Programming for the CrossFit South Arlington Athlete (Part 2)

In this second-part of a two-part series, we talk about the main ideas behind CFSA programming year-long and, specifically, for the next few months. You can find Part 1 here.

In the first installment of this 2-part blog series, we discussed some of the history of CrossFit programming and the importance of a strength-bias in any gym’s training plans. So how does CFSA incorporate strength work for its members? Well, the easy answer would be to make sure we have strength work, 5 days a week, year round. But that’s not as sustainable as we’d like.

First, anytime we have strength work on the whiteboard, we end up with less time left over for the metcon*. Having short and fast workouts is great and an essential component of a comprehensive training strategy; but at some point in the year, we also need to target medium and long time-domain workouts in order to build a complete athlete.

Second, around late February, the CrossFit Open comes around. It is an opportunity for thousands of CrossFitters around the world, including us, to test themselves at the sport of fitness. It is an important milestone for any box, especially for gauging the fitness improvements of its members. For those of you who have done the Open, you know that those 5 weekly workouts thrown at us by CrossFit HQ do not involve very heavy weights; instead, they are medium to long range workouts with a bias towards a high volume of repetitions. What does that have to do with strength training? It means that, in the 3-5 months leading up to the Open, we cannot afford to focus solely on strength. Other fitness skills such as stamina, cardiovascular endurance and gymnastics in higher volume (to name a few) become the main target of our efforts.

So we have a need for a strength bias, but we cannot sustain it all year. What’s the solution? It’s simple and you probably have guessed it already: the training year starts out right after the Open with plenty of strength development and continues that way during the summer. In some instances, training might take the shape of a defined cycle (e.g. 3-month long) with progressive loading and a peaking/testing week at the end. In other instances, training might gradually shift into a phase of frequent strength work plusshort metcons, then gradually shift out of it toward the end of summer. The former is what we all saw this past summer: a well defined strength cycle with a performance week.

As we move forward through 2017 and early 2018, what you’ll see is a combination of longer workouts, higher repetitions and increased gymnastics volume. You will still see strength work 2-3 times per week, the purpose of which is maintenance of the gains you made over the last few months. You will also be hit by another day or two of Olympic weightlifting (snatch, clean or jerk.) One technique that allows us to pack more training into the hour is to superset movements, i.e. to alternate between two movements so that we’re working on one muscle group while another rests. Look for supersets in your training during the fall months.

One last thing: CrossFit as a fitness regimen is great at developing General Physical Preparedness (GPP). At any point in time, it makes you ready for anything: you can go for a long hike, carry heavy groceries or help a friend move furniture. This is how we want you to be year-round; always ready for the known, unknown and unknowable in life. For that, we have to keep the stimulus constantly varied, at a high intensity, using functional movements. Even when we’re favoring strength work, we won’t completely give up on the conditioning. Conversely, when we’re going into “Open season”, we won’t give up on the strength work. The CFSA athlete is a complete athlete who is just as capable inside the gym as they are outside of it.

* metcon = the Metabolic Conditioning piece of the daily workout (it typically comes last)

Programming for the CrossFit South Arlington Athlete

In this first-part of a two-part series, we talk about the history of CrossFit programming and the ideas behind planning out programming for a crossfit gym year-round. Next week, we will discuss the main training focus of the next few months at CFSA.

Most of you have just completed our summer strength cycle, crafted by Coach Bobby and designed to develop peak strength and power. You went through progressively more challenging strength work, five days a week, for a good 12 weeks, culminating in the explosive performance week where you got to test out all your new strength gainz (we hope you PR’d!).

This leaves you wondering, what’s next? Is the strength work going to end? Are you going to lose out on your hard earned contractile potential? Will all workouts going forward be just jumping jacks and mountain climbers led by coach Spandy? The prospects are terrifying. In this post, we hope to clarify what comes next as well as how we got here in the first place.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Back in the Paleolithic age, Man used dumbbells made of chiseled stone to do Push Presses and Snatches. Just kidding, we’re not going back that far. We’ll just rewind time back to the mid-2000s. Bear with us, it’ll make sense in a second. Back in 2005, only 13 CrossFit affiliates existed worldwide. All programming happened on, everyone used it, everyone called it the “main site”. This main site followed the original pure CrossFit formula “constantly varied, functional movement, executed at a high intensity”. It evenly targeted all 10 general fitness skills: Strength, Speed, Power, Endurance, Stamina, Agility, Balance, Coordination, Flexibility, Accuracy. One day you would see Fran posted as the WOD, the next day would be a Deadlift 1RM and the following day would be a 10K row. It was 3 days on, 1 off, with not much more design beyond that. No cycles, no training focus, not even for a few days. Everyone thought it was the sh*t.

