Programming for the CrossFit Games Athlete: Part I

Jordan Feigenbaum
November 15, 2012
Reading Time: 9 minutes
Table of Contents

    By Jordan Feigenbaum

    Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few years, you’ve undoubtedly seen or heard of the CrossFit Games. An annual competition, the CrossFit Games (CFG) and their sponsors attract some of the top athletes from around the world to come and battle it out for the title “Fittest Man” or “Fittest Woman” on the planet. To the degree that this self-proclaimed moniker is accurate is beyond the scope of this article, but there is no denying the athleticism and high degree of fitness of the people competing in and winning these competitions. These guys and gals are flat-out strong, in shape, and lean!

    Recently, I’ve been approached by a potential games competitor to handle his programming, as the “CrossFit Season” gets ready to kick off with the Open in February. One of the big problems faced with trying to program for any athlete is figuring out deficiencies, strengths, and overall needs of the athlete when it comes to laying out a program. Other sports, however, tend to have consistencies in the duration, required skills, and injuries that are related to that specific sport along with numerous resources on how other coaches have programmed and trained their athletes successfully (and unsuccessfully) in the past.

    On the other hand, CrossFit competitions tend to have varied durations, skills, potential injuries (for prevention), and the programming of the elite-level competitors tends to be somewhat of a mystery. This makes my job a lot tougher, as the ultimate goal is to setup the training for this athlete in such a way that he has the strength, conditioning, and skills required to make it to the games and doesn’t get injured along the way. Balancing these variables is somewhat of an art and an exercise in trial and error, as each athlete is markedly different than any other. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to just “copy and paste” a known Games athlete’s training program into a spreadsheet and hand it over to my athlete, as this may or may not develop the attributes that this athlete is deficient in that may ultimately lead to success or failure in a CrossFit competition setting.

    In this series of articles, I’ll discuss how I go about doing a thorough needs analysis for an athlete for a particular sport, how to balance intensity, volume, and frequency of exercise and training, and how to periodize the training in order to have my athlete “peak” at the right time, which is ideally at the time of competition. Let’s get started with the needs analysis!

    A proper needs analysis uses a two-pronged approach. First, we need to analyze the specific demands of the sport the athlete is competing in. What are the common skills, strength levels, conditioning requirements, mobility needs, and so on that the sport demands for success in competition and how do these levels compare with the athlete’s current proficiency in each category? We also need to determine what, if any, injuries are common to the sport that could possibly be prevented through prehabilitative efforts or specific training modalities (types) to build up or protect the area before an injury occurs. The second prong of the needs analysis is even more specific to the athlete and determines how often the athlete can train given his or her schedule, what equipment they do or do not have access too, and the time period that is available between the initiation of the specific training program and the projected competition date. All of this information is vital to the coach making correct programming choices for the athlete, as we’ll see in the rest of this article.

    Let’s first brainstorm about the specific qualities needed for success in CrossFit competition. What kinds of sport-specific skills, strength, conditioning, mobility, and overall work capacity need to be developed in an athlete to provide the best chance for making a run at the CrossFit Games? The most efficient way to determine these things are to look at past competitions and events along with the stats, if available, of those performing at the highest level of the sport. Specifically, what is the average level of strength, conditioning, mobility, work capacity, etc. of those at the top of the sport? I did a bit of digging in the past few years’ CrossFit Open, Regional, and Games competitions to see if I could deduce the skills most commonly tested. It’s important to focus on the most commonly seen elements first, as the development of these skills predicts a greater success rate than those less frequently seen skills. For example, double-unders (DU’s) are seen quit commonly in various stages of competition, whereas handstand ring pushups (HSRPU) are less frequently seen. While it is certainly important to address any deficiency for a given athlete in HSRPUs at some point in the training cycle, a lack of DU ability presents a larger problem that has a greater chance of eliminating an athlete from competition. In this hypothetical case, if the athlete was both deficient in DUs and HSRPUs, more time should be spent on the DUs initially to develop this skill and only after an acceptable level of proficiency is attained, should HSRPU skill training be introduced.

