“I like this programming.” “He has good programming.” “This programming sucks.”
Workout programming, whether it’s for a gym, a competition, or for something more specific – like a program for competitive CrossFitters, for lifting, or endurance seems to constantly be a huge topic of debate.
Even more so it seems that athletes of all levels, shapes, sizes and goals are in search of that PERFECT program. If only you had the RIGHT workouts you would be where you wanted to be. The magic workouts would make all of your wildest dreams come true. Right?
For the past 15 years, I have been fascinated by this concept. Even before my CrossFit days, I can remember carefully crafting my bodybuilding style routines. I would research anywhere and learn from anyone I could. I had the same excitement when planning my spin, kick-boxing or other group fitness classes back then as well.
When I opened my affiliate in 2008, I loved programming for the gym. I have had the opportunity to work at hundreds of seminars for CrossFit HQ, and now program for several affiliates across the country through CrossFit Linchpin. Lately, I have even started programming for competitions – and I LOVE IT.
I have shared in past articles like “Chasing Vibes” my belief that there is no perfect program and that your effort level and environment will determine your overall success. I believe this to be true, regardless of the goals you may have.
There are, however, a few things you can learn and start to play with to make your workouts more effective. These simple concepts will help you to create a workout based on your specific goals and will give you things to think about while you are planning your own training, the workouts for your classes – or will even help you weed through and assess some of the programs out there while deciding which one is best for you.
WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO?
Yep. Seriously. This question has multiple layers.
What is the overall goal of your program? Are we trying to make people as all around fit as possible? Are you trying to make people strong and don’t care too much about other elements of fitness? Know the goal of your program as a whole and constantly check yourself.
When it comes to each individual workout, ask yourself the same question.
What are you trying to do?
If you tell me your gym is going to do “Murph” for example:
RUN 1 MILE
100 PULL UPS
200 PUSH UPS
RUN 1 MILE
When I ask you “why?”, there should be a very specific answer. “Because it will crush people.” is NOT a reason to do a workout. The answer could be one of the following:
“We need a longer workout with a high rep count at bodyweight where people will be able to move pretty consistently for over a half an hour.”
For this specific workout, it’s not wrong to say, “We are going to do this super gnarly workout to honor Memorial Day and give people something to push for.”
One is focusing on the physical and what your program needs to reach specific goals (which is most of the time where the focus should be). The other answer is about building mental toughness and building camaraderie in your community. These are important goals as well.
The point is, you have an answer.
LONGER DOES NOT = BETTER. HEAVIER DOES NOT = BETTER. MORE COMPLICATED DOES NOT = BETTER.
Often times all of the above actually make the workout LESS effective. This happens because the longer, the heavier (relative to the individual), or the more complicated the workout – typically the less intensity and the more standing around you will have.
I can’t tell you how many times I have seen workouts like:
1000 METER ROW
50 THRUSTERS 45#
30 PULL UPS
HANDSTAND PUSH UPS
-programmed and heard athletes saying things like “oh I am going to actually do DOUBLE Jackie!” Or, “I am going to do the deadlifts at 315 and do parallette handstand push ups – make it HARDER.”
There is this notion that to make the workouts more effective, we need to scale up or make them longer – “harder”. What does that even mean? “Harder”? Would double Jackie be hard? Sure. Are parallette handstand push ups practically impossible for most people? Yep. So why isn’t this better?
Now, I am no Ben Smith or Jason Khalipa, but I have a level of fitness that has gotten me pretty far. I have been doing this for a long time, and I am here to tell you double Jackie hurts less than just one round through. I mean, from the beginning I am going to have to pace a little bit in order to move through that much rowing and that many reps. And Heavy parallette Diane sounds more like a lifting/skill session than it does a workout for time. It doesn’t scare me at all.
