The Secret to Winning the CrossFit Games

Are top athletes violating one of the sport's fundamental philosophies to achieve peak performance?

Jan 25, 2016
Outside Magazine

The CrossFit ideal is to train for any contingency.    Photo: Ian Coble

Periodization is fundamental to exercise physiology and coaching. The concept is simple on its face: pick a single day sometime in the future, like the day of your big race or event, then devise a long-term training plan, consisting of various phases of emphasis, that gets you in prime physical condition by the time you reach the starting line. The strategy has been around for a century, but classic periodization science is chiefly credited to researchers who ran the Soviet Union's sports schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, many coaches and athletes use the technique, whether training to qualify for the Boston Marathon or win an Olympic medal. 

When Greg Glassman founded CrossFit in 2000, the training philosophy behind the now-popular workout was essentially the polar opposite of periodization. Imagine you’re a cop, sipping coffee on foot patrol one minute and breaking up a street brawl the next. In that scenario, there’s no date circled on the calendar to allow you to prepare. There’s no forecast as to what mix of skills and endurance you’ll need to be ready. There’s no time to study your opponent, which means there’s no telling what mix of strength, speed, and metabolic pathways you’ll need to tap into. “The CrossFit ideal,” Glassman wrote in 2003 on the CrossFit blog, “is to train for any contingency.” As a cop remarked in the early days of CrossFit, one workout reminded him of the anaerobic turbulence of a “fight gone bad,” a phrase that became a benchmark "workout of the day" (WOD). 

Until the creation and corresponding rise of the Reebok CrossFit Games, now held annually in July in Carson, California, CrossFit methodology was tuned more for the unexpected—“unknown and the unknowable” is a popular mantra within CrossFit. 

Yet one of the interesting effects of the CrossFit Games is that an unknown has been stripped out of the equation. Those who qualify to compete might not know exactly what they have to do during the week of the games, but they do know it’s going to happen in July. As a result, many of them have begun to use periodization, just as traditional athletes have used it for decades. 

When asked in 2011 if he periodized his training to peak for the CrossFit Games, Rich Froning, the reigning champion with four consecutive “Fittest Man on Earth” titles to his name, said no, but then tripped into saying maybe. 

“CrossFit prepares you for real life,” Froning replied. “You have to be ready for everything. There are different opinions on the whole peaking thing, but doesn’t that go against what we teach?” Then Froning shifted gears. “The games are a great test of fitness at that time,” he added. “Not a great test of fitness throughout the year or throughout life.” He blinked for an instant, as if trying to sort out what he’d just said, then added, “You know what I mean.” 

Even if Froning doesn’t use a yearly periodization plan to prepare for the games, plenty of others do. Jami Tikkanen, coach of two-time CrossFit Games champion Annie Thorisdottir, believes the practice is common in the elite ranks.

“For the very elite CrossFit athletes, we know that they essentially need to be at their best two times a year: once for the regionals and once for the games,” Tikkanen told me. “This gives us a time frame of when to develop and improve physical qualities and when to transform these qualities into sports specific applications.” 

I put the question to two CrossFit coaches in San Diego who have been serious students of CrossFit programming methods: Leon Chang and Paul Estrada, co-owners of CrossFit Elysium. “Given a games-level athlete knows well in advance when game day is, they can plan out their training accordingly to peak at the right times,” Chang said. “Since they can, they most definitely should and are.” Estrada agreed, adding that the periodization models differ. He says there’s a lot of experimentation happening within various schemes. Programs like the Outlaw Way focus on strength but never cut out metabolic conditioning—structured work and rest periods that elicit some desired response from the body. Whereas CrossFit New England’s Ben Bergeron omits metabolic conditioning at certain times of the year while heavily increasing it in other times of the year. 

Considering that the CrossFit brand is composed of more than 11,000 affiliate gyms around the world, and that the CrossFit Games are the brand’s public face, this brings up a legitimate question about the brand’s methodology: Do the best CrossFitters in the world actually adhere to true CrossFit training? 

This question has stoked heated arguments between CrossFitters and their detractors. Glassman’s words from 2003 were used in an online thread about whether periodization should have any part in CrossFit at all: “Variances in effort, intensity, enthusiasm, and performance are an inescapable part of life. The belief that these natural variances can be planned for months in advance in order to optimize performance at a later date is hogwash.”

But critics like Mark Rippetoe, formerly a CrossFit HQ specialty seminar instructor and author of the book Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, says CrossFit’s signature weakness is that lack of periodized structure that zeroes in on a big target. 

