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Last week I talked about how programming is a conversation between a coach and her athletes.  I enjoyed that metaphor but like any metaphor, I felt it needed a deeper examination to see how well it holds together and where it might fall apart.

Like programming, we feel as if conversations should be cultivated. We schedule times to talk. We remove distractions. We go to meaningful places. We work hard at having these meaningful conversations. But in my experience, regardless of how much curation we implement, the best conversations spontaneously show up when participants let go of past heartaches and resentments, when they find reasons to listen to each other, and when they are authentically curious about what’s being said. Where, when, and how that happens can be engineered, but most of the time, I find it’s not.

Conversely, our programming at Fairwinds is not spontaneous. About ten hours goes into planning, writing, and preparing each week’s workouts. On top of that, I spend a good deal of time making sure there is a narrative arc to the week and ensure that each week influences and is equally influenced by other weeks. In this post, I want to pull back the curtain and offer some insight into how this process works. 

In Greg Glassman’s article, A Theoretical Template for CrossFit’s Programming, Coach lays out the foundations of achieving elite fitness, aka increased work capacity across broad modal and time domains. He outlines a very specific cycle and variation of the core elements of gymnastics, weightlifting, and mono-structual movements across a deliberate rotation of time domains. However, near the end of the article, he says something that always makes me chuckle. After three pages of extremely detailed and rather explicit instructions, Glassman says, “The template in discussion did not generate our Workout of the Day…typically our most effective workouts, like art, are remarkable in composition, symmetry, balance, theme, and character.” Wait, what? CrossFit has a template for programming but they don’t use it to create their workouts? “Art?” I ain’t no artist. Am I?

Glassman goes on to explain that, “there is a ‘choreography’ of exertion that draws from a working knowledge of physiological response, a well-developed sense of the limits of human performance, the use of effective elements, experimentation, and even luck. Our hope is that this model will aid in learning this art.” Well, if Coach Glassman says that the skill of CrossFit programming is an art and I spend this much time thinking about and practicing that skill, then I guess….

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All joking aside, and having been at this for almost a decade, I think Glassman’s description accurately captures the balance between art and science that elicits a successful programming cycle. But I thought maybe I’d give a go at explaining how this process works for me. I have found that like any artist developing a new skill, learning about and practicing the foundational tenets of that skill with a formally structured template lets the budding artist develop his or her own specific style, flavor, and approach. So what’s that look like down here on the creek?

My programming cycle usually starts around Tuesday or Wednesday the week prior to the actual week of workouts. Even when we were following the year of programming, I would often start brainstorming the layout and structure of the week anywhere between four to five days before sitting down and actually structuring it. 

These days, I like to say that we use “CompTrain”-inspired programming. This is basically true, but I also look at the free daily email and I put these two ingredients, along with a few others, into the mix of a somewhat planned, somewhat haphazard fitness stew. 

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My creation process always starts with observation and assessment. My first step is to take the last nine days of our programming and put it into a very detailed spreadsheet. This system is the exact system that Glassman’s article talks about and the one CrossFit Training teaches at the Level 1 and again at the Level 2 seminars. They’ve also just created an online course that I’m assuming goes even deeper into the practice. For me, this step allows me to identify any holes or biases in our programming. We all have things we like to do and things we don’t. Left to my own devices, we’d be doing a LOT more burpees and deadlifts but…

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Why nine days? Well, programs in three days “on,” one day “off” cycles. Nine days of programming is three cycles of that smaller cycle. “Three” is a very powerful number in a multitude of disciplines and philosophies and it works here too.

After analyzing our last nine days, I have a sense of where the next six days of programming should go.  Why six days on the Creek? Well, we are open six days per week. So, if you do the math, I’m looking back a full cycle and a half to project out the next cycle or week of programming. Layer this out across a few months and you will quickly see that we accomplish the primary goal of broad and inclusive variation.

The next area of focus is the category of our workouts. In CrossFit, we have two major types of workouts: Task Priority and Time Priority. As an example, a task priority workout emphasizes the completion of a specific set of work while the athlete determines how long that takes through their personal level of effort, i.e. rounds for time. On the other hand, a time priority workout establishes a specific amount of time that the athlete will work and the athlete determines how much work they will accomplish in that set amount of time, i.e. AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) WODs.

As for distribution of task vs. time priority workouts, it, like everything else, is not random. The sweet spot is around a 60/40, sometimes a 70/30 split of task to time priority. The reason – athletes can hide in time priority workouts whereas task priority workouts don’t end until you finish the work. Take for example a 12:00 AMRAP of rowing, burpees, and wall ball shots. At some point in that workout, the fatigue will set in and an athlete may find herself resting just a few extra seconds before picking up that ball or dropping down into another burpee…and the clock will keep ticking away. A few seconds here, a few seconds there, and then the workout is over. Oh well. 

Let’s say that athlete got five rounds and a few reps completed in the 12:00. I would be willing to bet that if we made that workout “6 Rounds for Time” they would find a way to finish it faster than 12:00. If we do a little math to determine the difference in power output, or intensity, as I wrote about in a previous post, we find that the task priority workout elicits higher intensity and thus gets the athlete fitter faster. Push comes to shove, task priority WODs are always more potent than time priority, but in the spirit of broad and inclusive fitness, we have to dabble a little in both. 

But what about the structure? What about the movements? What about strength-bias programming? What about the short, medium, and long time domains? WHAT ABOUT THE BURPEES?!!!

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Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear ya’. That all gets examined as well. But, you’d be surprised at how unimportant that stuff actually is. Bottom line, most workouts will be combinations of two to three movements, aka couplets and triplets. Most workouts will fall within the eight to twelve minute time domains, with some being shorter and some being a little bit longer. And most workouts will be some varying combination of gymnastics, weightlifting, and mono-strutural movements. 

Keeping things as simple as possible is always more effective. Doing less, better, allows athletes and coaches to focus on mechanics and consistency while letting athletes build to significantly more potent levels of intensity. And encouraging folks to come at least three to five times per week yields lasting improvements. These three elements of programming often drive the specifics of what I program more so than chasing the best or perfect program. Sometimes it lands, sometimes it doesn’t. And I think this is where in lies the art of the practice. 

I watch our athletes closely. I watch our coaches. And I watch myself. I watch how often people are coming. I watch for smiles at the gym, for fist-bumps on SugarWOD, and yes, I watch for new PRs, but not as much as you may think. Bottom line, like the synesthetic combination of ingredients that produce a chef’s masterful dish, the art of programming lies somewhere in the liminal space between science and art. And it’s that space that I strive to curate as best as possible.

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So whether it’s the art of programming or the art of conversation, my belief is that the practice never stops. Dave Castro, the king of CrossFit programming, released a book detailing his own process during the 2017 CrossFit Games Season. It’s an extremely interesting read, for the true CrossFit Nerd, and amazing to see how many different cultural, social, and artistic elements influenced his journey. It gave me a much better sense of the “why”rather than the specific “what” and “how” he programmed. Reading that book felt like, wait for it, having a personal conversation with Dave. 

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So come back next week for the third part of this conversation or feel free to stop and chat the next time you see me. Just make sure you have a few minutes…or hours. I can sometimes get lost in my art.

See you in the box.

-Coach Jack