Here is what we have covered so far. CrossFit can produce amazing transformations in people. I have been doing this for 5 years and gone from a skinny runner, to a Level 2 CrossFit Trainer who has coached hundreds or thousands of people and program for one of the most successful CF gyms around, all while making enormous improvements in my own fitness. How we get there is different for everybody, but if your programming is decent, you eat and sleep right, and you practice what you want to improve (even a little) you can keep getting better for a long time with no special programs or coaching. That is my advice to the 99% of people who ask me about breaking through plateaus.
For those who have been doing CrossFit for years, eat right, sleep right, have learned intensity, and practice skills in their warm-ups, a time may still come when you hit a plateau. This post is for you.
Having experimented myself with some more radical interventions and having watched many others do the same, I tend to be a minimalist. I will start with something that keeps you as close to our traditional programming as possible and slowly move you away as you become more and more advanced.
Structured Warm-ups: Many people just need to raise body temp, mobilize joints, and warm-up to the RX’d weight before they do a workout. That’s fine, but you can accomplish those goals while improving on weaknesses as well. Your warm-up will no longer be random, I will give you what to do and it will likely be periodized and structured to allow you do a great deal of volume while making improvements.
Example 1: You have bad overhead strength that appears when you try to overhead squat and snatch. While your squat and clean have gone up consistently for two years, your OHS and snatch have stalled for the last 6 months. This is probably a result of poor shoulder mobility and stability, and lack of integrated whole body strength (a phrase I just made up and which Dan John once referred to as “Dad Strength). Here is your program which is done in place of the warm-up of the day and in conjunction with the workout of the day.
- Shoulder mobility drills every day: foam roll upper back, LAX balls in the upper thoracic, shoulder pass throughs, OHS with PVC against the wall.
- Snatch Drills two days a week: from 45-95lbs depending on the drill and your strength, Burgener warm-up, snatch balance, hang squat snatch.
- OHS/Shoulder Stability two days a week: hand stand holds working toward a press to handstand and 3 sets of 4-8 reps at a moderate weight of slow tempo OHS (5 sec down, 2 sec pause, 1 second up).
Moderate to light weight will ensure that you are fine to do the regular WOD. These movements will simultaneously warm you up and improve your skills without taking a lot of time. High volume combined with better mobility will fix a lot of problems and the moderate weight OHS will provide just enough intensity (when done at tempo) to produce adaptation but won’t be so heavy it wears you out.
A new progression: People can advance for years adding 3-5lbs to the bar almost every time they train. Eventually they cannot support that kind of progression and stall. For these people we begin a slower periodized progression. Mark Rippetoe has a couple of intermediate programs he recommends including the Texas Method to achieve this. We have had some success with Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1. A number of these will work for most people, the point is that you are no longer a beginner who can just throw weight on the bar, do your work and improve. You need to plan, oscillate the weights up and down, de-load at certain times, and progress in steady but smaller increments.
Example 1: At Potomac CrossFit we squat once a week. At the very beginning people just throw weight on the bar and set 50lb PR’s. A few months in progress slows down but they can add 5-10 lbs a week. When we notice this slow down or stop (and we check to make sure you are eating and sleeping right) we might switch you to Wendler. You will still squat with the class every week, you will just be doing a very specific program based on certain percentages of your max.
Prefer your weakness over your strength: If you have a long training history with a specific method of exercise or are just naturally talented in some areas but not others, you can probably afford to prefer or replace days that focus on your strengths with days that focus on your weakness. Again, I will start by keeping you as close as possible to original programming and slowly move you away.
Example 1: If you have a strong squat but a weak overhead squat and Example 1 did not work, I may have you warm-up to your back squat work with heavy overhead squats. This will hurt your back squat number, but that is a strength and you are trading that training stimulus for work on OHS. If that results in over training the squat, I would replace the back squat with the OHS until it comes up to par. I would also consider replacing every other deadlift workout with an OHS workout as I find you don’t need to DL as much as you might think to improve.
Example 2: You used to be a runner. However, you suck at rowing. Replace running with rowing in WODs.
Example 3: It will not always be as clean as replacing one kind of squat with another kind of squat or changing running out for rowing. If you are a strong runner but weak, it may be best to replace running days with heavy lifting or oly practice. Similarly, if you are a former power lifter, you can probably afford to switch out some deadlifts with power cleans, or even bodyweight work.
Depending on the individual, the specific manner in which each of these examples are implemented would look different.
DEFCON 1: You have to pass a specific physical fitness test, you are about to run a race, you are competing in a weightlifting competition, or you are so painfully bad that all of your training on your weaknesses is undone with the smallest amount of additional work. THIS IS RARE! I have tried this twice and in both cases I think I would have been much smarter if I had tried one of the above options. But it happens. Understand that we usually are reducing your overall fitness for the sake of passing a test or winning a sport.
Example 1: You want to compete in an oly competition. With years of conditioning under your belt and a solid CrossFit foundation, you are in good shape but have stalled on your lifts. A few months out we will cut your CF training by probably 80% and replace it with an oly progression designed to peak at competition time (or more than a few months depending on schedule and your competencies).
Example 2: You have to pass a PT test. While you are very strong, the military has made the oh-so brilliant decision that being strong isn’t as important as being able to do 100 push-ups and run 1.5 miles in shorts and tennis shoes. In order to spend sufficient time to make you competent at these movements we will need to sacrifice some of your training and put you on a few running and push-up progressions. In the long run you would have done better by just doing CrossFit, but if you only have a month, you only have a month. We work with what we have.
You have been skinny your whole life. Really skinny. Maybe you are a recovering cyclist. Your strength levels are so low you can’t practice many of the movements in CrossFit and scaling dramatically doesn’t seem to produce the stimulus or intensity that we need. We have increased your food intake, but you shed weight so efficiently that small amounts of conditioning strips the muscle right off of you. Radical intervention is required. We might reduce your training volume and put you on a dedicated strength program and a LOT of food.
As I stated in Part II, 99% of you don’t need ANY of these interventions. Of the remaining 1%, 99% of you don’t need to reach DEFCON 1. Yet somehow I see people rush to this rather quickly. This is a long journey and people need to be patient with results. Don’t believe me? Tell me your problems I will help prescribe a solution. I’ll bet it rarely involves more than small tweaks to your programming. Hit me with your best shot.