When I program for my affiliates with CrossFit Linchpin- I like to add notes to help the trainers give the athletes an education of the desired stimulus of each workout. Jackie is meant to be a workout that is pedal to the metal pretty much. Some of the fastest times in the world are around 6 minutes. The goal is to give you a row distance that is long enough to fatigue you, but short enough that you can still push. The 50 thrusters are very specifically light to allow top athletes to go completely unbroken and push the pace. This will give a huge cardio response as well as train muscle stamina in the legs and in that press. If it was 30 thrusters it would be too easy. If it was 80, they would most likely get broken up – 50 is the money maker. The same goes for the pull up.
Now this is how the workout is going to go for the best athletes, but this information – understanding the stimulus of a workout also helps you understand how to scale. Ok, if the workout is possible in 6 min or so – I should probably scale everyone to keep them around 10 min or less. Any longer than that and they have actually gotten something different from the workout than what was intended. This might mean shortening the row a bit, or scaling the weight or number of thruster reps. Maybe cutting the pull ups down a bit or allowing the use of a band to get bigger sets.
Having this informations is crucial. Understanding why the workout was designed and the desired stimulus creates an immediate answer for your athletes who are trying to scale up.
Billy Biceps – Hey I am going to do Diane at 315 and use the parallettes
You – Ok, what is your regular Diane PR time?
Billy Biceps – 7 minutes
You – Ok, well this workout is actually designed to be a sub 5 min all out sprint. Until you can do that at the prescribed loading – you don’t need to be changing it. Trust me, we will work heavier deadlifts and some gymnastics skill work another day soon.
IT HAS BEEN SHOWN OVER AND OVER AGAIN THAT INTENSITY = RESULTS. THIS IS NOT JUST TRUE FOR CROSSFIT STYLE FITNESS.
I have seen this in my experience with Dana Linn Bailey at the Warhouse Gym. Her goal when she was competing was VERY different than a competitive CrossFitter. She needed to look a certain way. Period. It is my opinion that Dana is able to achieve the results and physique that she does because she combines the diet of a bodybuilder with the training of a powerlifter with a little added cardio. Her training sessions are not super long but, for a bodybuilder, there is very little rest. She uses movements that are compound, full body movements, and she lifts heavy. This is very different than most of the other athletes in her community, and has actually put her under the microscope over and over again.
So most of the time, when designing workouts the goals should be largely to allow for the most possible intensity while still hitting what needs to be hit for your specific goals.
Want to be a good 800 meter runner? You need to train running. More specifically you need to train distances and paces that improve you specifically for that distance and time domain. The program looks very different than that of a marathon distance athlete.
You want to be stronger? Guess what? You need to lift heavy. But don’t get it twisted….stronger doesn’t always = you being able to move moderate loads better for lots of reps. This is a mistake you see in CrossFit over and over again. People who have a 315 1 rep max snatch and can’t string together 10 reps at 135 without getting fatigued and out of breath.
DESIGN WORKOUTS AND TEST THEM YOURSELF.
If you want to be good at creating workouts, you have to create workouts.
The way I like to do it is to create a template:
I want a workout that is roughly 10 min long. I want to include some sort of pull from the ground and a high skill gymnastics movement.
Cool. I am going to program power cleans and muscle ups. I want the power cleans to be a weight that can be moved well, but is slightly heavier than the athlete will be overly comfortable with. I would like my best athletes in the gym to be able potentially do the muscle ups unbroken each round.
7 POWER CLEANS 175/115
5 MUSCLE UPS
Now – I try it. Or ask someone else to try it and tell me how it went. I take the info about how it went and I learn. I repeat this process until I can instinctively know how a workout is going to go.
That’s when you have the power. When you get to write something as simple as:
8 MIN AMRAP
ROW 80/65 CALORIES
MAX HANG SQUAT SNATCH 95/65
– on the board and see everyone completely underestimate it. Then you get to watch as people realize what they have gotten themselves into…
This is literally one of my favorite things in the world.
Here are a few resources for you to check out. These are my all time favorite programmers when it comes to what they do. There are many more out there than just these, but to me these are the Van Goghs and Picassos of designing super effective and elegant workouts: