August 14, 2014
Overcoming Your Plateaus and Getting Better at CrossFit
By Eric Williams
April 18, 2016
As CrossFit continues to evolve as a sport, pastime and recreational activity (beyond the domain of simply being a fitness program), many participants will want to know how to become better at it. Let’s be clear, the sport and the program are two distinct things. One can become fitter without including movement X or workout Y, because the objectives are distinctly different. Divorcing the routine from the sport is crucial to this topic. When we talk about “pulling a workout from the hopper” or the Games Open, we are no longer talking about fitness for its own sake – we are talking about competitive athletics. With that being said, if you don’t have a muscle-up or a body weight snatch or whatever your box or peers hold in esteem AND you don’t care, that’s OK! You can be fit, have fun, and enjoy yourself without ever doing these things.
If, however, you want to dig a little deeper and attempt to achieve mastery in this sport (if one can ever truly ‘master’ CrossFit), let’s go for a ride. Outlined within this article are five crucial concepts to overcoming your performance plateaus and transforming from a casual participant to a competitive CrossFitter.
Full disclosure, I am not a high-caliber athlete, I am not perfect and I have improvements of my own to make. My tone is not of condescension, but of earnest and honest feedback as to where people need to go – myself included. There is also the caveat of health. If you are not healthy, this isn’t going to work. If you have no knee cartilage left, two torn labrums and a gangrenous diabetic foot, there is a whole different conversation you ought to be having about plateaus. Let’s begin!
1. Fix your squat
Your squat is the key to this sport. Without an excellent squat, you will be forever limited. If your first reaction is, “sure, once I get about X weight on the bar, it really shapes up!”, then you have already started off on the wrong foot. Your body weight squat ought to be perfect. What do I mean? Have someone film you and make a checklist of the following:
-Heels make constant contact with the ground?
-Knees track outwards on ascent/decent?
-Weight distribution on outsides of feet?
-Neutral and primarily vertical thoracic spine?
Why so harsh on the squat? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of all movements you will be required to do in CrossFit will involve a squat of some kind. Let’s look at the 2014 Open:
14.1 – Snatches will require squat mechanics as they increase in load or you fatigue
14.2 – Overhead squats
14.3 – Box jumps will require squat mechanics at higher volumes and greater heights
14.4 – Wall balls and cleans follow the same rules as Snatches
14.5 – Thrusters
If your squat looks bad when it’s unloaded, why should you think that it will serve you well when loaded? You have to remember that just because the bar is light it doesn’t mean form is irrelevant. Repetitive stress injuries can easily occur if you have poor attention to form over a high volume of repetitions.
H O M E W O R K: Mobilize, lots of pause squats (loaded and unloaded), tape your lifts, find a role model (mine is Lu Xiaojun) and attack it. Even if you think you have a decent squat, do yourself a favor and assume it’s terrible and start from there.
2. Get with the program
On that note, at our box, we have a program for everything. We have a muscle-up program, a mobility program, a pull-up program and all kinds of supplementary activities. Let’s create an analogy – if you work 9-5 and do the same thing every day, what are your odds of career advancement and promotion? Without diving into the great debate of work-life balance, we have already established that we are looking to break plateaus and move on to the next step. Your approach at the gym should be no different.
To reiterate: merrily WODing away each and every day will get you generally fitter but it won’t necessarily make you better at CrossFit on a macro level, no matter how talented your coach is at programming. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and you need to address them.
If you are not already, you ought to be doing the following:
-DAILY targeted mobility before and after class (and not just chilling out on a foam roller)
-DAILY supplementary movements (i.e. pull-up progressions)
This is akin to taking on additional responsibility at the office or buckling down and getting that credential you have been putting off. Our program, in general, is targeted towards the average Joes who just want to come get a great workout, feel good, hang out with some nice people and be on their merry way. This is a great way to lose weight, get stronger and feel better. But, it is not specifically designed to get you better at the sport of CrossFit.
Approach your coach and say something very simple and targeted:
“Hey Coach, I really want to improve my pulling power and am willing to put in the time and effort to stick to a program to realize results. Is there something I could do, or some type of program I could follow to do that?”
“Just come to class” is not an acceptable answer just like “just keep churning out those TPS reports” is not an acceptable answer. This is assuming you don’t already have a “Level II” or a “Competitor’s Class” built into your box’s schedule.
Any coach worth their salt LIVES for that conversation. They love nothing more than to have someone share the passion they have.
H O M E W O R K: Identify what specific goals you have and get on a program to address them head on.
3. Progression of skills
Ok, now we approach some true structure. How does this all fit together? Below is my progression for what to address in what order.
First, let’s break it down by discipline. CrossFit can be broken down into four big buckets:
A. Mobility – The ability to take your body through a range of motion.
B. Skill – The ability to complete dexterous movements such as pistols and snatches.
C. Strength – The ability to move objects of varying weights over varying distances. For the purpose of this definition, strength, speed, power and other mass/distance type equations all fit into here.
