If you go into your average CrossFit box nowadays, you’ll inevitably see a number of athletes in open gym following their own programming. That is, programming that isn’t provided as part of the class WODs. I know I’ve certainly noticed it. But what’s the deal? What’s the benefit? Are these people getting access to some superior weapon of CrossFit destruction? Let’s have a look…
When it comes to programming, there are two types, both of which come at an additional expense to that of box membership: generic and individualised. Generic programming refers to that which is the same across all who purchase it, a one-size-fits-all approach. However, they can also be purchased with certain ‘biases’ towards gymnastics, strength, and cardiovascular capacity, or the ‘engine’ as it’s frequently referred to in CrossFit, to hit these areas with greater emphasis. These programmes start at around £20 but can be up to £60-70 a month. Alternatively, individualised programming is also available, which is tailored to your needs as an athlete. Often you are assigned to a coach with whom you’ll have contact, and video analysis feedback may also be included. These programmes are more costly, starting at £80 and going up to £500 a month depending on the company, and experience or qualifications of the chosen coach.
I’ll add in a little disclaimer here, in that I have never been on a CrossFit programme other than that provided for the class. I also believe that for the vast majority of people within CrossFit, they do not need a programme. However, I’ll do my best in this article to provide a balanced view of the pros and cons of programming in comparison to other training means.
Beginner vs. advanced athlete
When it comes to beginners, at a box with good quality coaches – the type who emphasise strict over kipping, but acknowledge the place for both; who don’t let you load the bar heavy for lifts until you’re comfortable with the technique; and who know how to periodise the programme so that you’re hitting everything but not in consecutive days – then I would always recommend following the class programme. You need eyes on you. You need someone watching you moving and getting that immediate feedback. At this point in time you’re looking to increase the number of tools in your toolkit, and a hands-on approach (sometimes literally) is the best way to do that. You’re probably still in the newbie gains phase, so don’t run before you can walk, and enjoy the process of learning and improving. Having someone who can tell you there and then what to do is invaluable, so if you are prepared to splash a bit of cash for the sake of upping your CrossFit game, go for a block of PT sessions over any programming. Even if it’s one a month to show you the ropes so that you can go away and practice, you’ll see the results.
If, however, you are a more experienced athlete with a specific weakness which isn’t getting developed specifically by class programming, then yes, looking into a programme might be a good idea if you’re uncertain of how to develop it alone. Additionally, if most movements are developed sufficiently, then an individualised programme might be the cherry on top of the cake for you to take your training to the next level. It could ensure that you are hitting every element with the frequency and periodisation needed to progress further. With that being said, it’s worth doing your research about these programmes. I’ve heard stories of people paying £100+ for ‘individualised’ programming only to see on Instagram that others with the same coach are doing exactly the same thing, for most sessions. Now, that’s fine on the odd occasion, but if that’s happening too frequently, it’s hardly tailored to you.
Programming also works for those who can’t commit to the class timetable. If you are genuinely wanting to improve rather than just training largely for fitness, but maybe train across a number of boxes due to travelling for work, a programme can provide the consistency needed so that you’re not dipping in and out of differing class programmes. If this is the case, absolutely, programming could be worth looking into. Inconsistency can make improvement difficult as you’re not going through any particular training phase, or focusing on any particular skill to develop. In this sense, programming can help to ensure you’re ‘ticking off’ the things you need to to maintain improvement and consistency.
What’s your purpose with training?
For some people, this is a difficult question to address. What do you want out of CrossFit? At a fundamental level, this sport is about living longer, being healthier, and moving better. The competitive aspect is an addition to that, despite being what attracts a lot of people – how many newbies have seen “Fittest on Earth” on Netflix? If you don’t want to compete, is it enough for you to enjoy working hard with your friends and progress with the class level?
Being on programming can be difficult. If you’re someone who struggles to dig in when it gets hard, and keep that intensity when you’re tempted to ‘sandbag’, it becomes a lot easier to give in to when you’re on your own. There’s no better way to access that next level intensity than when you’re head-to-head with others. This also helps your ability to compete. On the one side, training alone means you can tune into your body’s rhythm, without getting tempted to race others in class. However, being able to push the pace, but also stick to your own plan when someone is chasing you is a skill; one that absolutely should be developed. Both of these are skills that you need if you are a competitor. Additionally, moving to programming can be a lonely time as you’re often training alone. Thus, some may miss the community aspect that attracts so many to CrossFit. This being said, there are ways around it. If you’re lucky, you may be able to convince some members to jump in on the odd session with you. Another option may be coordinating sessions if there are others on the same programme as you. Many individualised programmes will still have the same odd session – think JST’s “whiteboard workout” – meaning that you could get together for it.
