“If I were again beginning my studies, I would follow the advice of Plato and start with mathematics.”

– Galileo Galilei

What I am going to write about this week has already been explored. You can read about it in the CrossFit Journal from 2005. In the article, Fooling with Fran, Greg Glassman took one of his earliest athletes, Greg Amundson, and put him through what I can only imagine was one of the most grueling workout sessions possible – multiple variations of the benchmark Fran, or 21-15-9 repetitions each of Thrusters and Pullups for time.  Glassman breaks down Amundson’s baseline power output when doing Fran in the traditional scheme and then again with both heavier and lighter barbell loads. Interestingly, the “Fat Fran” version reduces the power output by about 20% due to the increased amount of time it takes to complete the work while “Anorexic Fran” increased the power output by about 7%. The article also explores possible variations in power output that could and did occur when they changed the rep scheme to 9×5, 3×15, or even a 1×45 variation. If that’s still taking some time to set in, that’s 45 thrusters, then 45 pullups, as fast as possible. Since that article came out, people have done it. People have done it in under 3:00. Those people are crazy fit.

Bottom line, the article offers extremely meaningful insights into how analyzing a workout by simply using a stopwatch and some basic math can give us a pathway to improving an athlete’s fitness. In Amundson’s case, going lighter with Fran might not have been the best way for him to improve since the improvement in power bottoms out pretty quickly even at a relatively insignificant reduction in the load. For him, a few weeks with a slightly heavier barbell might have been more useful. However, Greg Amundson already had a sub-2:30 Fran when using the prescribed load; anyone reading this who can say that, feel free to increase the prescribed weights in workouts. For the rest of us, let’s talk about why going heavier is NOT the road to increased fitness.

Last week, I wrote about the idea of time as a foundational truth in CrossFit. This week, during one of our programmed workouts I saw that foundational truth come into context. On Saturday, we had a fun little adventure with the echo bike, a jump rope, a barbell, and some burpees. The workout asked athletes to push themselves into a catastrophic state of metabolic fatigue in a relatively short amount of time. After an insufficient amount of rest, they were then asked to repeat that process two more times. Basically, it was a physical test that quickly turned into a psychological test of endurance. 

As prescribed, the load on the barbell should have been light enough for athletes to move quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, I fear that a lot of us underestimated the potency of the movements and the speed with which our metabolic capacity would be overwhelmed. In other words, almost EVERYONE bonked way too early and we ended up having to scale loads and volume much more than we should have. As a result, most athletes who completed the workout on Saturday did not maximize their potential power outputs, thus they did not maximize their intensity, thus they did not improve their fitness as well as they could have.

I was the coach so I am ultimately responsible. My fault lies in not clearly demonstrating via measurable and observable “truths” that going LIGHTER would have actually allowed athletes to exert higher power output and would have been a more effective use of their time. This blog post is my attempt at fixing that fault.

Similar to Glassman’s article, I am going to use my performance on Saturday’s WOD as my example of how scaling the load on the barbell in order to maintain the prescribed volume actually yielded a higher power output and thus yielded higher intensity across the workout. 

The specifics of the workout were as follows. The general structure was three, eight minute working windows where the prescribed amount of work to be completed in the eight minutes was an initial 10 calories on the Echo Bike, followed by 50 double unders, and then once those were completed,  4 rounds of 7 thrusters at 75 pounds, 7 sumo deadlift high pulls at 75 pounds, then 7 burpees. Once complete with the prescribed work, the athlete would rest the remainder of the eight minutes before starting again. As written, the intended stimulus was for the work to take somewhere between five to six minutes to allow the athlete two to three minutes of rest.

Using me as the athlete at 5’6” tall, weighing 170 pounds, and eliminating the echo bike and double under as “constants” for the sake of mathematical simplicity, I computed how much work I completed if I did the 4 rounds of 7 thrusters, 7 sumo deadlift high pulls, and 7 burpees with an empty 45# bar. That amount was 96,040 foot-pounds per round, or a total of 288,120 foot-pounds. I completed this version of the workout in an average of five minutes and ten seconds across the three rounds, thus yielding a power output of about 310 foot pounds per second. This converts to about .55 horse power or just over 400 watts. In other words, when I completed the prescribed VOLUME of work at a significantly reduced LOAD, I had produced enough power to watch a standard flat screen TV for about an hour, or one episode of Master Chef.

When I tested the same workout at the prescribed load and at the prescribed volume, I was unable to complete the work inside the desired five to six minutes. In order to use the prescribed load, I had to reduce the volume in order to meet the intended time stimulus. Therefore, by choosing to scale the volume in order to maintain the load, I actually reduced the work by 20% and thus reduced my power output by 20%. Fitness gains aside, now, if I wanted to watch the same show, I’d only be able to watch 48 minutes of the episode and would never know which home chef got cut! That sucks. And I’m not as fit. That sucks too.

In CrossFit, we equate fitness to power output. I’ve said this before, and you will hear it again, CrossFit aims to improve an athlete’s work capacity across broad modal and time domains. Meaning, she who does more work is fitter. In Saturday’s workout, the version where I let go of my ego, stripped the bar of all plates, and kept the rep scheme at the prescribed volume is the version that yielded a higher power output. Therefore, that version of me got 20% fitter, 20% faster than the version of me who thought he should go prescribed, but just shave a few reps.

If the light bulbs are not going off for you yet, let me add a little bit more power to what I am saying. Going lighter in almost every CrossFit workout will, for almost all of us for almost the entire time we do CrossFit, be the road to getting fitter faster. 

Look, I’m not going to lie to you. Heavy barbells are fun. PRs are fun. I love watching people struggle through and break down previously perceived limitations. Those moments in the gym when someone lifts something they never thought they could are critical milestones in all of our fitness journeys. But they are just those, single milestones. They are not the consistent path to long term success. Increased fitness will only come when we move lighter loads at the speed and intensity that we watch the superstars move the heavier loads. That’s a truth. However, I am quickly learning that no matter how much math I throw around, scaling actually has nothing to do with math, but rather ties directly into our emotional narratives that we refuse to acknowledge or let go of. If you want to read my opinions on that, check out some previous posts about the power of stories here or letting go of our inner narratives here.

I want to also offer that barbells aren’t the only thing we can scale for load. Burpees got you down? Don’t worry, you don’t have to go all the way to the ground. Let us put you on a box and see how fast you can cycle those bad boys. I’ll bet you’ll still feel that burpee burn. For a lot of folks down on the Creek, scaling isn’t an issue. But for some of us who have been doing this awhile, it feels like scaling gets a bad reputation. It’s almost like it’s something you graduate from and don’t ever have to come back to.  I’m officially telling you, that’s not true. Scaling is cool. If you don’t follow Dave Castro on Instagram, I recommend you take a look. The guy who wrote one of the most amazing series of workouts during this last Open just did ALL five of the Open workouts as scaled. His assessment: the scaled versions allowed a significantly higher amount of fitness.

In closing, I want to say that scaling is not really the question under debate. To scale or not to scale? Who cares! What we should be asking is how do we complete a workout in a way that optimizes our power output. Intensity rules all. Everything else is a waste of time. 

So, come on down to the Creek. Let us find the right scale for you. If you are not sure who I am, I’ll be the one at the white board, looking like this:

See you in the box!

-Coach Jack