Saturday, 22 August 2009

Why Scale?

Universal scalability is a hallmark of the CrossFit protocol.  It's one of the reasons CrossFit has spread so quickly: implemented correctly, anyone can do it, and see amazing results.  Scaling is an important part of athletic development, but many CrossFitters are hesitant to do so.  Today, we're going to try to convince you that scaling is not only okay, but advantageous.  Then we'll discuss how to know when you need to scale a workout, and how best to go about it.

Why scale?

It is important to remember that the prescribed loads and rep schemes in a workout are arbitrary.  What I mean is this: the workouts on are designed to elicit a specific effect, and the loads and reps are chosen to elicit that effect in high level CrossFit athletes.  Without scaling, many people will not achieve the desired effect of the workout.

For an example, let's look at "Diane"
21-15-9 reps for time:
Deadlift 225#
Handstand Pushups

The above video showcases one of the fastest times seen on "Diane."  It also displays the desired effect: an athlete should be able to move through "Diane" at a fast pace for a potent metabolic hit.  The deadlifts are not meant to be heavy, and the handstand pushups should not break down to the point of seriously reducing the metabolic impact of the workout.

How about "Angie"
For time:
100 pullups
100 pushups
100 situps
100 squats

If you've got a pullup max of 3, 100 is going to take a long time.  Too long.  In fact, it will result in diminished returns.  The desired effect of "Angie" is (for most athletes) in large part muscular endurance, and in smaller part metabolic conditioning.  Both goals can be achieved for any athlete by properly scaling the reps and/or movements.

How do I know when I need to scale my workouts?

Simple: When doing the workout as prescribed will result in a failure to achieve the desired effect, scale it!  If your max deadlift is 275# and you can't do more than 3 handstand pushups in a set, doing "Diane" as prescribed will not elicit the desired effect.  If you've got 3 pullups, 10 pushups, and can't do more than 20 squats without stopping, the reps in "Angie" need to be brought down.  Proper scaling will result in higher power output, and as we know, intensity is paramount.

Next post will give a few examples of scaling workouts to certain deficiencies.

Post thoughts to comments.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

In Defense Of Metabolic Conditioning, Part III: Frequently Asked Questions

Today we address a list of commonly asked questions about metabolic conditioning workouts.  Notice that todays answers build of off the previous two days’ theoretical principles.  If you remember the principles that we already covered, you will be able to answer many of your own programming questions simply by applying the principles to each specific situation.  Also, never be afraid to try new stuff and record your results.  At CrossFit Monterey, we have a saying: “If it works, it works.” 


Which movements go well together?


This depends on the goal of the workout.  If you want to challenge primarily the cardiovascular system, then you will want to use movements that test different functions of the body, and thus different muscle groups.  For example, alternating between deadlifts and pushups, or running and rope climbs.  This will make it less likely that your muscles will be the limiting factor, and more likely that your metabolic conditioning will be. 


Nevertheless, sometimes it’s useful to test muscular endurance, also known as stamina, as the main goal of a WOD.  In this case, it makes sense to use movements that involve similar functions.  Consider "J.T." (21-15-9 of handstand pushups, ring dips, and pushups).  Clearly, all of these exercises are upper body pushing movements.  Very few athletes are going to be able to power through this one at a fast enough pace to seriously test their cardiovascular system.  It is however, still a useful workout. 


Which sideshow movements do I use, how often, and when? And why bother?


Burpees and ball slams aren’t going to make you a worse athlete.  In fact, they will make you fitter.  Our objection to them stems from the fact that their benefits pale in comparison to those of the more fundamental exercises, yet many CrossFitters program in them far too frequently.  Following the example of the WODs is a good idea here.  They program in burpees usually once or twice a month (as compared to squat variations, pullups, running, and Olympic lifts, which come up far more frequently.)


Burpees and such are a good option when you want a highly metabolically challenging movement that will not test any one muscle or function too highly.  You know that day when you wake up and everything hurts?  Programming in a chipper (think of the "Filthy Fifty") that includes burpees might be a good idea on that day.