    A lot of this ends up being no more than educated guess work, as no one really knows what’s going to come up in a CrossFit workout in a competition. However, we’re using all the available data to triage what we’re predicting to be the biggest issue and spending the most time on that initially. For instance, if we have an entire year to prep for a single event, then it’s feasible that we may address all skill defects in their entirety. On the other hand, if we only have 10 weeks to prep an athlete for the competition, then we’ll have to focus on the deficiencies in commonly-seen skills, one’s that predictably have the highest return on investment when it comes to success in competition. In short, when it comes to skills we need to alter our programming based on time to competition, frequency of the defective skill, and overall training goals.

    CrossFitters have been getting a bad rap for years about not being strong, which is simply inaccurate in my opinion. While I agree that many affiliate’s programming and certainly the mainsite “WODs” do not lead to sufficient increases in strength, the athletes at the top of the sport are anything but weak.  For instance, the average clean and jerk for the top three individual male competitors in last year’s games is right at 320lbs and their back squat is over 440lbs! It doesn’t take any expert analysis to realize that strength development, more specifically strength relative to body weight, will be a crucial component of a CrossFit Games training program.  In order to effectively program for a particular athlete, we need to figure out where he or she is weakest, where they are proficient, and then tie it all together in a periodized program. While it may seem logical to enter a sort of maintenance mode with a particular exercise if it’s already above the average of the top competitor’s numbers, i.e. if a lifter had a 355lb clean and jerk, this is a mistake in my opinion. A stronger athlete has a greater potential for success in the CrossFit games, as certain elements continue to pop up that are highly dependent on strength. Things like the clean, snatch, or deadlift ladder test the strength of the athlete and can have a significant impact on the overall outcome in competition. What must be taken into careful consideration, however, is to not shoot for big numbers on the lifts without seeing how it fits into the bigger picture. For instance, in order to take a lifter’s clean and jerk from 315 to 340 we may have to include special skill-transfer exercises like cleans from the blocks, high hang cleans, clean pulls, position work etc. This is only worth the time and effort for a particular athlete if it does not significantly interfere with their progress in oth
    er areas and potentially contributes to the progress in other areas. The skill-transfer exercises I listed might very well improve the clean, snatch, deadlift, and potentially the squat of the athlete in an ideal situation, however it’s also quite possible that all this extra skill work only improves the athlete’s clean and nothing else. In the latter instance, it may be determined that this lifter’s time is better spent working on other things like the squat, deadlift, press, push press, etc. while continuing to get exposure to the clean and jerk because the rate of return for the special exercises was low for this particular athlete. You can see that this is a very individualized process, which is why a coach’s eye and intuition is so important to this process. In short, we know the athlete has to be strong and depending on where they are relative to the competition this will receive a certain amount of dedicated training time.

    After collecting data on the sport or event, the CrossFit games in this case, and the athlete, it’s time to start laying out the training macrocycle. The macrocycle is the total period of time the athlete has to train, which can vary greatly depending on the sport and its competition frequency. An Olympian, for instance, might have a macrocycle of 4 years, which is the time between the subsequent Olympic Games. Most athletes however, setup their macrocycles on a yearly basis and split them up into three or four distinct phases called mesocycles: preparation, pre-season/pre competition, in-season/competition, and off-season/active rest. Sometimes the preparation and pre-season/pre-competition phases are grouped together. Other more classical block periodization protocols separate training into accumulation, transmutation, realization/competition, and restoration phases. Mesocycles, or the individual blocks making up the macrocycles, are further broken down into microcycles, which are generally 1-week chunks of training. In the case of the novice lifter however, a microcycle might be as short as two days!

