Preparing For The 2019 CrossFit Open

2018 Spring Cycle
April 7, 2018
April 14, 2018

CrossFit UNLEASHED - Long Island City, New York | Dutch Kills, Sunnyside, Woodside, Astoria, Gym


By: K. Thomas Brunhuber (Coach Tommy)

I think it’s relatable to all when I express both sadness and relief that another CrossFit Open season has come and gone. What I love about the Open is the camaraderie, energy and success stories that we witness each year when athletes surprise themselves by pushing past their pre-conceived self-limitations. What I hate about the Open is the organization and work, the disruption in training and the disappointment I feel when I know I haven’t lived up to my potential. After one of my worst training years since I started CrossFit, this season was no different, and I loved and hated all five weeks of it.

Arguably the best thing to come from the Open is the dose of perspective it provides us in terms of actualizing our abilities. I’m never surprised by the groans I hear following each of Dave Castro’s announcements. It’s natural- these workouts are brutal. We all say how much we hate him, but if it’s not because of the amount of suck we’re about to endure and is instead the result of the appearance of a movement we have yet to master or a weakness we have not addressed, who should we really be blaming?

You already know the answer.

Now ask yourself how many Open seasons have left you feeling frustrated for exactly this reason. Be honest. If you haven’t been at this long, you have the advantage of being able to avoid falling into this trap. The point is that no one likes doing what they’re not good at. It’s human nature. It’s also human nature to make excuses for not putting in the work you know you need to on a daily basis. There’s the trap.  So how do we avoid this pattern of frustration and disappointment?

Very simply- 1) appropriate scaling and small, attainable goals; and 2) comprehension of the differences between the concepts of good movement patterns, competition standard, relative efficiency and goal variation/bias.


Appropriate Scaling

Want some hard truth? You probably SUCK at scaling. Appropriate scaling is the linch-pin that holds all of CrossFit together. And yet we love to ignore the advice of our coaches. Following the best programming in the world means nothing when we fail to scale when we should or scale without applying accessibility, challenge and progression in the context of that days workout to that decision making process. If when you scale, you are not A) making the workout able to be performed within the parameters of its targeted stimulus, B) pushing the boundaries of your ability by making the work challenging rather than simply ‘easier’, and/or C) choosing options that take you a step closer to attaining the movement you wish to master; you are decimating your progress.  How many of us are doing single rep kipping pullups in workouts in the absence of strict pull-up capability? How many of us are still power snatching and “riding it down” for the overhead squat? How many of us are sucking wind in the first section of an Open workout after a few burpees because we regularly turn 8 minute workouts into 13 minute workouts so we can click on the Rx weight in Wodify? Too many. You’re doing it wrong.

We all love to see our name at the top of the whiteboard. But that good feeling is small compared to the good feeling those who are humble enough to think long term have when they beat you by a little more every year in the Open.  We hate taking one step back to take two forward, but so do the people you see passing you little by little, week after week. But they’re doing it anyway. And they’re going to leave you behind.

Small, Attainable Goals

This brings me to the next idea, which is the importance of forming a plan of action broken into small manageable steps.  No one expects you to ‘get’ muscle-ups when you’re still trying to master pull-ups. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be working toward them both at the same time- they’re not mutually exclusive in either mechanics or concept.  If you speak to your coaches and pick their brains about these movements, you’d probably find out that the solution to you being stuck where you’ve been with something for as long as you have is probably something you never thought of. But that’s the problem, right?  Many of us come to CrossFit for the programming because it’s built in and because we wouldn’t know how to effectively do it for ourselves. We want to progress in each of the domains of fitness, and we show up day in and day and work hard in every class to do exactly that.  And doing that will take you a long way, especially if you don’t have much of an athletic background to speak of. But how many of us are actively trying to address the things that keep us from those Rx’s we should be able to attain by now given the time we’ve been doing CrossFit?  We come for the programming and trust our coaches to provide it and yet for some reason we stop there. Our coaches are there for much more than delivering the programming to you through the classes. I assure you, your coaches have long term goals in mind for you. As a coach, I can tell you what I’d like each of you to be working on.  If you know me well, I likely have. But how many of us seek out the help to develop a plan of action regarding the means by which to achieve those goals? The best, simplest and most direct example of this is any overhead bar pulling movement. Many of you have heard me preach ad-nauseum about the critical value of performing weighted row variations alongside volume training work of strict pull-up progressions, as these are the foundation of building capacity in the active shoulder position.  Very few of us go out of our way to ask a coach to spend some time during open gym, or have pulled a coach aside after class to work on our goats. Far less ask to sit down with us to create an actual plan of action to address their issue, but plenty of us are still flopping around on the bar, far from balanced around their center of mass, limited to the same amount of volume and failure rates, complaining about shoulder pain. Tell me I’m wrong. And don’t forget that every door you open with regard to progress opens ten more doors.  When you get stronger in the active shoulder position, you can do more pull-ups and toes to bar, you start to see the beginning of a muscle up, your olympic and power lifts improve, you can stay on the bar longer, you can keep moving longer, your intensity increases, your body begins to change faster and faster, etc. The snowball effect continues…but only if you start it rolling. The point is, if you don’t access the resource you have in your coaches to set a specific course of action to address weaknesses and make longer term progress, you’re not going to have any.  