How do I make my short workouts make me breathe really hard?

Power output.  Move large loads long distances, quickly.  400m sprints and high rep Olympic lifts are very useful here, as are kipping pullups and air squats.


How do I decide how much weight to use on lifts?

If your goal is metabolic conditioning, you’re not going to want to use a weight that’s so heavy you’ll have to slow down and take large breaks in between sets.  In this case, using more weight will actually decrease your power output.


For example, if you max thruster is 175#, you’re not going to want to do metcon workouts with high-rep 155# thrusters.  Take the load down to 115#.  Save the near-max loads for strength days. 


A key exception to this is lifting heavy loads for low reps followed by a more metabolically-oriented exercises.  3 heavy deadlifts followed by 25 box jumps at 24 inches is a good example.  Do that for a few individually timed rounds, getting full recovery in between each one. 


How does what I’ve done on the other days of the cycle affect what I do today?

Generally, in a given 3 day cycle, you’ll want to vary the time duration, load, and format.  For example –


Day one

Power snatch 5 X 2

Deadlift 3 X 3

Followed by

3 X 600m sprint, full recovery between efforts


Day two

Max rounds in 20 minutes:

12 ring dips

36 air squats


Day 3

3 rounds for time

3 rope climbs

10 push jerks, 135#


Day one trains three different movements separately, working for max load and max speed.  It’s relatively short in terms of sustained effort and involves weightlifting and sprinting.  Day two is a longer workout, focused on higher rep bodyweight exercises.  Day three also includes a high rep bodyweight exercise, though it is a pull (not a push or squat notably) and a high rep weightlifting exercise.  An advanced athlete will finish it in under 5 minutes, meaning that while it will test metabolic conditioning just as days one and two do, it will do so in a distinctive time domain.


As with most rules of programming however, it makes sense to break this one once in a while as well.  Sometimes, do pullups two days in a row, or do heavy lifts two days in a row, or do three long workouts in one cycle.  You want to expose your body to the demands of repeating a stimulus in consecutive days, for the simple fact that this will prepare you well for having to do so in the future.


How often do I go really heavy for my WOD (7x1, 1RM, 3-2-2-1-1-1, etc)?

At least 4-5 times a month.  If you are weak, then do more.  If you deadlift 500 lbs. and run an 8 minute mile, strength work is less crucial, but you should still train heavy on a regular basis. 


Can I do multiple lifts on lifting days?

Yes.  The mainpage doesn’t usually do this, but it does work.  Be careful, however, not to overload yourself.  If you do 5 sets each of heavy deadlifts, squats, weighted pullups, and presses, you’re not going to have a whole lot of functions left over in the next few days. 


How often should I do movements in WODs that are very difficult for me?

Do so often.  There is a misperception however, that the best way to improve a weak point is by only performing a lot of WODs that include it.  Including a weak point in your WODs is not a substitute for separate skill work.  If you really need to work on your squat snatch, for example, merely doing them in metcon circuits every week is not the best way to do so.  Practicing squat snatches every day before the WOD will work go a long way towards improving your competency at them.  The same principle goes for common weak points such as handstand pushups, muscleups, and overhead squats.


How often should I be in each time domain, relatively?

Hit them all, regularly.  If you haven’t gone long recently, now’s the time.  If you haven’t done a short and fast workout recently, do so today.


How often should I be in a single modal domain for an entire WOD?

You should run long (5k and up) at least once a month.  Covering long distances on foot is a crucial ability.  Metcon circuits tax your cardiovascular system, sure, but long runs involve a lot more than metabolic conditioning (joint strength, the stamina of your lower limbs).  Sure, Chris Spealler runs pretty fast without running regularly, but he’s Chris Spealler.  Just a guess, but you’re probably not Chris Spealler. 


Can I do strength and metcon on the same day?

Absolutely.  I usually perform the strength work first, as the lifting tends to hurt the metcon circuit less than the metcon circuit affects the strength work, but I know people who prefer it the other way around.  The principle of variance applies here as well.  You want to occasionally train the lifts in a fatigued state, since you may need to do so in the future.


