Periodized Programming for CrossFit® Training
Take Home Points:
- Those new to training don't need complex training programs to make progress.
- As training continues over time progress is harder to make and applying a focus or bias to aspects of your training can improve your results.
- For those conducting CrossFit® training, a periodized approach to training is a great way to ensure progress structured around an event or competition.
- Periodization can be customized in many ways to suit an individual or group.
First, some context. The programming structure discussed in this article is by no means required for CrossFit® training. It is just one example of how programming can be structured for individuals who are no longer beginners. With that being said, let's start from the beginning.
CrossFit® is a fitness program that seeks to make individuals above average in multiple skill sets (strength, power, agility, balance, coordination, speed, muscular stamina, metabolic conditioning, flexibility, and accuracy). The aim is to accomplish this gradually over time by constantly varying specific exercises under relatively high levels of intensity.
For someone just starting out their fitness journey, virtually every program will help them improve their fitness (the novice effect). However, if the individual plans to make serious long-term improvements, it is our opinion here at Science for Fitness (SFF) that all individuals should begin their journey with a strength program. The reasons for this are detailed in our previous article here. In short, strength can improve all of the skill sets listed above.
After building a foundation of strength, CrossFit® training will be more enjoyable and effective. When initially starting out in CrossFit® there will be additional novice effects from this type of training - rapid gains will be made in a variety of areas as the constantly varied exercises, rep schedules, and time frames will be new stimuli to one's body. Because of this, no special periodized program is needed to progress when starting; the standard tenets of CrossFit® programming philosophy are all that one needs to progress.
Intermediate TrainingAs one progresses in their CrossFit® training, rapid improvements will fade and longer periods of time will be required to manifest measurable improvements in the varied skill sets being trained. At this time, when one is an intermediate trainee, adding a bit of focus (or bias) to one's training program can be very useful, especially for strength (which takes a long time to build), weightlifting (which requires extensive practice to master) and weaknesses (which must be worked on repeatedly to improve). A common way to add focus to specific periods of training is to periodize the training program into phases or blocks. Each block will have a specific emphasis to make sure increased progress is made in that area. Blocks can be any duration in length, but staging month-long blocks tends to work well. Staging is even easier if there is an event that your training can be structured around, such as a day of testing or a competition.
Every year around February the CrossFit® community is abuzz with talk of the CrossFit Open. This multi-week event is a precursor stage to the CrossFit Games® where the “fittest” people alive are crowned. When the Open was first introduced in 2011 it was more of a community fitness event. Everyone of all skill levels were encouraged to participate and although some harder movements would appear (i.e., muscle-ups), they would generally appear towards the end of the five Open workouts enabling most people to get several scores in before being “eliminated.” Then, over the years, the Open became a truly competitive sporting event. These days, with a change in leadership at CrossFit® headquarters, the Open is geared much more to the general community: less than five total workouts to complete and workout structures that are generally not too demanding in terms of technical movements or weight lifted. Although we do not know what the focus and difficulty level of future Open workouts will be, the event is a great opportunity around which to stage periodized programming.
I want to emphasize up front that periodized programming is not necessary for everyone. In particular, this programming is not necessary for:
- Beginner CrossFitters (less than 6 months of experience).
- Those only interested in general health & fitness.
The above said, periodization can still be used for beginners and those with no interest in competing. For intermediate CrossFitters with an eye on the Open or who feel they are behind in certain areas (e.g., strength, technical skills, stamina), periodization can be especially helpful.
The Year at a GlanceA possible yearly breakdown for periodized CrossFit® training might look like this:
Note the blocks listed above represent the training emphasis for each of those months. As will be detailed below, they do not mean that only those types of training will be performed.
The Blocks in Detail
March-May: Strength: In March the Open has come to a close and summer has not yet begun. This is the perfect time to focus your training on getting stronger. The vast majority of intermediate CrossFitters are nowhere near their strength potential – they are still novices for strength. This is readily apparent if they take several cycles of a linear progression strength training program as detailed in the Starting Strength method. The gains they can make are striking. Just ask anyone who has worked with me (check out our Client Testimonials for specific examples).
June-August: CrossFit: For a CrossFitter, actually doing CrossFit® as much as possible is important, so there is a 3-month block here where you will just focus on CrossFit® training. I’ve placed this large block of CrossFit® training during the summer months because it is during these 3 months that people are most active and “outside.” Vacations, sports, and lounging on the beach are popular activities during these months and CrossFit® training will enable you to look your leanest while giving you flexibility to train in a variety of locations on different days should your schedule vary due to summer activities.
September-October: Strength: After summer I recommend returning to strength once again. You will likely need several 8-week cycles to exhaust all of your novice strength gains and placing a second one right after beach season is perfect. If this is not your first strength cycle, small amounts of conditioning can be integrated into your strength programming.