Good Movement vs. Competition Standard vs. Relative Efficiency vs. Goal Variation/Bias

This brings us to the second part of this article where I’d like to address the differences between four things that I think we regularly confuse.  The first of these is Good Movement Patterns.  There’s not so much to say here because if we don’t understand what this means we are pretty lost, quite frankly.  It is essentially the single most important idea that exists with regard to what we do, trumping even intensity. Mastering each and every movement to achieve its intended stimulus and gain the resulting improvement while doing our best to avoid pitfalls which can result in a lack of progress and possible injury, should be our sole purpose in the gym.  As Coach Glassman says, “Stick to the basics and when you feel you’ve mastered them it’s time to start all over again, begin anew – again with the basics – this time paying closer attention.”

Conversely, in differentiating from this idea, we consider the concept of Competition Standard– the sole purpose of which is to ensure a level playing field and to keep people from gaming the system to gain an unfair advantage. With that in mind, I’d like to point out that in the CrossFit Games Judges Course (which facilitates the highest level competition in our sport), it repeatedly specifies that the role and responsibility of the judge is NOT to make sure the athlete is exhibiting good or even safe form throughout the movement they are performing, instead simply that they are adhering to the movement standards set forth prior to competition.  This means that when the athlete you are assigned to is deadlifting and it looks as though his/her spine is about to snap like a rubber band, your only job is to count the reps in which they take the bar from the floor to full extension with their shoulders behind the bar…however well or horrifyingly badly they do it is up to them.

I think that we can all agree that competition standard is not that which we should hold ourselves accountable to on a daily basis.  However, more often than not we see examples of exactly that in our classes. Whether it be because we want a PR or an Rx we probably should back off from, or because we blindly feel it’s ok because that’s what “Games Standard“ allows for, this is a bad example of how to measure ourselves in terms of movement patterns.  Similarly, if you game workouts by following such standards so you can proudly type your score in at the end of the workout for all to see, you’re losing in the long run. You might be surprised how often athletes will defend poor or less progressive set-up, position or movement patterns by saying, “It would count in the Open.”  I’m shocked every time, as that should never be the point of what we do on a regular basis.

Now that we have demonstrated the difference between good movement patterns and competition standard it is clear that they are as different as the concepts of theory and practice and reality vs. ideal.  But the most difficult concept for most people to grasp of the four is Relative Efficiency.  Efficiency is defined as “the ratio of the useful work performed by a machine or in a process to the total energy expended or heat taken in”.  For our purposes, this simply translates to applying the least amount of input, in relation to the greatest amount of output…so, the least amount of effort for the most work completed.  The tricky part of this idea is that as we are all performing each movement on varying levels of proficiency, what is most efficient becomes relative to that level (keep in mind that power output is defined by mass times distance over time).


Athlete A, B, C and D must perform 30 pull-ups.  Athletes are allowed to perform the pull-ups utilizing any variation of strict, traditional kipping and butterfly style.  

Athlete A is an advanced level athlete. Although he has mastered all three variations, he elects to perform butterfly pullups as this will allow him to stay on the bar for the least amount of time thus requiring the least amount of input, i.e., the highest possible rate of mass moved above the bar in the shortest amount of time.  Should he use the traditional kip, he would spend more time on the bar and would expend more energy with the two part movement thus increasing his input and lengthening the time it takes to complete the work. Using strict pull-ups, he would expend more muscular energy as he uses no momentum to perform each rep. He would also require more significant periods of rest as fatigue sets in, making the work take even more time to complete, further adding to the amount of input required.

