Coach Hayden on CrossFit Programming

(2016 Update)

In this first installment of a three-part series to discuss Solace’s unique approach to fitness, Solace New York’s Head Coach Hayden-William Courtland answers questions about how he programs for CrossFit classes.

How would you describe the essence of your CrossFit programming?

I can tell you that a decision was made early on to build off of the official CrossFit programming template. This means specific inclusion of weightlifting, monostructural (e.g., running, rowing), and gymnastics elements in various singlet, couplet, triplet or chipper (4 or more) combinations (with an emphasis on couplets and triplets). Medium, light, and heavy days are cycled, as well as how long the workouts take (shorter, more intense workouts being prioritized over very long ones).

Everyone comes to CrossFit with different capabilities and levels of experience, though, right? So, won’t certain workouts be “light” for one member and “heavy” for another, when the intent was for the workout to be “light” for all?

They will. In a class environment, you can never match the programming specifically to the individual. Generally what I do, and I think this is pretty common across boxes, is program these weighted and timed aspects towards the top-tier members of the box. Members that aren’t at that level yet are actually the majority of our membership base and they will simply scale the workout down so that it is manageable. For beginners, and for quite some time down the road (often years), traditional CrossFit programming of this nature will need little to no modification and still enable members to adapt – to get bigger, stronger, faster, leaner, and so on. This is the beauty of a constantly varied program – it helps you get fitter because the stimulus on any given day is different, new, and – provided that each member pushes himself or herself – performed at a high intensity.

You’ve just described CrossFit programming as constantly varied. I’ve heard some people say that means random, while others say programming should never be random. Who is right?

I think this confusion stems from the early days of CrossFit, when the program was still being developed. The term “random” was definitely used, but I think it was more of a rebuttal to those trying to have a broad level of fitness, but by doing the same training movements over and over again. So, random was a way of encouraging people to mix things up and get out of their comfort zone. Over the years the wording has been refined and “constantly varied” better expresses the idea. You want to train a variety of skill sets, but you don’t want that training to have no design. With no design, your programming would be random, and then you could wind up having three 5k Runs back to back in one week. It’s hard to imagine a situation where that would be productive for a typical CrossFitter’s training. Three 5k Runs back to back might be a good test for a CrossFitter, but there needs to be a design to the training and thus the programming should not be random.

So, pulling specific WODs from other places to generate programming would be random then as well, right?

It depends. If that is all you did, pull all of your programming from different places with no thought process behind it, then yes. That is random and it will be hit or miss as to whether or not progress is made. However, if you have a plan or design in mind (i.e., I need these movements and this modality, etc.), taking specific workouts from other places can work fine. As long as your plan or design is the driving force, then the inclusion won’t be random.

Along those lines, “Birthday” or “Holiday” WODs, or WODs that use some sort of theme like a deck of cards are generally not created with a programming design in mind, so does that mean if you use them, your programming is random and thus ineffective?

Again, this depends on context. If you were doing this all the time, it would be a problem. However, birthday and holidays don’t happen that often. Probably less than once a month, right? Even if we assume these WODs are in no way part of your design, they still aren’t a problem if they are sprinkled in. The analogy would be if you missed a CrossFit class every now and then. Will that destroy your fitness? Will that ruin one’s overall programming? Not really. In fact, people tend to miss entire CrossFit classes far more regularly than a Birthday/Holiday/Themed WOD crops up.

Another point I will mention is that part of CrossFit is community and enjoyment. For the vast majority of CrossFitters this cannot be ignored, as most are not competitive. Birthday/Holiday/Themed WODs can help members stay engaged. They also can be used as ways to recruit new members, through friends/family WOD events. Even regular workouts from other sources can serve as a nice change of pace to enthuse the members. A great example is the CrossFit Main Site workout from March 11th, 2015. Every minute you had to add weight to a Snatch, and then when you missed, you switched to a Clean, and then when you missed, you switched to Deadlifting. Many boxes saw this workout and knew it would be very fun, so they switched their programming out for that day. A notable example would be Jason Khalipa, who switched his NorCal programming at the last minute. Did this fit the program design he had in place for that week or month? No. Was that a problem? Not at all. We have to remember that while CrossFit is about fitness, it is also about community and having fun, and these will intersect at times where programming is concerned.

