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When Progress Slows Down

This morning, Nora showed yet again how amazing the progress can be in the early stages of CrossFit. She ended up front squatting 60kg for a set of 5 and 70kg for a single, both huge personal records for her. With determination and a strong ability to pick up movements quickly, new CrossFitters can make fast progress across the board in their lifting, gymnastics, and conditioning levels. This can be a double edged sword, however, since these early gains will begin to slow down and possibly grind to a halt as you reach more intermediate levels.

The reason this happens is because we train a large number of exercises across the full spectrum of energy systems. To make this point clear, consider Olympic weightlifters, powerlifters, pole vaulters, and discus throwers. They rely on very short bursts of energy that need to be as powerful as possible. The energy they draw on comes mainly from the creatine-phosphagen system and is completely anaerobic (no oxygen necessary). By specifically concentrating on their sport, not only do they excel technically, but their body also adapts by growing in a way that supports their training. This could involve the growth of very explosive type 2 muscle fibers as well as the creation of new nerve fibers that help them recruit more muscle during that short, explosive burst required in their sport. These things all combine to allow athletes in these sports to continue to improve their performance over time for many years. The same is true of endurance athletes on the other end of the spectrum. Their aerobic training not only improves their technique in running, biking, and swimming, but also shifts their body towards endurace adaptations such as improvements in mitochondrial density, VO2max, lactate threshold, resting heart rate, and a greater proportion of type 1 muscle fibers. Similar to the explosive athletes, this specificity allows these athletes to continue to improve their performance over the course of many years.

With this in mind, consider the difficulty of training for the Olympic decathlon. First of all, you’d have to split time between training your skill in 10 different events, a much more challenging task than a track and field athlete who only does one event. Additionally, you’d have to accept the fact that you can’t develop your energy systems in a specific way. A decathlete training power and explosiveness for the 100m dash and the long jump will hinder their ability to improve the aerobic qualities needed for the 1500m run, and vice versa. This isn’t to say it’s impossible to improve at both at the same time, but the improvement will be much less than if they concentrated exclusively on one or the other. This is why the best decathlete in the world wouldn’t even come close to challenging the best 100m sprinter or best mile runner in the world at their respective distances.

Now extend this to CrossFit and think about how many different exercises we learn and the scope of energy systems we use. With all this in mind, it’s no wonder progress starts to slow down after we’ve made those initial gains. Hitting these plateaus can be very frustrating (I know). Here are some tips on how to deal with them:

Focus on Quality with High Skill Movements

One area we see people run into plateaus is with high skill exercises. These include snatches, cleans, overhead squats, jerks, muscle ups, free handstands, and kipping, all of which require coordination, flexibility, explosiveness, and balance (a.k.a. skill). Even doing these exercises exclusively, as gymnasts and olympic lifters do them, takes years of practice before they can be mastered. It’s crucial that you take a long term approach with these exercises and do the correct progressions. If you jump through the dip of your muscle up, always do handstands on the wall, or snatch the heaviest weight you can poorly, it will hinder your progress and you’ll ingrain poor movement patterns. The key is to leave the ego at home and take a lot of satisfaction in small levels of progress. Just mustering up the courage to do a handstand on the floor with someone spotting you is a big step in the right direction. The same can be said for snatching an empty bar and catching it in a full overhead squat. Even if you can power snatch 40 kilos, catching an empty bar in the full squat position is better progress toward learning the full lift.

Be Content With Smaller Increases in Strength

As I talked about before, building strength and endurance concurrently can be a difficult thing to do. Doing longer metabolic conditioning workouts will both tax the recovery ability of the body and limit your ability to adapt in ways that best express strength. That said, it’s still possible to make progress in both, but the progress will be smaller and less frequent. For instance, say you came in for a 5×5 back squat workout after taking 2 rest days and a great night’s sleep. You might push your last work set up to 100kg for a 5 kilo PR. 3 weeks later, you might come in for the same 5×5 back squat workout after two days of training including the Filthy Fifty the day before. On that day, your last set might be a struggle at 90kg. This doesn’t mean you’ve gotten weaker in the past 3 weeks, but rather that your recent training and recovery didn’t allow you to express your strength on that given day. This is why the mental outlook is extremely important in CrossFit. If you allow yourself to get overly fixated on short term PR’s, then a few days of substandard performance might get you in a mental funk that will really start to affect your training. Try to approach every PR, even if it’s a single kilo or a single second, as a significant achievment to be celebrated, rather than taking it for granted as an every day occurence.

Remind Yourself How Well Rounded You Are

Though it can be difficult to make progress when you concentrate on many different things as in CrossFit, specificity definitely comes with a price. Powerlifters make huge progress in the squat, bench, and deadlift, but they usually have to put on a huge amount of bodyweight, often tear muscles and ligaments, and are not in good cardiovascular shape. By the same token, endurance athletes develop stress fractures and postural problems, and have relatively poor flexibility, bone density and muscle mass compared to people who lift weights. So even if you’re frustrated with plateaus in performance, remember that your current fitness level is very well rounded and gives you the opportunity to do tons of sports and actvities outside the gym that rely on endurance, flexbility, strength, and conditioning.

An Option: Get More Specific

If you’re really enjoying a particular aspect of CrossFit and want to improve it, we highly encourage it. The great thing about the skill intensive exercises I mentioned in the first section is that they won’t really tax your recovery. If anything, practicing them will serve as a great warm up for a CrossFit workout. If want to get better at snatches or muscle ups, come to the gym 10 or 15 minutes before class and get some practice in. I’d be happy to watch your form and help out before class. For more focused work, come to the gymnastics classes or optional skill training nights.

“When you have completed 95% of your journey, you’re only halfway there.”

- Japanese Proverb

6 Responses to “When Progress Slows Down”

  1. Jane A. says:

    Tom, this post is so timely for me. I’ve been feeling discouraged lately — the gains I’ve made (around week 8) have really slowed down and I couldn’t understand why — but this message is exactly the encouragement I need to keep pushing forth. Thank you so much for this post and for your support in the gym, and thanks to Nora for the inspiration! Crossfit Marin rocks!

  2. Matt Mihaly says:

    Great post Tom. Really enjoyed it.

  3. Jane A. says:

    …not sure why a smiley face came up but that should have said “around week eight…”

  4. Rich says:

    Fantastic post that covers a lot of ground. Especially appreciate the concrete examples

  5. Tom says:

    Thanks for the nice comments guys.

    Jane - All your movements are looking great (and so are you!). Keep at it and enjoy the ride : )

  6. Patricia says:

    Great post Tom!! I have had to drop my weights down and get “back to basics” lately because after injuries and losing ground it became apparent to me that I got into some bad “form” habits for the sake of speed and weight. After a lot of close scrutiny by Andres and Nick lately, I’ve decided to drop the weight way down and re-program my technique, which has been really HARD work (and frustrating) breaking those bad habits. However, progress is being made and I feel much better about having proper form, because it does take a lot of stabilization “strength” to maintain proper form and technique. I’m also gaining a new appreciation for proper form and technique as I correct things.

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