Can I do 2 metcons in one day?

Yes, but most CrossFitters need to focus on consistently training at a high level of intensity before they start do multiple metcon workouts in the same day.  Intensity is paramount. 


How can I do a metcon if I have no equipment/weights/jumprope/whatever?

Here’s a short list of the movements you have at your disposal: walking lunges, running, air squats, jump squats, one leg squats, handstand pushups, pushups, situps, and burpees.


A few examples:

Max rounds in 20 minutes

400m run

25 pushups

35 air squats


100 burpees for time


Tabata squats followed immediately by 4 minutes of max handstand pushups


10 high jump touches

50 situps

8 high jump touches

40 situps

6 high jump touches

30 situps

4 high jump touches

20 situps

2 high jump touches

10 situps


Post any other questions you have about metcon programming in the comments section, and we’ll get to answering them.

Monday, 17 August 2009

In Defense of Metabolic Conditioning, Part II: Key Principles

Today's topic is the vital principles involved in creating effective CrossFit metcon workouts.  These are not new to EYF; they are on display every day at  However, many CrossFitters don’t follow the WOD, or modify it to their tastes, and in so doing, negate the benefits of the mainsite WOD.  You can use these principles below to make sure you’re not cheating yourself of gains.


Six Key Principles for Metabolic Conditioning Workouts

1. Focus on fundamental movements.  As we covered in the previous post, Metcon workouts are NOT just for metcon.  We want you to hit as many different aspects of fitness as possible at the same time.  This means focusing on fundamental movements.  High rep Olympic lifting, runs of varying distances, and basic gymnastics exercises such as pullups, handstand pushups, and air squats, should make up the bulk of your metcon workouts.  Consider the original CrossFit girls as a source of inspiration. 


As a practical illustration of this concept, contrast these two metcon WODs:

A. 5 rounds for time of 20 ball slams, 30 lbs., 20 burpees.

B.  5 rounds for time of 400m run 10 clean and jerks at 135 lbs.

Both will be extraordinarily taxing of the body’s ability to supply energy for physical activity, however, it is our contention that workout B is substantially more effective at producing elite fitness.  It requires and develops a much larger quantity of physical skill and strength to finish quickly.  Anecdotally, we have seen that athletes that master the basics of weightlifting, gymnastics, and running, adapt quickly to sideshow movements like ball slams very quickly, whereas burpee and ball-slam addicts tend to struggle with stuff like clean and jerks even at low levels of load and intensity.

2. Vary your modes.  This sounds weird, but its meaning is simple.  Weightlifting/throwing is one mode, gymnastics is another, and mono-structural metcon activities are another.  Metabolic conditioning tends to be very activity-specific.  It has long been known in the endurance sport world that an athlete who has great endurance in running may suffer greatly at swimming.  In the CrossFit world, someone who never tires on "Cindy" may end up gasping for air for a mediocre score on "Fight Gone Bad."  If our aim is to develop as broad a range of adaptations as possible, we must ensure that our metabolic conditioning circuits involve all three modes of movement.  If you always do bodyweight exercises, it’s time to start incorporating thrusters, squat cleans, and snatches, etc.  If you never run in your workouts, then start.  Yes, I know it hurts.

3. Vary your format.  In general, metcon workouts can be X rounds for time, as many rounds or reps as possible in X minutes, follow a particular interval format (such as tabata) for max reps in the interval, or follow the chipper format whereby a list of tasks is completed in order, with each movement only being hit one time.  Other formats are possible, but these are the main formats you’ll see.  Different formats require different strategies and even psychologies.  It is important not to just stick to workout formats that you are comfortable with.

4. Vary your time domains.  Coach Glassman has long said that we suffer at the margins of our experience.  If we confine our workouts to a certain time domain, we assuredly will perform sub-optimally when asked to leave that time domain.  We have seen athletes err by never going longer than 15 minutes, as well as by never going shorter than 10.  If there is a particular time domain that you are most comfortable with, make sure to train outside of that time domain on a regular basis.

