CrossFit Programming

Coaching is one of the biggest points of emphasis for us at Cigar City CrossFit.  We take it seriously and strive to produce a coaching experience that is second to none.  One aspect of coaching is programming, or put plainly, the system for how we create the workouts.  I know all of us at some point have looked at a given wod and thought, "Why the heck are we doing that?".


Understanding the why is important.  It allows for trust and buy in.  Also, as you become a more skilled athlete, you will have a stronger understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.  If you understand the intent of a given workout, it will allow you to know where your focus should be to help you, individually, get the most out of the workout.


We'd like to use this blog post to outline our philosophy on program design to help you understand why we do what we do.  A few caveats first.  This philosophy is not set in stone.  It's flexible and will certainly be changed and tweaked as we gather feedback and results from all of you.  Secondly, there are no magic bullets when it comes to programming.  The biggest factors for success are your attendance and effort level.  Make it a priority to get into the gym and give it your all and you'll see fantastic results. Period.


20 Second CrossFit Primer 

Part of CrossFit's success is due to the fact that it drew a line in the sand and defined fitness.  According to the CrossFit prescription, fitness is defined as increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.  Your eyes may have just glazed over there, but the part we care about right now is "modal domains".  


The three modal domains are mono-structural, gymnastic and weightlifting.  Mono-structural is what we typically define as 'cardio'.  Examples include running, rowing and jump rope.  Gymnastics simply means body control.  Examples include pullups, pushups and muscle ups.  Weightlifting means controlling an object through space.  Examples include back squats, kettlebell swings and deadlifts.


CrossFit's goal is to build well rounded athletes, not specialists.  The above domains have competing interests.  If your goal is to have the fastest 5k time possible or the heaviest back squat, CrossFit is not your ticket.  This is true because as you focus exclusively in one domain, you decrease your proficiency in the others.  Therefore, a well designed CrossFit program aims to balance the demands of each domain.


Achieving Modal Domain Parity Through Periodization

So, how can we go about improving in each domain simultaneously?  One idea is an equal distribution.  If we create three workouts, each one should focus in a given domain.  This design works and you will see an improvement, however, as you become a more experienced athlete, your gains will slow from this domain socialism.  What's needed is a greater degree of focus within a given domain for the right period of time.  Just long enough so you elicit a positive adaptation, but not too long to significantly diminish your gains in the other domains.


This idea is called periodization and it has been used successfully for decades in the training world to prepare athletes for success.  Periodization is somewhat of an umbrella term and can include a range of training philosophies.  For our purposes, periodization means designing our programming into phases where we focus on one modality in particular.


Through research and practice, we've created a three month cycle.  Each month will have a modality focus.  The order is mono-structural, gymnastic and then weightlifting.  Our upcoming month will focus on mono-structural work.  As a result our programming will be biased slightly towards success in that domain.  This doesn't mean you will only be running and rowing for an entire month.  It does mean you will have an increased workload within the mono-structural domain and our monthly test workout will gauge that adaptation.  


Monthly Test Workout

At the beginning of each month, we will have a workout that is designed to test success in a particular domain.  We will then complete the same workout at the end of the month to empirically see if we have improved.  Example workouts could be:



Run 8x200m. Holding best average, 3min break between each run.


Tabata: Pushups, Situps, Pullups recording lowest rep count.


30 Squat Cleans for time at 155/115.


Monthly Skill Focus

In addition to a monthly modality focus, we will also have a monthly skill focus.  The goal again is to spend just the right amount of time focusing on a particular skill so that we have enough practice to build proficiency and muscle memory.  As an athlete, it can be angering when you cannot complete a workout simply because you have not spent enough time working a skill that's in the wod.  I'm looking at you double-unders.


So, each month we will focus on a particular skill.  We'll dedicate six skill sessions to learning or improving it.  Workouts that month will also feature the skill in question slightly more than usually.  As a new or intermediate athlete, it can be overwhelming to think about all the skills you have to learn: double-unders, handstand walks, handstand pushups, ring muscle ups, bar muscle ups, pistols etc...


Ideally, this focus will aid in peace of mind.  You can rest easy knowing you are working towards achieving competency in one particular skill at a time vs trying to learn them all at once and making marginal progress at best.


Varying Intensity 

If we revisit the definition of CrossFit again: increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains, you'll notice we skipped over the time domains section earlier.  We'll address that now.  Varying the length of the workout, as well as the intended intensity level is crucial to building a robust program that maximizes cardiovascular and muscular gains and minimizes central nervous system fatigue and injury (over training affects).


