By: Regionals athlete and Premier CrossFit Coach Joshua Jericho Littauer

How many of you show up to the gym with no preconceived notion of what the workout is or what all you may be asked to do? I’d probably see a good show of hands for that question. Now there is also plenty of you who would say the opposite, and you’re also likely the person who refreshes your wodify app every minute after 8 pm to see what the next day holds for you. Neither is necessarily right or wrong, but I’d like to provide a slightly different perspective on approaching your daily workout. What if I could teach you how to treat each workout like it’s own game? This is what I will try to accomplish here.

When approaching each workout like its own game there are multiple things that need to be taken into consideration. How long is the workout? What movements or movement patterns are there? Is there a high skill movement? Are these movements I’m good at? Each of these questions will play a role in your ability to move well through a workout and achieve the best possible outcome.

We first need to provide some framework and look for the ultimate outcome of the workout. You may hear a coach mention the “desired stimulus” of a workout, this is essentially the intended outcome and how you should feel during or after a workout. The stimulus often determines the pace with which we attack a workout or decide how to scale a workout (more on scaling for a different post). I’ll use several examples to help discuss this point. In the case of Fran, 21-15-9 reps of thrusters and pull ups, a workout designed to be a sprint and very fast (sub 6 is a pretty good time) should be done in with a weight on the thruster that is easily maintained for unbroken sets and scaled on the pullups to accommodate your skill. Anytime you see the numbers 21-15-9 it can be reasonably assumed it is supposed to be a fast workout. Another example would be Murph, the total opposite of Fran. Murph includes 2 miles worth of running, 100 pull ups, 200 pushups, and 300 air squats; this is a very long Crossfit workout! In terms of pacing, Fran and Murph are polar opposites.

You may here the term redline thrown around in a Crossfit gym as well. The term redline is a analogy to the tachometer in your car that tells you how many revolutions per minute the cam shaft or pistons rotate per minute. The dial in your car probably reads somewhere around 6000 RPM before hitting a red line and slowing the engine down to avoid blowing up. Your body has a similar red line that determines how quickly you can move, your power output potential, and how long you can operate at a near sprint pace before you also “blow up”. In the case of Crossfit which includes workouts with variable time domains, it isn’t always advantageous to hit the “redline” immediately in a workout, or even at all for that matter. When we look at the previous two example, Fran and Murph, we can see that Fran requires you to redline right out of the gate, while Murph never requires you to hit the redline. It depends on the desired stimulus or outcome.

We also have to consider the rep schemes and movements in the workout. Let’s take Karen for example, complete 150 wallballs for time. Only the best of the best are going to go unbroken for all 150 reps, and the result is often devastating. It is still possible to get big sets done in this workout, but it may be smart to take strategic breaks. For example, what if instead of doing a max effort unbroken set right out of the gate you instead did 5 sets of 30 or maybe 10 sets of 15. This would allow for you to maintain good size sets with minimal rest in between, instead of doing say a set of 75 at the beginning and then taking multiple 30 second breaks between the remaining sets of 10. This is one good example of how to approach breaking up large sets of a singular movement.

This can also be done for medium to high skill gymnastics movements in a medium length workout. Lets use the example of 3 rounds of 15 pull ups and a 200 m run. Your best set of pull ups is 6, but you can maintain sets of 3-4 consistently. In this example, it would be smarter to stick with 5 sets of 3 for all 3 rounds than to try to do a max effort set each time. If you were to do a max effort set it would likely turn into resting 20-25 seconds between sets and doing sets of 1-2. It would be smarter to go 5×3 with 7-8 seconds rest between sets. Applying this strategy can help take away some of the frustration of struggling with a skill as you can better break up a movement and take strategic breaks to help you move through the workout better.

This can be applied to running and rowing as well, although I would like to save that discussion for a future post. Your big take aways to get you into this habit are as follows:

  1. Learn the stimulus: if you can find out if the workout is supposed to be a sprint, medium length, or long, then you can determine how you approach each movement and the time frames you’re looking at.
  2. Assess the skill level: for a low skill workout with movements such as burpees or kettlebell swings you can determine to move a little quicker or keep bigger sets without resting, vs a workout with high skills (muscle up, pull up, handstand push up, toes to bar etc) that may require you to break up the movement early to maintain a good pace throughout the workout.
  3. Set time checkpoints and time your rest: setting up checkpoints throughout the workout will help break up the monotony of the workout and give you strategic goals as you go. Looking at the clock while you rest also gives you the ability to time your rest in order to minimize the time between sets as much as possible. This will help keep you moving without staring at the ground and contemplating life so much.

All in all, beginning to implement some of these ideas will help to change the way we look at workouts and hopefully help to keep you moving throughout. It may not come naturally at first but can definitely help improve overall performance on your daily workouts. Give it a shot and see if you can beat the strategy game to improve your fitness.

A Deeper Look Into Strategizing Workouts