Chasing Exhaustion: Why “More” May Not Be What You Need
By Gillian Boyd
There are over 15,000 CrossFit Affiliates around the world practicing and testing the CrossFit curriculum. This week I wanted to take a look at the CrossFit Novato program and share a bit more about how we think about Fitness.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’ve walked in (what feels like a growing number of) your CrossFit shoes wanting more volume, bigger workouts, and even more barbells. Flash-back seven years ago and I loved every second I spent in the gym. I was hungry for personal records, starving for heavier loads, and higher volume. I lived for the days I ended a workout writhing on the floor in pain. I looked at CrossFit Hero wods with a mixture of awe, hate, and mostly love. I even wanted to be sore. So sore I could hardly walk down stairs. I thought that meant that I was getting fitter and that I would get the “most gainzzz”. I followed CrossFit Games athletes on Social Media. I wanted to do what they were doing. They were lifting and metconing and doing double days. They were writhing on the floor in pain, so why shouldn’t I be on the floor too?
Make no mistake, still to this day I LOVE the barbell. If I have a personal fitness bias, the barbell is my favorite tool. I love lifting. I would be happy not completing another metabolic conditioning session for years. Or, if I had my druthers, every conditioning session I did do would include a barbell. Maybe even multiple barbell movements.
I want you to know that despite being familiar with all the following information, I still sometimes feel like I need “more” or something different than what we offer. And that’s ok. It’s important for us to explore our wants, desires, and goals to reflect on ways that we can better address them.
Consider the following and fill in the blank:.
When I think about the CrossFit Novato Program, I wish I had access to________________.
- More volume
- Longer workouts
- More barbell movements
- More strength work
- All of the above
How many of you have ever wrestled with the above considerations?
Or maybe you’ve thought; “The one-hour regular classes don’t feel like enough. The workouts feel easy, especially when they are only six minutes long!” Or maybe you’ve even publicly declared, “I need more than a six minute workout.”
One of the many reasons I love the CrossFit methodology is that it’s an evidence-based, research-based fitness program. It takes the best exercise and kinesiology research available and allows affiliates like ours the freedom to put it to the test. Unlike traditional franchise models, CrossFit, Inc. doesn’t direct or support how we run the business or how we create sustainable teaching and learning with our clients. Ultimately, the market decides which CrossFit businesses hang around. So, what are the keys to hanging around and building a successful CrossFit program?
Programming for All Three Energy Systems
There are three metabolic pathways our body uses to make energy: the anaerobic A-lactic (ALA)/Phosphagen pathway, the Glycolytic pathway, and the Oxidative pathway. We believe these three energy systems are the anchor point for effective, sustainable and scalable program design. The more one understands all three energy systems, the more he or she seeks mastery in fitness programming.
The Phosphagen and the Glycolytic pathways do not utilize oxygen for energy, and therefore are not sustainable for long periods of time. The Phosphagen pathway is utilized in high-effort, short situations (0:00-0:30 efforts) such as 1RM lifts, short sprints and max height box jumps. The Glycolytic pathway is utilized in high intensity/effort work (around 85%) within 0:10-3:00 or so. The oxidative pathway is utilized in lower intensity, long duration work. When solely using the oxidative pathway, it is rare to be able to push harder than 75% effort.
Programming the Pathways Across a Six-day Training Week
Let’s consider the CFN program and see if we can identify each of the metabolic pathways. Take a look at a few pieces from the Performance track of last week’s programming and see if you can identify the pathways:
5 Rounds, Each for Time:
18/15 Cal Assault
12 S2OH (115/75)
9 Toes to Bar
6 Power Clean (115/75)
Rest 2:00 between Rounds
3 sets of 5 reps, building
1 set of Max Effort reps @ 90% of heaviest set of 5
2 Rounds for Reps/Rounds + Reps:
2:00 AMRep Rope Climbs
10 Jumping Lunges
5 D-ball/Sandball to Shoulder (~150/~100)
Rest 1:00 between Rounds
In teams of 4:
25 min AMRAP:
30 Deadlifts (185/135)
40 Medball Situps (20/14)
*Includes 800m runs too
Here, you can see the Phosphagen pathway hit during the Bench Press strength work. The Glycolytic Pathway is hit both in the sprint rounds of Wednesday’s workout and the 2:00 intervals of Thursday’s metcon. We hit the oxidative pathway on Saturday with the long 25 min AMRAP.
You might note that the Phosphagen pathway is often in the Strength focused portion of a class and usually runs three to four times during a given week. We also travel this pathway during Aerobic Endurance interval programming…hello Assault sprints! The Glycolytic pathway weaves its way into two or three metcons per week. We program a challenge for the Oxidative Pathway every week on Saturdays and at least one other day during the week, sometimes more frequently.
From our perspective, we want to encourage every client to consider the metabolic pathways and consider how to best train each pathway. If a six-minute workout feels “easy”, perhaps there is an opportunity to increase your rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Would it be possible for you to “give more” in the next, short workout? Are you consistently working with excellent range of motion, at an 85% or greater perceived effort? Hitting a higher RPE during the glycolytic pathway will yield greater fitness/health benefits.
