Ryan Asks: I have a question on your workouts. I like your programming for the Olympic lifting and find that extremely valuable and necessary. Do you recommend high intensity metcons too? I follow your lifting but find my metcon lagging. Do you recommend both? I want to train for next years CF games.
The answer will depend entirely on the athlete's intentions, so in your case, wanting to compete in the CF games, the answer would be "yes". (to be clear, if you’re a weightlifter, my answer is no). If you're training for a competition that involves high-intensity conditioning events, you're going to need to train high-intensity conditioning at some point. How you actually program that training is a much bigger question, and I don't have a perfect answer for you, although I do have opinions about it (links to related articles are at the end).
First, strength drives everything. That's your foundation, even if you run marathons. How much you develop that foundation will depend on the needs of your sport. For the marathoner, that won't be very extensively; for the competitive CrossFitter, it will be considerably more extensively, although less than a strength athlete like a weightlifter.
As CrossFit™ has evolved, it has unquestionably shifted more toward endurance and stamina, and strength has been playing a smaller role. We can see this just in the games themselves. The first year had an actual total competition: max singles in the squat, deadlift and press. In more recent years, any "strength" elements have been handicapped in various manners like time constraints. In short, pure strength is valued less and as a consequence, gamers need to shift their training emphasis somewhat, although that foundation of strength will remain critical.
So what we see is a big need for local muscular endurance or stamina; what could also be called strength endurance. What's the foundation of strength endurance? It's right there in the name, and it's not endurance. If you take a guy who can squat 400 lbs 5 times and a guy who can squat 50 lbs 50 times, which one would you guess could squat 200 lbs 25 times more easily? I would say the 400 lb squatter. 200 lbs is a fraction of his best squat, and the smaller percentage of a max effort a given movement is, the fewer resources the body needs in order to make it happen. Of course, there is a balance here too – no matter how strong you are, if your stamina isn't developed adequately, you can be sidelined by things like poor lactic acid buffering and clearance; if your cardiorespiratory endurance isn't developed, you can be sidelined by poor gas exchange.
This just means that on top of the strength foundation, you need to develop the athletic qualities that will cover the needs of the event. In basic terms, this will be local muscular endurance across the body, cardiorespiratory endurance, joint/connective tissue conditioning, and event-specific skill.
Local muscular endurance needs to be developed through repetition volume in a compressed timeframe. That is, repeating a certain movement for around 15+ reps with minimal or no rest. There needs to be a decent number of consecutive repetitions, not just a total volume spread across the entire workout. For example, we achieve the same volume by doing a workout that has 3 rounds with 15 push-ups in each round and a workout that has 9 rounds with 5 push-ups in each round (45 push-ups). However, doing 45 push-ups 5 at a time with breaks in between while you’re doing another exercise will not develop much local muscular endurance unless 5 push-ups is a lot for you (or the other exercises in between are using the same muscles used in the push-up). Doing 15 consecutive reps will more effectively develop that stamina.
Cardiorespiratory endurance can be developed in more than one way, although in the context of CrossFit, it’s largely done through mixed-mode circuit training. This is where manipulation of the workout structure can do some interesting things. Using the above example, we might have a workout with 3 rounds of 15 push-ups, 15 squats and 15 pull-ups. This gives us a total of 45 reps of each. The emphasis of this workout will be local muscular endurance because of the larger number of consecutive repetitions. If we take the same total numbers and do 9 rounds of 5 push-ups, 5 squats and 5 pull-ups, an individual who can do the first workout essentially unbroken will be able to do this one without any limitations of stamina. That is, he or she will be able to do each round of 5 reps without breaking them up because this is well below the stamina threshold for those movements.
However, what this means is that he or she can move continuously from movement to movement without rest during each one. Before one body part can get fatigued enough to slow down the reps or force a break between reps, the athlete moves on to an exercise using different body parts. In this way, the demand on the cardiorespiratory system is continuous and builds throughout (if the exercises are not difficult enough, the demand will not be very high). Add in some monostructural work to such a workout, such as a run or row, and you’ve basically just extended the cardiorespiratory effort (unless you put in long enough of either that the effort is limited by local muscular endurance).
And of course for cardiorespiratory endurance, there is always long duration monostructural work like distance running. Normally I’m not a big proponent of it, but the reality with CrossFit™ is that they like throwing wrenches into big strong peoples’ engines with distance events, so you need to be prepared by doing these kinds of efforts periodically.
Joint and connective tissue conditioning is achieved over the long term through smart and progressive exposure to the stresses that come along with heavy lifting, repetitive motions, ballistic loading and impact absorption. If you never run more than 400 meters in training and suddenly find yourself at the CF games facing a 7 km trail run, you might run into some problems with your knees, ankles, shins and hips hurting (and might have some trouble with the endurance aspect as well).
Finally, skill development. At the risk of offending a lot of people, I’m going to say that CrossFit™ is a low-skill activity. However, before you get upset, let me explain, because it doesn’t have to be that way. As the emphasis has changed over the years, there has been less and less focus and attention paid to developing higher-level skills such as gymnastics movements and the Olympic lifts. The suggestion to regularly learn and play new sports has fallen by the wayside as CrossFit™ itself has become the sport. This simply means that motor skills are not being developed and practiced as much as they once were and the movements used most frequently are relatively simple, and the ones that are more complex are often performed with simpler interpretations (or simply poor execution).
I’ve argued for years, and have been berated and even had my CrossFit™ affiliation revoked for it, that skill development needs to play a larger role and offers nothing but benefits to anyone, from the recreational fitness enthusiast to the CF games competitor. I’ve talked about this at length in other articles, so I won’t do it again here. I’ll summarize a main material point by saying if you can perform a given skill well, you can also do it poorly, more quickly, etc if you decide for some reason that the circumstances warrant it; the inverse is not true. Suffice to say that it’s absurd to believe being more technically proficient at anything involved in CF would do anything but improve your performance in the games.
So, this is a circumlocutory way of saying: Yes, you need to do metCons if your intention is to compete in the CF games. The workouts I post on the website are not intended for CF games preparation other than as periods of strength and weightlifting focus within a longer term plan—they do have 1-3 brief conditioning workouts each week, but they are not sufficient for high-level CrossFit performance. One or more times a year you might use one of the cycles on our site, then return to more conditioning-intensive training; you might also use one of our cycles as a base and modify it to allow more conditioning work. This will help you increase your strength and weightlifting technical proficiency without wholly sacrificing your conditioning. You’ll be able to bring your conditioning back up quickly.
Two articles to take a look at that might help further are: