The National Pro Grid League has been turning team fitness into a professional sport.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d highly recommend last year’s playoff match between Phoenix and San Francisco – with the full match available for streaming here.
This year, the Grid season is spaced out over a few months with the first matches happening a few weeks ago, and the remainder of the season finishing off later this summer.
There’s also an Invitational tournament where homegrown teams get invited to participate based upon fan engagement.
This may be a bit forward of me, but I would also like to ask you to go ahead and cast your vote for the Chicago Rally to compete in September.
Fitness competition vs Grid
A lot of fitness athletes who have competed almost entirely in CrossFit are interested in what it takes to compete in Grid.
While there are lots of similarities in the movements used and the traits required, there are a few key differences between competing in Grid and competing in CrossFit or other individual-based fitness competitions (like the Granite Games or WODapalooza).
Certain types of athletes much prefer competing in Grid since they can play to their strengths (weightlifting, gymnastics, short bursts of power) and avoid grinding through long muscle endurance-based conditioning workouts.
Others love the well-roundedness required of CrossFit and other fitness competitions.
Some athletes want to maximize their potential in both sports.
With all of this activity surrounding Grid, I figured I’d lay out some of my thoughts on best practices for training for Grid – and how this may differ from best practices in training for the CrossFit Games or other more broad-based fitness competitions.
Traits Necessary in Grid that are Not as High of a Priority in CrossFit
Grid and CrossFit are two sports that are based upon capacity in a similar pool of movements, so we are bound to see clusters of similar of traits in the types of athletes and the training protocols for the sport.
In fact, most of the pool of athletes competing in Grid are high-level competitors in the sport of CrossFit: Nick Urankar, Alex LaChance and Sam Dancer.
However, while competency in things like barbell cycling and high-rep gymnastics are crucial for both sports, the emphasis on certain characteristics for top level success is going to be different.
In CrossFit, a much higher premium is placed on endurance. Most competitive CrossFit events are going to involve an athlete working for several minutes at a time. They must have the aerobic capacity and the muscle endurance to continue a certain level of output over that timeframe in order to be competitive.
Placing in CrossFit events is usually determined by who rested less and who was able to maintain a higher pace over the course of the event.
In Grid, however, differences in races are going to come down to execution and strategy on the team level, and speed of cycle time on the individual athlete level.
In a Grid match that is strategized properly, you should almost never see an athlete “hitting redline” or grinding through reps. Instead, athletes should be working at a near all out pace for 20-60s, then either transitioning to the next quadrant or coming off and resting.
It’s a mistake, however, to think that Grid is only a power sport.
Other than the barbell or gymnastics specialists who sub in for a specific race at the end of the match in order to crush one quadrant (like backwards-rolls-to-support or heavy touch-and-go power snatches), most athletes will have to do do very high output work, then come back in and do it again on incomplete rest.
So, the aerobic system is massively important for these athletes to be able to recover between their efforts and not end up “gassing out” as they go through the match.
With Grid, we’re more likely to see something akin to combat sports or field sports like rugby in terms of energy system usage.
There will be very high bursts of activity – probably tapping into the alactic and lactic systems, followed by an aerobic recovery, then another high output burst.
The athletes who perform the best in Grid will have the highest power output as well as the best ability to recover between these bursts. Traits like muscle endurance and ability to sustain a high level of aerobic power output, which are massively important in CrossFit and fitness competition, are not as much of a priority in Grid.
So, how do we train these traits?
Side note: If you want to download an example template of a theoretical training cycle for a fitness athlete looking to maximize their performance in Grid, enter your contact info here and we'll send you a PDF of a four week training cycle.
High power output and Recovery – Alactic
For Grid, we’re concerned with both peak power production as well as ability to sustain that power output on incomplete rest.
One of the best ways to train this is by using high output cyclical pieces like running, airdyne, and sled pushing, as well as high-speed barbell movements performed at a moderately high percentage of an athlete’s 1RM.
In very non-scientific terms, we can think of alactic power as near maximal work that is going to last less than about 10s.
Everyone’s energy system pie chart is going to be different here, but the goal is to find a piece of work that can be turned over at extremely high effort for 10s in order to create maximum potential for that timeframe.
Double-unders? Too easy. Walking lunges? Too easy. Kettlebell swings? Cycle time is too slow – even with heavy weight. Rowing? Maybe. Tough to get there with having to get the flywheel spinning every time.
Instead, think airdyne, running, and prowler pushing at a moderately light load that enables high turnover.
There are a variety of ways that we can structure this training, and the best protocol is going to depend a lot on the specific athlete and what we’re looking for from them.
Here are some top-tier criteria:
*The power output must be high relative to their maximum potential.
For each athlete, we should have some benchmark numbers that we can utilize here to gauge what kind of power they’re capable of creating. For a lot of fitness athletes, we won’t have numbers like time on a 100m sprint, but we will have other pieces that we can utilize to gauge how hard they’re going. So, something like a 500m row time or max distance airdyne in 2 minutes should give us a baseline of what kind of power the athlete can create.
And we want to see them moving at a pace that is higher than their best paces for these types of tests. We can also get a feel for what kind of power they can create in these situations based upon metrics like watts or RPMs from the monitor of our exercise of choice. This is the best way to do this, as these metrics are a bit more sensitive than things like meters rowed or calories burned.
*We don’t want “critical drop-off.”
Let’s say airdyne RPM in ten second intervals looks something like this: 118/118/115/112/105.
This is not good, and means that we probably need to either increase the rest time or decrease the work time in order to keep the athlete hitting close to the same numbers on each interval. It’s tough to make exact prescriptions in terms of percentages for what is acceptable or not in terms of variation, but, like pornography, “you know it when you see it.” Athletes will also be able to “feel it” – it will start to suck way too much, their body may start tingling, they’re grunting and making faces, etc.
*The appropriate rest periods will vary between athletes.
Some people will be able to maintain a very high percentage of their maximum power on seemingly minimal rest, whereas other people will completely blow-up and die if not given extensive rest. Some of this capacity is likely genetic in terms of muscle fiber type and enzymes available to resynthesize substrates, and some of it is trainable in terms of the response of the CNS to high output work and the development of the aerobic system to speed the recovery process. Besides, there’s probably dozens of other mechanisms hiding inside the black box of training and performance that we currently know nothing about.
So, what does this training look like?
You may see something like 6-15s of work on fixed intervals. So, for someone with reasonably developed CP recovery and a somewhat dampened nervous system, you may see something like:
6s airdyne @ 100%
You can also increase the aerobic system’s contribution here and challenge the ability to recover aerobically by doing something like this:
6s airdyne @ 100%
54s airdyne @ 50-70%
This second case may be more applicable to someone with high relative power output, but poor ability to recover their high-output systems while the first may be more applicable to someone with good ability to recover, but poor overall power output.
We can also utilize mixed sessions here in order to train a similar capacity with high percentage output in weightlifting movements as well as gymnastics.
The requirements here are basically that the movement must be a high percentage degree of difficulty relative to total strength – and it can also be challenging relative to the skill-level required.
So, a training session for Grid may look something like this:
1st min: 5 touch-and-go power cleans – tough but fast – likely 60-80% of 1RM
2nd min: 10s airdyne all out
3rd min: 2 muscle-up + 2 back uprise
4th min: 10s airdyne all out
In terms of designing this training session, the athlete must be able to complete the work quickly and unbroken. If they’re taking more than 15s to complete the work for a given minute, it’s too challenging for them and the session needs to be modified.
Similarly, for the power cleans we want the athlete to be able to perform the reps quickly and with good technique – the goal is not to grind, but we also want it to be heavy enough that we’re challenging the CNS.
The actual percentage will vary quite a bit here in terms of what athletes can perform. Fitness athletes who are well-developed in the sport may be able to perform surprisingly high percentages of a 1RM here for repeated touch-and-go reps. Good guidelines here are probably 60% on a low end or 80% on a high end.
Keep in mind that the relative percentage used isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing – the goal is to get the appropriate stimulus for the athlete in mind.