D. Go – The push, the effort, the endurance, the suck, the zone, the ‘go’.
A. Get mobile
If you are as strong as a Greek God (dead 500lb+, back squat 400lb+, press 200lb+) but can only snatch 185 because you simply can’t catch a low overhead squat (or OH squat at all, for that matter…), then you are fantastically limited. CrossFit is range of motion (ROM) specific. All competitions are EXCLUSIVELY judged on ROM in one form or another and you will get nowhere if you fail to acknowledge that.
Unfortunately, you cannot coach mobility to the extent that someone can improve over a short period of time with merely tips and advice. This requires HOURS of pre-class/post-class mobilization and homework to get your body to slowly open up and restore its proper function.
A quick test of mobility: you should be able to back squat, front squat, front rack and OH squat through a full range of motion easily with a PVC pipe only. If you cannot achieve these positions without the assistance of weight, you have some work to do on mobility.
B. Get Skills
Immediately after you are mobile enough to do so, you should gather your technique up and really put it through the wringer. I have seen many a strong athlete muscle-up a 195lb clean, basically reverse curling it, and fail at 205 because their arms simply cannot come to bat any more. If you cannot do the movements WELL, you will be limited forever.
Fortunately, this can be coached. If you come to class, pay attention, do the reps and practice, practice, practice, this WILL come. Actually, when it is all said and done, getting the technique is probably the easiest part, as it’s the most fun and among the most rewarding elements of the sport.
It doesn’t come without its own Catch-22’s however. Strength seems to be at odds with the acquisition of a number of skills (kipping, double-unders, Olympic lifting), if only because these folks have relied so long on being strong to avoid having to train, train, train and retrain great technique. This is why I have also prioritized technique before strength.
A quick test of skills – the following should be easy:
100 consecutive double-unders
10 consecutive pistols each leg
5 consecutive muscle-ups, bar and ring
15 kipping pull-ups
15 toes to bar
5 kipping touch and go HSPUs
There are others, but these are the critical ones. If you cannot get through these with ease, there is a small chance you lack some baseline strength. We are also assuming at this point that you have completed the mobility requirements from the previous section. But, in all likelihood, any struggles can be attributed to a lack of technique!
C. Get Strong
Strength is very formulaic (though dependent on genes). If you put in the time, the reps and the dedication, you will get stronger. Strength, however, is tricky because it is relative. A 405lb deadlift is not the same feat for two athletes of varying size and build. There are also fairly standard bench mark weights based on the convenient stacking of plates (i.e. 225, 275, 315 deadlift, 135, 185, 225 squat, etc.). But, in general if you want some figures to shoot for:
By Movement, Gender and Bodyweight%
D. Get Going…and don’t stop
The ‘go’, in my opinion, is both the easiest and hardest skill to achieve. Easiest, because all it requires is not stopping – hardest, because it requires not stopping. The recipe is simple but the taste is bitter.
Acquisition of the go is only achieved when your brain actively starts yelling, “No, no, NO. STOP. Stop NOW. STOP IT. REST, DAMNIT!” And who are you but to oblige and take a breather? It is, after all, your BRAIN, the central command center and it knows best!
Well, it might, it might not. But one thing is for sure, if you want to get better at CrossFit, the final step is to never give up, push it to the limit, get ONE MORE REP. This is the factor that separates the naturally gifted athlete from the workhorse, the casual CrossFitter from the fire-breather and the Games competitor from the dreamer.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. This is what makes CrossFit, CrossFit. We have all been there, seen the purple spots, been so tired that sentences won’t come, shuffle around, hunched and withered, like newly turned zombies in some bizarre workout apocalypse. We have all gathered a taste of this and some of us brag that we like to drink the drink, savor the flavor and endure “the suck.” But, in order to be great, one must make it their sustenance, their survival and be unsatisfied until they reach that brink of oblivion where you CANNOT throw up one more wall ball because your legs will simply not respond to the command that your brain is giving them.
This is an uncoachable trait, but if you get there, you will have what it takes to crash through plateaus that others will never venture towards. Be warned, however, because if you cannot demonstrate competency in the previous 3 domains, then you will limit your go. If your technique is so poor that you cannot perform movements under high intensity safely and effectively, if wall balls get no-repped because your beefcake legs can’t get down far enough, if you stop at the 275lb deadlift and think, “oh, shit, this is my 2rm” then you have undermined your go. It shouldn’t matter what’s on the board – all is fair game.
A quick test of go: Do you stop during the WOD? Keep. Going.
4. Fix your attitude
Plain and simple – suck it up. Hate rowing? Hard to wake up on Mondays? Shins scabbed from deadlifts? Suck it up. Don’t like thrusters because you have poor hip and shoulder mobility? Suck it up and do mobility every day.
Here is my favorite example:
“You are so good at burpees (I can be very fast), how do you do that?”
Step 1: do one burpee.
Step 2: add additional burpees until they are done – as fast as YOU can.
You will get faster, but you have to employ the “get going” from the skill progression in order to break on through. There is no secret – you just have to suck it up and work harder.
Here are some final attitude rules:
-Never skip reps
-Never count a no rep
-Never give less than 100%
-Never let the clock or the person next to you define how you perform. The clock and the reps are measuring sticks, not ends themselves. If you cheat, skip reps, display sloppy technique or do anything for any reason other than self-improvement, you have lost the forest in the trees.