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Getting Better at CrossFit, Overcoming Plateaus in CrossFit

Posted by Eric Williams on

Getting better at CrossFit and overcoming pleateaus.  It’s a simple yet tough (and somewhat touchy) topic to discuss.

When one has been doing CrossFit for a few months, it becomes clear that there is more to it than simply WODing around carelessly.  There are a number of factors to consider if they wish to continue to be successful in CrossFit.

CrossFit is like just about anything else – it has attractive components that keep you motivated to try and improve.  Also, it has portions that some do well and others do poorly.  Last, it is not without its own significant road blocks and areas of plateau.

How Does One Really Get Better at CrossFit?

Everyone has a program that claims it will get you there – ours included.  But really, that is oriented towards individuals who only need to put in the time.  Keep in mind we all have limitations  This is about working out those limitations in a linear fashion to improve your overall performance.

I hear it so often, “if I was only more X, then it would REALLY come together.”  This is most often expressed as lack of strength, lack of specific modalities (pull-ups) or lack of general “cardio” to get through the WODs.

Here is a checklist that you can go down to find your roadblock, what to do and where to go next.

get better at crossfit

Checklist To Get Over Your CrossFit Pleateau

First, let’s break it down by discipline.  CrossFit can be broken down into four big buckets:

1) 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.

2) Mobility – The ability to take your body through a range of motion.

3) Skill – The ability to complete dexterous movements within CrossFit such as pistols, Double Unders, Snatches and Muscle Ups.

4) Go – The push, the effort, the endurance, the suck, the zone, the Go.

Getting good at these 4 domains will make you a better CrossFitter.  But, there must be a method to the madness.  One cannot simply attack them willy-nilly and expect to get better.  Here is my take on the order of operations for getting better at CrossFit.

 

1)  Get Mobile (Flexibility)

Without mobility, you will be forever limited.  If you are strong as a Greek God (dead 500+, backsquat 400+, press 200+) 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.

Once you are THAT strong, in my experience, mobility seems even HARDER to come by.

Perhaps on one hand because of all of the muscle tension built up over the years, but, and possibly even more importantly, one has relied on brute strength for far too long that mobility is not within your mind set to really sit down and master.

Let’s put it this way, if you can do those numbers you should (key word), SHOULD be able to snatch 250+ with relative ease (provided you have decent technique).  If you have to muscle snatch 185 each time, you are placing your body at such a mechanic disadvantage as compared to a guy who can comfortably rep out 185 (perhaps as a proportion of a 210 max).  This because he can swoop to the bottom of an OH squat with ease and squat it out.

I’ve seen many a large man get humbled with relatively light weight in certain positions for this very reason.

But its more than that, CrossFit is ROM (range of motion) specific.  All competitions are EXCLUSIVELY judged on ROM in one form or another and you will get nowhere if you fail to acknowledge that.  If you cannot achieve ROM on your press, squats, HSPUs or muscle ups, you will be relegated to the kiddy pool indefinitely…the very very very strong kiddy pool.

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 and homework to get your body to slowly open up and restore its proper function.  If you are naturally mobile, good for you – there are other challenges ahead, but you got the first step knocked out.

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.

 

2)  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 dude muscle up a 195 clean, basically reverse curling it, and fail at 205 because their arms simply cannot come to bat any more.  I have seen guys press 200 pounds and struggle to SPLIT JERK the same weight.

If you are in this boat, you need serious help.

As a general guideline, if you can press 150 you should be able to push press approximately 200+ and split jerk 225+, assuming your legs aren’t total twigs.

If you have a dozen strict pull-ups, then a handful of muscleups should be in your wheel house.  The list goes on and on.  Simply put, 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 because it is among the most fun and 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, OLY) because these folks have relied so long on being strong to avoid having to train (and thus, retrain) great technique.

Granted, you can have both and I certainly don’t mean to imply that strong people have shitty technique by default.  But every big strong dude off the street that starts up a CrossFit regimen seems to have similar issues and I would venture to guess that it stems from that.  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
  • 20 rebounding box jumps
  • 5 consecutive muscle ups
  • Touch and go cleans at 70% body weight
  • Touch and go snatches at 60% body weight
  • 15 kipping pullups without losing your goddamn mind like a circus animal
  • 15 toes to bar
  • 5 kipping touch and go HSPUs

There are some others, but these are the critical ones.  If you cannot get through these things 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, it is because your technique needs some refinement.

