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Eliminating the Stopwatch: Timing Workouts
Greg Everett  |  General Training  |  December 21 2010

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Eliminating the Stopwatch: Timing Workouts, Greg Everett,
One of the defining characteristics of CrossFit training is the use of a stopwatch or clock to time workouts. This practice is often regarded as being integral to the effectiveness of the training by turning each workout into a competition and making training “measurable”. I’ve used this approach in the past; prior to my introduction to CrossFit, I never used it with myself or my clients; and as of about a year ago, we no longer time workouts at Catalyst Athletics—even ones that taste a bit like CrossFit.

The stopwatch on workouts has bothered me for quite some time, but I ignored it for a couple years, working around the related problems in every possible way except the most obvious and sensible—removing the stopwatch.

We now give our clients the option to time their own workouts, but our trainers don’t do it. Interestingly enough, very few of our clients time their workouts even with this option available. When we do an actual CrossFit workout (About once monthly, we use one of the good old diagnostic workouts: Cindy, Diane, Fran, Helen and Jackie), we time it—in that case, a time is actually useful for clients to compare previous performances.

My problems with the stopwatch:

1) The only competition clients have while exercising is themselves, both metaphysically and practically. We can pretend that our clients are competing against each other in some kind of sport, but their times are meaningless unless all of your clients are duplications of the same person with the same abilities using the same weights.

2) I don’t care how much you emphasize proper exercise execution—once someone is racing a clock, they will sacrifice movement for speed. If you buy into the CrossFit notion that work capacity / power output trumps all, this doesn’t matter. If you disagree with the philosophy, it’s a serious problem. I believe that movement and the manner in which it’s performed is extremely important.

3) Not having an actual clock on your workout doesn’t prevent you from pushing the pace. However, not having a clock does help you focus on what’s most important.

4) Times from workouts seem to dominate in terms of importance in clients’ minds when instead they should be paying attention to the loads they’re using, the accuracy of their movements, the type and magnitude of exertion and just about anything else other than time.

5) If your training is set up to be constantly varied and you never repeat a workout, what utility is a time? There’s nothing to compare it to.