Does that mean you have a template for the week that you follow and then just alter it a bit for special occasions?

There are some boxes that do this very rigorously. For example, you could have Monday be squat day, Tuesday be pulling, Saturday be long WODs, etc. The problem with this kind of templating is that, on a weekly scale, it is not constantly varied. Even worse, certain people will never attend classes on a certain day (Monday, perhaps), and then those members will be getting a very biased program (in this case always missing squat day).

That being said, with Solace now in its second year, I decided that I needed to implement a general template to guide my programming, but I needed one that served a broad member base.  So, what I did was create 6-week blocks. During each week a pushing, pulling, and pressing modality is guaranteed on a different day, such that by the end of the block, they have appeared relatively evenly across the days of the week. This block structure also has weeks that rotate with different themes. One week might have a skill emphasis, another a Weightlifting emphasis, and another a WOD emphasis (where classes just have the WOD and the rest of the time is spent doing warm-up, mobility, and drills). The specific WODs that I then program each week are chosen in light of this block structure, but I am still left with considerable flexibility.

In your block structure, it looks you have an additional programming piece before the WOD in a number of your classes. Why is that and is this typical of boxes?

Many, but not all of our classes have this, yes. It is fairly common these days. Certainly the main site programming for CrossFit doesn’t do this – they only have one “piece” per day every day. This one piece programming is certainly a great model as you give full effort and attention to a singular effort each day. It works well if you are working out on your own or with a small group, or even in larger groups where participants are dedicated to the model. But with a large member base where members are expecting an hour-long class it gets a bit tricky. Certain days would then be just strength days and other days just skill days, while still other days would be the conditioning days. A lot of people have an aversion to just doing strength on a given day or letting a day go by and not working on conditioning. It’s the conditioning that makes many people feel like they are getting fitter/healthier, so it can be a struggle if you (seemingly) rob them of that – they may not show up the other days, or worse yet, stop training.

So, as a compromise many of our classes have a split-day model where there is a conditioning piece (WOD), but there is either a skill or strength piece beforehand. In this model both pieces cannot be completed at top performance levels because the volume of work is higher, but members can choose where to put their emphasis. If they are interested in the strength piece before, they can put more of their effort into that and go lighter in the WOD. Alternatively, if they are more interested in conditioning, they can go light on the strength and focus on technique. Then they can go all out in the WOD. I should note that having a split day like this actually has a bit of an advantage as Intermediate (i.e., more experienced) CrossFitters tend to need a bit more volume in their training and that’s what they are getting with a piece before the WOD. Intermediate CrossFitters can go hard on both pieces (more on this later). But remember, as I mentioned above, with our 6-week block structure, every other week has one or two classes where we just have the WOD, with no strength or skill piece before. So, you really do get a wide variety of programming modalities.

It seems that in a given week of CrossFit, your muscle groups don’t get much of a break. There could be squats in the Strength portion of class and then Cleans in the WOD right after. You will also likely be using your legs again the next day. Shouldn’t major muscle groups be rotated to allow for recovery?