(Actually, the main site still follows the same formula to this day and it is adhered to by thousands of athletes. Don’t let this blog post fool you, the programming there is still a gem and one could be a successful crossfitter for a very long time just following the main site workouts. Check it out.)

Fast forward a few years to the late 2000’s. By now, a few dozen or hundred gyms exist, several of which have been experimenting with their own programming for a while now. One thing seems to become clear to many: strength matters. It doesn’t just matter like all the other 9 fitness skills matter, it matters quite a bit more. Why is that? Two reasons: First, strength has numerous benefits: increased force production (obviously), weight loss, bone density, cardiovascular health, injury prevention, combating aging, diabetes, you name it. Strength also supports almost all other movements in crossfit: Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, running. Yes, even running. Mark Rippetoe once famously quipped: “Stronger people are harder to kill … and more useful in general”. What better reason do you need to be strong?

The second reason for investing in more strength training is simpler: building strength takes time. Weeks and months of blood, sweat and tears. It needs so much time, in fact, that you probably need to find a way to incorporate it throughout your entire year of programming as a CrossFit box. Because, if you ignore it for a while, you’ll need a long time to build it back up. We hear you asking: isn’t that the case for all the other “domains” of training? Actually, not really. Strength endurance, cardiovascular endurance, stamina, volume gymnastics, all of these can deteriorate quickly but can be re-built fairly quickly. Don’t believe us? Skip working out for 3 weeks, then come back and do 3 rounds of 400m runs, 20 thrusters and 15 pull-ups. Let us know how it goes. In the meantime, however, we would bet you your deadlift will not get weaker. Actually, you might unexpectedly PR on your first day back! Lost your wind and need to get it back? Give us 4-6 weeks of CrossFit couplets and triplets in the 5-15 min range and we’ll get you all sorted out.

The point is: a CrossFit gym’s programming needs to prioritize strength. How do you do so? We’ll talk about that in next week’s post. Stay tuned!


How To Interpret Our Strength Workouts

A major part of our programming is strength development. We accomplish this through progressively increasing the weight for our barbell lifts (squats, presses, deadlifts, etc). As our gym has grown, we now have to accommodate a variety of skill and experience levels. This document lays out the foundation for how to interpret and manage the strength portion of our workouts to your own skill level.

Reading the Workout

Deadlifts- 3×5: The first number represents the number of WORK sets you will perform. The second number represents the number of successful repetitions (reps) that will be performed within the set. So the above is read as “three by five”.

In general, the following is basic guidance in regards to sets and reps:

  • Low set numbers imply relatively heavy weights for the reps and longer rests between sets.
  • Low rep numbers imply relatively heavy weights within the set.
  • High set numbers imply relatively light weights for the reps and shorter rests between sets.
  • High rep numbers imply relatively light weights within the set.
  • Relatively higher weights (ie, low sets OR low reps) imply longer and more warm-up.

For the purposes at our gym, low numbers end around the 5-7 range, depending on the individual and the goal.

Rest for relatively heavy weights should be ~3 minutes; rest for relatively light weight is closer to 2 minutes.

So when you see 3×5, this tells you:

1- You’ll have to complete 3 WORK sets.
2- Each work set will have 5 reps.
3- For each of those 5 repetitions, you need to use relatively heavier weights today and rest longer between sets.
4- Since you have to be working relatively heavy today, I need 3-5 warm-up sets before my first work set.

Your notebook should track your warm-up sets and your work sets as well as comments and thoughts on if the warm-up was good / bad / not enough / too much, etc…


A work set is the first “real” set of stress you are placing on your body. It is based on moderately increasing the weight based on what you last lifted (hence why we have books- so you don’t have to remember!).

So if my notebook has the following entry for deadlifts last week:

June 23rd
Warm-up: 15 @ 95, 10@ 135, 5@ 185, 3 @ 215
Work: 5 x 225, 235, 245, 255, 265

Here is what today may look like.

June 28th
Warm-up: 15 @ 95, 10@ 135, 5@ 185, 3 @ 215
Work: 5 x 230, 240, 250, 260, 270

The work sets increased 5lbs from last week, and I kept the same warm-up progression because it worked well for me.

Lifting Stages

All athletes should be consistently increasing weight across days. Below is guidance on how different experience levels should handle a given a strength workout.


If you’ve been lifting for less than 6 -9 months consistently (ie, 2-3x a week, every week), for the purposes of CFSA, your primary concern should be developing the correct movement patterns while keeping the weights relatively low.