“CrossFit is not training,” Rippetoe wrote in an essay attacking what he believes is a fatal flaw that prevents improvement over the long haul. “It is exercise. And exercise—even poorly programmed random flailing around in the floor for time—causes progress to occur, for a while.” Rippetoe argues that once CrossFitters pass through the beginner stage, they’re in danger of stagnation unless they start striving for hard-to-reach, specific targets. “Once the low-hanging fruit have been picked, you have to get a ladder, and then you might need a helicopter,” he wrote. “Once a person has adapted beyond the ability of random stress applied frequently under time constraints to cause further improvement, progress stalls.”

Another former CrossFit HQ instructor-turned-critic is Greg Everett, author of Olympic Lifting: A Complete Guide for Coaches and Athletes. Everett agrees with Rippetoe with undiluted words: “If you have no plan with regard to your training, you’re an idiot.”

“We’re no longer CrossFitters,” Ben Bergeron said at a talk several years ago on how to train for the CrossFit Games. (Bergeron uses periodization.) 

Bergeron was specifically addressing the months of April and May, when his athletes prepare for the second qualifying round, the CrossFit Regionals. Unlike the CrossFit Games, all of the regional competition workouts are announced ahead of time. “We specialize in those workouts,” Bergeron said. “We know them inside and outside.”

“The advanced athletes who win and place at the CrossFit Games do not use CrossFit website programming to achieve advanced levels of the strength and conditioning necessary to perform at that level,” Rippetoe wrote. “None of them.”

Bergeron’s periodization cycle starts with resting post-games recovery where it’s “okay to have a beer or two on the weekends.” Then the training begins with a two-month strength focus where athletes favor packing on muscle and power and let their metabolic conditioning slide. They then cycle through a speed-strength phase, and in the middle of winter start attacking weaknesses. If you suck at rope climbing or muscle-ups, you drill them into strengths. Then comes the metabolic conditioning period—lots of hard, long stamina workouts to finish off the base of preparation. Lastly, sharpening for the CrossFit Regionals in May and the final ascent to a competitive peak for July.

The director of the CrossFit Games is Dave Castro, a former Navy SEAL who staged the first games in 2007 at his family’s ranch in Aromas, California. 

When asked if the periodization techniques being used are antithetical to CrossFit methodology, he said absolutely not. But Castro also believes that periodization “in the traditional sense” has been adopted by relatively few elites. Rather, they bias their training on occasion to stamp out weaknesses that may trip them up in the games.

“What is happening here is that they are identifying weakness and want to strengthen those areas.” Castro firmly believes that periodization isn’t necessary to compete well at the games. “But some do it, so oh well. They just really like to have more structure to their CrossFit workouts. It’s still CrossFit.” 

Jon Gilson, a former CrossFit HQ instructor and the CEO of Again Faster, a company that sells CrossFit equipment, believes the argument being waged has to do with semantics, not substance.

“Of course the games athletes want to be at their best in July,” he told me. “It would be absurd not to want that.” But Gilson, like Castro, argues that long-term planning and goals are congruent with the foundations of CrossFit training. From his perspective, the kind of periodization being used for the games is more aligned with Glassman’s methodology then critics are acknowledging.

“Someone could watch some of the events at the CrossFit Games and assess that it’s all just randomly selected workouts, that they’re just doing a bunch of random shit, and from there they extrapolate that Glassman’s methodology is based on randomness.” Gilson mentions that the CrossFit Level One certificate course underscores the difference between randomness and variance, a CrossFit-approved practice of constantly changing workouts. “I know it’s there because of how many times I’ve given the programming lecture,” he says. “Constant variation is not randomness. Constant variation is a way to attack weaknesses.”

A good coach identifies those weaknesses in the athletes, and then creates a training plan that systematically attacks them. In other words, whatever you want to call it, quality CrossFit programming involves a long-term calendar. 

“You can pursue metabolic conditioning—the building of the engine—while you try to shore up your weaknesses,” Gilson says. “So don’t get caught up on a word like periodization. It’s a 13-letter word that has become a four-letter word.” He wanted me to know that the pursuit of excellence at the CrossFit Games is not as unnatural to the foundations of CrossFit as some try to make it out to be. In his mind, any CrossFit affiliate that isn’t having a dialogue with their clients about training targets—be it weight loss, or preparing for boot camp, or getting ready to play in an adult soccer league—isn’t deploying the CrossFit method.

As for Castro, he thinks there's nothing behind the periodization debate. “The CrossFit Games athletes are the minority, not the majority. The CrossFit community is made up of millions of normal, everyday people who practice CrossFit to be healthier, to go from being obese to fit. The games athletes are .005 percent of us. So they are not the sole representation of CrossFit. The millions doing CrossFit are CrossFit.”

T.J. Murphy is the author of Inside the Box, a book about CrossFit. Follow him on Twitter @burning_runner.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Get tips. Get stories. Get fit.

Looking for the best in fitness? We got you covered.

Thank you!