There are a number of factors relevant to this point. First is that CrossFit focuses on core to extremity movements and prioritizes larger muscles as initiators of movement when possible. Legs are a huge part of this emphasis. Indeed, the majority of CrossFit movements use leg or hip drive in some manner – they are key to your fitness. In terms of recovery, it is dependent on several factors. Younger people recover quicker than older people. Larger muscles (legs) recover quicker than smaller muscles (shoulders). Novices (those new to training) recover quicker than Intermediates/Advanced (those who have been training continuously for a long time). With this in mind, and given that CrossFit is class-based, it’s hard to program for everyone’s recovery needs. But several things help:

  • That CrossFit is constantly varied (but not random) helps – you won’t get a heavy squat strength session two days in a row.
  • That most members are Novices to the CrossFit stimulus helps – they tend to recover with 24-72 hours.
  • That members can choose their emphasis on split days and can always scale down helps – they can see how their body feels on a given day and approach each workout accordingly.
  • That I try and pair strength sessions and WOD pieces with recovery in mind helps – if the strength is a heavy squat session for example, I generally won’t pair it with a WOD that is also heavy in leg movements.

What are some of the logistical considerations that affect your programming at Solace?

Many of these considerations are common to other boxes. We have equipment limitations in that we don’t have a full class complement (15) for ropes, GHD machines, sleds, and so on. Some equipment we actually don’t have at all (yet), like dumbbells. We are located in NYC, so we cannot have running in WODs during the winter. Similarly, we need to schedule running in WODs on non-rainy days during the spring, summer, and fall. We also use Beyond the Whiteboard for WOD tracking and encourage members to use their Fitness Level number feature. This requires that a certain number of Fitness Level WODs be performed every 6 months, so there will be a larger proportion of “benchmark” WODs than might be found at other boxes.

Finally, by virtue of our size, we have CrossFit classes that must be finished in an hour and that overlap on the 30 min mark during peak times of the week. This restricts how the pieces of each day’s programming are budgeted for time since equipment must be shared. As you can see there is a lot going on and a lot has to be juggled. I’ve found planning in advance to be crucial in this regard, but we have a tremendous amount of space and top-notch coaches and equipment, so it works really well.

Along the lines of planning in advance, I’ve heard that CrossFit is about being prepared for the unknown and unknowable. And yet you release the week’s programming online in advance. Why?

There are valid reasons for keeping it hidden and valid reasons for revealing it in advance. I like to reveal the programming in advance for a number of reasons. One reason is because not everyone can/wants to bring all their equipment to class every day. By posting in advance, they can see they don’t need Oly shoes on a given day or do need long socks for rope climbs, etc. Another reason is that some members want to arrive early to mobilize on certain days depending on the movement. Yet another reason is for our sports-oriented members. They can more constructively plan their week if they see what is ahead. If they couldn’t see, they might go out and run a 10k and then show up the next day to CrossFit and see the WOD with five 400m runs. While CrossFit would say they should be ready to run again, the issue is that class is training and running that that much after a 10k might not be appropriate training for everyone. I like to think of the unknown and unknowable as what you will encounter outside the box – in life. Our known training in the box prepares us for that unknowable encounter outside.
If I look at the week’s programming in advance and only choose certain classes to attend, am I doing myself a disservice?

This “cherry-picking” of classes can be a disservice for sure. If you look at the week in advance and only pick classes you “like,” odds are you are picking classes with movements that play to your strengths. This will hurt your fitness in the long run. On the other hand, if you pick classes based on movements you are weak at, this can be very beneficial to your fitness in the long run. The need to “hammer your weaknesses” in this manner becomes more important and appropriate the longer you have been training in CrossFit. At Solace I feel we do a good job of addressing weaknesses of the group and the individual with our programming and unique class offerings.

Can you give examples of how your CrossFit programming addresses weaknesses and/or may stand out in comparison to that found at other boxes?

Sure. Here are some bullet points:

  • As mentioned above we guarantee one squat, pulling, and pressing strength piece every week.
  • We have benchmarks fairly often, generally one per week.
  • We regularly add mobility/stretching/movement prep work before certain skill and WOD segments.
  • We use Beyond the Whiteboard and encourage members to monitor their Fitness Level Number and strength/weakness charts there.
  • We have a slight emphasis on Strength
  • We have a slight emphasis on the Olympic Lifts.

