Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Programming for Crossfit

A little over a month ago as a part of a managerial shake up, I was given the job of designing the exercise programming at my gym, Rowfit Chicago. I have been highly critical of many traditional CF programming strategies before (you can read by clicking here) but I think CF has the potential to induce dramatic changes in body composition and a whole host of athletic measurements, if done properly, so I was looking forward to this opportunity.

There are a few things to keep in mind before we address the specifics of this program

  • We are a crossfit gym, but we also offer a variety of other classes, including Bootcamp, rowing, basic strength, Olympic weightlifting, and squats (or as I prefer to call it SQUATZZ!) and plenty of open gym hours for members to do whatever they would like. This variety of classes makes programming challenging, as all of our members have a slightly different training week. I have tried to work around it by matching training stresses between classes. For example, because our Olympic lifting classes are on M,W,Saturday those days will usually have a more lower body heavy focus in CF as well.
  • Bootcamp is a class for aerobic development and for people to go and have fun without the mental focus required to pull a heavy snatch or any other technical lift. For that reason Bootcamp does not have a complex periodization scheme. Skills involved will build throughout the year but it will always be light weight and 30-40 minutes of near continuous work, aimed at developing cardiovascular endurance. For that reason most of this article will be focused on how I program specifically for the CF classes, and not bootcamp.
  • Our member base is, with a few notable exceptions, not interested in any sort of crossfit competition outside of maybe a local event or just bettering their scores and improving their results compared to previous months/years
  • In surveying members what people are interested in achieving at the gym is the following:
    • Get stronger (this is music to my ears). People want to be able to pick up their dog, their kids, their groceries and carry them up a flight of stairs without feeling exhausted.
    • Lose weight. I can’t emphasize enough how this goal has almost everything to do with the kitchen. However, there are strategies we can employ in the gym for maximizing caloric expenditure. This is an area where CF does not need my help. People have been getting ripped with CF methodology since before I even knew what it was.
    • Reduce pain. Pain is a complicated beast and I know when something is out of my league and when to outsource. With that said a lot of aches and pains have simple explanations. If your squat looks like crap and your back hurts and we fix your crappy squat the back pain has a good chance of going away too.
    • Perform. For some people this means triathlon. For some it’s running a 5k. For some it’s a CF competition or weightlifting meet. General programming will improve general fitness but to truly excel in a given sport you need programming specific to that sport, especially with regard to energy systems development. If you are interested in training privately for a competition or sport feel free to contact me directly at
So with those caveats out of the way let’s examine our programming. The traditional model of CF programming calls for random implementation of strength, endurance, and anaerobic threshold work throughout the week and throughout the year. It also uses random implementation of skills from Olympic Weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, kettlebells and endurance sports (rowing, running, sometimes swimming etc). I think encouraging competency across all athletic qualities and skills is admirable but trying to do everything at once is a recipe for doing nothing well. So let’s take a look at how to create a program that enhances all of the qualities.

In order to avoid overuse injuries we use a simple scheme of alternating muscle group emphasis for our strength training. We follow a similar template for conditioning but low intensity lower body exercise can be done every day. Currently it looks like this:

Exercises or rep schemes change every 3 weeks.

Monday: Power exercise full ROM + Heavy Lower Body + Heavy upper pulling

Tuesday: Olympic lift from the hang (because with the right intensity you can lift from the hang just about every day) + upper push + core exercise

Wednesday: Power exercise, partial ROM + single leg lift + moderate intensity upper body pull

Thursday: Skill development/Core exercise + long Metcon

Friday: Upper body Push + Pull

Saturday: Heavy bilateral lower body + Unilateral lower body

Sunday: Upper Push + trunk development


A general yearly calendar would look like this


May, June, July: Deload/Prep work.

  • Overall phase goals are flexibility, core strength and technique development
  • Olympic lifting is light and technique based.
  • Strength training is lighter and includes pauses for position development and control. There is also a big emphasis on range of motion through single arm and single leg lifts
  • Core stability is developed by using direct trunk exercises like Rollouts and landmines as well as a big emphasis on asymmetrical loading
  • There is very little squatting or pulling from the floor as both movements require a degree of flexibility that many members simply don’t have yet
  • Metcons have very little complexity as the goal is minimizing risk. We teach the complex movements in untimed situations
  • This is a great time of year to develop cardiovascular system through independent training or bootcamp classes

August, September, October

  • This is our strength cycle. If all of our athletic abilities (speed, endurance, power, etc.) are buckets, then strength is the hose that fills all of the buckets. Everything is easier when you have tremendous strength. A metcon with 95# front squats is a joke if you can front squat 3 plates. Our whole summer builds to this point. We have developed mobility and stability through single leg training and light technique work and paused work as well as dedicated mobilization time. Now it’s time to put some plates on the bar and begin building maximal strength.
  • Olympic lifting will be involved but at submaximal weights. It’s simply too fatiguing to Olympic lift and strength train at high intensity simultaneously
  • Gymnastics training is still minimal during this period. The strength developed through this part of the year will allow for easy gymnastic exercise in the winter. If you find me a person that can do pullups with load tied around their waist a good coach can get them doing muscle ups in no time. An athlete that can’t do strict pullups at all is wasting their time with muscle up skills practice. The same analogy holds true for pistols and a variety of other gymnastic skills
  • Energy systems training will emphasize moving heavy loads under fatigue. Metcons will be used to address lactate threshold as well as posture/trunk strength through specific exercises such as heavy single leg work, strict pullups and pressing as well as some cardiovascular modalities for short intervals

 November, December, January:

  • This is the heavy Olympic lifting Cycle. Our strength from the previous 3 month block is now transferred to Olympic lifting abilities. Because we did Olympic lifting technique work all year the transition should be smooth.
  • We also start a heavier gymnastics emphasis in the winter months.
  • A 5/3/1 type of scheme will be used for strength maintenance while we emphasize other qualities. 
  • Conditioning will be very short and intense with nothing exceeding 10-12 minutes.

 February, March, April: CF Open, Regionals.

  • This is the time of year where we aim to bring together all of the qualities we trained up to this point. This will most closely resemble what people are accustomed to seeing from CF programming in terms of intensity and heavy conditioning workouts.
  • Gymnastic skills are at a premium. Olympic lifting and strength training will be on maintenance cycles and challenging metcons will be occurring several days per week. The goal is to peak athletes for competition.
  • An important note is that even for members with no desire to compete in any CF event this periodized program will yield the greatest results. Emphasizing one or two qualities simultaneously while maintaining others allows for the greatest development of a variety of qualities. And that leads back to the goals we discussed previously.
I recognize that this is a lengthy post but this is what drives the programming in my gym. I have seen these methods work extremely well in private training and I expect the same results on a broad scale.

Please drop a comment below or message me directly if you have any questions.


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