5 Critical Strategies For CrossFit Athletes

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The most common misconception in the fitness space is that doing more = more results – this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The reality is that there is a point of diminishing returns and understanding that hard training will only take you so far is important.

With that said, there are two valuable lessons I’ve learned over the last decade that are the keystone principles in advancing my clients’ as well as my own training:

  1. More training is almost never the answer.
  2. The link between science & training is critical to longterm health & success.

Long story short, we can achieve amazing results for a lifetime when we apply science to our programming instead of just throwing shit against the wall and hoping something sticks.

While these strategies are important for all of our clients who use Rx Athlete (Individual CrossFit), BPI (Individual Strength & Performance), and Affiliate Programming (CrossFit group classes), these strategies are likely even more vital to those that have aspirations of competing in the Sport of Fitness.

Reason being, most that are competitive in CrossFit spend MORE TIME on higher-skill, higher stress modalities when in reality they’d be better served on other areas such as single-joint strength work.

In fact, once skills are in place, there should be LESS time spent on developing them and maintaining them will come from improving motor patterns, muscular imbalances, not to mention spending time developing the systems that support these scenarios.

Furthermore, because CF athletes’ training tends to be more stressful (enter the competitive element) there needs to be more emphasis on bringing people down (more on this later) and expediting the recovery process.

5 Critical Strategies for CrossFit Athletes

#5 Systematized Warm-ups & Cooldowns

Areas that are often forgotten or simply “skipped” are the warm-up and cooldown sequences which are areas of low-hanging fruit and something we talked about extensively in “CrossFit, but Smarter.”

Think of it as a time to not only prepare for your training, but an opportunity to clean-up faulty motor patterns that we know everyone has, prime the key movements of the day, and prepare the nervous system for the training ahead.

Here are a few examples of drills we use to prepare for the upcoming training.

Furthermore, we have an opportunity after our training is complete to expedite the recovery process – this is what I was referring to with “bringing people down” which in essence means shifting the nervous system from “flight or flight” to “rest & recovery.”

Insert a 5-minute cooldown sequence. With our programming this usually involves some type of foam rolling, stretching and a breathing drill.

These drills have a “parasympathetic” focus which means driving down vital metrics to tell the body to shift gears as opposed to leaving the gym with a heart-rate of 180 BPM – quite the opposite.

#4 Prioritize Strength Training

I’ve heard the “conditioning is the most important” debate too many times, but this debate is for people that have no knowledge of basic physiology – I’ve talked about this ad nauseum here, here, and here.

I cannot stress enough how important strength training is for EVERYONE especially someone that aspires to compete in CrossFit. And if you want to be able to perform and push the boundaries safely and not exacerbate muscular asymmetries then you better be devoting some time to getting swole.

But what is strength training? There is much confusion about what strength training is and of course, not all forms of strength are created or developed the same way.

Although by definition strength is “the ability to exert maximal force” we are going to look at strength from more of a holistic approach encompassing all tools that improve it, directly and indirectly.

With that said, in our model of “strength training” allows us to accomplish:

  1. Improve body composition
  2. Improve muscular imbalance and posture
  3. Improve the strength of smaller muscle groups that assist in complex movements which then allows our athletes to perform complex movements with less risk of injury
  4. Improve neuromuscular efficiency allowing your athletes to actually use more muscle fibers to generate more force

Again, strength = resiliency not to mention EVERYTHING else is easier from lifting a heavy load to running a 5k. With that said, strength work is done REGULARLY and not just with a barbell.

In addition to our high-skill work that’s necessary for the CrossFit competitor, our strength work is centered around 6 foundational movement patterns of squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, carry.

Here’s my go-to list of non-traditional CrossFit strength exercises, all linked individually so you can see these movements in action:

This list is meant to give you a few examples of staple exercises that will transform your physique while bolstering strength capacity and carry-over to your high-skill work.

And that’s a big part of what makes our programming smarter, more sustainable and a better representation of an evolved competitive CrossFit model, simple strength basics executed extremely well.

Furthermore, the base of our system of programming is derived from the Conjugate Method – this is an article of its own that I’d recommend checking out.

By using the Conjugate Method we can ensure proper recovery between sessions, improve all special strengths (general strength, speed-strength, strength-speed, maximal strength, and strength endurance) not to mention this concurrent approach aligns perfectly with the needs and demands of CrossFit athletes.

Here’s an idea of what our Rx Athlete template looks like:

Monday
– Max Effort Lower
– Anaerobic Based Conditioning
– Assistance Work

Tuesday
– Aerobic Based Conditioning
– Assistance Work

Wednesday
– Max Effort Upper
– Local Endurance Work
– Assistance Work

Thursday
– Recovery Conditioning
– Recovery Work

Friday
– Dynamic Effort Lower
– Anaerobic Conditioning
– Assistance Work

Saturday
– Dynamic Effort Upper
– Classic CrossFit
– Assistance Work

Sunday
– Active Recovery Work

#3 Conditioning: More Is Not Better, BETTER is Better

“Go hard AF” is a one-way ticket to overtraining and the methodology that too many subscribe to. Don’t be fooled by social media because there is a point of diminishing returns; it’s likely if you’ve been around the block a few times you’ve experienced this.

What is a better approach is actually knowing the difference between the aerobic and anaerobic systems, how the two overlap and in just about every single CrossFit metcon, and how we can improve the two most effectively.

