CrossFit and Programming


CrossFit and Programming:

Here is my problem with CrossFit’s program: There isn’t one.

Why am I being so critical of CrossFit? Because I believe it can be a good program when run by professionals well trained in the health and fitness industry. Unfortunately, the inherent problem is that Greg Glassman (the founder and owner of CrossFit) does not believe in periodization and he has lost control of the affiliation process. I have had clients from a CrossFit gym where four coaches split up the programming between them. This meant every day was random (just as Greg Glassman recommends). This meant clients were doing Fran one day and heavy front squats the next – then wondering why injuries happened.

This philosophy of completely randomized training with no periodization, no true programming, and randomized selection of events is dangerous.The CrossFit games just finished and several athletes withdrew due to injury, injuries which are completely avoidable when correct programming is followed.

According to the CrossFit Training Guide: “Workouts need considerable variance or unpredictability, if not randomness, to best mimic the often-unforeseeable challenges that combat, sport and survival demand.” pg. 78, The CrossFit Training Guide

Greg Glassman was recently quoted on CrossFit’s official Instagram page: “The implication here is that fitness requires an ability to perform well at all tasks, even unfamiliar tasks and tasks combined in infinitely varying combinations. In practice, this encourages the athlete to disinvest in any set notions of sets, rest periods, reps, exercises, order of exercises, routines, periodization, etc. Nature frequently provides largely unforeseeable challenges; train for that by striving to keep the training stimulus broad and constantly varied. ”What is Fitness,” Greg Glassman, CrossFit Journal October 2002. Republished by CrossFit Instagram, August 2018.

The issue lies in the fact that every collegiate and professional athletic team follows a program. A measurable program which is NOT random. A program does not have to be (and should not be) the same workouts, reps, and sets are not repeated day after day, week after week. Rather, a program follows a theme focused on development. One month may be focused on strength, the next focused on developing power, followed by a power endurance month. Monday’s workout has a relationship to Tuesday, which has a relationship to Wednesday, and so on. At the end of each phase, testing can be done and results can be measured to track development in a particular area of fitness over time. Following a plan, injury risk is dramatically reduced and preferred outcomes are achieved faster and more efficiently.

In a study performed by the University of Rochester, 486 individuals who routinely attended CrossFit boxes were tracked over six months - 386 met the final criteria for the final study. A staggering 19.4 percent reported a “significant injury causing either: total removal from CrossFit and other physical activity for at least one week or any physical complaint severe enough to warrant a visit to a health professional.” Of the 75 injured individuals – 72 of them never reported a previous injury in the affected area. Weisenthal, B. M., Beck, C. A., Maloney, M. D., Dehaven, K. E., & Giordano, B. D. (2014)

Another study conducted in 2017 found 50 of 191 individuals suffered an injury as defined above. Over half of those suffering injury required medical attention, 20% ceased CrossFit, and 20% ceased certain movements in CrossFit. Montalvo, A. M., Shaefer, H., Rodriguez, B., Li, T., Epnere, K., & Myer, G. D. (2017)

Last week, I pointed out the number of activities in CrossFit regional events that involved using the shoulder. In both studies, the largest percent of injuries involved the shoulder. Anyone else seeing the correlation? It is because many of CrossFit’s circuits are compound circuits, meaning the movements utilize the same muscle groups or joint areas over and over again. In Regionals, events two, four, five, and six used the shoulder girdle in every single movement. Even though the events had different modalities, each and every movement used the muscles in the shoulder girdle in some form.

To be blunt, the injury rates above are unacceptable. CrossFit is supposed to be about making people healthier, but when the six-month injury rate is one in five or worse, is the “program” really as good as they say it is? Is it really helping anyone?

Looking through my college training notes – we only had ONE injury in the weight room in four years. Why? We were on a periodized program, rotating through four phases during the year: in-season, winter training, post-spring ball, and pre-season summer. Each phase had a slightly different goal, course of action, and methodology. This is similar to other athletes I know at the division one and professional level. I spent four years researching the best way to improve an athlete’s performance, in both a professional setting and with every day people.

My time at Texas Christian University, Gym Jones Seminars, and EnduraLAB have all shown the same thing – a periodized program works. The periodization can be split up different ways. A General Physical Preparation (GPP) program can raise all levels of fitness at the same time with a dedicated strength, power, power endurance, and endurance day.

