Looking to design your own Crossfit programme? Or perhaps improve the programming you deliver to your club? I’ve got you covered. This complete guide to crossfit programming covers everything you’ll need in plenty of detail. We’ll be looking at:
- What Makes a Good CrossFit Program?
- Principle 1: Variation
- Principle 2: Appropriate Intensities
- Common Crossfit Programming Mistakes to Look Out For
- Beginner Crossfit Programming
- Intermediate Crossfit Programming
- Advanced Crossfit Programming
- Crossfit Programming for Masters
- At Home Crossfit Programming
- How to Choose the Best Crossfit Programming for You
- Crossfit Programming Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
Let’s jump straight in.
What Makes a Good CrossFit Program?
Understanding what makes a good CrossFit program is an essential first step to choosing or designing one for yourself.
Fundamentally, the goal of CrossFit is to increase your fitness, where fitness is defined as “work capacity across broad time and modal domains.”
In layman’s terms:
“Crossfit should get your moderately good at a wide variety of things”
These things, at least according to crossfit, include:
- Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance
All of this means we should expect two fundamental principles to underpin your crossfit programming, regardless of your ability level or experience:
Principle 1: Variation
Since your goal in crossfit is to develop multiple components of fitness, you should expect to see workouts that consistently vary exercise selection, load, sets, reps, distances and times.
Principle 2: Appropriate Intensities
Each workout must also use the right intensities in order to be effective. That means the right heart rate or RPE zones for endurance work, the right weight on the bar for strength work, and the right progressions or regressions for gymnastics work.
Common Crossfit Programming Mistakes to Look Out For
Too Much or Too Little volume programmed per class
One of the biggest mistakes I see in crossfit gyms around the UK is inappropriate volumes or training.
Most often, this means too much volume packed into a session. So much, in fact, that there’s very little room for warming up, technique practice, coaching feedback or even proper rest between sets. Quantity should never come at the expense of quality.
Less often, this means too little training volume. As in only programming a single set of squats, most likely as a top set of 2 or 3. Or having 2 rounds of a 5-minute conditioning set piece when there was actually time for 4 rounds. Generally speaking, too little training means limited results.
Over-programming of specific movement patterns or workout types
As a coach, it’s easy to fall into the trap of favouring certain exercises or movement patterns above others, at the expense of individual needs. As a Crossfit athlete you need to make sure that your programme is well-rounded and gives at least some time to each movement pattern and workout type.
No rest or lighter days planned in
A quick way to tell if your programme isn’t great is if you notice that they’re aren’t any light or rest days planned. In order to prevent injuries and maximise performance outcomes your body needs time to recover. Failure to do this is a recipe for injury.
Not enough gymnastics or weightlifting technical practice
Real talk, maxing out your power clean doesn’t count as weightlifting technical practice. Similarly, a few rushed sets of wall handstands doesn’t count as gymnastics practice. Complex skills require time to learn, detailed feedback, and multiple submaximal sets.
Beginner Crossfit Programming
Beginner crossfit programming doesn’t have to be complicated. Since most of this type of training is new to you, there’s plenty of ‘low-hanging fruit.’ I recommend keeping things simple, aiming to get a good variety of training in, and focusing on building a routine of consistent crossfit training.
Crossfit Workouts Of the Day (WODS)
A good approach for beginners’ crossfit programming is often simply to turn up at your local crossfit gym and follow along with whatever the crossfit workout of the day is. Or log onto crossfit.com and follow the posted workout for the day.
I’ve found that whilst crossfit workouts of the day aren’t usually a good choice for intermediates and advanced athletes (who need a more targeted approach) they can work great for beginners.
Crossfit workouts daily as a beginner?
Whilst you technically can do crossfit workouts daily as a beginner, I recommend 3-5 training sessions per week when you’re starting out. It’s better to build good habits and train consistently on a 3-5 day per week programme than it is to aim for 6 days per week and end up skipping workouts or messing up the programme structure.
