Good CrossFit Programming

Ever wonder what makes for “Good Crossfit Programming”?

crossfit programming, exercise nerd

–Head Nerd at CrossFit Manassas – Coach Doug explains what makes for good CrossFit programming.

My guess is that if you had to define good Crossfit Programming with one word, you would say “results”. I would agree with you if you did, but the devil is in the details. In dealing with the human subject what gets you results at one point of your progress will not necessarily elicit similar results during other periods of your progress. Often you need to temporarily trade gains in one area for plateaus, or perhaps even slight drops, in other areas.

The simplest example of this is focusing on strength for several months while worrying less about endurance performance. This is often necessary as strength and endurance are on opposite ends of the force production spectrum – for advanced athletes it is near impossible to substantially improve both at the same time. This necessitates periodization in their training programs.

Lets discuss what we feel makes for good programming here at CrossFit Manassas. I would like to thank Dr. Joel Martin for reviewing this and providing some great feedback, notes, charts and photos. I will try to keep it as simple as possible, but provide enough detail so you can understand why we take things seriously with programming.

Understanding this information will also help you set some realistic goals.

I. GAS and other super-nerdy “sciencey” stuff – Good CrossFit programming demonstrates an understanding of the General Adaptive Syndrome (GAS) and how to use super-compensation to drive progress and achieve results.

A. Adaptation – “Adaptation is the adjustment of an organism to its environment. If the environment changes, the organism changes to better survive the new conditions.” [1] However, if the conditions change to quickly or drastically it will harm, irrevocably damage, or kill the organism. A small amount of stress allows you to recover from that stress and be able to resist that stress better than before.

There are structural and functional adaptations. Structural adaptations consist of bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments improving their material properties. Calluses, and hypertrophy (muscles getting bigger from lifting weights) are physical manifestations of this phenomenon. There are also functional adaptations, which consist of things like V02 max and lactate threshold.

Good programming controls the amount of stress we introduce to you so that we avoid harming you. Remember, while you are at the gym you may be building skills, but you are tearing down your body and applying stressors to your energy systems, central nervous system, and physical structures.

We approach adaptation at CrossFit Manassas by using scientifically proven; progressive loading schemes, max effort (ME) prescribed intensity (percentage of 1RM) reps, max reps (MR) to failure sets, dynamic effort (DE) work, work capacity development interval training, and prescribed volume (number of reps), to drive positive adaptations in your performance. We use specific time caps (durations) and limiting rep schemes to prevent you from doing too much and eliciting a negative adaptation like injury or overtraining. Our percentage work allow you to scale and customize to your needs and level whether it be weights for strength or pace for conditioning.

B. Recovery – After stressing your body with your workout, you enter the recovery phase. There are many things that contribute to your ability to recover as well as the rate of recovery, but the most important include sleep, nutrition, and rest days. This is also where we can include PED’s (performance enhancing drugs) as the majority of them speed your rate of recovery, allowing you to handle more work in a shorter amount of time. I’m not saying I endorse them, but this is why and where they are used.

Good programming contains adequate rest days, de-load periods, periodization, and time between workouts allowing you adequate time to recover. It should also allow for people with different goals, abilities, and propensity for recovery to participate at a level that is commensurate with their abilities. Having a gym that is allied with or has qualified nutrition coaches, nutritionists, or dietitians on staff is a plus as well.

We address recovery at CrossFit Manassas by first talking with our members as an individual and determining their goals. Then we make recommendations based on their assessed level of fitness, goals, and time available for:

  1. Which bias to follow in our programming,
  2. How many days a week to work out,
  3. What days to take as rest days
  4. Which days are critical (based on the programming template)

Our programming is periodized with a yearly plan that breaks down into four quarters with 12 weeks and a 13th de-load week. These 12 week cycles have different focuses and contain three to six-week meso-cycles that support the goals of training for that time frame. We do this for not just weightlifting, but conditioning, and skill development as well.

C. Super-compensation – “In sports science theory, supercompensation is the post training period during which the trained function/parameter has a higher performance capacity than it did prior to the training period.[2]”

Good CrossFit programming properly sequences different types of stresses and recovery for the different domains of fitness and balances out a program to allow us to take advantage of this super-compensation to build on our successes as in example one, from the chart below.