In general:

  • This means your “heavy” day won’t be very heavy.
  • You should be always working in the 5 – 10 rep range EVEN IF THE WRITTEN WORKOUT IS LOWER.
  • You should not fail during your sets (ie, you should be able to hit all reps and sets after warm-up).
  • Ask for rep, set and weight recommendations.


  • Err on the lighter side of things. If you don’t, you are just going to make a coach come over and strip down the bar for you.
  • Guys tend to go too heavy too soon; girls tend to stay too light for too long. When in doubt, ask for help.
  • You should be working on small steady increases across your lifts. Pressing movements: no more than 2.5 – 5lb increments; bigger lifts like squat and deadlifts: 5 – 10lb increments.

If you’ve been lifting 6 – 12 months consistently, and you are FULLY proficient in the movement, you should start to after the strength component as written.

How do you know if you “fully proficient”:?

  • You don’t need any cueing to do the movement correctly
  • You’d be comfortable performing the movement in front of the entire gym as the demo girl
  • You have the 6+ months of workouts in your book with steadily increasing weights
  • You know your “numbers” for your various lifts at different rep ranges without looking at your book


  • Now you can start to experiment with different rep schemes and weight jumps during warm-up.
  • Failure during a heavy work set is now acceptable and sometimes intended.


By far the most classic mistake is trying to get heavy too quickly (ie, days instead of weeks/months). Guys tend to want to add weight very quickly to squat and deadlifts, and for the most part this is possible when first starting. Unfortunately, it leads to rapid plateauing and sometimes injury. Your goal should be to try to remain in a basic linear progression for as long as possible. This is done by taking slow and measured increases in weight and checking the ego at the door.

The related mistake is the athlete (usually girls) who doesn’t want to add weight for fear of getting big. Girls, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you stand virtually no chance of actually bulking up. Short of injecting some additional hormones, it’s just not gonna happen. Think about all of the guys who ARE trying to get big. Not too many of them out there, eh? So if they are trying and can’t do it, you stand basically no chance. We can all eat ourselves big, but that’s for another post.

How We Program Our Workouts

Two of the most frequent questions the coaches are asked are:

1- How often should I come workout?

2- How do you put together the workouts?

Believe it or not, the workouts aren’t put together to piss you off. That’s just an added bonus. First some background.


CrossFit (well, really, the guys from Dynamax) have defined 10 general characteristics of fitness that we use to base our programming:

1.Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance – The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen.
2.Stamina – The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy.
3.Strength – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.
4.Flexibility – the ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.
5.Power – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.
6.Speed – The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.
7.Coordination – The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.
8.Agility – The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.
9.Balance – The ability to control the placement of the bodies center of gravity in relation to its support base.
10.Accuracy – The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.

You are as fit as you are strongest in your weakest characteristic above. Or put another way, you are as fit as your competent in the 10 areas listed above. While all 10 areas are important, we (CFSA) believe some are more important than others with respect to real-world applicability. Additionally, some characteristics are chronically under-developed in the athletes we see. We feel that the two most important characteristics are Power and Flexibility. From these two characteristics, we’ve noticed (empircally) that developing the other 8 characteristics are easier. Interestingly, developing these capacities are a long term endeavor- they take a long time to develop and once they are established, they tend to “stick around” even with extended training layoffs. These are “long-term” characteristics unlike cardiovascular / repisratory endurance.

Hopefully by now you’ve noticed that everyday we spend some time either using the lacrosse balls and/or foam rollers. Many of you have been given “homework” that you are supposed to perform either before or after the workouts. If you don’t have any homework, just ask, we’ll be happy to figure out what you need to work out. This represents our belief that if you are unable to achieve the correct postural position, your workout efficacy will be affected. The self-myofascial release work is effective in restoring and increase range of motion issues throughout the body.

Additionally, on most weekdays, we start off the workout with a strength based movement (squat, deadlift, press, etc). These strength based movements are the building blocks for our power based movements (cleans, snatches, jerks). Without these fundamental strength movements the dynamic power based movements are difficult to master.

After we do our strength based movement, we usually move into the “MetCon” (metabolic conditioning) portion of the workout. This is the part you probably feel is the “fun” part of the workout where you get your sweat on. We try to balance these metcons across the three energy pathways and the rough timelines associated with each one (you hopefully remember this from our Foundations lecture). Some days we go short (2-7 mins), some days we go medium (8 – 15 mins) and some days we go long (20+ mins).

Some days we skip the metcon and you don’t even realize (anyone remember Lynne?). Some days we skip the strength portion (like when we go extra long).

Putting It All Together

Ok, so now that we have the basic components, how do we assemble this into the workouts we do at CFSA? First, we divide the year up into quarters. Each quarter within the year has a general theme. Then we breakdown the quarter into months, with each month having a goal. And then finally we get to the week level which gets shifted and changed daily.