Athlete B is an intermediate level athlete.  He too can perform all three variations, but his butterfly pull-ups lack the necessary active shoulder strength and cadence required to make this the most efficient option.  Should he use this variation he would often lose his rhythm forcing him to come down from the bar to rest and/or reset, making the work take longer and making him jump up to the bar more often. He could also potentially put himself at risk for shoulder injury as he cannot consistently support his bodyweight coming down from the bar in the eccentric portion of the movement.  For the same reasons as Athlete A, he will not perform the strict pull-up variation. It makes the most sense for Athlete B to utilize the traditional kip as he is proficient in this movement, and despite having to possibly break the pull-ups into two sets, it will take him the least amount of time and will provide the highest ratio of input to output.

Athlete C has prior experience with strength training and bodybuilding and can perform a significant amount of strict pull-ups, however he is new to CrossFit and has not yet mastered either dynamic version of the pull-up.  For this reason he will need to perform the strict version of the pull-ups. Because his goal is to perform all 30 reps in the least amount of time possible, he allows himself to raise his knees in the middle of each, providing him some momentum and altering his center of mass turning the movement into somewhat more of a row at the finishing point. This will allow him to finish the reps faster, and will reduce his muscle fatigue and the subsequent amount of necessary rest in comparison to performing the pull-ups in a completely strict manner.  This will in turn reduce the amount of time it will take for him to complete the work, resulting in this being the most efficient variation for him as an individual.

Athlete D is also new to CrossFit but has no strength training background.  He can perform one strict pull-up but subsequently fails thereafter and can perform neither dynamic version.  Athlete D could perform 30 reps of strict pull-ups, but it would take an extremely long time and could possibly put him at risk for Rhabdomyolysis.  Athlete D should be working toward developing he muscles that will allow him to maintain an active shoulder, thus he will scale this workout to either jumping pull-ups, banded pullups, ring rows, dumbbell rows, or barbell rows.  The time constraint is least important for Athlete D, as his focus should be different than the time related goal of the other three athletes.

This example demonstrates how the individual ability levels of each athlete determine which pull-up variation they should choose to perform the work based on minimizing the amount of input and maximizing the amount of output (relative efficiency).  Though butterfly pullups are the most efficient option overall, the level of mastery achieved by each athlete for each movement is the more relevant determining factor in what is actually most efficient at the time of performing the work.

Looking at Athlete D brings up the idea of Goal Variation/Bias.  One goal we all have is to avoid injury, and that factored into some of the decisions that were made by these athletes. But let’s take into account that different athletes goals aside from this may vary.  They may make choices based on their own personal goals and/or the skills they wish to address as athletes, instead of simply what is most efficient. One may choose to use a strict pull-up variation in a low volume workout because they are proficient with their kip and want to build strength and their capacity in that movement. Another may use that same workout as an opportunity to practice their kipping pull-ups as they won’t have to spend a significant amount of time and can perform some good reps before losing the cadence. To demonstrate this point even further, even two athletes who are very similar in physical makeup and proficiency with each of the variations may choose differently because of two different goals.  One may feel that it is worthwhile to utilize a kipping variation so as to keep their intensity and heartrate up because their long term pull-up goal involves shedding excess bodyweight allowing for increased kipping pull-up volume. The other may feel that practicing strict pull-ups will further strengthen their scapula and thus allow for a higher capacity for kipping pull-ups. These are two similar athletes making two different choices to achieve the same goal, neither of which are wrong. It’s why you hear about high level athletes working out with a “Bias” in their programming. This demonstrates the idea that there really are infinite options in terms of choices regarding scaling, efficiency and goal setting.


1) Your goal should ALWAYS be good movement patterns, above all else.  Competition Standards should never enter your mind except when you are thinking about how much easier they are than the standard you’ve been holding yourself to. The whiteboard may mean something to you today, but it only hurts your progress in the long run.

2) Good movement patterns and skill attainment will only be achieved by practice, appropriate scaling and setting small, attainable goals in consultation with your coaches. SEE ME.

3) Remember that efficiency is relative to ability level and athletes should consult their coaches when making decisions about movements, taking into consideration their current ability levels, and their own specific personal short and long term goals.

Make these things your focus now, so that next year you can give Dave Castro the finger with your performance instead.