Simplistic Guidelines For Efficiently Scaling CrossFit
by Ryan Atkins
Originally published in the Performance Menu, October 2012
If you're a CrossFit coach, you've likely heard this question over and over again - “How much weight do I use?” Or, if you've just shown your client the gamut of pull-up or handstand push-up modifications, they respond, “Yeah, but which version do I use?” Astute clients will realize that depending on how they approach the scaling of their workout, they might end up with weights and exercises that are very easy to perform and don't require much rest at all for large number of repetitions or, alternatively, tasks that are extremely challenging and that need to be chopped up into mini-sets and rest breaks right from the beginning of the workout. Which is better, one might ask? Well, in the context that CrossFit is a program touting the benefits of general physical preparedness and the discussion is revolving around a single workout, “both” would be an appropriate answer. A workout scaled towards the 'easy' side of things allows for quicker repetitions for the exercises and transitions between them, thereby emphasizing speed, stamina and endurance. Workouts that require extended breaks every couple of repetitions won't stress those same traits, but the work/rest ratio might start to resemble that of a strength based workout. Given CrossFit's goals, both of these workout's effects are important aspects to consider in overall training design. And ultimately we want a good portion of our workouts to fall somewhere between these two extremes.
The real mistake is made when a client consistently leans towards the same extreme workout after workout after workout. Pretty much every gym owner will nod in knowing acknowledgment when a frustrated trainer discusses how Client A, despite always finishing first in the group class conditioning cycle, fights tooth and nail against adding 5# to the barbell (you know, they don't want to get 'bulky') to start closing the gap (usually substantial) towards the Rx'd weights. Although not as common, another subset of clients insist on ALWAYS 'going Rx' (or even 'scaling up' via added weight or exercise difficulty). In this case, Client B, slugs through the workout at a snails pace but usually reminds onlookers (those that stuck around for the hour after class ended, anyway) of just exactly how much weight they were moving. At CrossFit Level One certifications, participants are instructed that workouts need to be scaled to ensure that the highest level of power output is achieved. Now we could start busting out the tape measure, calculating distances for barbells and bodies moved, etc., but I'm guessing most clients won't be overly hyped about using class time to do this. Consider the possibility that many clients frequenting CrossFit gyms are professionals during the day and might just be coming to CrossFit to shut down that part of the brain for a while. CrossFit has traditionally used the stopwatch to measure the proficiency of, and improvements in our athletes. It's arguable that this stopwatch has to have some guidelines in order to maximize the efficacy and feasibility for a good portion of our conditioning circuits, especially in the context of group workouts.
This is where the Ten Minute Rule comes into play and it provides a good number of benefits via:
- Giving a decent performance goal for a good number of classical CrossFit benchmarks and some easy to adapt workout variations discussed below.
- Giving trainers and clients alike an easy to follow game plan towards keeping a balanced approach towards steady progress to achieve those goals. The lightweight 'speed demons' moving through workouts at a blazing pace are required to work towards heavier weights/more challenging exercises until they can proudly boast (hopefully to themselves and not others), 'Yeah, did you notice I Rx'd that stuff? I'm so boss!' On the other side of things, slower moving 'monsters' will realize that they might want to reasonably reel things back so they don't get a DNF next to their name as a result of a time cap.
- Reducing the chances of over-training. Unless we need to specialize for something longer, it's usually smart training to restrict the metcon to 10-15 minutes 90% of time.
- Reducing injuries, especially for people new to high intensity interval training. A shorter workout interval provides a better potential cut-off point, beyond which fatigue can lead to serious form degradation.
- Contributing towards more efficient group class planning and execution. This is especially the case when a coach may be working with a larger group whose capabilities may not be well known. One option is to have a 10 minute cap regardless of how far a person gets into the workout. This option works well for teams, military units or other large groups where having a huge span of finishing times might not always fit into the group's schedule. This benefit also makes sense in the light that most CrossFit gyms with effective programming usually incorporate some sort of strength/power work as part of their class. Given the time needed for general warm-ups, skill work and this strength/power work, a 10 minute metcon makes sense on most days for an hour long class, in addition to the two benefits listed directly above.
Here's how the Ten Minute Rule is applied:
Which Workouts Should I Use?: Conquering the Storms
- Clients work with the trainer to come up with a workout that is challenging but doable. In the beginning, this will largely be based off of a trainer's evaluation of movement and ability of the client (this makes sense if the client is new to this type
of training – they won't have a reference point). Let's use the benchmark 'Fran*' as our example. A reasonable goal is for the trainer to set things up where the client can make it through about 15 repetitions of the thruster before they start questioning just exactly why they are doing this workout.
- The client works their way through the workout. Their performance will be used as a guideline for the structuring of future efforts with that particular benchmark.
- If they completed the circuit under the ten minutes, then the next time they come across it, they work towards getting the Rx version of the workout, if they don't already have it. In the case of 'Fran' maybe they add 5# to the bar, or choose a slightly thinner band for the pull-up assist.
- If they took over ten minutes to finish, then they will stick with the same modifications and try to bring their time under that range the next time they perform that workout. Alternatively, coaches may opt for the 10 minute cut-off rule, in which case
the client would attempt to complete, or at least progress further into the workout, than they did during the ten minutes this time around.