All percentage based movements are supposing that your goals are oriented towards CrossFit proficiency and not primarily weight loss.

crossfit overhead lift

3)  Get Strong

This is where it starts to get dicey.  I, for example, am as weak as a little girl.  This is my current hang up step.  There is good news!  Even though there’s more to it than just getting strength wraps, strength is very formulaic (though somewhat dependent on genes)

If you put in the time, the reps and the dedication, you will get stronger.  This one happens for EVERY one of our members, no matter what.  Even if they can’t really do much in the way of complex movements, they always get stronger.  HOW strong they get, compared to how strong they NEED to get, is another question.

But, guaranteed, each and every person who sticks to a strength program will get stronger.

The problem with strength is that is can inadvertently undermine your first two steps if you focus solely on that.  Also, inherent strength can make your ability to learn difficult movements very challenging as you rely on your strength and beefiness to gut it through a CnJ workout.

Strength is also boring.

Doing squats day in and day out can be very rewarding, but is for the iron minded Bulgarian gym rat at heart.  It’s also slow, plateaus easy and disappears quickly.

Strength is very easy to plan, VERY hard to achieve.

A Quick Test of Strength

Strength is tricky because it is relative.  A 405 deadlift is not the same feat for AJ Barto and Chris Spealler.  There are also fairly standard bench mark weights utilized based on the convenient stacking of plates (i.e. 225, 275, 315 DL; 135, 185, 225 Squat, etc.).

So if you think you want to have a shot at making some waves at competitions, you better have at least the following figures:

Men

  • Back Squat – 1.8x BW
  • Front squat – 1.5x BW
  • OH Squat – 1.25x BW
  • Deadlift –  2.3x BW
  • CnJ – 1.4x BW
  • Snatch – 1.25x BW

 

Women

  • Back Squat – 1.5x BW
  • Front squat – 1.25x BW
  • OH Squat – 1.0x BW
  • Deadlift –  1.9x BW
  • CnJ – 1.2x BW
  • Snatch – 0.9x BW

If you have these numbers, what you lack in absolute strength (i.e. “I don’t care how much you weigh or squat, you must now squat 225 for 7 reps”) you will likely make up with nimbleness elsewhere.

 

4)  The Go

The go, in my opinion, is both the easiest and the hardest to achieve.

Easiest because all it requires is not stopping.  Hardest because it is entirely dependent on not stopping.  The recipe is simple but the taste is bitter.

Acquisition of the go will be the only time when your brain actively starts saying, “no, no, NO, STOP, NOW, STOP IT, REST, STOP” and who are you but to oblige it and take a breather?  It is, after all, your BRAIN, the central command center and it knows best.

Well, it might and 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 and 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.

You must become the master of your mind and body. You must seek it out, endure it and relish in its frequency.  This last step is the easiest – Keep. Moving. Don’t. Stop.

But the reality of it is more like, “please.stop.just.one.time.just.ahhhh.there.ok back to it…” when every rep counts, this place had better be your nirvana.

This is an uncoachable trait but if you get here you will reap the full benefit of CrossFit and never look back.

Be warned, however, because if you cannot demonstrate competency in the previous 3 domains, then you will limit your Go.

If double unders basically become a maddening flurry of failure spins, if wall balls get no-repped because your beefcake legs can’t get down far enough, if you stop at the 275 deadlift and think, “oh, shit, this is my 1rm” then you have undermined your Go.

It shouldn’t matter whats on the board – all is fair game.  Everyone will be better at some things over others but a movement should never be a point of failure.

crossfit keep going (the go)

A Quick Test of Go

Do you stop during the WOD? Keep. Going.

Also, do yourself a favor and start journaling your WODs if you haven’t been doing so already.

Share this with any other CrossFitters you know who may be experiencing plateaus in their WOD.

 

Images courtesy of CrossFitPaleoDietFitnessClasses and CFIntersect

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