Not getting enough recovery will lead us into decreased performance, overtraining, and injury, as in the second example below. The third example explains why you feel so good after hitting it too hard and then taking a couple days off, but is not the optimal model to follow as it takes us too far into the negative range with the possibility of doing more harm than good. The fourth example below shows what happens when you are not training as often as you should.

super compensation

D. Over Training – Many of you may be overtraining by not getting enough recovery time, nutrition, or other recovery factors and not necessarily realize it. Some of the symptoms of overtraining are:

  • Unexplained poor performance and high fatigue ratings
  • Prolonged recovery from training sessions or competitive events
  • Disturbed mood states characterized by general fatigue, apathy, depression, irritability, and loss of competitive drive
  • Persistent feelings of muscle soreness and stiffness
  • Elevated resting pulse and increased susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infections (altered immune function)
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss, and inability to maintain proper body weight for competition
  • Overuse injuries

If you experience these or have any doubts or concerns, talk to Coach about it.

So all you need to know is your optimal recovery time and then you have good programming, right? It’s a good start but there are other variables to account for:

II. Variables


– Good CrossFit programming needs to take into account different recovery times for:

  1. Your different energy systems
  2. Your body’s physical structures
  3. Your CNS

Good programming takes into account the difference between novice, intermediate, and advanced exercisers or athletes.

A. Your Body’s Energy Systems – I’m going to keep this as simple as I can, because there is a lot that goes on here. If I leave some things out or over simplify, please forgive me. Your body uses ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate) to power everything it does.

It does this by breaking it down to ADP (adenosine di-phosphate) and a single phosphate group and using the energy that is liberated by the reaction. You also have to replenish that ATP by rebuilding ADP and single phosphate groups. Your body has three different ways to do this, that all have benefits, limitations, and different recovery times. The three main energy systems are:

1. ATP stores and Phosphagen System

2. Glycogen-lactic acid system

3. Aerobic System

good crossfit programming 05

You are never using only one of the energy systems – it is always a combination of the three. The percentage of each system that is being used for a given activity depends on: 1) the intensity and 2) the duration of the activity. Good programming takes these limitations, benefits, and recovery differences to form the order in which exercises are done, what is exercises are done following one day to the next, and what days should be rest days for different people with different goals.

Additional Reading on Your Body’s Energy Systems

B. Your Body’s Physical Structures – your body’s ability to rebuild muscles and physical structures that are torn up during exercise are dependent on multiple variables to include:

  1. The Intensity, Volume, and Frequency of your training
  2. Your individual genetic and acquired (trained) ability to recover
  3. How well you take care of your recovery process with proper rest, nutrition, and other restorative processes.
  4. The amount of other stress in your life

Good programming will deliver a proper moderated and balanced approach to #1 while you are responsible for the other three.

C. Your Central Nervous System – Just like your energy systems and physical structures, your CNS takes time to recover. While we can speed energy systems and physical structure recovery with diet and good supplementation, the CNS generally just takes time to recover from intense exercise and is influenced by variables 1, 2, and 4 from above.

Good programming takes CNS recovery into account by structuring rest intervals, rest days, and ordering, prioritizing, and periodizing training days and activities. Good programming also requires athletes to properly communicate with coaches about how they are feeling and on occasion taking unscheduled rest days if they feel like they are over trained. Other options are to modify exercises (use less weight than what is prescribed) or going easy on the workouts. Not every day needs to be a PR day. There may be some days when the percentages feel harder than usual and its ok to play “defense” and not go all out.

Typical Periodization Model

good crossfit programming 01

Additional reading on Understanding of exercises effects on the Central Nervous System


At CrossFit Manassas our programming takes into account differing recovery times for multiple activities and energy systems. Generally we do our lower intensity skill-building work first while our bodies and minds are fresh. Then we do activities that utilize our fastest recovering energy system (The Creatine-Phosphate anaerobic sytem) like Olympic and Powerlifting weightlifting movements so that we are not worn out for our conditioning which can lightly, moderately, or intensely tax our glycolytic and aerobic pathways, depending on the stress prescribed for that day in keeping with our periodization model. Rest days are prescribed for individuals depending on their goals, abilities, and training focus.



