A System For Developing Competitive CrossFitters, Part I: A (Relatively) Simple Analysis of a Complex Problem

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For a long time, I thought of programming as a highly logical process, almost mathematical. If I could just dial in the volume and the intensity exactly right, get the perfect ratio of snatches to pullups to running – if I could look inside the black box, so to speak – I could design the perfect program, and all of my athletes would improve by leaps and bounds.

Of course, I was proven wrong. There is no perfect program. There is no equation. But nonetheless, there are numbers, and they tell us some things.

Blogs like Outlaw and OPT post their programming for the public to view – both of these programs are used by many successful CrossFit athletes. Similarly, there some very high level CrossFitters, such as Talayna Fortunado, who post their training in blogs. I post the programming my athletes follow to a private Facebook group – private not because I have discovered a secret which I want to keep to myself, but because I want to avoid the spambots that attack CrossFit related pages. There’s even an entire blog, cleverly titled “CrossFit Games Analysis,” dedicated to, you guessed it, an in-depth, mathematical analysis of the Open, Regionals, and CrossFit Games.

As a good friend of mine once said, “the hood is off” with regard to CrossFit programming. We know what’s running the machine. The black box is open, and you may not like what’s inside.

Of course, a simple synopsis cannot cover the scope of what it actually takes to provide a full scale, in-depth program to prepare athletes for competition. But a 500 page book couldn’t do that either. Time, experience, and critical thinking are irreplaceable. With that in mind, my goal here is to provide a basic but accurate guide to developing successful CrossFit competitors.

DISCLAIMER: Read the last paragraph again. This is not a comprehensive guide, it is an organization of thoughts and knowledge I have deemed to be among the most important things I have learned in the process of spending years coaching CrossFit athletes.

1) Hierarchy of movements

2) Establishing a timeline within which to develop the athletes skill and capacity at those movements

Defining The Terms

Movement: Pretty obvious here. Snatch. Clean & Jerk. Muscle-up. Back Squat. Toes-to-Bar. Running. These are movements, and while they are merely part of preparation for football players, wrestlers, baseball players, and the like, they are the core of sport for performance athletes such as weightlifters, powerlifters, sprinters, and of course CrossFitters.

Skill: The athletes technical competency at a distinct movement.

Capacity: The athletes ability to perform a movement within distinct parameters. There is a fundamental difference in capacity between clean & jerking a 1 rep max, performing 30 reps as fast as possible with 70% of 1RM, or performing sets of 10 with 40% of 1RM as part of a circuit. The athlete who is best at one of these may not be best at the others.

Part of the challenge for CrossFitters is the wide variety of movements at which the sport demands competency, and the range of capacities in which the athlete must perform those movements. This is “The CrossFit Problem” – developing a wide range of movements and capacities without sacrificing too much elsewhere. And this problem is what brings us to our hierarchy of movements.

Prioritizing Movements

Developing and implementing a hierarchy is as simple, and as complex, as deciding what’s most important. In the case of the CrossFit athlete, that means the questions we are asking are “What movements and capacities carry the greatest improvement to other movements and capacities?” and “What movements and capacities are most likely to be tested in competition?”

I have organized movements into three tiers. These movements are placed based on both their carryover to other movements, and the apparent likelihood of their occurence in CrossFit competition. I imagine that some of you will think that some of the listed movements do not belong placed as high as they are. Keep in mind that likelihood of appearance in a contest is given significant weight, regardless of how “useful” the movement may or may not be outside of that context.

There are three criteria I’ll be using to determine which tier a movement falls into:

1. The movement is likely to come up in CrossFit competition

2. The movement cannot be developed to a high degree of competency without regularly training it

3. The movement has a very high carryover to other movement

To fit into tier 1, a movement must fulfill all three criteria.* Tier 2 requires at least two criteria. Tier 3 is everything else.

*There are two movements which I fit into tier 1 which are exceptions to the three criteria rule:

The kipping pullup is so frequently used in CrossFit contests (it is perhaps the only movement which may occur twice in single contest, in effect doubly meeting criteria 1) and it so heavily rewards a high degree of efficiency and volume tolerance (meeting criteria 2) that I place it in the top tier despite its having less carryover than the other movements in that category. Come at me bro.

The back squat is the other way around. It does not meet criteria 1. However, the value of developing the back squat is so great, that its ability to improve the athlete at pretty much everything else overshadows the relatively low likelihood of its appearance in competition.

Tier 1

Snatch (and variations)

Clean & Jerk (and variations)

Back Squat

Front Squat

Pullups (Kipping)


Tier 2 (Alongside the movements here, I will list the number which correlates the two criteria the movement meets)

Deadlift (1, 3)

Push Press (2, 3)

Muscle-Ups (1, 2)

Handstand Pushups (1, 2)

Rowing (1, 2)

Handstand Walking (1, 2)

One legged squats (1, 2)

Tier 3

I started writing this out, but the list is just insanely long. This is where a lot of the “filler” stuff comes in. I don’t mean that to say it’s useless – it’s just not part of my core programming. Wall ball, pushups, thrusters, toes-to-bar, box jumps, prowler pushes, knees-to-elbows, farmers walks, double unders, and on and on and on. All have value, both as movements to improve your fitness and as part of the process of widening your skill set to compete in CrossFit.

A Timeline for Training

Now that we have established a hierarchy of importance for movements, we can discuss the yearly schedule. I separate the year into three phases: Off season, pre season, and competition season.

1) Off Season begins the first week of training after the athlete finishes their competition season (after the Open, Regionals, or Games) and lasts…a while. There is no hard set rule for how long it should last, but I wouldn’t extend it past early-to-mid October. My half joking description of what the off season should be is “some stuff you love and some stuff you hate.” I’m a firm believer that athletes need to take time off, to do their favorite things, to play a different sport – in short, to stop being a competitor for a little while. On the other hand, it’s never too early to start fixing weak links. During the off season, I encourage my CrossFitters to compete in another event. It will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with me that many of my athletes choose to compete in weightlifting. But really, anything is fine. Triathlons, tennis, rock climbing, Judo, swimming. They should also continue to train the core movements, those found in tier 1 and some from tier 2, striving to continue improving these crucial components of their game.

2) Pre Season. This lasts from the end of off season – let’s say the beginning of October – until the competition season begins with the Open in March. At this point, the athlete should be back to training for CrossFit full time. They should have a program in place which continues to push tier 1 and tier 2 movements, with plenty of circuits involving tier 3 movements as well. They should be working intelligently to strengthen weak links, both in particular movements and particular capacities.

3) Competition Season. From the first week of the Open, to the end of the athletes road in that year of CrossFit Games competition. The first 5 weeks, the Open, are a bit convoluted – it’s hard to program effectively when you have 5 days which are unaccounted for. With that said, at this point the athlete is in full on CrossFit mode. Depending on their individual needs, they should be pushing certain core movements on their own, and doing a lot more competition-esque formats for things they’re already good at. Volume is high and asses are feeling kicked. If Dragomir’s door at the Olympic Training Center was right, and fatigue does build strength, everyone is feeling real damn strong right about now.

We’ve got a hierarchy of movements. We’ve got a timeline to work with. In Part II, we will discuss the nuts and bolts of the training process.

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