High power output and Recovery – Lactic
Many of the concepts for training alactic power are applicable to training lactic power. However, the timeframe is going to be a bit longer, and we have a bit more leeway in terms of the movement selection and design of the sessions.
For lactic power, we’re likely looking at timeframes from roughly 20-60s. These types of training sessions should “start to suck” – but not quite go down the rabbit hole into total white-faced, laying-on-your-back devastation.
Designing this type of work is tricky, as there is a lot of variability in terms of how different athletes respond to being asked to create power in this energy system and how well they understand how to find the edge of creating lactic power without totally blowing themselves up.
In general, with lactic power, we’re looking at work to rest ratios between 1:7 and 1:9. However, with well-developed fitness athletes, some of them will be able to do this type of work with significantly less rest between intervals. Also, as we prep specifically for Grid, there may be value in shortening rest times to more closely mimic those that will be seen in match formats.
With movement selection, we want to consider some of the same things discussed when creating alactic power sessions.
Is the movement challenging enough to enable high turnover with high CNS demand?
Is it too hard or heavy so that it causes slow down?
Is it limited by muscle endurance rather than speed of turnover?
Is the cycle time too slow to create high power output?
So, for exercise selection, we want to think cyclical movements like rowing, running, airdyne, and sled pushing, barbell movements like power cleans, power snatches, and thrusters, and gymnastics movements like burpees and chest-to-bar pull-ups.
Double-unders? Probably not hard enough relative to the timeframe. Muscle-ups? Cycle time is too slow. Handstand push-ups? Not enough CNS demand and likely limited by muscle endurance. Wall balls? Not hard enough.
There can be exceptions to these rules, but that should be a good starting point in terms of thinking about exercise selection.
There are a lot of ways to create lactate power sessions, but having a blend of mixed and cyclical sessions is a good way to keep the sessions varied and keep output high.
We can also target Grid-specific skills like quick barbell cycling followed by a sprint.
So, for 30s of work, a session may look something like this:
3 sets @ 97% effort:
5 touch-and-go power snatches – fast and snappy – 60-70% of 1RM
Prowler push as far as possible – moderate load/high turnover
*Keep prowler distance consistent across rounds.
3 sets @ 97% effort:
*Consistent RPM per round.
Just like with the alactic work, we can also challenge the recovery and dampen the overall power output by forcing low level cyclical activity instead of pure rest. Something like:
30s airdyne @ 95%
3:30 airdyne @ 50-70%
We can also progress this weekly by either increasing the total timeframe of work, decreasing the rest, or increasing the number of sets performed.
If we see critical drop-off in a training session, we want to terminate the session, increase the rest, or decrease the work.
Speed of contractions and cycle time – Plyometrics & Speed Work
In the sport of Grid, seconds and milliseconds can make a difference in a race. Unless there are significant subbing or transition errors, the result of a race will often come down to factors like cycle time on barbell and gymnastics movements, as well as who can sprint on and off the Grid more quickly.
With any of these competitive functional movements like burpees, thrusters and deadlifts, anthropometrics like arm and leg length and torso length can effect how quickly someone is able to get through a chunk of reps.
Still, a big piece here is going to be the actual speed of muscle contractions.
In order to train this, we can put more emphasis on pure speed work in our training protocols. We also want to develop the stretch reflex and reactive strength.
For Grid, we want people who are both strong and fast. We can start to push people more towards the absolute speed end of the strength-speed continuum to improve their cycle times.
Note that this is quite different for training for the CrossFit Games or fitness competitions.
In fitness competitions, being too fast – at least in terms of speed relative to strength or speed relative to endurance – is often a detriment. This may seem counter-intuitive, but athletes have more success in fitness from being able to move at a measured, paced effort than they do from being able to sprint, long jump, or move a barbell as fast as possible.
Designing a perfect plyometrics training session is definitely not my area of expertise.
I guarantee you that there are plenty of track & field coaches out there who can come up with much better progressions and programs than me in this area, but I have used plyos for a variety of athletes looking to improve their speed and explosiveness in team sports as well as some fitness athletes who need to improve their speed relative to their strength.
