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Do you need an individualized training program to succeed in CrossFit?

It’s not terribly difficult to find emotionally charged topics when discussing CrossFit on the internet. There have been many wars fought in YouTube comments, forums, and T-Nation posts. And, as much as I’d like to consider myself above a certain type of behavior, I’m about to enter the fray.

Who needs an individualized program to succeed in CrossFit? Competitors? Everyday folks? Everyone? Someone?

There’s a lot of emotion around this issue, which isn’t terribly surprising, given that most coaches make their living by offering either primarily group-based programs or primarily individualized programs.

So, this discussion ends up being not just about best practices in programming and coaching, but about defending one's identity as a coach. People can have reasonable and measured discussions about exercise programming and selection. Not so reasonable and measured when their identity as a “good coach who is knowledgable and does the right thing for clients” is being threatened.

At South Loop Strength & Conditioning, we offer both individualized programs and group training. I am obviously biased in the question of whether or not individualized programming has value in CrossFit, since I myself write individualized programs for quite a few of my clients.

I see a trade-off between both the individual and the group models, and I think that best practices for each individual can vary as to whether they should participate in group training or “go it alone,” so to speak. So am I saying that a coach should individualize whether or not someone follows an individualized program? Sounds awfully meta to me, but just about sums up my opinion on the issue.

What are the negatives of individualized programs?

That said, I recently watched a video posted by Cam Birtwell from Podium Sports Conditioning in which he argues that most CrossFitters do not need an individualized program and should not be following one.

Check out the video here:

This video did indeed strike a chord with me. I don’t know if I felt that my identity as a coach offering individualized programs was threatened, but I did feel a need to explain where the value for me lies in individualization.

Cam does a great job of dishing out the negatives of individualization. Individualized programs are more expensive. Athletes often end up training alone. There can be less hands-on time with a coach.

These are all real and important concerns that must be addressed by anyone looking for an individualized program. For the majority of people training, fitness is not a top priority. Sure, they want to look good and feel good, and it’s nice to hit some personal records on their lifts and their conditioning benchmarks every once in awhile, but they’re far more concerned with their transition into a new job, making sure their kids are doing well in school, or trying to salvage their three-year relationship that’s on the fritz. They also care more about how they look with their shirt off than whether or not their aerobic recovery is balanced with their anaerobic power output. And that’s fine.

So, for a lot of these people, in order to achieve long-term training success, the most important things are going to be accountability and consistency in their program.

It doesn’t matter how perfect and individualized the training program is if it doesn’t get executed. So, in this context, the accountability, fun, and competition of the group classes can offer something that an individualized training program can’t – it makes people want to exercise.

This is profound, as most folks see getting to the gym as a chore. We say things like, “Yeah, I really should get back to the gym. I’m traveling this week, but I’ll start next week.” Instead, with group classes, training becomes a social event. This keeps people coming back, since they’re now accountable to their peer group and they can have fun in the group environment. They also don’t want to let their friends down by quitting on a workout or sandbagging.

In these kinds of cases, the psychology of a group program is far more important than the reps and sets written down on a whiteboard in terms of the results that clients will achieve. People can have great results with all kinds of training programs based simply upon showing up consistently for an extended period of time, and, anything that moves folks from “inconsistent” to “consistent” is a massive boon for their progression.

Still, I would argue that, for the best long-term results, an individualized training program will offer better returns than a group program, if both are followed with equal gusto.

Should CrossFit competitors follow an individualized program?

I believe that Cam’s argument in his video centers more on people who wish to compete in the sport of CrossFit at a moderately serious level. These are not necessarily Games athletes, but folks who wish to make their affiliate team, beat their friends in the Open, or have respectable showings at local competitions. Cam does contend that a certain level of individualization is appropriate for folks who are injured or who are among the elite of the elite.

He believes that following a group template will provide superior progression based upon the ability to analyze collective results, build a program based upon that feedback and iterate year-to-year – while also including the competitive group dynamic that keeps people pushing their performance beyond their perceived limitations.

Now, if we look empirically at people who have very high levels of success in the sport of CrossFit, they come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some train on their own and write their own programming. Some train on their own and have their programming written for them. Some train with a group and make up their programming based upon feel. Some train with a group and have carefully periodized plans. Based upon competition results, there is not a clearly established “best practice” in the sport – which is not terribly surprising, given its many competing demands. People have success in the sport of CrossFit at every level following almost every variation of individualized or group training, periodized or varied training, and planned or intuited training.

For competitors, we have the same list of drawbacks that individuals interested in fitness experience when following an individualized training program. It’s isolating. It’s hard. There’s less camaraderie and external competition.

Max El-Hag from The Training Think Tank wrote a fantastic article on this concept, arguing that the mental adaptation to training alone and cultivating “deep practice” as well as the development of appropriate pacing strategies based upon internal rather than external cues far outweigh any benefit of fun and competition. I agree with Max regarding the psychological adaptation to training alone, but I do admit that some competitors do require a social push to remain motivated and accountable – especially if they’re in the “intermediate” arena.

The spectrum of individualization

One of the major issues still remains, though: Is it actually best practice to individualize training programs for intermediate to advanced level competitors who aren’t among the cream of the crop in the sport?

I think that everyone agrees with a certain level of individualization – the amount just varies by degree. There is a spectrum of individualization, and each coach, based upon their skillset and their biases, is going to have a spot on the spectrum where they feel comfortable. For example:

Is it ok to have a competitive group following a template – with additional time spent on “weaknesses”?

