What Makes Good CrossFit Programming?

I’m frequently asked by athletes and other clinicians what makes good CrossFit programming. Writing a training plan for a gym following the principles of using “constantly varied, functional movements, performed at high intensity” is incredibly difficult even for veteran programmers. When I’m analyzing CrossFit programming, there are a few “red flags” that I look for in the plan. Things that I think aren’t always in the best interest of the athletes going to that gym. Of course, this is a complex discussion. So please don’t take any of the below as “laws,” but consider them all when analyzing your gym’s program.

Note: I previously discussed this on the PTonICE Daily Show podcast (video below), so listen to that episode for a bit more in-depth discussion.

What to Look for in CrossFit Programming?

The amount of volume programmed per class

I’d say this is the first thing I examine. In the hour of class time, how much work is programmed? Far too often between the warm-up, strength/skill piece, and metabolic conditioning, we have filled the hour class time up. The problem here is that we then leave NO time for the coach actually to coach the movements that are going to be performed. Instead, the coach just stands there herding gym members between the different workout components.

Over-programming of certain movement patterns

It is very easy to program towards your own bias’ so quite often, we’ll see gyms that focus too much on certain movements and neglect others. For example, I regularly see gyms programming barbell-based lifts in their strength piece of the workout but neglect working on any gymnastics strength work. In the podcast episode, I dive a bit deeper into this.

Lack of time-domain variations

This is another huge CrossFit programming error I’ll see. Gyms almost always program in that 8-12 minute workouts much more frequently than any other time domain. Rarely do they hit shorter or much longer workouts.

Not enough volume in strength work

Commonly when a gym programs a workout such as 6×3 cleans, we’ll see that turn into five submaximal sets and one set working up to a 3 rep max. Instead, I think that working 6 sets at a challenging weight that gets the athlete moving the barbell with speed, hitting proper positions, and having no missed repetitions is more important most of the time (although there is still lots of value in occasionally working up to heavy 1-3 rep maxes). I regularly reference the following study graphic as an example of what the best lifters in the world do with their strength work.

Lack of unilateral work or horizontal pulling

Pretty self-explanatory, but we don’t see enough of this. I commonly prescribe some accessory exercises for my athletes working on these two variables.

Lack of strict gymnastics work

Building strict strength before dynamic strength by programming things like strict pull-ups and handstand pushups is important for both long-term performance and health in CrossFit programming. Don’t neglect this important variable that CrossFit.com frequently suggests.

Too Many Hero Workouts

CrossFitters love tough workouts. And at times, we see too many hero workouts (Fran, Grace, Murph, etc.) and general soul-crushing workouts. Athletes tend to push a bit harder when these show up, but recovery from them is much tougher. We can’t always program 6 days a week of really intense, high-volume workouts.

No Rest Days

The CrossFit methodology is based on a 3 on, 1 off OR the 5 on, 2 off sequence of weekly workouts. Rest days are where are body not only recoveries but also builds positive fitness adaptations. We need to encourage all athletes to have rest days in their programming. Far too often, individuals training for health isn’t realizing as much fitness progress as they could due to lack of rest.

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