'Fran,' 'Elizabeth,' 'Diane,' 'Grace,' 'Annie,' and 'Isabel' are among the first of the classical CrossFit storms. They also are great examples of the type of minimal input, maximal return type of workout that we're looking to use for the Ten Minute Rule. Now I
realize that when the client eventually obtains sub ten minute scores doing the Rx versions of these workouts they might not exactly be ready for Regionals, but they've likely obtained some pretty significant milestones in their fitness journey compared to where most start.
Some other classics, that are a little more challenging to finish within the time frame when done as written include 'Helen,' 'Jackie,' and 'Christine.' They differ from the other workouts in that, although it's possible for them to be completed in less than ten
minutes, you won't see further significant improvement (i.e. into the 3-5 minute range) like you can with the other workouts mentioned as athletes approach more of a top tier status.Which Workouts Should I Use? Part II: Adding a Piece of 'Heaven'
There's one thing that all of the workouts mentioned so far lack – burpees!!! We'll correct that oversight in this section. In about 2008, a trainer I was working with introduced me to a workout entitled '7th Heaven.' It consists of 7 rounds done for time
of 7 thrusters, 7 pull-ups and 7 burpees and is one of those that look deceptively simple when written on the board, but is brutal in application. The addition of the third exercise and (slight) increase in the volume of the other two make this a great 'step-up' once someone already has an Rx'd 'Fran' under 10 minutes. I've also used variations of this workout modeled after 'Elizabeth'
(cleans/ring dips/burpees), 'Diane' (deadlifts/handstand push-ups/burpees), 'Nancy' (overhead squats/10' shuttle runs/burpees) and 'Helen'-ish (heavy swings/pull-ups/burpees) Which Workouts Should I Use? Part III: 10 to 1s and 'Annie' variations
Already did burpees this week? Need more options? Well, in that case you can take any of the couplet pairings (or make your own) and perform a 10 to 1 (first round, do 10 reps of each exercise, the next round, do 9 reps of each exercise, ending the workout
with a single rep of each of the movements). This combo brings the total rep count to 55 reps, as opposed to 45 for some of the classics mentioned earlier, which increases the volume, but still falls within the rep range seen in for assistance exercises in some of the more well known strength programs. If you want something even more challenging for this time range, incorporate a
movement that has a higher cycle rate – burpees (or even, gasp, burpee pull-ups come to mind, as do hang cleans to press/jerk variations).
Need to get your double under game on? 'Annie,' which involves a total of 150 reps of that exercise, is a good option, and once you have some decent skill with the jump rope should be fairly easy to finish under the 10 minute mark. As good as of a workout as it is, the spinal flexion (and implications for spinal health) involved in the same number of sit-ups will draw concern from some experts within the fitness community. Some will argue that heavy loading with a properly performed barbell movement
will contribute more towards trunk stability/athleticism anyway. Pairing the 50-40-30-20-10 rep scheme for the double unders with a 10-8-6-4-2 rep scheme for pretty much any of the barbell movements (no, Turkish get-ups don't qualify, sorry), gives a person to take the volume of a 'Grace' or 'Isabel' and add another skill component to take things up a notch (once they've driven the
scores of those two workouts into the sub 5 minute range or so). If they're not quite at that level athletically, this rep scheme set-up with a more basic movement, like front squats, deadlifts, or push-presses. Want to work bodyweight stuff? It's conceivable that pairing exercises besides sit-ups with the double unders at the same rep range, like push-ups or air squats, would make workable options. Pull-ups probably aren't the best option, at least on a regular basis in this scheme, unless you are practicing for the CF Games or are looking to obtain the same results with your clients' hands that Tony Robbins gets with his clients' feet (hint: hot coals + feet = no bueno). Summary
It's arguable that one of the best things that CrossFit brought to the fitness table in the early 2000s wasthe popularization of high intensity interval circuit using elements of weightlifting, bodyweight calisthenics and/or short bursts of what was normally considered 'cardio' (i.e. running, rowing, etc.). The addition of measuring the duration of the workouts became a great motivating tool as was the concept of the shared, group workout. Both helped to bring out the competitive nature of clients and drive results. I remember during the programming portion of some of the early CrossFit Level 1's that if you were forced to choose to work only one pathway, it would be best to go with the glycolytic as it lended itself towards improvements to both of the other pathways – phosphagen and oxidative. Too a large degree, especially for people new to some of the movements involved this
held true. As the years progressed, some coaches observed that those with a good foundation of strength would ultimately perform like monsters during metabolic workouts, once a tolerance was established. It's now more and more common to see affiliates using some sort of strength program as a prelude to the conditioning circuits that follow. The form that it takes (Westside,
Starting Strength, CrossFit Football, Wendler, Olympic lifting, etc.), but it's often there in some way, shape or form. Given the additional time spent in class working on that modality compared to the earlier years, the 10 Minute Rule provides a format that will help to efficiently manage time, push results/set goals and get the most of the glycogen pathway-based workouts while
allowing for consistency of training.