CrossFit Programming: The Method to the Madness

Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.”
Greg Glassman, CrossFit Founder and CEO

Since February 10, 2001, Crossfit.com has posted a Workout of the Day (WOD); it truly is open-source programming. The majority of workouts have been true to the textbook definition of CrossFit: constantly varied, functional movements executed at high intensities. A typical month of CrossFit.com programming includes “Heavy Days”, Power Lifting, Olympic Weightlifting, Sprints, couplets (two movements) and triplets (three movements), and even Long, Slow Distance Days. The workouts cover the entire spectrum in regards to time domains. Monday may be a sub five-minute triplet of Running, Kettlebell Swings, and Pull-ups, Tuesday might be 7×3 Front Squat, and Wednesday could be a 5K Row. Yet, regardless of the workout, whether it be five minutes or 45 minutes, there is only one component per day.

One, High-intensity Effort per Day

That’s right! One, High-intensity effort per day. That’s it! That is all you need in the pursuit of greater fitness and health. You don’t need parts A-D; you don’t need a barbell every day; you don’t need cyclical, low-intensity “cardio”; you don’t even need to train every day. All you need to do is show-up, work hard, eat well, and trust the process.

Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong! Unfortunately, the concepts and methodologies of CrossFit Games training have permeated through the affiliates. It is now commonplace to see two or three “pieces” per day at your gym. Sadly, many affiliates have adopted the “volume is better” approach to programming. Now, all across the globe, we have the 9-5 desk jockeys, sedentary Sallys, Junk Food Jacks, and grandma/grandpa completing parts A-D three of four days per week, beating up their bodies, and likely eating less than optimal foods (i.e. eating like shit).

More is Not Better; Better is Better

CrossFit follows the charter: mechanics, consistency, intensity. First, master the fundamentals. Learn the movements, practice the technique, disregard load and speed. Second, develop competency in the movements; technique must become second nature. Lastly, introduce intensity. Intensity is a relative term; move at the threshold of your capacity. The charter is the medium through which trainers progress individuals from novice to intermediate to advanced. An attempt to bypass the first two stages of the charter in pursuit of greater intensity and/or volume will likely result in unfavorable outcomes (e.g. inadequate skill development, injury, overtraining, etc.)

People don’t need volume, they need intensity! According to Greg Glassman, “Intensity is the independent variable most commonly associated with maximizing favorable adaptation to exercise.” In other words, intensity is the “secret stuff”. Rather than cramming three components into a single session, neglecting all instruction, and accepting low-to-moderate intensity efforts, affiliates need to write one workout per day, provide world-class instruction, and motivate individuals to commit themselves 100% percent to the task at hand. It is the responsibility of the affiliates and trainers to give people what they need, while simultaneously making them believe it is what they want.

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Progress is Measured in More than Numbers

Individuals are not always thrilled to see one workout per day. The typical feedback sounds something like:

“10 minutes? That’s it?”
“How am I going to lose weight if we are only working out for 20 minutes?”
“Why don’t we do 30-40 minute chippers like we used to?”
“I’m no longer seeing results. My Apple watch says I only burnt 200 calories.”

First, the purpose of various time domains (e.g. five-minute, 12-minute, 20+ minute) is to develop capacity in the three energy systems of the body. You need to train all three systems in order to enhance fitness across a lifetime. Second, body composition is largely dependent on nutrition, not physical activity or exercise. If the goal is weight loss, people need to be in a caloric deficit, maintenance requires a net of zero; expending and consuming the same number of calories, and weight gain, requires a caloric surplus. Lastly, people need to understand that results are not merely measured by the weight on the scale or the number on the watch. The most valuable indicators of progress cannot be measured by any device: clothes fitting better, more energy throughout the day, greater stamina when playing with the kids, enhanced self-esteem, greater confidence, developing new skills, etc. Bodyweight and caloric expenditure from activity trackers are possibly the most unreliable and inaccurate measures of progress.

Commitment and Consistency are the Cornerstones of Success

Regardless of how effective the program may be, in order to see results and ultimately find success, you must commit to the process and be consistent in your efforts. It doesn’t matter if you have Greg Glassman himself writing the workouts, if you don’t show up and throw down, you’re not going to get any better. You have to be consistent. As it states in “Fitness in 100 Words”, five or six days per week. That is what it takes to succeed. It requires adopting a healthier lifestyle, eating real, nutrient dense foods, and getting your ass to class most days of the week. There are no quick fixes or guaranteed results in the world of health and fitness, especially CrossFit. The results are 100% predicated on your willingness to trust the process, listen to the coach, train at intensity, and work your ass off every single day.

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