The Missing Ingredient to Crossfit Success and Longevity

By djpope

January 20, 2014

Crossfit, Deload, Programming, specificity, WOD

julie-foucher-regionals-2012-1As a whole I think the competitive crossfit community is very intelligent.  We seek out every opportunity to fine tune our technique.  We realize how important things like mobility, technique and recovery are.  We know how to foam roll, stretch and even understand complex biomechanical issues like butt wink and overextension of the spine.  We value doctors, chiropractors and therapists who know how to get rid of our aches and pains.  We’re a smart bunch.  For the most part we know how to stay safe and become better at what we love.  

However, in my opinion there is one huge missing piece of the puzzle most average crossfitters don’t fully take advantage of.  There is one piece that is imperative for not only successfully progressing, but staying away from injury.  It’s incredibly important for getting back to crossfit after an injury and staying pain free in the long run.  It’s a huge piece that therapists don’t generally dive very far into either.

That would be programming

Most gyms have to cater to a large group of people.  They’ll write programming to match the majority of the population that walks through the door of their box.  They have 6-7 days per week of programming that is supposed to reflect the goals of their gym members.  Meanwhile some people train 1-2 times per week and others train 5-7.  You’ve got people with differing goals, differing injury backgrounds and different needs.

It’s an incredibly challenging process to program for everyone.


Keep in mind that you’re trying to cater towards individuals that wish to be competitive as well as a general population.  We want to keep things fun and challenging and somewhere in the mix we really care to keep people safe.  As a physical therapist my biggest goals are to promote longevity in the sport.  As a competitive crossfitter I want to be an absolute animal of an athlete.  As a strength and conditioning specialist I care greatly about the precise selection of sets, reps, volume and frequency that is going to help me achieve those goals. Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing programming.

1) Population Goals

What is your population looking for?  Do you have a gym full of firebreathers?  Maybe you’re working with a a group of weekend warriors who’s main goals are to stay healthy and look great.  Perhaps you’re working with a population similar to mine who deal with nagging injury and wish to return to crossfit and stay healthy.  Regardless of who your population consists of, providing a program that matches their goals is vital and step 1 to creating a successful program.

2) Specificity of Programming

Once you establish your population’s goals, the next step is formulating a plan that is specific to these goals.  If you’ve got a group of people who want to make it to the crossfit regionals you can bet there is going to be a fairly predictable set of exercises they’ll encounter at the open with a specific time duration and rep scheme.   A priority for these people would be to prepare for exactly what will be coming their way in the crossfit open.  On top of that, the programming should be targeting specific weaknesses the individual might have and needs to improve upon.

3) Application of Scientific Principles 

Games2013_WomenZigZagSprint_thCreating a successful program is both an art and a science.  Preparing an individual for a competition will require periodization and progression of exercises in the proper manner in order to promote adaptation.  On the flip side of the coin we need to know how much is enough and how much is too much, as not to push people into the realm of injury and overuse.

For a competitive athlete, knowing which energy systems are being stressed in their sport so that we can match those needs in the gym become important.   Knowing which exercises to select and which rep schemes to apply to improve qualities such as strength, hypertrophy, speed and motor control are also paramount.

If you’re training competitive athletes, you don’t have to have them game ready year round.  Changing the type of training based on how far out an athlete is from their competitive season is paramount for peaking at the right times and staying away from overuse injuries.

A few good resources for this are:

  • The Science and Practice of Strength Training by Zatsiorsky
  • Super Training by Verkhoshansky

4) Management of volume, frequency and intensity

A commonly held belief in the crossfit world is that if I want to become better I’ve got to train more often.  Although this may be true to a point, there comes a point of diminishing returns.  Keep in mind the Pareto Principle.  In many cases 80% of your improvements come from 20% of the work performed.  I don’t think your training is much different.  There is going to be essential work and there is going to be some fluff.  Prioritize your training and keep your focus on the essentials.

This idea becomes even more vital as you begin to introduce more and more work because you begin to tread a fine line between optimal performance and risk of injury.  Just because Rich Froning Jr. trains “x” amount of times per day and excels, doesn’t mean that’s the best program for everyone.  You may not be able to tolerate as much work.  More work may actually decrease your performance or even worse end up creating an overuse injury.

A solution comes with the selection of the proper amount of volume, frequency and intensity of exercise mixed with the correct amount of rest between sessions. Obviously this is going to differ from person to person and based on the other variables we just touched on previously.  In my own personal experience as a physical therapist I see a large chunk of people who are simply doing a bit too much with their training without listening to their bodies and backing off when they should.  Dr. Sean Rockett (an orthopedic surgeon from Massachusetts who is also a competitive masters crossfitter) says the same.  Many of the people he sees in his office have a touch of tendinitis and just need to back off.

5) Room for Error

There are a lot of programs out there that contain percentages and prescribed weights/sets/reps for the day.  I think this is important and these same programs are tried and true.  What these programs don’t take into account is that not everyone is going to be on fire every day.  Some days you’ll feel good, others not so much.  Pushing when the body is saying no is usually not a recipe for success.  Other times your body is just primed for a tough workout mentally and physically and I don’t think it’s a bad idea to really push on those days even if the program doesn’t call for it.

I’m a big fan of programs like Wendler’s 5-3-1 because it accounts for this.  If you’re feeling good that day then go ahead and go for broke.  If not, do the minimum and move on.  More and more I feel that a good program will have some built in room for error and modification like this.  Push when you feel good, not when you don’t.

Want smart programming done for you so you can maximize your progress and train smart enough to minimize risk of injury?  I’ve taken out all of the guesswork with my done for you programming.  Click HERE for a link to the program.

I’m obsessed with programming,

Dan Pope, PT, DPT, CSCS

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