High Stress Workouts and Total Exhaustion
As I mentioned above, chasing exhaustion was the only speed I knew. This led to me blowing out my hip and back as well as experiencing burn out. I could hardly workout for almost two years because of the injury and subsequent surgery. I went into deep depression, and my story isn’t an anomaly. I chased exhaustion because I thought it’s what I needed to get fit. Now, looking back I can see that I didn’t need more volume and more time in the gym. What I needed was more focus on quality movement and more balance in my life. I was ignoring the other stressors in my life, trying to bury them by working out harder. I was filling my insecurities in my body and mind with “extreme fitness”. I wish I would have known better. Maybe you are thinking , “..well sure, but that’s not me. My life is totally great, my recovery is awesome, and I want more”. I encourage you to sit with that for a few minutes and consider what are your measures of success?
Have you been injury-free this past year or do you have nagging injuries that won’t seem to go away? Are you sleeping well and wake feeling rested? Are you prioritizing nutrition and eating 90% natural and clean? How are you managing alcohol consumption? Are your relationships with loved ones strong, healthy, and stress-free?
What if the science of what your body needs to build fitness is very different than what your brain tells you it needs? Fitness isn’t based on how many 20 min AMRAPs you slog your way through in a week. It’s not about how sore you get. It’s not even about how many times you get to move the barbell. It’s actually more a function of how we manage and move through the metabolic pathways. What if what we really need is to reconsider why our brain equates exhaustion and high stress as the only measurements of fitness success?
I Want to Be Stronger. I Need More Barbell.
As I mentioned earlier, I love the barbell. Considering the last two weeks of programming, five of twelve metcons featured a barbell. If we add-in other heavy objects (a heavy d-ball, KB or DBs), that number jumps to seven out of twelve metcons. This number does not reflect the barbell used in our Strength work. Our goal is to offer a balanced, thoughtful program, and a balanced, thoughtful program should have barbells and heavy weights in about half the programming.
Your Membership and Attention Matter
Another important consideration is how often you attend classes. If you visit they gym five days a week, you will probably be exposed to the barbell multiple times and also train all three metabolic pathways. In contrast, if you only come in two days a week, you might be missing some of that balance. You might come in on an Endurance day and then a glycolytic day (again, the six-minute workout example) and feel like you didn’t get any strength work in. The truth is, that’s mostly true.
Understand that we do our best to rotate the stimulus and the days each week, but it’s always possible that you are only getting a snapshot of the programming when there is actually a whole photo album. Often, athletes who feel like they aren’t getting enough are the ones with the least exposure to our programming balance.
Let’s hear it from one of the most well-respected strength coaches in the crossfit world, take a second to read: Building for Crossfit: Do’s and Don’ts
I’m not sure what your thoughts are, but my big takeaway from this is that your metcons are not the place where you are going to get stronger. If you want more strength work than what our current class programming offers, you might consider upgrading to an Unlimited membership, so that you can pursue our focused strength program, Darkhorse Strength. This programming is accessible to all clients. Clients that are Unlimited members may choose to complete a Darkhorse Strength workout whenever the gym is open. If you want to get stronger, put in the right kind of work. It’s as simple as that.
Hard Workouts Are Fun
We want all clients to have Fun! However, my job is to program the best possible evidence-based Strength and Conditioning program I can, while also making it fun. It’s a truth that not everyone will be happy in regards to our programming . If we only programmed long, grueling crossfit metcons with high volume barbell work – kinda like we used to do during the early days – we would end up with a population of burnt-out, unfit, probably injured members who maybe had fun until their bodies wore out. If we only ever programmed short, really high intensity interval training, we would probably lose half of our members, and those that stuck around would have no aerobic capacity. I want it to be fun, but smart programming is balanced programming, even if sometimes it isn’t what we love.
The Sport of Fitness and Competition
I saved this one for last because here is where I admit I’m not the best and I don’t have all the answers. Can you do well in local CrossFit competitions following our programming? Hell Yeah. We’ve had multiple teams podium this past weekend! That’s real evidence.
Do I think you could qualify for the CrossFit Games by following only my regular class programming? Nope. I’ll be the first to admit our programming is written with another purpose in mind. If you are serious about competing, then consider investing in a private coach who can hone your skills and help you meet your specific goals. 90% of our members walk in the doors
because they want to be better prepared life outside our doors. Our programming does that and we believe it does that well. Of course, you get decide if it’s right for you!
Despite our knowledge of the metabolic pathways and our explanations of the “why” behind our programming, we are incredibly open to new ideas, new concepts, or any changes that you think can be made to the program or our programming. If you’d like to discuss your personal situation, or goal, or maybe just want to chat more in depth on this topic, Andy and I would love to hear from you! Feel free to shoot us an email, text or call anytime:
Gilly Boyd (831) 234-3506 firstname.lastname@example.org
Andy Boone (415) 290-2964 email@example.com