Beginner Crossfit Programming Sample:
Here’s a sample of how to structure crossfit programming for beginners. Each day has two parts; part a, which is a strength or technical section, and part b, which is conditioning focused.
Intermediate Crossfit Programming
Intermediate crossfit programming is a little more complex than beginner crossfit programming. By this stage, you’ll have obvious strengths and weaknesses in your fitness, and your training will need to adapt to reflect this. You’ll also find workouts more tiring, and your muscles will need longer to recover.
There are two ways that you can approach your programming. I prefer the second option, but I want to present both options to you.
Option 1: Programming for Crossfit Using a Bodypart Emphasis
Since workouts tend to beat you up a bit more at this stage, one approach is to separate your training into upper-body and lower-body emphasis workouts. For example:
Crossfit workouts legs:
- Front Squat: 5 sets of 5 reps at 70-80% 1 rep max.
- 21/15/9: Burpees, Double Unders and Walking Lunges
Crossfit workouts upper body:
- Push Press: 3 sets of 10 reps at 60-70% 1 rep max
- AMRAP: 5 HSPU (Handstand Pushups) + 5 Wallballs + 1 Rope Climb
In this approach, you would essentially just alternate upper and lower body workouts throughout the week. It’s a simple and effective way to manage fatigue and enhance recovery. The main drawback is that it might not provide you with the focus you need to bring up certain skills or areas.
Option 2: Programming for Crossfit Using An Outcome Emphasis
My preferred option for intermediate crossfit programming is to use an outcome emphasis. This means that you identify your weak areas and specifically design your week, and your workouts, to address these weaknesses. So you always have a specific outcome in mind. Here are some examples:
Endurance programming for Crossfit
Crossfit programming can be focused towards endurance by implementing various types of timings and intervals. I recommend focusing on specific endurance sub-qualities:
For an aerobic focus
- 20-40 minute steady runs, swims or cycles
For a lactate/glycolytic focus
- 6 sets of 250m rows with 1-minute rest in between
For an anaerobic endurance focus
- 10 sets of: Sprint 30m + 3 Max Effort/Height Wall Balls – Rest 30 seconds
Strength Programming for CrossFit
Crossfit programming can be focused towards a strength outcome by implementing some simple low rep, compound movements.
- Back Squat: 5 sets of 5 reps @ 75% 1rm
- Push Press: 4 sets of 6 reps @ 70% 1rm
Intermediate Crossfit Programming Template:
An intermediate crossfit template will vary based on your own strengths and weaknesses. The sample below is a well-rounded or ‘balanced’ template. It includes 2 strength sessions, 2 weightlifting sessions, 2 gymnastics sessions, 2 aerobic sessions, 2 lactate sessions, 2 anaerobic sessions and 1 metcon of your choice.
If you need more of any one type of session, you would simply do more of that session type and reduce the other types.
For example, if you need more endurance work you might drop one strength session and add an extra aerobic session.
Advanced Crossfit Programming
Programming for advanced CrossFit athletes builds on the principles of intermediate programming, but starts to have you utilise more structured periodisation.
If you’re an advanced athlete, by definition, you no longer respond to the training stimulus imposed by intermediate and beginner-type workouts. You need more training of a specific type in order to force your body to make any further adaptations.
The problem is:
Pushing your strength hard likely means your endurance training will suffer
Pushing your endurance hard likely means your strength training will suffer
“You can’t do everything at once, so you have to work in phases”
Advanced Crossfit Programming Template
When you’re programming for crossfit as an advanced athlete, a phased structure like this is a smart and effective approach. In this example, block 1 has more of a strength, weightlifting and gymnastics emphasis, block 2 has a mixed emphasis with slightly more aerobic work, and block 3 has a glycolytic and anaerobic focus.
Notice that every fitness component is still trained in each block, some are simply set to maintenance.
Crossfit programming for competition
If you use the phasic approach I’ve outlined above then you should be primed to compete right at the end of block 3.