The above is not to say that the approaches of other boxes aren’t as good. There are many ways to be successful. This is just our approach. I should note that it will likely be modified even more as we continue to grow as the approach has to be tailored to one’s specific member base.

Over the years, I’ve noticed members at CrossFit boxes working out on their own. They will rarely take classes and appear to be following their own programming. Why is that?

What you are seeing is probably a wide mix of situations. There are people who forgo classes to try what they consider “fun” WODs. Some may in fact be working on their weaknesses. Some may be backing off WODs to allow for 2-3 days of pure strength training each week (a tough program to manage, I might add). Some may just be doing a variety of random things with no purpose whatsoever. Finally, there are those that are following separate programming. They may be doing so because it is popular to follow famous programming (e.g., Outlaw, Invictus, MisFit, etc.) or they may be very experienced (and very fit) CrossFitters who will be following programming from famous boxes—or their own private coaches—because they actually need this more advanced programming.

If the better members are following these other programs, shouldn’t I be following that programming too?

Most likely, no. A CrossFitter can spend years doing the type of programming written for classes and continue to get healthier and fitter. With the specialty classes and cycles we offer at Solace this time frame can be extended even further. The main difference in this more advanced programming is that it is designed for individuals who want to compete in competitions and therefore must offer a greater volume of work during each session. So, it would be like taking a typical CrossFit class at Solace and adding more work to it each day. This requires a higher level of fitness and greater ability to recover one’s body, not to mention more time in the day to commit to your training.

Wouldn’t it be better to have that type of programming be the normal programming for the box and just have the more inexperienced members scale down?

No. There are several reasons for this. I already mentioned that it is hard to recover from this kind of volume. Also, with this high volume comes more time invested in training, and that cannot be accommodated in a 1 hour class. Scaling volume down means doing less pieces of programming, not using less weight on the bar. I should note (as pointed out earlier) our CrossFit classes are currently structured with a bit more volume on various days (when we have a strength or skill piece before our conditioning pieces). So, by taking classes at Solace you are already getting a slightly more advanced program in terms of volume.

Another reason we don’t use an advanced program in our CrossFit classes is that these programs very often are geared towards making you excel at specific competitions – in particular, The Open, and then Regionals. Over the years coaches realized that making you excel at these particular events, can be simplified to emphasizing certain movements and underemphasizing other movements. For example, these programs will often place a much greater emphasis on the Olympic lifts, wall balls, rowing, muscle-ups, etc. In turn, there will be far less (or no) emphasis on other movements such as sumo deadlift high-pulls, front rack lunges, and so on. As Dave Castro, Director of Training at CrossFit HQ, once said, “[these programs] aren’t CrossFit, they are training programs designed to make you good at CrossFit.” That being said, you will see some workouts from these famous places crop up in the Solace programming; they can be very effective if used appropriately.

In light of what you just said, how do you handle members that are a bit more advanced and interested in competition?

We have a special Competition Team for them. Members must apply to be on the team by filling out a worksheet, which asks for a variety of their stats (1RMs, Benchmark times, etc.). One of our coaches, Lauren Bass, is the Team Director and matches their abilities to a minimum required score we have set. Members of this team follow Ben Bergeron’s Comp Train Open programming and train together on a regular basis. Ben’s philosophy on CrossFit programming is very similar to mine, so it’s a great fit. I will periodically put some of the Comp Train WODs in the regular CrossFit classes. It’s a great way for the members to get a taste of what it’s like to do more demanding programming and to see how they match up against members of our Comp Team.

You mentioned earlier that Solace has options to enhance the fitness of its members outside of just taking regular CrossFit classes. This is through additional classes, specialty classes, and cycle, right?

That is correct. One of the great things about Solace is that we have such a diverse group of class offerings. In the next installment of this 3-part series I will summarize the different offerings at Solace and give my personal experiences taking each of them.

Hayden-William Courtland, Ph.D.
Head Coach & Manager, 
Solace New York