We program strength across the year, become a bit more specific within each quarter and then break it down very specifically within each month. I have a big-ass calendar on my desktop that lays out where we’ve been and where we are going for the strength component of our workouts.

The MetCons are done on a weekly basis with monthly and quaterly themes. We don’t program metcons further than 1-2 weeks out because what we program is a function of how ya’ll are reacting. If we notice that people are slowing down on WODs they should be crushing, we’ll change things up over the next week or two to vary the intensity. This is why you’ll hear us asking “how did the WOD go” on a daily basis. Feel free to post feedback onto the FaceBook page as well.

The Answers

Question 1: how often should I come?

We’ve noticed that the minimum effective dose for CrossFit is three times a week. This is the sweet spot where the time you put in results in noticiable changes in a reasonable amount of time. Once a week is better than none and twice a week is better than once. Three times a week is a good starting point for those coming into CrossFit. Five times gets close to the upper-bound for those who have normal lives (ie, job, stress and minimal sleep).

We’ve noticed that most people come in either Monday and Wednesday + (Fri/Sat/Sun) OR Tuesday and Thursday + (Fri/Sat/Sun). Thus, you should notice that on Mon/Wed or Tues/Thurs, you should usually do a “big” strength move (squat, deadlift) plus either a “smaller” strength movement (push press) and/or an introductory power movements (hang cleans). We then make Friday a somewhat long workout, Saturday a very long workout and Sunday a varying length workout depending on who is present and what we’ve done for the past week.

So if you want to add more days to your schedule, try to get three strength days in before you start adding additional weekend days. So if your three days are Mon, Wed and Saturday and you want to add a fourth day, add Thursday.

Question 2: how do you program?

Ummm, see the rambling above.

Fundamentals, Virtuosity, and Mastery

In gymnastics, completing a routine without error will not get you a perfect score, the 10.0- only a 9.7. To get the last three tenths of a point, you must demonstrate “risk, originality, and virtuosity” as well as make no mistakes in execution of the routine.

Risk is simply executing a movement that is likely to be missed or botched; originality is a movement or combination of movements unique to the athlete- a move or sequence not seen before. Understandably, novice gymnasts love to demonstrate risk and originality, for both are dramatic, fun, and awe inspiring- especially among the athletes themselves, although audiences are less likely to be aware when either is demonstrated.

Virtuosity, though, is a different beast altogether. Virtuosity is defined in gymnastics as “performing the common uncommonly well.” Unlike risk and originality, virtuosity is elusive, supremely elusive. It is, however, readily recognized by audience as well as coach and athlete. But more importantly, more to the point, virtuosity is more than the requirement for that last tenth of a point; it is always the mark of true mastery (and of genius and beauty). There is a compelling tendency among novices developing any skill or art, whether learning to play the violin, write poetry, or compete in gymnastics, to quickly move past the fundamentals and on to more elaborate, more sophisticated movements, skills, or techniques. This compulsion is the novice’s curse—the rush to originality and risk.

The novice’s curse is manifested as excessive adornment, silly creativity, weak fundamentals and, ultimately, a marked lack of virtuosity and delayed mastery. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to be taught by the very best in any field you’ve likely been surprised at how simple, how fundamental, how basic the instruction was. The novice’s curse afflicts learner and teacher alike. Physical training is no different.

What will inevitably doom a physical training program and dilute a coach’s efficacy is a lack of commitment to fundamentals. We see this increasingly in both programming and supervising execution. Rarely now do we see prescribed the short, intense couplets or triplets that epitomize CrossFit programming. Rarely do trainers really nitpick the mechanics of fundamental movements. I understand how this occurs. It is natural to want to teach people advanced and fancy movements. The urge to quickly move away from the basics and toward advanced movements arises out of the natural desire to entertain your client and impress him with your skills and knowledge. But make no mistake: it is a sucker’s move. Teaching a snatch where there is not yet an overhead squat, teaching an overhead squat where there is not yet an air squat, is a colossal mistake. This rush to advancement increases the chance of injury, delays advancement and progress, and blunts the client’s rate of return on his efforts. In short, it retards his fitness.

There is plenty of time within an hour session to warm up, practice a basic movement or skill or pursue a new PR or max lift, discuss and critique the athletes’ efforts, and then pound out a tight little couplet or triplet utilizing these skills or just play. Play is important. Tire flipping, basketball, relay races, tag, Hooverball, and the like are  essential to good programming, but they are seasoning– like salt, pepper, and oregano. They are not main courses.  CrossFit trainers have the tools to be the best trainers on earth. But good enough never is, and we want that last tenth of a point, the whole 10.0. We want virtuosity!!

(From the CrossFit Journal)