Does this mean just because a strength phase is going on that all power endurance is ignored? Of course not. When I was at TCU – day one and day two were contrasting muscle groups, day three was recovery, day four and five were similar to day one and two, and days six and seven were recovery based. Notice I NEVER said the word ”Off-Day” (#NoDaysOff). At Gym Jones, the basic teaching is never more than two back-to-back hard days without a recovery day. An example for group classes in a power or strength cycle could be as follows:








5x5 Back Squat at 82% 1 rep max, 2:00 Rest 3x Bench Press at 85% 100m Sprint on Ski Erg 5 Rounds, 2:00 Rest between rounds 3000m Row 30 Push Ups 2000m Ski 20 Box Jumps 1000m Run 10 Pull Ups 2x Deadlift 3x Box Jump 6 Rounds 4x10 Strict Press 5K Team Ski 500 Cal Team Bike 5K Team Row 60 Minute walk or hike
21-15-9 Wall Ball/Row Calories 20x Push Press, 20x Burpee Pull Up
10x Push Press, 10x Burpee Pull Up
For Time
For those who came Monday and Tuesday: just the row, ski, run at 75% effort. For those coming from an off day, workout as written. 21-15-9 Row Cal Thruster AirFit Cal 40x Push Up 30x Double Under 20x Push Press 10x Burpee
10x Bulgarian Split Squat 5x Single Leg Box Squat 5 Rounds, each leg 3x12 Three Way Raise 8x Single Leg Deadlift 30m Farmer Carry 4 Rounds 12:00 PM: 10x Med Ball Sit Up 10x Russian Twist 15x Crunch 4 Rounds

Yes, the goal is strength, but there is still some breathing work in there to supplement the primary strength work. Likewise, during a power endurance phase, one or two days per week will be dedicated to strength and power.

The Plateau: The non-periodized, randomized training also leads to premature plateaus. CrossFit will work for the average person for a while, but after a year or two, people may start to notice they are not getting any stronger or faster. This is due to the plateau effect of randomized training with few goals and little purpose. So, what’s the best way to bust through the plateau? A program, set with specific goals and training sessions. I have it on good authority that athletes in the CrossFit games are, in fact, following a periodized program. Most CrossFit workouts are simply a test of the effectiveness of the program. Some tests might be used as a training sessions, while others are simply meant to test a person with no performance benefit. Knowing the difference between exercising, training, and testing is critical to growth in the gym. They all have their place, but do you know the difference?

The Movements Olympic lifting is NOT TO BE USED FOR CONDITIONING. Olympic lifting has its place on a power day, not a power endurance event.

When you perform a workout, two systems are stressed: physical (energy and ATP) and neurological (CNS fatigue). The problem with olympic lifts is that CNS fatigue happens before physical exhaustion. Fatigue causes a breakdown in form which is critical in olympic lifts due to the explosive nature of the exercise and force required to move the weight. High-rep olympic lifting serves no performance purpose. If the goal is to gas someone, burpees, box jumps, toe taps, wall balls, double wall balls, slam balls, and countless other modalities will accomplish the same goals while minimizing injury risk.

Here is mine, and many others belief. Someone thought olympic lifts looked cool and thought it could be used for conditioning purposes. CNS and form breakdown occur before true physical exhaustion is achieved, limiting their productiveness for performance benefits. When used for conditioning, all olympic lifts do is massively increase the injury risk. A slight curve in the spine can increase the force on the lumbar area by over 20x. Even light loads can become dangerous under this stress.

Handstand push-ups are a great way to visit your orthopedic surgeon when done incorrectly. Often, CrossFit workouts are done for time. This leads to a “speed-over-form” mentality. Athletes come down too fast from the top of the handstand, bump the head into the ground and place a force on the cervical spine in the opposite way it is designed to be loaded. Like Olympic lifting, handstand pushups have their place, but NOT in conditioning work.

Again, I believe CrossFit could have been a great program. But, due to the lack of sound physiological methods, can also be one of the most dangerous. All it takes to become a CrossFit coach is a basic understanding of nine moves, a small amount of CrossFit Kool-Aid theory, two days, and one thousand dollars. To open a gym requires only requires the basic certification and an additional three thousand dollar check to CrossFit. CrossFit gyms can do basically anything they want to do after that. It seems Mr. Glassman does not realize the difference between a test, training, and exercise. Many gyms seem to use simply use tests as training as those test is what is seen in workouts from the open, regionals and the games. My question is this - after how many injuries is a change in methodology warranted?

Weisenthal, B. M., Beck, C. A., Maloney, M. D., Dehaven, K. E., & Giordano, B. D. (2014). Injury Rate and Patterns Among CrossFit Athletes. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 2(4),

Montalvo, A. M., Shaefer, H., Rodriguez, B., Li, T., Epnere, K., & Myer, G. D. (2017). Retrospective Injury Epidemiology and Risk Factors for Injury in CrossFit. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 53-59. Retrieved August 1, 2018, from

George Cullen