Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Advancing The Intermediate CrossFitter, Part 1: Perfecting Basic Movements

The first defining factor of the intermediate CrossFitter is competency in, but not mastery of basic movements:  The intermediate CrossFitter has a good grasp of the fundamental movements of CrossFit.  These include but are not necessarily limited to the squat, front squat, overhead squat, press, push press, deadlift, pullup, pushup, running, and sumo deadlift high pull.  There may be some mechanical minutia that needs to be worked on, but for the most part the athlete is capable of performing these movements not only safely but efficiently even while fatigued.  The intermediate athlete will also be able to safely, if not efficiently, perform the snatch, the clean & jerk in its various incarnations, and will be developing capacity in the more advanced gymnastics movements, such as muscle-ups, handstand pushups, and L-pullups.

So what does this mean in practice?  In order to determine this, we need to define two terms: Safety, and efficiency.

Safety means that when confronted with basic movements while under fatigue, the athlete can perform them in a manner which minimizes both short and long term likelihood of injury.

Efficiency, for our purposes, is the degree to which the athlete wastes movement in the completion of a repetition.  This means that the most efficient technique is that which allows the athlete to maximize power output.

In practice, this means that the intermediate athlete performing basic movements is moving safely most of the time, with some loss of efficiency under fatigue.  For example: losing the upright torso during an air squat reduces the efficiency, but if the spinal position is maintained, knees are pushed out, and weight is on the heels, the squat is still safe.  This definition can be applied to any movement.

What can the intermediate athlete do to increase efficiency in the basic movements?

There are a lot of effective methods for ironing out the kinks in basic movement.  I'm going to outline three simple methods I've used for myself and my athletes.

The CrossFit Warm-Up method

Using this method, the athlete picks a set of skills (3-5 is a good number) and does 3 rounds of each, using a number of repetitions that is challenging only because the athlete is focusing on perfect form.  This is based on the original CrossFit Warm-Up, which looks like this:

3 rounds, 10 reps each

Samson Stretch (30 seconds per side)

Overhead Squat (broomstick or empty bar)


Back Extension



The original CrossFit Warm-Up is great skill practice in itself.  But the best part about this format is that can be modified to use whatever skills the athlete needs to practice.  For example, if we have an athlete who needs to work on his squat cleans, ring dips, and running, we could do something like this:

3 rounds

10 squat cleans 65#

10 sit-ups

Run 200m at easy pace working on form

5 deep ring dips

10 pullups

This should be done at an easy pace, and can be done before the workout as a warm-up, or after as a cool down, dependent on a) the athletes preference and b) the WOD.

The one thing I recommend for this method is that whatever you do in your skill work, it should encompass the four basic types of human movement: Opening the hip (squatting, deadlifting, Olympic lifting, etc,) closing the hip (sit-ups, knees-to-elbows, GHD situps, etc,) pushing (pushup, overhead lifts, dips, etc) and pulling (pullups, Olympic lifts, etc.)

Cycling Skills Method

Another way to practice skills is to pick something to work on for two 3 on, 1 off cycles (or 1 week, 2 weeks, a month, depending on how high your tolerance for doing the same thing over and over is.)  The skill should be practiced through various drills and at various intensities.  This method may work better for you than the CrossFit Warm-Up Method if you do better focusing on a certain skill for a while.  It also keeps you from getting bored, because you change skills often.  The key is to stay on a particular skill long enough to make some progress.

For example, let's say we have an athlete who wants to work on his air squat.

Day 1: 1/2 Tabata Squat. (20 seconds of squats, 10 seconds of rest, 4 intervals.)  This should be done at moderate intensity – you're not trying to set any PRs.  This will let us see where the athlete is in his squat form and what he needs to work on.

Day 2: Wall Squats.  Face a wall standing with your feet 8"-10" away.  Do 10 squats with arms overhead, focusing on upright torso, weight on heels, and lumbar curve.  Repeat for 3 rounds, but try to get closer to the wall every round.  This helps enforce the correct bottom position in the squat by forcing the athlete to keep the  torso upright and weight onto the heels, and push the knees apart.

Day 3: Overhead squats with PVC or broomstick.  The overhead squat will reveal all the flaws that are present in your air squat but aren't severe enough to be noticed.  Due to the highly technical nature of the overhead squats, the movement demands that your form be perfect, and whatever is holding you back in your overhead squats will also be a factor, to a lesser extent, in your air squat.

Day 4: Rest.

