How exactly do we program and what do we program for?



Recently we received some feedback from our guests on what they would like to see more of and what they would like to see less of in our CrossFit classes.  After ‘Coe’ on Monday, I think we all agree that we should probably do ring push ups a little more frequently.

What is it exactly that so many CrossFitters are training for?  How are they being lead through a structured program and what exactly is the method that we use to determine programming?  Program design is something I take quite seriously for the health and safety of our guests and I’d like to share with you my philosophy of programming.


Program design is something I first dove into when studying for my CSCS exam (Certified Strength  & Conditioning Specialist).  I think it’s important for you to know that CSCS is a credential of distinction and has raised the quality of strength training & conditioning programs for practitioners throughout the world.  However, you should also know that there is a high level of dissension between many CSCS & CrossFit coaches.  Think of it like living in northern Ireland with the protestants and Catholics: Each one believes they’re right and that their way is the only way to lead you to the promised land.  Now, I have both credentials so it’s kind of like living in the DMZ ….constant tension, opposing philosophies, a history of turmoil….CATS AND DOGS LIVING TOGETHER, MASS HYSTERIA!

NSCA Periodization

Program design is important for every CrossFit box, every athletic team and every personal trainer to ensure the safety of the athlete and guarantee results under a well supervised & structured plan.  Traditionally, before CrossFit, there was a theory of what’s called “Periodization” in strength & conditioning.  Periodization is the analysis of the respected, athletic year, divided into segmented categories for athletic-specific adaptations to optimize athletic potential.   The traditional athletic year is called  a MACROCYCLE.  The macrocycle is then segmented into smaller categories or “seasons” called MESOCYCLES.  The mesocycles have 4 parts:

  1. Off-season – The athlete work on developing muscular strength & growth.
  2. Pre-season – The athletes transitions the strength gained from the off-season into explosive POWER to prep for the in-season.
  3. In-sesason – The athlete only maintains strength & power and emphasizes competition.
  4. Post-season – The athlete participates in active-recover and unloads from in-season before prepping for off-season training.

The mesocycles can then be broken into smaller categories called Microcycles.  Microcycles are similar to our Wendler training program.  We have 5,3,1 weeks then a recovery week, also known as an “unloading week”.

CrossFit Philosophy

The definition of CrossFit that most agree on is “Constantly varied, functional exercises executed at high intensity for increased work capacity over broad time and modal domains.”

  1. Constantly varied – It’s always different.  Not just the exercises, but the variables too, such as weight, reps, time, task, rest, volume, etc.
  2. Functional exercises – exercises that do NOT require machines to support the spine or core during movement.  Allow the body to move freely in space on natural planes of motion.
  3. High intensity – In CrossFit, intensity means rate of perceived exertion.  By CSCS standards, intensity means load/weight lifted.  Running and burpees can be very high intensity although there is no weight lifted
  4. Increased work capacity – a muscle or group of muscles contracting to perform a given amount of work
  5. Broad time and modal domains – Performing any task in the gym or daily life for any specified time period, long, medium or short.

CrossFit has three modalities of training: 1) Weighted movements; 2) Gymnastic movements; 3) Monostructural (performing one movement repeatedly to invoke an aerobic response).

What do we do?

Most of us in the box are not professional athletes. We are recreational athletes who generally want to be fit, healthy and be ready to tackle anything that life throws at us.  This is called General Physical Preparedness.  We’re not training to hit a ball 400’ or go 12 rounds in a ring.  We’re training to keep our LDL low, to have an extra serving of Cold Stone, our HDL high, our hemoglobin A1C low and to generally look good naked.  This is how I program – I program for the masses, not the individual.  I choose to program for a group of recreational athletes who want to be healthy.  I do not program in hopes of getting everyone to compete in the Worldwide CrossFit games in California.  I’m not going to expect a 45 year old, overweight, electrical engineer who hasn’t exercised in 20 years to train for the CrossFit games. That would just be irresponsible.