5. Vary your loads.  Are you seeing a pattern here?  People who only do light metcons, or only do heavy metcons, will not perform as well when taken out of their comfort zone.  Don’t be that guy.  If you never lift a barbell heavier than 135# (or even 225#) in your metcon workouts, then start experimenting with heavier lifts.  If you never go above 30 reps, or under 135 lbs. in your workouts, start lowering the loads and upping the reps

6. Compete!  If you’re reading this blog, I shouldn’t have to lecture you about intensity and training hard.  The problem is, however, that everyone thinks they’re training hard, and very few people are training as hard as they could be.  The problem is that you’ll never train as hard as you can without competition.  Furthermore, you will never reach the level of fitness that you could reach with competition.  Competition pulls us above our comfortable level of discomfort, and into a dark place where we’d rather not be.  Most of us wouldn’t there go if we could avoid it without looking like a pussy.  If you don’t time and record your workouts and constantly try to beat other CrossFitters or your previous times, you’re not as fit as you could be.  Go buy a stopwatch, and start competing.

That’s it for today.  Start following these principles today in your metcon workouts and be prepared to both suffer and progress more than you’re used to.

Post thoughts to comments.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

In Defense Of Metabolic Conditioning, Part I: Theory

Today is the first installment in a three part Evolve Your Fitness series on metabolic conditioning workouts.  This series is brought to us courtesy of Russ Greene.  Russ has been doing CrossFit for nearly 7 years, he competed in both the 2007 and 2008 CrossFit Games, and has trained and helped train many athletes of all levels, backgrounds, occupations, and motivations.  He brings to Evolve Your Fitness the long view of the successes and failures of CrossFit and CrossFitters.


Part A: Theory


For better or for worse, metabolic conditioning circuits have come to define Crossfit in the eyes of the public as well as in the minds of many of its practitioners.  This is an oversimplification of Crossfit’s methodology, though it is to be expected since timed metcons are the most unique and thus distinctive aspect of Crossfit training.


In Crossfit lingo, we tend to group all workouts that last longer than a few seconds under the category of metabolic conditioning, or metcon.  This article uses that term as well, however, it’s important to note that good metabolic conditioning workout are not merely beneficial towards improving metabolic conditioning.  The most effective metcon workouts also involve many other aspects of fitness, from strength to accuracy.


Why only test muscular endurance and cardiovascular conditioning, when you can build the other eight aspects of fitness as well?  If our sole goal was to improve metabolic conditioning, we could achieve that objective with purely mono-modal activities such as sprinting, swimming, rowing, and skipping rope.  However, we would miss out on exercises such as high rep clean & jerks, kipping pullups, deadlifts, and muscle-ups, which test and develop an outstanding range of physical attributes.


In the past few years, we have seen two extremes develop with regards to their approach to metabolic conditioning: the metcon haters and the metcon addicts.  It is important to note that while both methods are effective, neither is optimal for developing the level of fitness that we pursue as CrossFitters.


Metcon Haters

Many people, both within and outside the Crossfit community, have criticized’s extensive use of metabolic conditioning workouts.  Instead, they advocate for a focus on higher-strength and skill gymnastics exercises, lower-repetition Olympic weightlifting, and short-duration sprinting. 


We at Evolve Your Fitness are fervent supporters of heavy lifting, short sprints, and higher-skill/higher-strength gymnastics training.  On the other hand, we also recognize that CrossFit’s objective of increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains, as well as the demands of real life, require competency in longer-term activities.  For example, hiking, most ball sports, and military selection courses all necessitate that an athlete endure oxidative demands far in excess of Olympic weightlifting, short sprints, or gymnastics. 


If you want to be fit for CrossFit, or the unforeseeable demands of life, job, or sport, you need to be comfortable with and effective at activities lasting 30 seconds, 30 minutes, and even several hours.  This level of competency is not possible without frequent exposure to 15-20 minute workouts and occasional training in significantly longer workouts.  Furthermore, it is possible to train these longer workouts and still be a very strong and powerful athlete.  Ask Mikko Salo, who performs three metabolic conditioning workouts every training day, deadlifts 506 lbs., and won the CrossFit Games.


