Plandomization: CrossFit, Periodization and Planning
Periodization has become a bad word in CrossFit Land. My optimistic view on this phenomenon is that it’s due simply to widespread misunderstanding of what exactly periodization is, how variable its implementation can be, and not only its value when used correctly, but its necessity in some form for anyone but the complete beginner. The cynic in me, on the other hand, believes this vehement aversion to periodization of any nature is more a product of frequent bad-mouthing by individuals in positions of authority who fail to grasp the fundamentals and are much more willing to disparage periodization and its proponents and claim a degree of authority so extravagant it exceeds the intellectual capacity of the totality of the world’s coaches and athletes, rather than admit a lack of understanding and spend some time learning from others.
Having said this, I feel a need to clarify that I do believe much periodization is constructed poorly and falls short of its intended goals. This, however, demonstrates an individual’s ineptitude or inexperience, not a fundamental flaw in the concept itself.
Part of the problem is likely due to the association of specific models with periodization itself; that is, too many people believe periodization to be a particular structure, likely one they’ve seen in some internet article (or one of those silly digital journals).
Periodization is simply planning. It’s creating a structure to guide one’s training during a given period of time. It doesn’t necessarily mean a progression from higher volume and lower intensity to lower volume and higher intensity, although this basic trend does have a fair degree of utility. In another sense, periodization is the segmentation of training into blocks of time that allow some degree of emphasis on certain traits over others. The bottom line, the term periodization should be considered synonymous with planning.
Ends & Means
Let me go ahead and distill this entire article to its essence: If you have no plan with regard to your training, you’re an idiot. Abrasive, I know, but this point needs to sink in.
The idea that you can make maximal progress without a plan in any pursuit, whether it’s athletics, business, or space travel, is absurd. Can you make progress without a plan? Sure. You can pretty much guarantee some degree of improvement over a long enough period of time with consistent hard work. But being satisfied with minimal progress when greater progress is entirely achievable is just stupid.
Does this mean everyone needs to know exactly what they’ll be doing every day for the next twelve months? Of course not. Planning comes in many different forms and degrees of precision, and those characteristics will vary according to individual needs.
We can plan everything from a single workout, to a short series of workouts in a week, to an entire year of training. How detailed each of these plans is will change according to individual need, but planning on all of these levels should exist in some manner. Without it, we’re just crossing our fingers.
So we have this thing called CrossFit. Its intention is to create fitness, which has been defined by Greg Glassman as increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. That’s fancy-talk for being able to do more shit.
CrossFit is a somewhat nebulous program involving “constantly varied, if not randomized, functional movement performed at high intensity.” This notion of randomness has become an eclipsing focus of many CrossFit athletes and trainers. Quite possibly this is because approaching training randomly effectively masks a lack of programming ability and gives one a false sense of programming expertise. Anyone can throw a list of exercises and numbers on a whiteboard; far fewer can create workouts that, over a given period of time, ensure an athlete accomplishes his or her goals.
An entirely random approach to training, in my humble, lowly, uneducated opinion, is a mistake. Being prepared for any random task is not the same thing as preparing randomly for any task. The importance of this point cannot be overstated.
Being prepared for anything means balancing and improving equally, on average over time, the range of athletic traits. The list created by Jim Cawley of Dynamax is a nice guide: Strength, power, speed, endurance, stamina, flexibility, balance, coordination, agility and accuracy.
This balancing of traits is done by improving one’s weaknesses without sacrificing one’s strengths unnecessarily until every trait is within a reasonable range of equality, at which time elements can be trained in a more balanced fashion (although emphasis of certain elements during certain times will continue to allow greater progress even in a reasonably balanced athlete). How does one improve one’s lacking elements of fitness? By emphasizing those elements in training for given periods of time—not necessarily continuously—until they’re no longer weaknesses. Sound like anything we’ve talked about thus far?
People & Places
We have a few basic kinds of people to consider with regard to all this planning nonsense.
First are individuals who must be as balanced as possible—that is, prepared for any contingency—at all times. This includes military personnel, law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMS personnel and the like whose lives and careers depend on being physically capable of managing extreme physical demands without prior notice. A cop doesn’t have the luxury, for example, of training for a particularly brutal arrest and control situation a given date.
Competitive athletes, on the other hand, do have competition schedules and know when and where they’ll need their particular set of physical traits. Occasionally athletes like fighters will take on last-minute events other than ones for which they’ve been preparing, but this is comparatively uncommon, and for these athletes, whether or not to take a fight is ultimately a choice, not a requirement.
