Fitness

Delineating Levels in CrossFit Athletes

In his article “The Pyramid Of Strength”, Juggernaut-In-Chief Chad Smith discusses the importance of understanding a strength athlete’s level of qualification in determining the most effective training methods for continued improvement.

This concept is equally important in any athletic endeavor. But in some, those levels can be hard to define. The subject of this piece is competitive CrossFit, a sport of many variables and unknowns. I will present a clear but flexible structure for identifying an athlete’s needs.

Hierarchy

Level 1: Base

This is the first stage at which an athlete is ready for competition-geared training, i.e. getting out of the class model and into a more structured, specific, and encompassing program.

An athlete at this level should be starting a complete and well-rounded program, which addresses all of the needs of the sport consistently.

Movement selection should be fairly general and technically focused. At this stage of development, the athlete will likely find the most benefit from a simple increase in training frequency, particularly with regard to technical movements. A concerted effort should be made to address the athlete’s weaknesses, but overall, a balanced program with relatively few individual changes will likely suffice.

The nature of this change in programming will provide the athlete with his or her first significant increase in training volume.

During this phase, the athlete is relatively new to the training process. She is developing volume tolerance, perfecting mechanics, and making fast improvement, particularly in areas she is naturally suited to.

Along with this, there is an important revelatory component to this stage of training. The athlete’s rapid progress in her strongest domains will give the coach an idea of where she will need to put extra effort as she develops, to make her abilities as well-rounded as possible.

Level 2: Balance

After a time, a well-balanced program will have improved the athlete’s general level of ability significantly. It will also have given the coach and trainee insight into the trainee’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

Almost every athlete, for reasons ranging from genetic proclivity to athletic background to psychological preference, has particular domains in which they are predisposed to succeed, and she will develop these abilities more quickly than others. Correspondingly, though the athlete is better all around, the gaps between her strengths and her weaknesses are typically more clear. This stage of training is where most athletes will need the highest degree of individualization, attacking the weak links in the chain as aggressively as possible while avoiding creating new imbalances.

In order to appropriately address those weaknesses while maintaining as much balance as possible, it is likely that an increase in total training volume will be necessary. This increase in training volume also serves the purpose of helping the athlete get closer to the level of volume tolerance requisite for competitive CrossFit.

Level 3: Specificity

An athlete at this stage has spent a substantial amount of time – several years, more than likely – utilizing a well-designed program. They have largely evened out major imbalances and none of their weaknesses are so glaring that they overshadow their general level of fitness.

For this athlete, individualization is reduced in favor of greater specificity. A relatively small amount of their total training load is personalized, in an effort to continue to improve weak areas. More time is spent creating sport specificity in all aspects of training, from max effort lifts to pure aerobic efforts.

A high tide raises all boats, and in this athlete’s training, a high tide we seek. Though there will inevitably need to be additional work on points of weakness, the athlete who has reached this stage is training very specifically for competitive CrossFit, and seeks to elicit widely dispersed adaptations, eking out marginal improvements in every facet of the sport.

Beyond

It is important to note that this structure is not – in fact, cannot be – an all encompassing framework. It merely provides a general guide for classifying an athlete’s ability, to make the process of programming easier.

There are at least three clear cases which require a reorganization of this hierarchy.

The first case is dealing with athletes who fall into a category I call “Novice Elite” (a term I borrowed from Don McCauley of MDUSA), and the challenge lies not necessarily within programming for this athlete, but misidentifying them.

Though the phrase may not be familiar to you, it’s more than likely you know at least one athlete who falls into the category of Novice Elite. You probably hate her. She’s that girl who walked into the gym and got muscle-ups in three weeks, snatched bodyweight in three months, and is out-rowing guys 50lbs heavier than her.

The easy mistake to make is using the Novice Elite athlete’s natural ability as a guideline for selecting her level as an athlete. It’s possible she qualifies for Regionals in her first year of CrossFit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a Level 1 or Level 2 approach isn’t best for her. We all start in different places, but adapt to training in largely the same ways. Take care that you set up the novice elite athlete for success as you would with anyone new to the sport. Once you understand where the athlete actually falls on the spectrum of stages, it’s easy to determine what she needs from her programming.

The second case is just the opposite, what I’ll call the “Elite Novice.” The Elite Novice has been training CrossFit consistently and intelligently for a long time. She is not a high level athlete, but she has moved through stages 1 and 2, and reached the level of the sport she is going to ascend to through those phases. Again, the mistake is using the athlete’s objective level of ability as the sole measure to guide her programming. Despite being less able than the Novice Elite, the Elite Novice will actually need a higher level, more advanced training program. Like the Novice Elite, this is about proper identification.

The third case is one which impacts the programming itself: dealing with athletes who come into the sport with extreme gaps between domains of ability. A female athlete who runs a sub 5:30 mile but deadlifts 150lb needs to address that deficiency as immediately as possible. A male athlete who deadlifts 700 but can’t maintain a hollow hold does not need to concern himself with a balanced program.

These athletes have effectively already surpassed Level 1. Their strong suits are already developed well beyond their weaknesses. Their time will be best spent by tipping the scales in the other direction while,  to the extent possible, not losing their strengths (except in some extreme cases, such as the 700lb deadlift, where the athlete can afford to lose some of his ability as it clearly exceeds the demands of the sport).

Training Implications

The chart below illustrates a few different areas of training, and what a workout in that domain may look like for an athlete at any of the three stages.

Please note that these are examples, and not meant to be representative of the only type of training that an athlete would perform across the yearlong macrocycle.DelineatingLevelsTableAs you can see, the primary differences between Level 1 and Level 2 center around total volume, with some changes in format (such as including a clock) accommodate a higher level of sport specificity. At Level 3, there is a major shift towards specificity, with frequent integration of movements, such as doing toes-to-bar between heavy snatch doubles.

Like any other framework, this one is imperfect. But it’s use, or the use of a hierarchy like it, can help make the process of programming for athletes of varying ability go much more smoothly.

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Jacob Tsypkin is the owner and founder of TZ Strength, a company providing programming, coaching, and consulting for competitive CrossFit athletes. He is dedicated to an athletes-first philosophy designed to give the athlete access not only to expertise in the sport, but a network of specialists in other domains, as well as a support structure built around a microcosm of the strong community CrossFit is known for. Jacob focuses on improving athletes inside out, from snatches and muscle-ups to mindsets and gameplans.

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