What’s your focus?
Some elements of CrossFit are better suited to online programming than others. For instance, if you need help with your gymnastics, it often helps to have a spotter to help you in movements like handstands and muscle ups. You could ask a coach to help you with this, but if you’re in open gym and a class is on, you’re on your own. On the other hand, if you’re programmed a 5K row for time, you don’t need someone to watch you for the full 20 minutes. That, as boring as it may be, you can do on your own.
As another example, if you don’t move well but you want to improve your snatch, a generic online programme is not going to help you. Eyes on, telling you how to improve your lifting positions, technique, and overhead mobility with immediate feedback would be more likely to add weight to your snatch than a 12-week programme reinforcing bad habits and loading poor positions. These would eventually become the limiting factor for your lifting potential anyway, and make you more susceptible to injury.
Granted, a lot of the time, programming is the cheaper option. At around £20 a month for a generic programme, you’re looking at it being cheaper than a 1hr PT session. There’s no denying that that’s good value for money, especially when you’re looking at a month’s worth of programming in comparison to half an hour’s worth of coaching. So why not look at a compromise? Can a coach at the box programme for you if you do want something different from the box programming? Or can they include a weekly programme for you at a slightly higher price than their hour PT session? That way you’re able to have someone who sees you training, can coach you face-to-face every month, but doesn’t break the bank with the cost of one session a week.
I admit, I may be biased. I stated before that I’ve never followed an online programme for CrossFit. My background was in swimming so for me, being ‘coached’ from afar seems like a very alien concept. It’s a very personal thing. The bond I had with my coach undoubtedly contributed to my success in the sport. Indeed, feelings of closeness with a coach is one of the primary aspects of a functional and effective coach-athlete relationship (Jowett, 2007). I don’t know a single swimmer, both elite and sub-elite, whose coach is not at their sessions on a regular basis. For me, having a coach is more than just someone telling you what to do. There is an emotional aspect to it as well. The consideration of the wider life outside of the context in which they know you is vital; as both an athlete and a person. Psychological stress can add to physical stress and it has been shown in literature that during periods of psychological and life stress, athletes are at a greater injury risk, unless their training volume is reduced to compensate (Galambos, Terry, Moyle, & Locke, 2005). Unless you are in regular contact with your coach about these non-CrossFit matters, how will they know to reduce your volume?
Many turn to programming to help them get better at something. Now let’s face it. Yes, the motivation may be there at the start. But there comes a point when it sucks. Being bad at something sucks. Especially when it’s something that doesn’t improve overnight. Is the motivation that got you started strong enough to keep you going for the time it takes to see the improvement? Is the motivation that got you started persistent enough to drag you to the box to do the stuff you suck at when you’ve had a difficult day at work? Is the motivation enough to get you out of the house when you just want to sit on the sofa and wallow in your soreness? Or, would you be better having a commitment to see a coach to take you through those times?
To summarise, following a programme can be an excellent tool to ensure periodisation in training, and frequency of movement variation. However, for most, it is the cherry on top of the cake. Use the resources you have around you to take advantage of the people who watch you train and move. Develop a coaching relationship that works. And consider whether you’re doing enough currently and with class programmes before you start forking out the extra cash. After all, Kara Saunders (nee. Webb) made it to Regionals on class programming. If it’s good enough for her then, for the moment, it’s good enough for me.
Galambos, S.A., Terry, P.C., Moyle, G.M. and Locke, S.A., 2005. Psychological predictors of injury among elite athletes. British journal of sports medicine, 39(6), pp.351-354.
Jowett, S. (2007). Interdependence Analysis and the 3+1Cs in the Coach-Athlete Relationship. In S. Jowette & D. Lavallee (Eds.), Social Psychology in Sport (p. 15–27). Human Kinetics.
Author: Lucy Campbell