Programming for Crossfit

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With the growth of CrossFit, both as a fitness program and a competitive endeavour, programming has become a commonly argued topic all over the internets.  Commentary ranges from the insightful and intelligent to the ridiculous and disparaging.  It comes from people doing CrossFit in their garages, gym owners, gym members, and, more often than it probably should, from people who don’t do CrossFit at all.

Despite the high likelihood of this article being dragged into the frothing muck of internet debate, I am going to attempt to put forth some principles which, I believe, are pretty straightforward and hard to argue with (though I’m sure someone will find a way.) My hope is less that I convince you to do things exactly the way that I do, but more that you find yourself thinking about CrossFit programming in a more organized, streamlined fashion. In this installment, I want to focus on programming for a gym’s “normal” group classes, not for competitive athletes or individuals.  Let’s get started.


Basic Principles

1. People need to be strong.

I’m not one of those CrossFit Coaches who thinks strength is the end all, be all of fitness.  The rest of those 10 physical skills are important too.  However, in my experience, the average client walking into your gym will be more lacking in strength than they are in endurance.  Occasionally you’ll get the guy who has spent a few years doing some serious squatting, benching, pressing, etc, but it’s far more common to have people with backgrounds in running, yoga, and calisthenics.  I have had a new client walk into my gym with a sub five minute mile and sub 3:30 marathon, but I have never had a new client walk into my gym who had a double bodyweight back squat.

With this is mind, it is important to emphasize an effective strength program.  Personally, I’m not much for conjugate/Westside training for CrossFitters.  I think very few of them, especially the “normal” clients, are likely to be strong enough to reap the benefits of that style of training.  We keep it simple: Squat twice a week, sometimes back squat on both days, sometimes one back squat, one front squat.  Weightlifting variations twice a week. A heavy pressing movement once a week.  Heavy deadlifts may come up anywhere from every other week to every couple of months, depending on who’s programming (we have found that between our weightlifting and squatting, plus occasional RDLs, rows and the like, most everyone’s deadlift goes up without training it very consistently.)

2. Keep conditioning intense, varied, intelligent, and fun.

Yes, you have to do ALL THOSE THINGS AT ONCE.  It’s tough, I know.  To give yourself a guideline to work within, I’d say that something like 70% of your conditioning workouts should fall between 8-12 minutes, 15% up to 8 minutes, and 15% over 12 minutes. Stick primarily to couplets and triplets, utilizing fundamental movements for the bulk of the work you’re doing. Try to keep a fairly even balance between interval efforts and “steady state” (by CrossFit standards) workouts, and a similar balance between bodyweight movements, lifting, and running/rowing/jump rope.  Make sure to work in fun stuff like rope climbs, Turkish get-ups, new gymnastics movements, and sled work on a regular basis, to keep things novel and interesting – if equipment limits you here, a little creativity with the structure of your programming goes a long way. Finally, don’t forget the simple stuff: running sprints and intervals, pure Tabata workouts, and even the occasional mile run.  Throw it in occasionally, but don’t overdo it for the sake of “better” programming – although we’d like to think we can maintain clients simply by having the “best” gym in town, the fact is, people need to be having fun if you want to retain most of them.

3. Don’t try to treat your group classes like you’re training competitive athletes, because you’re not.  Your clients probably consist mostly of “normal” folks looking to be healthy, a little more athletic, and have fun. You have, on average, 60 minutes to get a class warmed up, go through their strength/skill training, and hit a conditioning workout. Program accordingly!

4. Don’t freak out about the details.  There is no perfect program, and trying to find and implement one, especially within the context of group classes, is a waste of time and only going to drive you crazy.

5. Nothing is set in stone.  Play games.  Change it up.  Try new approaches.  Your clients will appreciate you for it, they’ll have more fun, and you’ll learn.


Programming Sample

What follows is two weeks of programming from CrossFit Monterey from January 2013. Nothing particular about these two weeks – I chose two at random, because I feel that any two weeks should give a fairly accurate representation of the programming we utilize. For context: we program Monday through Friday, with Saturday being a bit of a “fun” day, where there are only a few classes and the workouts are up to the coaches.  Typically they will do something like Strongman events or a team workout.


Day 1

Weightlifting: Power clean to max, 20 minute time limit

Conditioning: “Helen” 3 rounds for time: Run 400m/21 kettlebell swings, 24kg/12 pullups        

Day 2

Strength: Front Squat 1RM

Conditioning: AMRAP 10 minutes” 10 box jumps, 24”/10 hand release pushups/10 walking lunges

Day 3

Weightlifting: Hang power snatch max double, 20 minute time limit

Conditioning: 3 rounds for total reps: 1:00 wall ball/1:00 toes-to-bar/1:00 row for calories/1:00 rest

Day 4

Strength: Back Squat 70%x9x3

Conditioning: 4 rounds for time: 10 strict pullups/10 strict, very deep ring dips/20 step-ups, 95#, 24” box

Day 5

Weightlifting: Power Clean + Push Press max triple, 20 minute time limit

Conditioning: Build to a top set of the complex: 5 touch-and-go power cleans/5 front squats/5 push press/5 back squats/5 behind-the-neck push press/5 touch-and-go power cleans

Day 6

Strength: Back Squat 75%x7x4

Conditioning: 3 rounds for time: 20 dumbbell thrusters/75 double unders

Day 7

Weightlifting: Power snatch + hang snatch, build to max, 20 minute time limit

Conditioning: 10-8-6-4-2 reps for time: Power clean 185#/Chest-to-Bar pullups

Day 8

Strength: Paused front squat 3RM, 20 minute time limit

Conditioning: AMRAP 12 minute: 4 muscle-ups/8 handstand pushups/12 toes-to-bar

Day 9

Weightlifting: Rack Jerk 80%x3x5 (80% of best C&J)

Conditioning: For time: 75 kettlebell swings, 24kg/Run 1 mile/75 step-ups, 24kg, 24” box

Day 10

Strength: Deficit Deadlift 75%x3x8 on 2:00 clock

Conditioning: 3 rounds, individually timed: 10 overhead squats, 135#/Row 250m. Full recovery between rounds.


Jacob Tsypkin is a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, and the co-owner of CrossFit Monterey and the Monterey Bay Barbell Club in Monterey, CA.


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