The funny part is that CrossFit is far more aerobic than it is anaerobic yet the premise of the system is based on “high-intensity.”

And we’ve all heard “intensity is relative.” That can be said about just about anything, but what’s better is actually knowing what the desired outcome and “why” is of every single metcon you put into your plan.

The best possible option is to focus on building the base of fitness which is the aerobic system. The aerobic system affords us the ability to recover better and LIVE LONGER – it’s pretty well established via multiple studies the connections between endurance and lifespan. Without an efficient aerobic system, you will never be that great at CrossFit either.

On a weekly basis include some variant of:

  1. Cardiac Output Method AT LEAST once a week in our plan. This is cyclical style work i.e. light row, jog, run, light sledpull for 30+ minutes with a heart-rate of 130-150BPM – conversational. This will carry over like you wouldn’t believe to other modalities.
  2. Work to rest conditioning pieces. If you’re not using planned rest in at least 1-2 workouts a week then you’re setting yourself up to never improve your work-output.
  3. Understand the connection between the amount of muscle worked with a given movement and how that relates to spiking the heart-rate. Globally demanding movements like snatches, burpees, and thrusters should be used strategically and not randomly.

List of benefits of improving the Aerobic System:

  • Improved Sleep = improved recovery
  • Improved ability to pump blood to the extremities = increase the ability to do more work
  • Improved ability to replenish ATP for explosive movements – think about going from an endurance event to a 1RM event more efficiently.
  • Decreased resting heart-rate = ability to do more work aerobically

For more information on the aerobic system check this article out here.

#2 Increase Volume Of Assistance Exercises NOT Compound Exercises

Just like how CrossFit has made big compound movements attractive to the general population, the CrossFit movement has also made single-limb work less popular, deeming it be “non-functional.”

This is one of the biggest missing links in most programming for CrossFit athletes of all levels is the lack of attention to improving imbalance.

Quite frankly, this work is just as IMPORTANT as work with compound movements. Too often we see many athletes trying to improve their big lifts by simply doing the lifts, and for some, this will work, but for how long is another story.

Chances are their lifts have stalled because they haven’t made any attempts to improve the primary movers that assist the movement, and by merely performing the movement more, they’ll more than likely regress or incur an overuse injury.

Adding single-joint work can help you address your limiting factors whereas, with a bilateral movement, compensation patterns may only be exacerbated. Because the demand for these movements is low, it’s much safer to add high amounts of volume.

As Louie Simmons says, “you’re only as strong as your weakest link.” Spend the bulk of your time using unilateral exercises to improve your lagging muscle groups, and your bilateral movements will be rewarded. Not to mention, these athletes will improve body-composition at the same time.

Although the inclusion of single-joint work is much less involved than the inclusion of Aerobic work, this work needs to be prioritized on a weekly basis. I’m not talking about an entire session of single-joint work; more like 1-2 exercises after your strength session or at the end of your conditioning session.

Additionally, one strategy that I’ve stolen from Louie Simmons is the inclusion of high-volume band work. This work is easily added at the end of your training session and provides a huge return on investment.

In the description, high volume band work can effectively improve soft-tissue, as well as increasing the amount of stored kinetic energy available (Simmons, 2015).

Here are four staple exercises we use in our Rx Athlete:

#1 Increase Absolute Strength

It’s become quite clear to me as a coach that many high-level CrossFitters lack Absolute Strength. Simply defined, absolute strength is the greatest amount of force that can be voluntarily produced regardless of time. (Verkoshansky, 2003).

To put this into context, many CrossFitters lack strength in all lifts, and as a result, put huge amounts of emphasis on technique with the Olympic Lifts.

In addition, many coaches neglect using the Max Effort Method and opt for higher-repetition work with Compound movements. As a result, their progress is limited and largely determined by how strong they are with a true 1-Rep Max.

By using the Max Effort Method our aim is to increase 1-Rep Max in a new variation each week. This builds great amounts of absolute strength that will be applicable to other aspects of an athlete’s performance.

We’ve seen huge correlations with increases in the Olympic lifts by simply increasing strength with the squat and deadlift. In these cases, minimal technique work is done with our programming, yet our athletes always hit new personal records when we test their Olympic lifts.

A few things to keep in mind when using the Max Effort Method:

  • Volume is intended to be low, three singles above 90%.
  • Max Effort variations must be rotated weekly. This will ensure we avoid accommodation and overuse injury.
  • Because variations are often rotated, athletes will be able to address individual limitations with a given movement.
  • Must be separated from Dynamic Effort Work or High-Threshold conditioning work by at least 72 hours

I’m a huge fan of using variations that force athletes to develop force from disadvantageous positions. Variations like Rack Pulls, Anderson Squats, Box Squats and Press off of pins fit the bill.

Included in the development of absolute strength is sledpulling and loaded carries. For strength and conditioning, these are two aspects of programming that will likely be prioritized on the regular.

On the contrary, CrossFit coaches may simply forget to include such work in the midst of an overload of training modalities.

Here are a few of my go-to’s:

Conclusion

If you’re ready to start approaching your training differently – this may be the answer. Training balls to the wall daily will only take you so far and you’re still thinking that mimicking the training of a games athletes that may or may not have a background in exercise physiology is the best way to go, then think again.

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