Finally we have the vast majority of the exercising population—individuals who seek fitness for its own sake, for health, for improvement of their chosen recreational activities, and even for the enjoyment of training itself. These individuals have no schedule at all, and no need to be prepared in perfect balance at any given moment (an exception might be an individual planning to do something goofy like hike up a big ass mountain during a family vacation).
The optimist in me believes it should be strikingly obvious that the training needs of these three groups are not the same; the cynic knows that too many of each group have been convinced that they should all be preparing the same way.
Everyone from each of these groups has strengths and weaknesses. Those weaknesses need to be addressed if that individual is to achieve the level of fitness being sought. Again, these things are addressed by emphasizing particular elements—whether specific exercises or entire modalities—in order to bring them up to speed with the remainder of an individual’s abilities.
This need to emphasize certain elements doesn’t change among individuals, irrespective of career, sport, or hairstyle; what changes is the degree to which one can emphasize a given element over others. In other words, the less the demand for constant readiness, the more we can temporarily and slightly compromise certain abilities for the sake of improving those needing the most improvement.
Compromise is for Pussies! (and Married Men)
So why should we compromise any element of fitness at anytime? Because in order to genuinely emphasize one element, we need to create slack elsewhere. There is a very real limit to how much the human body can handle simultaneously, and attempting to perform at 100% across the board at all times is a guaranteed recipe for stagnation if not utter disaster.
Interestingly enough, this notion is often dismissed because emphasis and compromise are mistakenly interpreted as specialization and sacrifice. Again, it’s critical to understand that it’s entirely possible to adjust the degree of emphasis and compromise to be appropriate for any individual in any case.
The fact is that emphasis means greater progress. This cannot be denied without delusion. We can demonstrate this fact by looking to athletic specialists. The strongest athletes in the world, for example, are those who train exclusively for strength and forsake all other elements of fitness that fail to contribute to being stronger in an athlete’s event(s). This fact is known to anyone who considers it for a moment, but is often forgotten when entering into passionate discussions regarding fitness.
This rule of emphasis producing greater results can be applied even when fitness is our goal—again, we just modulate the degree of emphasis to better preserve the de-emphasized elements.
A perfect example of this is Michael Rutherford’s Max Effort Black Box program, which seeks to maintain a rather high level of fitness while emphasizing strength development, and has been very successful with accomplishing this goal. It doesn't sacrifice fitness, and, arguably, improves it by increasing the individual’s strength, which appears overwhelmingly to be the trait most lacking in CrossFitters. The athlete’s performance on longer-duration metabolic workouts may suffer somewhat, but ultimately, such workouts are less builders of fitness than tests of it, and to a large degree, tests of mental fortitude more than physical ability.
The degree of emphasis in a program is commensurate to the degree of compromise. In other words, with more compromise, we can achieve greater improvement in the trait being emphasized (this is not to say that we necessarily need to emphasize/compromise to a great degree in all cases). This rule is important to keep in mind when creating programs to ensure one doesn’t mistakenly expect to be able to emphasize to an extent beyond what is allowed by the associated compromise.
Everybody’s Doing It
The funny thing (maybe not funny—more exasperating, I suppose) is that nearly every CrossFitter does in fact plan and emphasize certain elements to some extent, knowingly or not (the only ones who don’t are the same folks who flail around helplessly in the rest of their lives as well). Every CrossFitter knows what he or she sucks at most—and, thankfully, sucking at exercise-related things is discouraged in the CrossFit community (although sucking seems to be quite popular…).
I can’t do a muscle-up yet and I feel like a tool! I’m going to drop in more ring dips and false-grip ring pull-ups so I can get one. That sounds suspiciously like emphasis and planning.
So it’s being done already—the problem is that it’s typically not being done well (it’s hard to do something well when you either don’t know you’re doing it or refuse to admit you’re doing it). If more people would acknowledge the need to focus on improving their weaknesses, and learn better ways of training to specifically improve them, we’d find not more specialized athletes, but more balanced CrossFitters.
I am a Specialist. At Everything.
Planning is really not that complicated: Determine a goal and decide on a method of achieving it. The key with goal-setting is being reasonable: don’t be the guy who makes a goal of adding 50 kg to his back squat in four weeks. It’s far more productive to continually make more modest goals, and to continually achieve them on a more frequent basis. This regular accomplishment of goals also keeps the athlete motivated and training hard and consistently, rather than frustrated and training half-heartedly and sporadically.