You’ve built your strength and refined your weightlifting and gymnastics skills in block 1.
You’ve had more of a mixed approach in block 2, whilst also building up a strong aerobic base.
And then in block 3 you’re maintaining everything from blocks 1 and 2 whilst focusing on the more competition-specific qualities of glycolytic and anaerobic endurance, i.e. the ability to repeat bouts of high-intensity work ranging from 10-120s multiple times in quick succession with short rest intervals.
Crossfit Exercises for Competition: Top Tip
A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that because each competition is different, they can’t prepare specifically for any one competition.
In reality, most competitions follow similar and repeated patterns, often using the same exercises or even close variations of the same workouts year after year.
For example, double unders, muscle ups, toes to bar, wall balls, thrusters, chest to bar pull-ups and snatches have appeared in every single crossfit games.
Look at past years’ competitions and you’ll get a good sense of which movements to focus on.
Crossfit Programming for Masters
If you’re an older or ‘masters’ athlete then your crossfit programming should still be very similar to everything we’ve discussed above. The main difference for you is going to be recovery management.
If your average 18-24 year old can recover from workout X in 2 days, then it might take you 3 days.
So you’ve got two options:
A) Reduce the total amount of work in each workout. For example, 10 total sets becomes 8 total sets.
B) Reduce your total number of training days. For example, 5 days per week becomes 4 days per week.
You can still get better and improve over time. The exact same process applies. You just have to remember that you’re not a carefree, zero-responsibility, 20-year-old college student anymore.
At Home Crossfit Programming
You can still accomplish a lot with at home crossfit programming, and for the most part, you can still follow the same rules and structures we’ve discussed above.
For you, the main thing to consider is what equipment you have access to, and where you might need to make some additional purchases or exercise substitutions.
Typically, most crossfit metcons are easy to do at home. Kettlebell workouts, skipping workouts, and bodyweight workouts are all easy to set up.
Strength work is a little trickier without a barbell, but you can use higher repetition single-leg variations alongside dumbbells and kettlebells to make things harder. For example, both feet elevated split squats are a crazy effective leg strength builder:
How to Choose the Best Crossfit Programming for You
Pop onto google and there are about a half dozen companies telling you that their Crossfit programming is the best. Here’s the reality though, there’s no such thing as the best crossfit programming for everyone, because people have different strengths and weaknesses.
- If you’re someone who squats and deadlifts 200+kg but who gets out of breath after 10 burpees, then you don’t need a programme that includes much strength work.
- If you’re someone who can run marathons but who can’t do single pull-up or handstand pressup then you don’t need a programme that includes loads of cardio.
The best crossfit programming for YOU will always be programming that is designed and built around your own specific needs. The best way to do this is to sit down and honestly think about what you’re good at, what you need to improve, and how you can structure your training and workouts to reflect this.
Crossfit Programming Frequently Asked Questions
How many crossfit workouts per day?
For most people, one crossfit workout per day is totally fine. If you’re planning on competing at a high level then you will likely have to start adding in some double training days.
How many crossfit workouts per week
I recommend that beginners do 3 to 5 CrossFit workouts per week, intermediates do 4-6 workouts per week, and advanced athletes do 5-9 workouts per week.
Is CrossFit 3 times a week enough?
Crossfit 3 times per week is good enough for most beginners and some intermediates to make solid progress across all areas of their fitness. Just don’t go expecting to get to the crossfit games!
will crossfit build muscle?
Yes, CrossFit will build muscle. Even though crossfit is not the optimal way to build muscle, the sheer volume and quantity of training will lead to hypertrophy. In particular, you can expect your shoulders and back to add some size.
What is the best CrossFit program?
Just like we talked about above, there’s no such thing as the best crossfit programme, as everyone has different strengths, weaknesses and things they need to improve.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…
1) Follow the beginner, intermediate or advanced CrossFit programming templates, or consider having a look at custom programme options.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching to improve your crossfit performance you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.