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D. What’s the difference between novice, intermediate, and advanced athletes?

Novice athletes can make progress from work out to work out. Novices will see a result from just about any training protocol as they are going from doing nothing to doing something.

Intermediate athletes take longer to make progress (set new PR’s).

Advanced athletes track their progress in much smaller increments over a longer time frame that may take months to see progress. Truly elite level athletes have to use an annual or even multi-year approach to setting new benchmarks.

Typical Gains in Strength – the dashed line would represent approximately 1 year into a consistent strength training program.

good crossfit programming 06

Good group CrossFit programming offers a scaleable and periodized approach that allows different levels of athletes to make progress regardless of where they fall on the continuum.

This creates unique challenges in a mixed-modal training situation like CrossFit. You can’t just take a stock weightlifting program, slap a standard endurance program on top of it, and then do a full gymnasts workout to build all of the requisite skills for the gymnastics piece of CrossFit. It will tear your body down quickly. You will drive yourself to injury very quickly.

At CrossFit Manassas our approach takes into account the accumulated wear and tear of combining strength, power, endurance, and specific skill building protocols. We also take advantage of the fact that we can vary the specific movements to minimize specific wear and tear related to overuse of a specific movement or exercise.As you move from novice to intermediate athlete you can add specific accessory work (featured in orange on the website) that supports the daily programming and will help drive your progress. Taking the step to being an advanced athlete allows you the opportunity to add additional work (featured in blue on the website) that complements the standard workouts and accessory work at a time where you can handle the additional volume and higher-level skill work.

Trying to tackle the additional work before you are ready for it can have a deleterious result. If you aren’t sure of when to make the transitions, make sure you track all of your workouts on and then talk with Coach.

III. In Addition – Some additional things that make for good programming

programming nerd 03

A. Injury PreventionThis should be a gym’s number one priority. Injury prevention includes but is not limited to:

1. Sufficient and appropriate warm-ups, pre-habilitation, and mobility work,

2. Post-workout stretching,

3. Having a legitimate bio-mechanical or performance goal for everything that you program

4. Minimizing, Mitigate, or completely remove inherently dangerous movements,

5. Minimize, mitigate, or remove ridiculously high-rep movements in workouts (the definition of “high-rep” differs from movement to movement at different intensities and volumes).

6. Proper form on all movements makes you safer and able to do more work more efficiently and continue on injury free.

Please report any injuries you have to a coach and if a movement hurts, you don’t need to do it. Ask a coach how to modify the movement, or substitute with something else, so that you don’t injure yourself.

At CrossFit Manassas our number one pillar of training is Safety. We utilize all of the above injury prevention measures and more. If a coach makes a call based on your safety or others around you, listen to them. If you disagree with their call we can talk about it later…in an uninjured state.

B. All Encompassing – Good CrossFit programming takes into account the breadth and range of human movement. It exploits agonist and antagonist muscle groups and movements to provide safer progressions, build supporting structures for the range of human movement, and drive quantifiable, consistent gains while minimizing the occurrence of injury.

C. Balance and Variation – Good CrossFit programming balances out the ten domains of fitness and allows for enough variation to keep it interesting and not hammer away at the same body parts or movements for multiple consecutive days.

D. Critical Thought Process – Good programming evolves with the needs of it’s population of members. It builds on its successes and discards things that don’t produce or support results. Good programmers continually educate themselves and expose themselves to new thoughts and open investigation.

IV. Summary

Good CrossFit programming gets you the results you are looking for in conjunction with your recovery protocols, rest, and nutrition. To maximize the return of investment of your time and energies make sure you communicate with your coaches your specific goals and follow their recommendations. Be aware of your goals, constantly record your results, evaluate your progress, and communicate your questions, concerns, and needs with your coaches.


[1] Zatsiorsky, V., & Kraemer, W. (2006). Science and practice of strength training. (2nd ed.). Champaigne, IL: Human Kinetics.


Additional Food For Thought:

Training vs Exercise

Weight Training Vs. “Cardio”

Comments 3

  1. Kevin Schaedler

    Love this article and all of the threads attached. I currently coach CF in Denver and am always looking to improve my abilities. Thank you!

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