The generalist will need to have more conservative long-term goals than the specialist, but often short-term goals for generalists can be more ambitious than their specialist counterparts’ because those specialists will be far more advanced in their development. In any case, goals need to be limited in number during any given period—the classic rookie mistake is trying to do everything at the same time to the same degree (Sound like anyone you know?).
This is where creating periods of time to focus on different goals comes into play. If we have a CrossFitter who wants to snatch bodyweight, but also wants to be able to add three more rounds to his Cindy, we have two goals that are not remarkably complementary. This athlete is going to get a lot more accomplished if he or she spends some time improving his or her snatch technique and snatch-related strength while preserving metabolic conditioning as well as possible, and then spending some time improving Cindy-specific stamina while preserving his or her new-found snatching ability, than trying to do both together.
This reality is often dismissed with anecdotes of CrossFitters who added 7,000 lbs to their deadlifts while losing 350 lbs of pure fat and dropping 5 minutes off their Fran times—all while simply following the crossfit.com WOD. This argument, of course, fails to consider the remarkable capacity for adaption of untrained or deconditioned individuals, and the comparatively limited capacity of individuals with many years of smart training under their belts. If an individual is untrained enough, I can improve his deadlift with nothing more than vigorous nose-picking. The point is, what works for beginners (which is anything at all) doesn’t work for more advanced athletes. The more advanced an athlete is, the closer he or she is to his ultimate capacity, and the more necessary legitimate planning becomes. Again, for demonstration of this, look to athletic specialists.
Part of CrossFit’s effectiveness is the constant variation of the metabolic workouts in terms of exercises, reps, rounds, etc. (as an aside, its biggest weakness is the constant variation and random implementation of strength work).
So how do we reconcile this notion of constant variation with planning for specific goals? Simple: we plan the fundamental structure of our training—the training that is helping us accomplish our current primary goal—and fill in the spaces with more randomized—but smart—training that takes into consideration our secondary goals.
Most often what this will look like (or should look like, considering the current state of CrossFitters at large) is a structured strength program accompanied by CrossFit-style metabolic workouts. These workouts will be varied continually, but they should not be randomly created. At minimum, these workouts should be constructed in a manner than doesn’t interfere with the strength work; ideally, they should be constructed with an effort to work toward accomplishing a secondary goal.
A secondary goal needs to be kept just that—it’s easy to get carried away and attempt to achieve too much at once, which nearly always results in failure across the board. Secondary-goal-oriented programming would be the emphasis of exercises or elements that have proven to be weaknesses for the athlete in question within actual CrossFit workouts. This might look like increased frequency of pull-ups in metCons for individuals whose pull-ups suck, or an increase in box jump height for an athlete who realizes he or she has been sandbagging with little girl boxes and needs to actually put effort into jumping. It may be spending a few more minutes before and after every workout on flexibility and mobility, or taking a little ego hit and performing dumbbell cleans instead of power cleans in order to shore up bottom-position weakness.
In other words, it doesn’t need to involve any kind of extravagant planning—simply being cognizant of minor weaknesses and ensuring such exercises or elements don’t continue to be neglected. As those elements improve sufficiently, we move on to the next crop of weaknesses.
This is exactly how I approach the CrossFit programming at Catalyst Athletics. I can tell you exactly what strength work our CrossFitters will be doing six Tuesdays from now, but I can’t tell you what metCon they’ll be doing that day yet. I plan seven-week strength cycles, but I plan each week’s metCons the week prior. When creating these metCons, I consider the strength workout on the same day and the rest of the week, the other metCons that week, and the metCons from prior weeks, along with the weaknesses and strengths I see in our clients. Based on this information, I have goals for them, both short- and long-term, and I create workouts and workout series to accomplish these goals. In other words, while the metCons are constantly varied, they’re by no means random.
Work on It
This article is more of an attempt to motivate smarter programming by CrossFit athletes and trainers than to provide actual guidance for such programming. Guidance of that nature requires far more information than can be contained in an article like this—it requires active pursuit of pertinent information, experimentation, and discussion with other professionals.
If you believe you know all there is to know about programming, you haven’t done your homework. There is always more information out there, and there will always be someone who knows something you don’t. Learn to be unsatisfied with your current abilities.