However, I DO plan our periodized year around certain events to prepare our competitive athletes to compete and to give our recreational athletes a fun, competitive goal to train for, without being forced to compete.   I also try to program for a ‘fun’ factor.  I want there to be community and camaraderie in the box when we’re together and sometimes these types of workouts are less intense, but very fun.

I program CrossFit classes using both the CrossFit method AND the CSCS periodization method.  I use a method called “undulating/non-linear periodization” .  This means alternating training loads to produce peak performance and constant, linear progression for you, the athlete.  Undulating periodization is again similar to our Wendler training:  Light weeks, medium weeks and heavy weeks.  I’m a big fan of undulating periodization.

Until recently at the CFH, we were in a strength, mesocycle or “off-sesason.”  With the Oregon CrossFit winter games approaching in January and the open in March, I’m now programming for a new mesocycle, “preseason.”  We are thus transitioning from strength/hypertrophy to power and skill development.  This will include things such as: Maximum Work Capacity (3 minutes double unders, 5 minutes KB snatch, 500m row, 1 min pull up, etc), developing gymnastic movements and increasing intensity/power with decreased volume.   When designing the mesocycles,  I have to program for your safety – although one can never completely avoid the risk of injury in any exercise program.   Now, ‘Coe’ destroyed me last Monday, however Christina, Helena, Nathan and Jeff ate that WOD for breakfast and sprinkled it with powered sugar. I wasn’t able to straighten out my arms all week long and was forced to unload.  What’s safe for the goose isn’t always safe for the gander.  Again, I have to program for the masses and not for the individual.  Below is an example of a template I created for program design.


CrossFit has a  simple method for training recreational athletes by using it’s 3 modality system.


I use this as a template because I don’t really like Monostructral days, especially in the winter time at the studio.  Therefore I’ll usually add a weighted movement on some of those days.  The template allows me to be creative when programming  but there are quite a few movements we have to choose from like:

Deadlifts, thrusters, sumo dead high pull, cleans, power cleans, hang cleans, hang power cleans, press, push press, jerk, man-makers, snatch, power snatch, hang power snatch, snatch balance, back squat, front squat, wall ball,

ring dips, ring push ups, burpees, push ups, pull ups, air squats, sit ups, TTB, KTE, rope climb, muscle ups, box jumps,

400m run, 800m run, 1k, 5k, shuttle run, rowing,

This does not account for the strength portion when we have them or the max work capacity either.  To solve the problem we had with time constraints, I’ve chosen to have the max-work capacity on days that we do not have Wendler strength.  This will allow for skill development, recovery and won’t interfere with time constraints.


While we’re not working on guns and six packs, I do want each of you to be symmetrical athletes.  That means that I want you NOT to perform excessive and repeated patterns of movement like pull ups, snatches or jerks.  I program pushing days, overhead days, pulling days, lower body days and mixture/chipper days to try to create equilibrium in the muscle groups and prevent muscle imbalances.  The volume on these days will vary too to keep the muscles from adapting to one type of training program.  This is the “constantly varied” or “undulating periodization” concept with CrossFit & the NSCA.

I know there is quite a bit of debate on how athletes should train and how boxes should program. In the long run, I want all of our athletes to be challenged and happy.  I want them to continually progress without getting injured.  I want to provide the competitors with a place to train and provide the desk jockeys with somewhere to improve the quality of their life.  I want EVERYONE to push themselves and remember that we can only do so much as coaches.  It’s up to YOU the athlete to set your goals and challenge yourself to achieve them. We’ll do everything we can to help you.  If you’re a desk jock or soccer mom, we DO NOT want you to think that we’re only concerned with our high-intensity athletes and visa-versa.  Everyone is equally important and we’re mean to everyone equally.

The most important thing you can do for yourself right now is MOVE and EXERCISE.  I’m sure that another box, gym or trainer can make you sweat with a good program and that’s a good thing.  I just want to be sure that I’m doing all I can to keep you safe, keep you a RAVING FAN and let you burn enough calories to take a trip to Cold Stone every once and a while.  As always, we welcome feedback.

Keep a warm head and carry a cool heart,


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