Metcon Addicts

On the other hand, we have also seen many CrossFitters err in the opposite direction to those above.  They often perform half-hour or longer metcon workouts like Murph and Eva 4-5 times a week, with very little focused strength and power training.  This is sub-optimal programming as well.


Such trainees tend to become addicted to the combined pain and euphoria of long, ball-busting workouts.  Their addiction is understandable.  Most of us first became drawn to CrossFit after experiencing the unique pain of the metcons.  Nonetheless, this training ignores a large portion of the benefits accrued from comprehensive CrossFit training.


The strength, skill, speed, and power adaptations generated from focused gymnastics, sprinting, and weightlifting, will not be matched by an exclusive focus on metabolic conditioning circuits. 


You will never be able to lift as much in the deadlift, improve your third pull as much in the snatch, or develop the hollow body position as well in the handstand, if you insist on performing all of your training in the for time or as many rounds as possible formats.  Furthermore, we expect you will find that heavy lifting provides its own unique quality of pain as well.


So what’s the best way to program your metcon workouts?  The next post will cover several basic principles to keep in mind when designing metcons, and the third and final post will address a multitude of commonly asked questions about metcon workouts.

Post thoughts to comments.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Breaking Through Plateaus

It happens to the best of us.

Your training is going well: you're making progress, you look forward to your workouts, you're learning new things and constantly improving.  Things are great.

And then it stops.  Seemingly for no reason, you plateau.  You stop hitting PRs, sometimes even regressing slightly.  Training seems stagnant.  There are only little details to learn now, and they take so long that it's monotonous rather than exciting.

What do you do?  In this post I'm going to suggest a few strategies for breaking through the plateaus that are an inevitable part of serious athletic training.  Pretty much all of them involve changing up your programming.  Some of them are very general, and some very specific.  Hopefully one (or more) of them will apply to you!

Strategy #1: Change your programming.

This is about as broad and general as it gets.  Whose programming are you doing?  If you're doing the main site, try something else: an affiliate or a fellow knowledgeable CrossFitter for example.  If you're doing your own programming, do someone else's: there is something very powerful about having no say in what your workout is going to be.

Strategy #2: Employ a method that focuses on your weaknesses.

So you've got a 500# deadlift and an 8 minute mile.  Maybe CrossFit Endurance is right for you.  50 pullups, a 60 second 400m, and a 185# front squat?  Give CrossFit Strength Bias a try.  Maybe you need to do muscle-ups, handstand pushups, or Olympic lifts more regularly.  Adjust your programming to focus on your weaknesses, and though you may find that your daily results are less stellar than when your programming is slightly more varied, you will quickly improve at the things you most need to improve at, and this will show in your work capacity across broad time and modal domains.

Strategy #3: Change your environment.

Run your 5k in the mountains.  Take some dumbbells and a jump rope to a park or beach.  Train on your own?  Visit an affiliate or get a training partner.  Changing the scenery can do wonders to make things move along.

Strategy #4: Change your equipment.

Try all your metcon weightlifting with dumbbells for a month.  Do all your pullups on rings and your muscle-ups on pullup bars.  Do your pushups and handstand pushups on parallettes.  This change in equipment not only holds true to the CrossFit prescription of constant variance, it will also turn of the "same old movements" into entirely new challenges.  After a month of making everything you do harder, you'll move a lot more quickly when doing things "the usual way."

Strategy #5: Get fat.

This is about as specific an example I can give:  Put on a weight vest for all your metcon and gymnastics for a month.  Like the above option, this will make everything you do an entirely new experience.  Pushups will start to feel like bench presses, muscle-ups will feel like they did when you first got them, and you can forget all about breathing when you've got 20# or more squeezing on your lungs.  After a month, take the vest off and feel yourself fly.

Got more suggestions?  Post thoughts to comments.