Why Periodization Doesn’t Work in CrossFit (And How You Should Prepare Instead)

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to present this guest post by Fergus Connolly, the Performance & Operations Director for University of Michigan Football. Prior to joining UM, Connolly spent two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers as Director of Elite Performance. Connolly has also worked as a performance consultant for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, New York Knicks, and multiple English Premier League, Australian Rules, and professional rugby teams. He also served as sports science director with the Welsh Rugby Union  and was strength and conditioning coach for the Bolton Wanderers FC. His first book “Game Changer” is available from Amazon.

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Author Fergus Connolly.

Traditionally, individual performers and sports teams have tried to use periodization in an effort to “peak” for a single event, so they plan out training and recovery blocks looking forward to this.

There are multiple issues with utilizing such an approach in CrossFit. A major one is that teams and individual competitors in CrossFit need to be continually improving, getting a little better each day as the sport is advancing so rapidly and the bar is constantly being raised. Second, there are multiple “game days” on the competitive CrossFit calendar, and these occur every year, not once every four years like in the events for which Leonid Matveyev first created periodization.

First comes the Open, which features multiple WODs spread across five weeks. Then, if individual athletes or teams do well enough, they move on to Regionals, which are multi-day and multi-disciplinary events. And if they prevail there, then it’s on to the Games themselves, which this year extended from preliminary events on Thursday evening to the final contests on Sunday. So while athletes certainly need to be their best on the biggest stage at the Games, competitors can’t just show their best stuff there, because if they don’t perform at a high level during each Open workout and again at Regionals, they won’t even get that far. Peaking at the Games is no good if you don’t qualify.

Then there’s the fact that there is no real off-season in CrossFit. Periodization was initially designed to incorporate a lengthy period of downtime in between competitive cycles, such as you might see in some individual Olympic sports. The trouble is that sport today looks very little like it did when Russian sports scientists were creating their model in the 1950s. Whether it’s football, basketball, soccer, baseball rugby or any other major team sport, the number of games has increased dramatically and seasons have lengthened to the point that there’s hardly any break between the end of one and beginning of the next. CrossFit is the same way. Sure, you have the Open, Regionals and the Games packed into a few months, but there are also international competitions for the top athletes, local and regional contests and global events such as the Team Series and Invitational. As such, a traditional periodization model isn’t applicable because there’s no opportunity for a big block of rest.

Charlie Francis, the legendary track coach, was one of the first to learn from the Russian coaches (over vodka at track meets!) and also one of the first to evolve the Russians’ approach into a system he referred to as Vertical Integration. In Francis’ approach, everything is trained all the time, but certain aspects are emphasized heavily during certain phases of the training year. This reduces injury by rarely introducing new exercises and also helps prevent huge dips in performance. Later his approach was adopted by Al Vermeil, a strength and conditioning coach with the Chicago Bulls and the only one in his profession to win rings in the NBA and NFL. In more recent times, Vitor Frade’s approach of Tactical Periodization has revolutionized how teams train, most notably those managed by Jose Mourinho, the most successful manager in soccer.

When Soviet exercise physiologists were devising their first periodization plans, the athletes they had in mind were focusing on a single discipline that they aimed to improve over the course of a four-year Olympic cycle – throwing the javelin, swinging the hammer, or running a certain distance, for example. This couldn’t be further from the variety of skills that CrossFit requires its competitors to master. And unlike the javelin or hammer throwers or runners who know exactly what their event at the Olympics will entail if they make it that far, CrossFit athletes have no idea what events the Open, Regionals or the Games will throw at them. They have to develop a broad range of movement competencies that they can tap into on demand – something that periodization does not and cannot account for.

Another reason that periodization and CrossFit don’t mix well is that periodization often seeks to merely improve one physical element. In doing so, its practitioners usually fail to acknowledge the technical, tactical and psychological co-actives that are so crucial to performance in every sport. Mat Fraser is obviously a physical marvel – big, strong and powerful, with incredible endurance as well. But these physical qualities alone would not have delivered him back-to-back CrossFit Games titles. He also needed the technical ability to master a wide range of skills, from handstand walks to the Olympic lifts to old-school tests like the pegboard.

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Two-time CrossFit Games champion Mat Fraser.

Fraser also has had to develop the tactical acumen to know when to push and when to back off, to work with his coaches to devise and implement a game plan for the Games, Regionals and Open beforehand, and, like a decathlete in track, to maximize his strengths in certain events while minimizing the impact of his limiting factors in others. Plus, he needed the mental strength to handle the hype and pressure and perform at his best, even when he was feeling like he was at his worst in a non-favored event. Simply gearing his preparation toward a bigger one-rep-max snatch or a higher number of pull-ups in a periodized training cycle would not have enabled Fraser to get the job done and repeat as Fittest Man on Earth.

So if traditional periodization isn’t going to cut it for either individual CrossFit athletes or teams, how should their coaches organize their training? In my experiences working with elite sports teams and Special Forces units across the world over the past 15 years, I’ve found that a Morphocycle approach based on elements of Charlie Francis’s Vertical Integration model and Vitor Frade’s Tactical Periodization approach can be highly effective. Here are five takeaway principles to apply to your individual CrossFit competitors and teams alike:

  1. Always train everything, even just a little, as this prevents injury from adaptation stresses.
  2. Maintain fitness all year round and prevent dips in performance.
  3. Develop a weekly pattern and routine to training, not annual plans.
  4. Focus on continual weekly improvements over time, not large jumps now and then.
  5. Improve technical and tactical skills with physical and psychological abilities simultaneously.

9 comments

  1. Pingback: Link Dump – 2017/08/23 – Nick's Blog

  2. diegobraghavata

    So Glad Fergus Know Crossfit and humble tô response. For me of course dont say too much about periodization but no more than jfitz Will say in article without try sell some course and individualization (i not sayin its a wrong thing).

    Fergus i time ago i look for vertical periodization and its Hard to find sources with good writing some seems very confusing, whats the mais difference btw conjugate and Block!?

    Tks

  3. He makes a lot of assumptions about using periodization. It creates periods of training prioritizing on certain performance elements but beyond that can be set up any way you want to. Periodization can effectively train one or 2 capacities, especially strength and power better than if those capacities were thrown into a more dense mix of other training forms. (lot of studies on that). But he then assumes that if an athlete IS doing that, that it’s in lieu of many of the other essential capacities in Crossfit which can also be programmed in a periodization program and improved upon in a periodization plan.
    For Crossfit competitors I feel Periodization is a sound way to focus on certain capacities then integrate them more down the road.
    I don’t understand the no off-season point either. . Crossfit has the biggest off-season in Sport! …if the ‘Season’ is from the Opens through the Games …and that’s just for a tiny amount of athletes actually competing.

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