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Lessons From Elite CrossFitters

Rich Froning

Annie Thorisdotir and Rich Froning


If you have an hour to spare, there is a really cool  free video in the CrossFit Journal chronicling a day in the life of each of the male winners of the CrossFit Games in 2010 and 2011, Graham Holmberg and Rich Froning. The video’s director Sevan Matossian not only captures their training and nutrition, but also probes into their mindset and approach to CrossFit and life in general.

One thing that immediately becomes apparent is that these two guys are essentially professional atheletes. They both work full time as strength coaches in state of the art facilities with access to all the equipment they could ever require to excel at CrossFit. They’re also both sponsored athletes at this point, so they receive supplements, equipment, and clothing from their sponsors free of charge. Last year, Graham won $50,000 by taking first in the Games, and Rich just pocketed $250,000 this past weekend for taking this year’s crown.

Graham Holmberg and Kristen Clever

Graham Holmberg and Kristen Clever

Throughout the day depicted in the video, Graham does the following workouts:

  • 155lb squat clean and jerk, 30 reps for time
  • Muscle up/ring handstand pushups and tire flips for 15 minutes
  • Heavy overhead squats, working up to a single
  • a few rounds of 135lb snatch followed by a 60yd sprint
  • 3 rounds 500m sprint/7 reps of 235lb power clean
  • A short burpee/hill sprint/thruster workout in a weighted vest

In the one day that Rich was followed, he did:

  • 5 rounds of 5 power cleans and 5 bench presses at 205 pounds for time
  • 1000m row and 10 muscle ups for time
  • 5×5 back squat alternated with 5×5 weighted pullup
  • 135lb snatch for 30 reps followed by a 5 minute rest and then 30 muscle ups for time
  • Ball slam, burpee, hand release pushup chipper for time
  • Sets of prowler pushes and pullups
  • Max reps in 1 minute of axle cleans, GHD situps, and handstand pushups

It should be clear that days like this are not special for these guys. They occasionally take rest days, but this type of work load is more the norm than the exception. At first glance, anyone who has studied exercise science would look at this kind of training and not think it was even possible. You’d reason with near certainty that these guys would be driving themselves into the ground after a while. Yet they’ve both been training like this for nearly two years now.

It’s All About The Skills

When you dig a little deeper, you see that Rich and Graham aren’t really doing 6 WODs per day, as it initially appears. The vast majority of what they do throughout the day is to work on technically challenging movements with a bit of metabolically challenging work interspersed. The fact of the matter is if they tried to do long, grueling workouts like Murph or Filthy 50 every day, they would run themselves into the ground. Throughout one day, Rich was able to get in dedicated technique work on bench press, cleans, rowing, muscle ups, back squats, pullups, snatches, prowler pushes, hand release pushups, GHD situps, and handstand pushups. With the exception of the rowing and end of the snatch set, none of these things put too much of a dent in his metabolic tank. The met cons he did were fairly short, and everthing else relies mostly on strength and technique.

This is very similar to the training methods of olympic decathletes, athletes who put in more training hours than just about any sport. The reason it’s possible for them to train so long is because working on skills doesn’t take nearly the toll on the body that conditioning work does. You could probably work on your chess skills for 24 hours straight if you had to, but if you had to sprint on a spin bike for an hour, you’re done for the day. For these elite CrossFitters in their daily training, there’s much more chess going on than spinning. Building skills is more about connecting neural pathways and firing the correct muscles than burning through energy. This type of work may initially be difficult, but in time, you’ll need less and less recovery to perform the same skill as you get better at it.

The Lesson

There are very few people that have the resources or even the desire to do what Graham and Rich do on a daily basis. But even if you’re a busy parent working a full time job, there’s still a good takeaway here. The lesson is that not only is skill work the central training component for the best CrossFitters, but it’s also a pretty good bargain as far as the demands it puts on your body. If you can find any time throughout the day, before your workout, or after your workout, it’s a nice time to get in some practice. It can also be an enjoyable way to warm up before the warm up or cool down after the work out. Some great things to work on are handstands, handstand pushups, tumbling, turkish get ups, rope climbs, olympic lifts, false grip pullups, ring dips, knees to elbows, kipping pullups, kettlebell cleans/snatches, ring levers, double unders, and box jumps. You can even treat mobility work like skill training. Go over to Kelly Starrett’s MobilityWOD to get some ideas and you can slowly progress to better positions over time with a lot of his stretches.

2 Responses to “Lessons From Elite CrossFitters”

  1. Rich says:

    Thanks Tom for a gem of a post. Translating their principles to our daily training approach is really valuable. More and more I’m seeing that the neural work is just as important as the muscular and cardiovascular work.

  2. Blair Lowe says:

    Well, strength is neural.

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