Can you train well while timing everything you do? I’m sure it’s possible; it’s just tough to do, and even tougher to ensure others are doing. My first stage in getting rid of the clock at Catalyst Athletics was removing it from our introductory class series—new clients never had a workout timed until they finished this series and entered the open classes. By that time, we had instilled in them a sense of priorities. If you decide to keep the clock running, I would strongly encourage keeping new clients off the clock during their initial period of training.
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Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, head coach of the national-medalist Catalyst Athletics weightlifting team, publisher of The Performance Menu, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, and director/writer/producer/editor/everything of the documentary American Weightlifting. Follow him on Facebook here and and sign up for his free newsletter here.
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13 Comments
Joe 1 | 2010-12-21
I think that this is a great idea Greg. I stopped using the stopwatch about a year ago when I transitioned into your regime. I would find myself trying to squeeze in as many snatches in 5 minutes without rest and always wonder why my form sucked and my back hurt. I only use it now when friends come over and want to beat themselves up "for time".
David Boyle 2 | 2010-12-21
Great post and more importantly an opposing viewpoint to the ever so increasing notion that crossfit is the one an only way to train. I agree that timing some training is important...but I've found myself in the past worrying way tooo much about my time and missing the good session I got. When I train my Marines I see they care less about the time they finish..they just want to finish!
Marcus Herou 3 | 2010-12-22
Nice post. However in my opinion it is not black and white. I for example emphazise form when training OLy, Powerlifting, gymnastics etc. However in a metcon I really do not care as long as my back is quite straight. For example: Today I will do front squats and cleans prior to a metcon where I am racing against a friend of mine. In the FS and Clean I will think a lot more about the technique compared to the metcon which bytw have 50kg snatches as part of the program. I am pretty sure that I am as of current following a path to both better execution quality, strength and endurance. However I understand what you mean. I would not allow the beginner myself to perform a metcon with the sloppy style I used to have. If I prior to CF had experience with correct technique my advancement would have been even faster.
Crossfit Billy, Olympic Crossfit 4 | 2010-12-22
Greg, I see your point and I understand your reasoning. I differ though in that I think that the stopwatch is a very important training tool. I agree with Marcus that this should not be considered an all or nothing proposition. Beginners should not be timed, ever. We don't do it at our box and I hope that this is not common practice at other facilities. The priorities of progression are: master the mechanics of the movement, get consistent with those mechanics and only then can you ramp into intensity. In a metcon with our athletes we only allow small breaks in form, maybe 90 percent of perfect execution. If the athlete degrades his/her form any more then that, they will be prompted to "slow down and do it right". I believe that athletes will push harder when in competition, even if its with themselves and an easy way to accomplish this is with a stopwatch. Have Fun, Train Hard, Billy Greg, by the way, I have a ton of respect for what you've built at Catalyst Athletics. Big Paleo Kudos to you and your team :-)
James Seay 5 | 2010-12-22
As a member of Catalyst who went through the transition from timed to untimed, I can tell you that, as soon as the stopwatches were hung up, the load that people were using for the various tasks/exercises went up and everyone's form got much much better. Except for kipping pull-ups as many (including me) started working on their dead-hang pull-ups instead.
Erik 6 | 2010-12-22
I think that Coach Glassman would totally agree with this on many points. Central to the CrossFit Charter is the notion of "mechanics first, next, consistency, and then and only then, intensity". CrossFit, during it's evolution, has identified the problems inherent with the stopwatch after noticing people's behavior. There are some CrossFit athletes that will sacrifice everything for the sake of time, some that sacrifice time for form, and those that rightly balance the two.
Paul 7 | 2010-12-24
Timely info. (pun intended) With the new year coming up, I will be re-emphasizing the basics and eliminating the stopwatch for all my groups. We'll use it as you say in the diagnostic workouts and a few other circumstances, but I'm excited to see how the athletes approach the workouts without the "pressure" of going for time. Thanks Greg.
Tom 8 | 2010-12-25
Good article Greg. I agree for the most part. Any heavy or technical work is done without the watch, but I do use it for finishers at the end of the workout with peope. Short circuits with kb work, rowing, weighted carries, or sprints lend themselves well to it. Especially when doing short intervals to ensure keeping a pace up and cutting off the session when performance drops off.
Mark (coach UK) 9 | 2010-12-30
I fully agree with Gregg. The stopwatch is a useful tool and always will be, however the way that it is used in 'CF' has diluted its use. # People race through met-cons to beat the guy next to them, and unless, like Gregg stated, they both do the exact same ROM every time the stopwatch is worthless. # Individuals who time everything become obsessed at beating the last time, having this pressure before they start emphasises poor movement over good movement just to gain seconds. I agree with Tom ref using a StpW for timed circuits and shuttles etc but that is entirely a different thing to timing a met-con workout done as CF like to say 'AFAP'.
Michael 10 | 2011-10-10
I totally agree with this line of thinking. I have been CFing for nine months and it has changed my life. However, as much as I know the importance of proper form above all else, I find myself at times sacrificing it for time or adding more weight than I know I should, all in order to compete with the clock or others in the class I have no business competing with! A 43 yr old in decent shape vs 29 yr old firebreather is an injury waiting to happen. Probably just my own vanity, but maybe not. I often see others doing the same thing. I think once that clock starts a lot of important pieces of the puzzle get lost. This is one reason why I have decided to go the home gym route. I spent a year’s worth of dues on bumpers, bars, rack and other equipment, sans clock. I feel this way I can use weight I know I can safely handle and increase accordingly without feeling like a wee-man because I can’t keep up with the class stud. And I love point # 3) “Not having an actual clock on your workout doesn’t prevent you from pushing the pace. However, not having a clock does help you focus on what’s most important.” I’m sure I will still get a good sweat and elevated heart rate. Thanks for this great resource Greg. I’m sure I will be making much use of it now that I’m taking matters into my own hands.
Patrick 11 | 2014-04-23
I put away the stopwatch ~5 years ago. A wise man once said, "Men will die for points." I thought, "Why kill myself?" When you're training others, that question becomes even more relevant. Thanks for posting this.
John 12 | 2014-04-23
Your first point might be the most relevant to the most people. I'm 145lbs and the Rx weights are usually brutal for me. I'd lije to see Rx's based off bodyweight percentages. If we are all on the same level then the clock doea become relevant. Also in a typical CF gym there are a lot of classes each day. I ofteb loon at the times posted on the board to set expectations and find my rabbit to chase. Also the concern that people are more focussed on the clock is reasonable. But also easily fixed. Give the coach the only clock in the room. Its like having a clock in a class room. You start looking at it too much. Your last point is all too true though. A good CF program will revisit past workouts but it is a tedious thing to record every workout. Meassuring the benchmark workouts is much more important.
Shawn 13 | 2014-04-24
I think you are missing a vital angle here. The #1 attribute of any person successfully training, is a desire to workout. You are approaching this through the eyes of someone who loves to workout, this is obviously not the case for everyone. For those who have not yet found the fun in working out, the time/competition aspect can add it. In other words, thanks in no small part to the time/competition aspect, CrossFit taught me how to have fun working out. I think this is probably CrossFit's greatest asset. Note: Im not saying this is the only way to make working out fun, but it certainly worked for me.
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