Is it ok to have a competitive group following a template – with exercises scaled up or down based upon skill and experience (pull-ups into ring rows, handstand push-ups into DB press, etc.)?

Is it ok to have a competitive group following a template – with reps and sets modified based upon training age and experience (individuals with higher training age follow a waveloading protocol while beginners follow a more straightforward linear progression)?

Is it ok to have a competitive group following a template – with certain exercises modified for individuals based upon faulty movement screens (rack pulls instead of deadlifts for folks who can’t touch their toes; landmine floor press instead of barbell shoulder press for folks who can’t achieve full shoulder flexion)?

I think that most coaches would say “yes” to all of the above. What if we keep going, though?

Is it ok to have two group templates for competitive folks – based upon whether they predominantly need to improve their strength or whether they predominantly need to improve their conditioning to perform better in the sport of CrossFit (ie more squatting volume for the “weak ones” and more rowing intervals for the “ones who get tired”)?

Is it ok to, within the group of folks who need to be “better conditioned” to improve CrossFit performance, modify the template for an individual based upon whether they need to focus more on upper body muscle endurance vs pure aerobic conditioning (ie intervals of ring push-ups, waiter’s walks and ring rows rather than airdyne intervals)?

Is it ok to modify the template for an individual who is strong in horizontal pressing but struggles in vertical pressing (ie substitute push press for bench press in the program)?

Is it ok to not just modify the template based upon movement strategies, strengths and weaknesses, and “limiting factors” in CrossFit performance, but instead design a template for each individual?

I may have lost some of you somewhere along the way there in terms of what you feel comfortable with for yourself as an athlete. Again, I see the degree of individualization that is ideal as a result of balancing the psychological needs of a client with the programming needs relative to their goals. If they want true best practices and wish to achieve their maximum potential or get results the quickest way possible, I believe that an individualized template is the way to go. If they value the fun and experience of training more than their results, then some version of group training or a hybrid may be the best option for them.

Can we actually assess and correct effectively enough to justify an individualized program?

I also believe that Cam has another point implicit in his video: if you don’t think that a coach can properly assess these different strengths and weaknesses in an individual and you don’t think that individualized programs can correct them, then it follows that individualized programs are a racket designed to line the pocketbooks of coaches all over the internet.

I’m very sympathetic to this viewpoint, as I’m often frustrated by coaches and athletes chasing what I consider to be false metrics. In fact, I just wrote an article on this called The Problem with Biohacking.

Within CrossFit, we’re dealing with a new sport that is in its infancy. There’s a lot of theories, but we don’t have randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies establishing best practices in our sport. So, everything everyone says must be taken with a grain of salt – and we also must watch out for “broscientific” explanations of phenomena that cherry pick studies and used advanced sounding mechanisms without actually having data to back up claims.

All of that said, I have a variety of testing and metrics that I use with athletes that I believe correlate well with performance in the sport of CrossFit. I also have a variety of movement screening protocols that I believe expose major weaknesses in mobility and stability that allow me to customize programs and exercise selection to work on weak links and, as much as possible, avoid long-term overload. I also regularly communicate with my athletes to discuss what they feel as limiters in their performance during training, since, during mixed modal pieces, “limiting factors” can be wildly variable (muscle endurance in localized areas vs running out of breath vs “system shutdown” etc.). I also believe that I can review videos from my athletes to pick out weak points in their technique or their pacing strategies and write programs that address these issues.

I may be wrong in these areas, but all I can do as an individual is claim what my intentions are in crafting a program and an assessment, and show what happened based upon the two. I can say something like:

“I see that your 30 muscle-ups for time score is low relative to competitors of similar ability. I also see that your horizontal pressing strength (close-grip bench press) is low relative to your vertical pressing (strict press) and pulling strength (strict weighted pull-ups), that your muscle endurance in horizontal pressing activities (ring dips) is worse than your muscle endurance in vertical pulling (strict pull-ups) or vertical pressing (handstand push-ups). And, I can see that you’re prone to hypermobility in the lumbar spine and overextension to create stability.

I believe that you may be lacking proper core activation and are thus using the pecs and low back to compensate, which creates hypertonicity in those muscles – in your case causing them to fatigue faster in muscle endurance activities as well as affecting neurological drive in maximal strength activities.

I’d like to work on creating stability through the core ‘properly’ while also pushing limit strength and muscle endurance in horizontal pressing – ideally without feeding dysfunctional patterns.

I’d like to do this by including lots of anterior core work with proper breathing as well as stability work in ring support with correct breathing and lower threshold strategies. And, I’d like to push maximal strength in horizontal pressing with dumbbell work and ring work to require more stability – utilize speed work in horizontal pressing to improve neurological drive in that pattern – and regularly include horizontal pushing muscle endurance work in a non-fatigued state (avoiding breakdown and failure)."

This is a real assessment of a client, and he saw great results: improved max bench press, improved strict ring dip endurance, improved positioning on anterior core work, improved 30 muscle-ups for time – does that mean that I was right? Not necessarily. We don’t actually know which is the stimulus that causes adaptation. And it could be something else entirely outside of the training program. Maybe the athlete started sleeping better. Maybe he started eating better. Maybe he started taking anabolics. Who knows. All we can really discuss, as Charlie Weingroff says, is what the intention of the intervention was and what result was achieved.


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