. If it’s not clear yet, I am stating that I believe the WOD programming we are currently offering will deliver improvements to all five of those tests concurrently, as long as you show up and train 3-5 days, don’t take too many layoffs, and don’t get hurt.
In light of these concepts I went back to the drawing board to assess what we were doing well, and what we needed to do better as a program to help our students improve more reliably at CrossFit. I also had to be honest with myself and with you about where we may in fact differ from HQ or other affiliates about what our values and goals are. For instance, if I am being honest, if we accidentally leaned a little too much towards making our clients stronger, rather than making them better at long chipper WODs, I wouldn’t retire out of shame.
So, what can you expect from our programming going forward? Well, for you nerds, we’ve adopted something along the lines of ‘block periodization’ that allows us to focus on short term goals, while maintaining as many fitness qualities at the highest levels possible. This means the year will consist of about 15 blocks that will vary in emphasis, seasonally. For example, right now we are in the first of two blocks intended to prepare us for the CrossFit Open (registration opens next week!)
We’ve also broken every day into one of three possible variables (single, double, or triple modal elements). Each day includes up to three possible components, roughly: skill/strength practice, energy system development (metcon, WOD, etc) and homework/practice. Each individual day can have any combination of one or more of those three things. Since this now creates a matrix of at least 3×3, there are a very large number of possible configurations a day’s class could take. Hence, every day will be different.
We’ve also moved away from a free-for-all approach to scaling to offer what we think is a more consistent and repeatable approach, which takes some of the burden off you, the athlete, and the class leader. More importantly, it highlights the relationship between the variables that convey proportions representing balance in a CrossFitter’s expected aptitudes. These scaling options are listed as “Totally Sweet Elite,” “RX,” and “Scaled.”
Totally Sweet Elite (TSE, or simply elite) represents what we think will be a hard but doable workout intensity for our top quartile of students, on a good day. This level includes ANY movement from the CrossFit repertoire. This should be an aspirational goal for our students who are healthy and devote 4+ days per week to their training consistently over the course of years, not months or weeks.
RX is what we think will be a hard but doable workout for the majority of our students on most days. These WODs often include more advanced gymnastics, and use the weights consistent with classic CrossFit benchmarks (like deadlift 225/155 or thruster 95/65 for example). We believe that any person can do these WODs this way with a little bit of training. You should expect to complete many of your daily WODs at the RX level once you’ve been training for 3-12 months, and are at least competent in the basics of CrossFit, including but not limited to lifting weights in excess of those benchmark WODs, and doing basic gymnastics with bodyweight resistance, such as a pull up or a dip.
Scaled represents what we think will be hard but doable for most healthy individuals who might walk in off the street and jump into a WOD with us. These WODs will not include any prohibitive movements that some untrained individuals cannot do (think complex barbell movements, bodyweight gymnastics like pull ups, etc.) At this level, it’s totally acceptable to scale anything lower if you must, and if your coach suggests so.
One thing that has come into discussion about the above scaling levels is the idea of “I can do one part of the WOD elite, but not the other part. Why do I have to lower both?” In short, because CrossFit programming is about eliciting the highest possible power output, and about balance across energy systems and modal domains. As a practical example, let’s say you can lift the weight, but can’t do the gymnastics. Just a hunch, but it might be because you are big and strong. But CrossFit doesn’t allow for getting bigger at the expense of being relatively strong, i.e. you can’t gain so much weight pursuing your clean and jerk, that you lose your pull up. And if that’s the case, lifting less weight faster and for more reps is probably going to elicit a higher average power output, increase the cardiovascular component of the WOD (which you need to work on, I bet), and ensure you get more rounds and thus more practice on the movement that actually caused you to scale the whole thing to begin with.
Please forgive me when I say this, because I believe an appeal to authority is about the worst rhetorical device there is out there, but, “I’ve been doing this for a long time.” I started writing CrossFit programming in 2008, almost 10 years ago. In this field, that makes me like one of the super OGs. I have coached probably 10,000 CrossFit classes, on average containing probably 5 people, so let’s say I’ve helped 50,000 people choose their scaling options, and watched the results. During this extensive data collection process, I’ve certainly observed some trends.
One final thought on scaling: it’s a well-known fact that in every subject there’s a logical progression. From general to specific, from easy to hard. You must learn to walk before you run. And in most CrossFit movements, there are the same progressions. While it may make you feel good to do a more complex movement poorly, incorrectly, or with so much assistance as to reduce the power output capacity of the movement, it will not improve your fitness or prevent injury the way that following the correct progression will. The funny thing is, the ‘easier’ movement that you can do correctly and with more intensity is probably going to help you workout harder, and thus get fitter faster and more safely, which will ensure that you achieve your ‘cool move’ goals that much sooner.
So, trust us. Leave your ego at the door, and join the 50,000 that came before you in getting every thing you can out of the funnest way to get fit faster than any other program out there.