    Vernacular and semantics aside, breaking up the training period into distinct periods has been around for a long time and has been de rigeur by top coaches all over the world.  I believe this provides the best structure for programming for the development of many physical characteristics over a period of time. Perhaps one of the most commonly misconstrued aspects about utilizing block periodization in order to structure training is how training loads and intensities are prescribed. Some members of the fitness community write off periodization entirely, as they believe that it is impossible to know where your training will be at in 3 months, 6 months, or a year. On one hand this is absolutely true, however this statement also entirely misses the point of periodization. Using blocks to organize one’s training isn’t meant to rigidly layout the sets, reps, and load (intensity as a % of 1RM or similar) over a long course of time, but rather it is meant to provide a sort of framework or set of guiding principles in order to organize the training based on many variables. For instance, when laying out the training template for our hypothetical CrossFit games competitor, I won’t be prescribing any actual loads for any block at all. Instead, I’m going to use the goals of each block to guide the rep range, exercise selection, relative intensity, rest periods, conditioning work, dedicated skill work, and overall volume of both the micro and mesocycle. Without these guiding principles laid out beforehand, the programming would lack direction and purpose and the athlete’s results would likely not be optimal.

    In this situation we have approximately 12 weeks to prepare our athlete for the first round of qualifying competitions, the CrossFit Open, which kick off in February. These 12 weeks constitute both the preparation and pre-season blocks. I’d prefer to have more time dedicated to just the preparatory training block, but we’re not always blessed with these sorts of luxuries when it comes to getting new (to us) athletes ready for competition. As such, I think an abbreviated 6-week preparation block will be appropriate, which will be followed by a 6-week pre-season training block. After the conclusion of the pre-season training block, I’ll transition our athlete into an in-season training block that will run until either the completion of the CrossFit games in July or when the athlete is eliminated from competition. At either point, elimination or the end of the games, the beginning of the off-season block of training will commence. The ordering of the training blocks (mesocycles) for this athlete’s overall programming (macrocycle) can be summarized as follows:

    1. November 14-Dec 31= Block 1 (Preparation Phase)
    2. Jan 1- February 14= Block 2 (Pre-Season Phase)
    3. February 14- End of Competition (In-Season Phase)
    4. End of Competition- Resumption of Preparation Phase (Off-Season)

    Now so far I haven’t really done anything special here besides throw around some fancy words and described the initial phases of planning out an athlete’s training. What we need to do now is determine the specific aims and goals of each training block we’ve described so far. While it might seem attractive to just “get better at everything” for the entire time leading up to the competition, this just doesn’t happen in high level athletes who are no longer novices with respect to training. A novice, by definition, can add weight to the bar and continue to improve in other areas in a linear fashion rather quickly. As the athlete progresses however, the gains and improvements slow down a bit, maybe to only weekly progression. At even higher levels of advancement, gains or improvements may only been seen on a monthly basis if the training stimulus is appropriate and focused. It is simply not possible to continue to improve in all areas of fitness concurrently once you reach a certain level of advancement. This is where the block periodization comes into play. By prioritizing certain developable physical characteristics and/or skills for a set period of time I can improve certain areas of an athlete while maintaining (hopefully) other traits that the athlete already possesses. This is an important concept to grasp and I think I’ll end part one this series of articles here. Read, digest, share, and start thinking about what goals or traits you think would be appropriate for each block of training. As a follow up, can you think of some instances where block periodization would be inappropriate?


    About the author: Jordan Feigenbaum is a strength coach and physical culture buff. He holds professional certifications from the NSCA-CSCS, ACSM-HFS, USAW-Club Coach, CrossFit-Level 1, and is a Starting Strength Coach. Additionally, Jordan holds a Master’s in Anatomy and Physiology from Saint Louis University and is a full-time medical student. Jordan is also a competitive powerlifter in the USAPL.

    Jordan Feigenbaum
    Jordan Feigenbaum
    Jordan Feigenbaum, owner of Barbell Medicine, has an academic background including a Bachelor of Science in Biology, Master of Science in Anatomy and Physiology, and Doctor of Medicine. Jordan also holds accreditations from many professional training organizations including the American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength and Conditioning Association, USA Weightlifting, CrossFit, and is a former Starting Strength coach and staff member. He’s been coaching folks from all over the world  for over a decade through Barbell Medicine. As a competitive powerlifter, Jordan has competition best lifts of a 640lb squat, 430lb bench press, 275lb overhead press, and 725lb deadlift as a 198lb raw lifter.

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