Does Crossfit have an off-season?
By Damien Hennigan
Ok so here’s a question—does Crossfit have an off-season? Or better yet, does Crossfit need an off-season? And if it does, how does it get incorporated without diminishing Crossfit’s hardcore reputation? These are questions that good coaches and athletes should already know the answer to, but they are always up for debate. As a box owner and coach, I know where I stand on this issue, and this is how I state my case: if every other sport has an off-season and if Crossfit can be defined as the sport of fitness, then it stands to reason that Crossfit should also incorporate as part of its practice a period of time that we need to dedicate to perfecting skills and improving movement. As Crossfit athletes, we are under a competitive umbrella where we are constantly measured against the clock or our fellow athletes. For most people this will push them to the max every session and, as we know, the type of people Crossfit attracts are the type of people who won’t back down.
This is why I believe an off-season is so important—that level of intensity cannot be maintained without breaking. Now don’t get me wrong I bloody love Crossfit. It just needs to be programmed in a way that gets the best out of all athletes without destroying them in the process. But how do we convince athletes and coaches that an off-season is a necessary component of our sport? Here are a few things to consider based on my experience.
Acknowledge the complexity of Crossfit
Crossfit is a sport that pulls its movements from some very specialised disciplines: Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics and power-lifting are unique sports that the general public can access through any Crossfit box. But those disciplines need to be respected. Any world champion who has spent most of their life mastering these skills will tell you they cannot be learnt overnight; they take time and dedication. And as Crossfitters, it is very important that we understand this. I see it all too often—the excitement of a new athlete through the door who wants to get every movement straight away. My response is to tell them to write down the top five skills they would like to master and then to remove the bottom four. It usually never goes down well, but it’s the truth. And this might be where the problem lies—there is so much to learn and not enough time. This is why coaches need to structure the best possible programme to allow their athletes to move forward at a realistic pace and still achieve their goals.
Athletes and coaches need to be on the same page
Every Crossfit gym has two types of athlete: the general fitness athlete who is there to lose weight, get fit, and basically look good naked; and the competitive athlete who uses Crossfit training to improve themselves in this or any other sport or fitness activity, whether that be at a local, national or international level. Regardless of the individual goal, I believe that the athletes in both categories should learn the same skills, perform the same workouts and receive the same guidance and instruction from their Crossfit coach.
Good coaching recognises that there are varying degrees of fitness and skill level. A good coach will educate and motivate athletes to hit their maximum potential even if that advice involves time away from regular and intensive met-conning. The athlete may not want to admit it, but the coach’s training experience should dictate this. Bad coaching comes from an inability to recognise when it’s time to re-focus. I see and hear of this all the time—coaches and athletes who are more interested in the short-term gains that their goal is to design WODs intended to break the athlete every time. But at what cost?
Training the same high-intensity WODs all the time will not improve an athlete’s skills. If anything, it will dull them. For example in the workout Grace, which is thirty clean and jerks for time, a coach can let an athlete who’s been practicing Crossfit for six months tear into it and I’d bet all my money that his first rep looks nothing like his last. He’ll risk injury by flinging the bar everywhere to make his best time. But the same workout given to a more experienced Crossfitter will approach the workout completely different, most likely resulting in a better time and with minimal risk of injury. The mature athlete understands (through good coaching) that holding good form throughout the workout will save energy, and he has built the required strength to move the weight with a reasonable degree of comfort. He also knows not to sprint out the gate because that will never win the race. Why does this athlete perform this way? Because he has been educated by his coach and has matured as an athlete.
So what needs to change in order to prevent athletes from breaking down or losing motivation? Off-seasons.
Gains do not outweigh injury
Why do people who love Crossfit push so hard? It definitely appeals to an addictive, competitive personality type. Sore muscles and PBing let us know the hard work is paying off. But constantly pushing hard can lead to longer-lasting issues: burning out the endocrine system, creating adrenal fatigue; not being able to build the strength to executes WODs effectively; creating bad motor patterns and failing to acquire new or current skills; cutting movements short. When does the body get a chance to recover? Constant little injuries and niggles always build into something worse. These are all signs that something in your Crossfit practice needs to change.
Don’t get me wrong, the high-paced metcon stuff is very important and has its place, but consider this: if, during the skills session of a class, an athlete struggles to find the catch position in a snatch and can’t make two consecutive reps feel the same, what’s the point throwing this person into a metcon where they have to complete 20 – 50 snatch reps? Any good movement patterns that may have been established during the skills component will be lost. By the end of the workout, after pushing hard and fatigue has set in, what will have happened to the catch position of the snatch?
The body learns movements in patterns. When I repeat a technically good movement over and over again it will eventually become an automatic pattern. The same is true of bad or inefficient movement. In this example, the athlete may have survived the WOD and may even be satisfied with her mental toughness, but over time the only real gain will be injury.
That’s why the off-season is so important. Like any other sport worth its salt, a stretch of time used for pattern-building, strength-building and recovery will ultimately maximise gains and minimise injury.
Create a program that includes an off-season
During on-season, which is the build up to the Crossfit Open, workouts and training are made up of mostly light to moderate weights of high reps, fast-paced lung-burner stuff. Now this is fantastic to get you fit as fuck, but it can have its drawbacks if you don’t manage your body and recover correctly. And it doesn’t do much for you in the way of getting stronger or improving movement patterns. In actual fact, it may train the wrong movement pattern if your form is not perfect already.
An off-season allows coaches and box owners to troubleshoot the main areas of weakness experienced by the majority of their athletes and to focus their programming on these elements. The most common weakness across Crossfit gyms is strength and weightlifting techniques. The Olympic weightlifting component makes up 75 per cent of Crossfit activity, so as a coach I feel it’s very important that it is taught correctly. To teach (and learn) weightlifting correctly takes time. As I mentioned before, world champion weightlifters dedicate their lives to the sport from an early age and normally train twice a day for 2 – 3 hours, five days a week.
At Crossfit Westgate, we build in a 16-week strength cycle between April – July whereby we dedicate a significant block of time in every session to mastering the patterns of Olympic weightlifting. During this cycle, I don’t program any snatch or clean and jerk movements into the metcon. All Olympic movements occur in the skill and strength sessions. In this way, we are building our athletes back up with sound foundational movements that are crucial in weightlifting and in Crossfit.
Then, come August/September, the weightlifting movements of each athlete is much more honed and stable, allowing them to tackle the WODs with greater confidence and intelligence. With better form, movement is smoother which in Crossfit means moving faster and with greater efficiency, therefore getting more from the actual workout in terms of score.
Most Crossfit gyms build momentum in high intensity WOD training until the start of the Open in March each year. After the Open, from April to approximately September is what I consider off-season—a five-month period used as an opportunity to get my athletes moving better.
I truly believe that everyone deserves to be thought Crossfit, that’s why you came to us, so we would be selling you short if we didn’t teach you all the skills.
Some skills we hate, some we love.
You’re in this sport for life, not just for the summer body. And think of your performance as an athlete because under the roof of Crossfit Westgate, you are an athlete.