Day 5: Wall Squats.

Day 6: Squats to a surface. Using a surface low enough to get into a full squat (medicine ball, small box, stack of plates, etc,) squat down until your butt is touching.  Stand up, ensuring that your butt does not leave the surface before your torso moves upwards.  This will help teach you not to lift the hips early and incline the torso when standing out of the bottom, a flaw which leads to very inefficient squats when done at high speed.

Day 7: 1/2 Tabata Squat.

Day 8: Rest

Over the course of these 6 training days, the athlete has worked all the points of performance of the air squat (weight on heels, knees out, lumbar curve, upright torso,) and has squatted with some intensity twice – once at the beginning of the cycle to determine where the athletes form is and what needs to be practiced, and once at the end of the cycle to judge improvement.

Just like the CrossFit Warm-Up method, this method can be applied to any skill the intermediate CrossFitter needs to practice.

Level-Up Method

This method is probably the least effective of the three, but can still produce good results.  It's for the truly ADD, those athletes who just can't do the same thing for more than one day (you know who you are!)  This is very simple:  Pick one of the movements in your WOD, and practice a more advanced version of it before the WOD.  Here are a couple of WODs for example:


For time:

100 pullups

100 pushups

100 situps

100 squats

The athlete could work on L-Pullups or deadhang pullups, muscle-ups, dips or ring dips, knees-to-elbows, GHD situps, or overhead squats. 



Clean (135#)

Ring dip

A good option here would be to work up to a heavy single or double in the squat clean or power clean, or practice muscle-ups.

This methods advantage lies in simplicity and variety: it's very easy for an athlete to pick his skill work when all he has to do is figure out what the more advanced variation of one of the movements in their WOD is.  It also never gets old: you get a new movement pretty much every day.

The downsides are the lack of consistent practice of a skill, and scheduling.  Lack of consistent practice of a specific skill will mean slower progress with that skill.  It's also slightly less convenient than the other methods time wise, because it's inadvisable to use this method after the WOD, since the athlete will already be fatigued in a way which directly affects the skill work.

These methods are all effective, but by no means are they the only ways to go about your skill work.  There are tons of possibilities.

A few things to keep in mind when designing skill work:

1) Low intensity.  If you are working at high intensity form isn't your main concern, and form should be your main concern with skill work.

2) Moderate volume.  You want get enough volume that you are having an impact on your nervous systems ability to perform the movement you are practicing correctly, but not so much that it taxes you unduly.

3) Basics and fundamentals.  You really don't need to spend a lot of time practicing kettlebell swings or burpees.  You'll be better served improving your squats, deadlifts, pullups, Olympic lifts, etc.

Stay tuned for Advancing The Intermediate CrossFitter, Part 2: Developing Capacity in Weaknesses.

Post thoughts, questions, suggestions, and results to comments.


RDCP said...

I've been playing with the Crossfit Warm-up method for HSPUs, One Leg Squats, L pull ups, and occasionally box jumps or another movement I feel that I need to work. Sometimes I feel like the progress is very slow, but then when I test them, I am often pleasantly surprised by the results.

Tsypkin said...


Progress definitely feels slow with this method; a day-to-day method means small, day-to-day improvements. Could you provide some specific examples of improvements you've seen through this method?

TexasPatrick said...

Interesting stuff. I've been playing with this idea. What kind of results have you seen doing this type of thing? I need to beef up the wods I do at home with a little fun and games before and after.

Tsypkin said...


Results tend to show themselves slowly when tested through the skill work itself, but when tested as a max after a significant period (4-6 weeks,) improvements become obvious. One of my training partners started doing the CrossFit Warm-Up Method a few years ago, and his main focus was overhead squats. He would do 3 sets of 15. He started with an empty bar and worked his way up over the weeks. One day our WOD involved a max set of 95# overhead squats - he got 37.

If you contact me I'd be more than happy to help you put a routine together.

RDCP said...

Sure B-frog. When I started warming up with sub-maximal sets of HSPU I had 5 on a good day. I tested them twice since then and got 7 and 9. To be fair though, I am still somewhat inconsistent, likely due to form.

When I began the box jumps, I could not string more than two 24 inch jumps together without resetting or bouncing in place. In a few weeks I could easily string 15 together and worked on consecutive 36" jumps.

The pistols were less conclusive. I could always do a bunch, but they were ugly as hell. I am pretty sure they are still ugly.

Tsypkin said...


Thanks for the input!