There is also a lot of nuance in prescribing these correctly. The goal here is to develop as much stretch reflex and reactive force as possible.
People with a CrossFit background often think of box jumps as a high repetition conditioning activity, but this is an entirely different animal. The goal here is training the nervous system to utilize the stretch reflex as effectively as possible – as well as to create maximal recruit of muscle fibers in as short of a time as possible.
True plyometrics should not be done with athletes who don’t have the training age, the connective tissue development, or the nervous system development to get anything out of them, as well. I would hesitate to program plyometric training for anyone who doesn't have significant experience with squatting, sprinting, and lower-level explosive activities.
I’m partial to the complex method that Charles Poliquin popularized with some of his athletes. The idea is to switch between an explosive barbell lift and an explosive jump to tap into the nervous system potentiation and create more power.
A session may look like this:
A1. Hang power cleans
5×3; Tough reps – not touch-and-go; Rest 10s
A2. Step in box jumps – no rebound
5×3; High; Rest 2 min
We may also want to look into more advanced plyometrics like depth jumps in terms of developing stretch reflex in Grid athletes.
Again, the nuances in correctly prescribing a depth jump are tricky. Different athletes will need different heights to perform the movement correctly.
Carl Valle wrote a detailed article breaking down the ins and outs of prescribing depth jumps here and Siff and Verkhoshansky discussed extensively in Supertraining as well.
When I prescribe depth jumps, I like to be able to see the athlete performing them in person so I know that they understand the stimulus.
I will generally prescribe something like the following:
15-20 reps; Rest 40-60s b/w reps
Adjust box height as necessary to achieve maximal height.
*Terminate if critical drop-off in second jump height is reached.
Westside Speed Training
Powerlifters like the folks at Westside Barbell have been making use of accommodating resistance – using bands and chains to change the force curve of a lift over its range of motion – and speed work to train the nervous system to move faster.
Common protocols involve utilizing bands or chains with box squatting, deadlifting and bench pressing.
The notorious Louie Simmons goes through some of his thoughts on setting up speed work in this article from the Westside Barbell website.
In terms of prescribing this for fitness athletes, I like to utilize on the-minute lifting with accommodating resistance.
This is a great option for improving someone on the absolute speed spectrum relative to their strength – as well as adding more training volume in on weak movement patterns (think deadlift or pressing) without pushing an athlete into overuse and injury with continuous loading.
So, a speed workout for deadlifting may look something like the following:
2 deadlifts with added chains
Use 60% of 1RM. Reset each rep – not touch-and-go.
*Move fast – this is speed work.
Caution must be taken in prescribing this, as many athletes have a "more is better" mentality and will load their barbell up until they start to grind reps – which completely defeats the purpose of the prescription.
Ideally, this is watched in person, but make sure that you use video review and explain the point of the training clearly.
Touch-and-go barbell cycling
I seem to recall an article written by Glenn Pendlay on a blog a long, long time ago about attempting to use Westside style speed work for his weightlifters, but I can’t seem to track it down. I remember thinking that he experimented with a few cycles, but didn't find them effective for improving weightlifting performance in high level weightlifters.
Still, even if that type of on-the-minute speed work doesn’t have a lot of application for people looking to compete in the sport of weightlifting, there may be some great application for Grid and fitness athletes looking to improve their speed and technique on fast barbell cycling – as well as ability to recover the CP system between tough efforts.
This type of training session may look something like the following:
3 touch-and-go high hang power cleans
*Keep these fast and snappy. Shoot for weight between 60-70% of 1RM.
Speed training with medball throws and jumps
Again, just like with the plyo training, this is not my area of expertise. For the real deep stuff, you’ll probably want to check in with some folks who are training discuss and hammer throwers like Bondarchuk or folks who are training baseball pitchers like Eric Cressey.
The goal here is to improve speed and reactive strength – just like with plyos and touch-and-go weightlifting.
When prescribing medicine ball work, we also want to consider the difference between rotational speed and power and sagittal plane speed and power. For most fitness activities, sagittal power is going to be more relevant than rotational power. It sees that there can be massive differences in capacities in these areas: ie baseball pitchers who can throw 98 miles per hour but who can barely vertical jump 20 inches.
