Programming: It’s not rocket science

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Programming is a topic of endless discussion and it can be made to sound super extravagant and almost ungraspable.  I don’t have it completely figured out but I’ll give you my advice on programming and the best way to go about it, how to get better, and some do’s and don’ts so you keep yourself out of the blogosphere of people who do dumb things.

Keep it simple.  I know this sounds contrary to all of the programs and all the experts but it’s the only way you should start. Freddy Camacho wrote the “Any @sshole workout” article a couple years ago and it still rings true today.  One of the biggest mistakes I see new coaches and athletes make when they start dabbling in programming is the reinvention of the wheel to make something cooler or more sexy or whatever.  The beauty of the best CrossFit WODs is their simplicity.  You can really screw that up by trying to make it better with more movements and weird rep schemes.  If the majority of your programming doesn’t involve the couplets and triplets I think you are doing you and your athletes a disservice.  People underestimate those WODs and avoid programming them because they are harder and require greater work capacity.  Don’t believe me?  Would you rather do a chipper with 10 power cleans of 155 at the front end, or a 7 min AMRAP of 5 155 power cleans and (insert movement/reps here)?  Yeah I thought so.  If you are pretty good with a barbell you can probably rip through that 10 reps pretty easily with zero efficiency because it doesn’t matter.  Once you are done with that movement it’s gone.  If I have to go back to that movement repeatedly as fatigue sets in now all the flaws in my movement and my lack of capacity become glaringly obvious.  That’s why someone who is strong gets smashed in the round of 15 on Fran or why something like “Isabel” takes an Olympian over 4 mins.  This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with the Olympic caliber athlete whose sole purpose in their chosen sport is a lift that might exceed 10 seconds.  That fatigue is expected, but I think you see where I’m going with this.  There is a place for chippers, Hero WOD’s and longer workouts, but if CrossFit is your chosen sport/fitness regimen you should not be spending all your time there.  It’s a crutch for a number of different deficiencies in your GPP.  Couplets and triplets is where it’s at and where you will see the greatest adaptation.  They suck for a reason, they are harder.  Don’t avoid them, stay simple.

Go heavy.  If you aren’t lifting heavy once a week, you are aren’t getting stronger.  What is heavy?  It’s heavy for that day.  What lift should it be? Doesn’t matter, just stick to the basics, squat, dead and press.  Simplicity here will serve you well.  Once you are proficient in those then we can talk about your Olympic lifts and frequency of training in those modalities.  If you don’t go heavy on the basics you will never go heavy on the platform.  It’s just that simple.  Heavy barbell movement cannot be replicated anywhere else other than with a barbell, neurologically or of physically. If I want to clean 315 I have to front squat 340 first.  Spend your time there and make sure your lifts are quality.  You don’t have to put in 3 hours of heavy lifting, just go heavy get the neurological and physical stimulus and move one.  Which leads me to my next point…..percentages.

I have no beef with percentages.  But I’ll tell you this; there is no magic in those numbers.  5-3-1, Texas Method, Hatch cycle, Conjugate method, Smolov, pick one I don’t care.  Effort and consistency trumps a sexy bar graph and percentages every time.  Only always! The point is that if you get under a heavy barbell consistently you will get stronger.  It doesn’t matter what the reps are, 13 rep max?  Sure why not!  Heavy triple? Yep do that too.  Set to failure? There is a place for it.  You see where I’m going with this?  I posted a 12 week cycle in the Hampton Roads CF page that I got off a thread in a blog and people have had great success with it.  Was it the percentages of 73-94%?  I will argue not.  The common theme with all these programs is consistency.  And they all work.  It’s not the program or the numbers, it’s the simple fact that you went in and put in the work on a consistent basis.  You continually pushed harder and farther and kept adding weight.  There is a place for linear progressions and periodization but for the masses it’s just a simple as this… “Go Heavy”.  I used percentage work for a long time in our box and I finally came to the realization that it doesn’t work for several hundred athletes with different schedules and different requirements and different lives.  Now I just have them come in and find the heaviest set they can get on that day.  Sometimes weights are up and sometimes they are down.  The effort going into the lifts is the only thing that matters.  We just had 5 women back squat over 200, none of whom we would call elite athletes.  We only back squat twice a month at most.  I’m not a genius (far from it). They just went heavy every time they got under the barbell.  Go heavy and do it frequently.

Variance.  This one is commonly confused with random.  Far from it.  If you aren’t taking a look at the movements you program to ensure you have good variance then reevaluate.   Are you getting enough bodyweight Metcons?  How often do you program a barbell in your WODs?  Do you avoid complex lifts?  Do enough gymnastics?  How about strong many work, stones, sand bags?  Wall balls will help your front squat, thrusters will help your push press, pushups will help your bench and shoulder press, pull ups will help your snatch and clean, and picking up a heavy stone will help with just about anything to include algebra.  Make sure you aren’t just programming things you like, and have someone else look over what you designed.  And here is a little piece of advice, write this one down.  Don’t try to cram everything into one month or week!  It won’t happen.  You’ll end up with something that resembles a drunk monkey’s coloring book.  Be patient with your programming, those skills and strengths take a long time to develop so don’t think you can get them all at once.  And please don’t avoid programming things you aren’t comfortable coaching.  You’ll never get better at coaching them if you don’t ever coach them!

A good WOD is very different than a good week of WODs.  I can take 5 good workouts and put them in a five day sequence and suddenly have bad programming.  Take this sequence for example:

Monday: Angie

Tuesday: Fran

Wednesday: 30 muscle ups for time:

Thursday: max dead lifts

Friday: Grace

Now I think we could agree that all of these by themselves are legitimate tests of fitness.  What are my athlete’s hands going to look like after five days of pulling?  Probably something that resembles hamburger.  Not ideal.  And the first three days are all pulling overhead.   Pretty rough on the lats and arms.  5 good WODs can equal 1 disastrous week.  You don’t have to and shouldn’t avoid doing similar movements in successive days, just be aware of what you are doing and some of the possible repercussions.

Practice!  It takes practice and lots of it.  Nobody makes a great WOD or program on the first shot.  Ever.  You are going to make mistakes.  I still do it almost monthly.  I frequently make changes in the middle of the month because of the feedback I get from athletes and coaches.  Don’t be afraid to adjust, it’s not set in stone and shouldn’t be.  Don’t be married to your program, only your results.  If you focus on results and not how cool your spreadsheet is then you are on the right track.

And last but not least.  Steal!  There are a billion WODs out there so don’t go making your own before you can take existing WODs and put them together in some sort of logical sequence that promotes GPP.  Don’t reinvent the wheel.  There is a cubic butt ton (that’s like 200 kilos) of info out there, use it, but give credit where credit is due.   You will write about a thousand stupid workouts before you ever hear someone compliment your programming.  I’m still waiting for that day!  I personally look at about 5 sites: CrossFit New England, Invictus, and CrossFit, Outlaw (less and less admittedly).  I use some of those WODs and I modify others.  I’ve just now after 5 years gotten to the point where I’m comfortable writing something original, and that is only about 25 percent of our programming.  I still have a long way to go.

So there it is.

1)     Simplicity is where it’s at.  Couplet, triplets

2)     Go heavy!

3)     Don’t worry about percentages, there’s no magic there.

4)     Variance, it promotes GPP which is what we are after.

5)     5 great WODS don’t equal great programming.

6)     Practice and use knowledge from those who are better than you.



Keep training hard and hit your weaknesses,