20 Second Primer on Metabolic Pathways

For this next section to make sense, you'll need a quick physiology 101 recap on the three energy systems of the body.  For your body to function you need energy.  The cells in our body are powered by ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which is created by the cell's mitochondria.  Based on the intensity level of the exercise our bodies will use one primary energy pathway.


These “metabolic engines” are known as the phosphagen pathway, the glycolytic pathway, and the oxidative pathway. The first, the phosphagen, dominates the highest-powered activities, those that last less than about ten seconds. The second pathway, the glycolytic, dominates moderate-powered activities, those that last up to several minutes. The third pathway, the oxidative, dominates low-powered activities, those that last in excess of several minutes.



metabolic pathways
three energy pathways


Understanding the above energy systems is important because it helps guide program design.  Before CrossFit, when it came to conditioning there were two main training philosophies; HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) and Steady State Cardio aka LSD (long, slow, distance).  An example HIIT workout would be Row 6x250m with a rest interval of 3 minutes.  An example steady state cardio session would be going for a 10 mile run holding around a 10-12 minute mile interval.


The difference in these two training styles is drastic.  HIIT trains exclusively in the anerobic capacity (phosphagen and glycolytic pathways) while Steady State trains exclusively in the aerobic capacity (oxidative pathway).  CrossFit has been so successful in part because it has married these two training ideas.  The majority of CrossFit workouts aim to tax both the anaerobic and aerobic systems.


However, to keep our training stimulus fresh, we still want to train at times in the purely anaerobic system and at other times exclusively in the aerobic system.  Without digging too much into the science, this will help us develop more type 2 (fast twitch) muscle fibers, improved cardiovascular strength and allow for proper CNS recovery.


So, what does this mean for you as an athlete training at Cigar City CrossFit?  Well, you can expect the majority of workouts to be of moderately high intensity where managing your rest is critical to success.  Less frequently we will have days where we expect all out intensity but give you plenty of time to recovery in between.  Finally, there will be days where our aim is to keep moving for long periods of time with little to no rest.


The general breakdown is as follows:





A Strength Bias

Our program design will have a strength bias for two reasons.  First, many athletes that come in off the street will have underdeveloped strength because the majority of their training has excluded it (Orange Theory, Yoga, Barre, Marathons, Spin etc...).  Additionally, strength takes longer to develop and aids greatly in moderate / high intensity training.


Three times per week, we'll front load the workout with a ~20 minute block dedicated to strength training.  We'll train three specific lifts per month.  For example, in a given week, you'll train the back squat, the deadlift and the overhead press.


New / de-conditioned athletes will follow a 5x5 linear progression model.  Each week they will add 5lbs to their previous lift.  Rinse and repeat until they've maximized their new athlete training effect and then they'll switch to a 5/3/1 Wendler program where lifts are based off percentages of 1 rep maxes.


Managing Rest

Finally, no discussion of program design can be considered complete without discussing rest and recovery days.  Proper recovery is absolutely paramount to achieving greater gains.  What many people don't realize is that you get weaker in the gym and stronger outside of it.


First, if it's not clear already, our programming is designed to not overly tax the same energy system or modality.  We also avoid heavily working the same movements.  Secondly, we have active recovery days built into the program.


Active Recovery

Active recovery can be a bit of a nebulous term, but from our point of view it means avoiding excessive volume or high intensity training for that day.  Our goals in an active recovery session are the following:


  • Keep the muscles engaged
  • Increase blood flow
  • Flushing of lactic acid 
  • Increased mobility
  • Mentally recover



We'd designated Thursdays to be active recovery days.  Which means if you usually take Thursday off, you should plan to start coming into the gym.  An example active recovery day could be: 

20min skill or strength block followed by 3k row holding a conversational tone.


Scheduling Rest Days

Based on your skill level your schedule may look like:



training schedule



So, beginners train about 3 days per week.  Intermediate and advanced athletes train 5 days per week.  That's not including the active recovery day.  This is only a suggestion.  Listen to your body and make the right decision.


Closing Thoughts

I hope this has been informative!  The coaches here at Cigar City CrossFit are dedicated to improving your overall fitness.  We take our job seriously.  If you have any questions about what you are doing or why, always feel free to ask a coach.  Remember, there are no magic bullets when it comes to training.  Your attendance and effort will drive the majority of your progress.


See you all in the gym,

Team Cigar City CrossFit 




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