So, given the demands of Grid, we probably want to work on developing explosiveness in the sagittal plan with our throws moreso than in the rotational plane.
A session may look something like this:
E30s for 10 sets:
1st 30s: 1 reverse shot toss – explosive (16/8)
2nd 30s: 1 standing vertical leap – no step-in
3rd 30s: 1 max effort seated med ball chest pass (12/8)
Technique specific to races
Touch-and-go Oly lifts
Grid requires not just proficiency at cycling heavy barbells. There are some sport specific tricks here that are necessary.
One of these is the touch-and-go power snatch and power clean without stopping at the hip.
The milliseconds saved by dropping straight to the ground between power snatches can make a difference.
Similarly, when doing hang lifts, we also want to train the ability to do touch-and-go lifts from the high hang – without having to drop the shoulders over the bar – as much as possible.
This is a minor detail, but one that can shave time off of each cycle of the barbell.
In the realm of gymnastics, we also want to minimize cycle time – even at the expense of repeatability or muscle endurance.
In Grid, we want to be able to "short kip" handstand push-ups rather than bringing the knees down almost to the elbows every single rep.
Similarly, we want to be able to do muscle-ups as more of a "front uprise" rather than having to pause in the catch and come out of the dip.
In addition to these cycle time tricks, athletes will also need to devote time to skill work on more advanced gymnastics movements not typically seen in fitness competitions like free-standing handstand push-ups, backwards rolls-to-support, and back uprises.
Grid has made it clear that they want to push the envelope in terms of gymnastics skills necessary as well as weights lifted, so we may see even more advanced ring and tumbling skills as the sport progresses, so it is likely wise to devote training time to simply playing with gymnastics and trying to learn new things.
Creating a training template
People have had and will continue to have success with all kinds of things in terms of creating training templates and in terms of progressing exercises.
Still, in terms of principles, I’m a big believer in “high/low” training. This basically means trying to alternate training sessions between high CNS demand and low CNS demand.
Stephen Seiler discussed this concept in relationship to the training of elite endurance athletes in something similar with his sprinters, and Louie's powerlifters at Westside end up not too far off with their alternation of maximum effort and dynamic effort days.
Keep in mind that we can’t truly know what’s going on with an athlete in a given session in terms of CNS demand or metabolic demand.
There are some technologies that are becoming available on a consumer level that enable rudimentary monitoring of recovery parameters like HRV, and we can also simply observe our athletes and ask how they're doing on a day-to-day basis.
So, given that any template is going to be inaccurate for an individual and that we can't control stressors outside of the gym, we can still attempt to make some generalizations and try to structure training in "high/low" blocks.
Things like maximal strength work – whether focused on volume (5×5) or intensity (Build to a 5RM for today) are probably going to be higher demand on the CNS.
Mixed modal intervals with higher nervous system demand movements (power cleans, burpees, thrusters) that allow the athlete to go down the nasty conditioning rabbit hole are probably going to be higher demand on the CNS.
Keep in mind though, that athletes who are particularly gifted in fitness are going to be able to do some of these mixed pieces of work (power snatch, double-under, burpee) as high output aerobic work and not experience the same drain on the nervous system as most less gifted folk would.
Lower CNS demand work can include things like skill work and positional work.
We can also create lower CNS demand conditioning circuits by including “roadblock” movements that prevent athletes from digging too deep. It’s tough to put yourself on the ground – even with thrusters and pull-ups – if you have to hold a plank on rings for 60s in between rounds.
Depending on the athlete, certain types of CP battery work (as described above) and muscle endurance work can be relatively lower demand on the CNS. We just need to solicit feedback, since some more powerful athletes can grind themselves pretty deep on touch-and-go power cleans.
So, in order to train for Grid, I created a theoretical template based upon developing the characteristics necessary for Grid in an athlete who is a well-rounded fitness athlete with good structure and good training age.
This is not the right way to do things, but it is one way, and it shows a real example of how one might integrate these concepts into a block of training.
If you'd like to take a look at the template, enter your contact info here.
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