Common Problems and Off-season CrossFit Programming

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While it’s pretty clear that mixed-modal WODs can build strength and endurance, what is missed by many is that WODs mostly USE certain biological traits heavily, but don’t necessarily DEVELOP them fully. This is a very important distinction!

Think of it like this: a game of football certainly requires one to use strength, speed, stamina, and agility. But, does playing football develop those same qualities optimally? If it did, there would be no reason for football players to train with weights or do sprints.

Even if football did develop all the speed & strength needed, there would be the increased risk of injury from every day being a competition.

The sport of fitness confuses many with the fact that the training exercises ARE the competitive events. But, just like with football, simply practicing the sport (WODs all the time) won’t optimally build the fitness you need to be better after a point.

Every year, we see new athletes, who have only been Crossfitting for a short while, make it to Regionals or even the Games. These individuals come to the sport with very highly developed levels of biological power, both from genetics and prior training. They only need to learn the skills and strategies of the sport and are quickly very good. Others we see training and competing for years and never getting beyond an intermediate ability.

In my opinion, most athletes in this sport don’t make the gains they’d like because of several problems:

1) Favoring “entertainment” over real training. WODing with your friends is fun, but cherry-picking cool looking workouts will leave you mired in mediocracy. Real training may be boring, but that’s where you’ll make consistent gains.

2) Not allowing recovery of different systems in the body. The CNS, metabolic, hormonal, and cardiac systems (and others) recover at different rates and are usually all hit pretty hard in mixed modal training. Many athletes end up hammering all systems every day and never allow enough recovery to train any of them at full capacity. The more advanced one is, the more likely this is problematic.

3) The thinking that max efforts are the only way to improve, since the sport is high intensity by nature. High intensity, at the right time, can have powerful benefits to performance. More isn’t better, it’s just more – and gains plateau quickly.

In off season programming, here are some general principles I use (in no particular order):

• Train like qualities in the same session, then hit different systems in the following day, allowing for more complete recovery of each quality. (eg: CNS demanding training on Monday, then aerobic development on Tuesday, etc) Many athletes lift one day, then hit a metcon that still hammers the CNS hard the following day. On the 3rd day, when they are lifting again, the CNS is functioning at a low level from fatigue, and therefore you can’t lift to your potential. A system recovered and ready to work can be trained harder and you’ll make better progress.

• If trying to concurrently develop strength and aerobic endurance, the volume of each must be lower. Most make the mistake of doing a full strength program at the same time as a full conditioning program, when each program is designed to be done by someone ONLY training that one thing. There can be no garbage sets or junk miles – you must have a very clear reason to have an exercise in your program.

• Train all qualities, all the time. You cannot simply lift all year, then ramp up your conditioning over a few weeks and be ready for a competition. It only takes a small quantity of work to maintain gains. Alex Viada states in his new book “The Hybrid Athlete” that another problem with lifting while NOT doing concurrent aerobic development is that any new muscle tissue will not have the same capillary density or mitochondria, and therefore actually lowers your aerobic power.

• If skills are a limiting factor, then they should be worked frequently in low volume. I often build short skill sessions to be repeated frequently. Done this way, they can precede nearly any type of workout.

• In the early off season, if mobility/stability/control issues are a limitation, then I consider doing a short block where a large majority of the training will be focused on this. You usually can’t afford to spend too long doing this, but it can be very effective at the right time. For some, it may be a regular part of the training.

• Early off-season is the time to train movements not prioritized in competition. Single leg/arm work, horizontal pulling, flow work, and possibly even some isolation exercises. Assess yourself and see what you need. At the same time, be sure it’s important before you add it!

• Take some time between blocks to stabilize your gains. Progress is taxing to the body. Allowing recovery of the biological systems of the body will provide a platform to push forward form once again. (eg: you complete a cycle and PR, but your testosterone to cortisol ratio took a hit. If you don’t wait for it to rebound before beginning the next one, you are starting on shaky ground) This is done by doing frequent de-load weeks where the intensity is maintained. Ideally, you can test some metrics to know when you have stabilized (a topic for another time), but a good indicator is that you are chomping at the bit to get back at it.

We’ll look at conditioning more in-depth next time.