November-December: Speed Strength (Olympic Weightlifting): The olympic lifts (clean & jerk and the snatch) are staple movements in CrossFit®; they appear in many named workouts and are extremely technical. Technical movements require constant practice in order to maintain proficiency and while you will have been practicing them in CrossFit® during the summer, it will benefit you greatly to focus on your form and efficiency as the Open nears. Thus, during this winter block enrolling in a dedicated olympic lifting cycle is highly recommended. Slightly more conditioning can and should be added during this time.
January: CrossFit® (Weaknesses): A month before the Open you should be immersed 100% into CrossFit® training and it is time to take stock and focus heavily on your biggest weaknesses. You should have a serious eye on what you need to improve for the Open and plan how you will work on those elements. Perhaps it’s double under proficiency, or squatting stamina, or your kipping skill. Whatever your biggest weaknesses are, make sure you hammer them (e.g., target classes that train your weaknesses, put in extra time on your own to round things out).
February-March: CrossFit Open: The event you have been training for has arrived. The focus now should be on doing whatever is necessary to perform at your best during each of the Open workouts. This means monitoring your nutrition, sleep, stress, and training volume closely.
Why is there so much strength work?
Strength is emphasized more than once because it takes a very long time to develop and affects nearly every aspect of performance in the Open. For example, although pull-ups, chest-to-bar pull-ups, ring muscle-ups, and bar muscle-ups require skill, if you don’t have the prerequisite strength, the skills won’t get you very far (and you actually could get injured if you attempt them without the necessary strength). In addition, the stronger you are, the less fatigued you will be from a given weight. For example, imagine how light 95lb thrusters will feel if your squat and press 1RMs are 355lbs and 150lbs, respectively versus if they were only 255lbs and 125lbs.
Should I always be doing cycles with barbell lifts (i.e., the Starting Strength method) during my strength blocks? What about other types of strength work?
You should definitely make the major barbell lifts a priority until you obtain all of your novice strength gains. This is the most efficient way to build overall strength. Once you have run your novice strength gains out, you can add in specific/positional strength work.
Do I have to do strength blocks twice a year and then keep doing them year after year?
Not necessarily. Two blocks are suggested to accelerate the process and help you get your novice strength gains quicker. You can just use one block per year – the process will just be slower. Once you have all your novice strength gains, you can switch to once a year blocks or even remove the strength blocks entirely, opting instead to spread your strength work out more evenly across the May-December months. If you choose this latter option, you will need to be mindful of how you integrate strength work into your regular CrossFit programming so as to maintain it adequately.
Won’t I lose my conditioning with two strength blocks and a weightlifting block during the year?
You won’t always be removing conditioning during strength and weightlifting blocks. However, it will be noticeably less prominent during strength blocks. Try and take your very first strength cycle in March/April. You shouldn’t be doing any extra conditioning, sports, or outside activity during this first cycle and yes your conditioning will drop somewhat, but for the rest of the year you will be able to train & develop your metabolic conditioning in some fashion. Remember, metabolic conditioning can be developed much quicker than strength.
Can you explain in more detail how this training & development of my metabolic conditioning will happen?
Assuming you begin with your first strength cycle in March/April as a rank novice the progression will look like this:
As a rank novice (first time) taking a strength cycle in March/April you should be doing minimal to no other outside activity. The program will demand all of your recovery potential outside of lifting. Your conditioning will drop slightly, but getting strong is worth it (your 80-year-old self will thank you).
When summer follows you will ramp up conditioning extensively and will see improvements beyond the levels you had before your first strength cycle.
In September, since you are no longer a rank novice taking strength cycle (you have one cycle under your belt), you can add in some conditioning.
In October, as you move to olympic lifting, you will be able to do even more conditioning on a regular basis.
Finally, when January comes around, you are back to CrossFit® full steam with about 1.5 months of focused preparation for the Open.
The more strength cycles you have under your belt, the more conditioning you can safely work into strength cycle blocks, so looking at the big picture, you are simply making a few small, early sacrifices for greater long-term performance gains.
Am I supposed to be working on my weaknesses only in January? Is that enough time?
January is just a month for you to focus on weaknesses as they stand at that time of year – with the Open right around the corner. You can and should be working on weaknesses throughout the year. The strength blocks as written are helping you with one of your weaknesses, but you can work on others. For example, if you need to develop/improve your double unders, they can be practiced on a regular basis, if pull-ups are a weakness, you can work those into your strength program, if your overhead flexibility is lacking, that can be improved on a regular basis as well, and so on.
Do I have to complete the blocks in the exact monthly order you have listed them above?
Not at all. You can even make different blocks. Every athlete is different in both their skill level, training goals, personal responsibilities, etc. Invariably you will have to adjust the above plan in some way. The purpose of this article was to introduce you to the periodization concept and give an example of how it can be applied. If you need further assistance in developing a plan that works for you, just drop us a line - we will be happy to help.