Programming for Crossfit Gymnastics
This post gives a relatively brief insight into our philosophy, approach and structure that we use at Jacked Gymnastics, Programming for Crossfit Gymnastics.
Artistic Gymnastics vs. Crossfit Specific Gymnastics
I have written a separate post on the differences between Artistic Gymnastics and Crossfit Gymnastics so I won’t go into the specifics here but in summary the primary differences are as follows:
- Artistic Gymnastics is primarily high skilled, straight arm and maximal strength driven over short time periods which as a result makes it a primarily anaerobic sport
- Crossfit Gymnastics is primarily low skilled, bent arm and muscular endurance driven over longer time periods which as a result makes it a primarily aerobic sport
If you want to learn more about the specifics of what I mention above, then I suggest reading my other post. However, I want everyone to at least broadly understand the above before we go into programming specifically for Crossfit Gymnastics, otherwise your program will likely not be sport specific. I have inserted a link below.
Six ‘Phases’ of Programming for Crossfit Gymnastics
When programming for Crossfit Gymnastics, our philosophy can be split into six phases. I will explain each of the six phases and then, at the end of this post, explain ways in which you can develop it into a program. I explain this at the end but just to clarify to avoid any confusion – when I refer to phases, I’m not proposing you completely isolate these areas. You should work on all areas simultaneously but instead put extra emphasis on the specific phase depending on your goals, weaknesses and whether you are planning to peak for a competition or be competitive all year round.
Phase 1: Building a foundation
This phase isn’t necessary specific to programming for Crossfit Gymnastics. I see this as an integral phase in any gymnastics program, particularly adults undergoing gymnastics strength and conditioning with no prior background. There are many components that I consider to be an integral part of building the right foundation. For example, you need to develop positional and special awareness, co-ordination, the ability to “stay tight” which is overlooked far too much and many more skills but for the purpose of this post we are going to concentrate on building stronger connective tissue, stability and flexibility.
Building stronger connective tissue and joint stability isn’t a fast process. Muscular tissue will develop (repair, adapt and grow) much faster than connective tissue. This should actually come of little surprise when you consider the significant percentage of the population, particularly those training at high intensities and/or volume, that pick up various forms of tendinitis. Just take a moment to think about how many people you know that have ever complained about tendinitis. That in itself should convince you to include more “prehabilitation” exercises to encourage strength development in connective tissue. If you’re still not convinced, then you should also understand that in any “stabilizing joint” such as the elbow, tendonitis or just generally weak tendons, will potentially cause loss of strength and/or mobility in subsequent joint such as the shoulder and wrist (in the example of the elbow).
Don’t wait until you have joint problems and then have to take preventative measures and work through rehab exercises. Instead, be smart and include some prehab (pre-injury) exercises to prevent getting problems later down the line. In Crossfit, athletes are much bigger than gymnasts, anywhere from 20-30 kilos heavier (yes, those numbers are right). How does that relate? You don’t have years of experience developing the fundamental basic skills, strength/conditioning and flexibility that gymnasts have. Just to make that even worse, you (the average Crossfitter) weigh 20 kilos more than the average gymnast. So not only do you not have a good foundation but every time you hang, pull, push your bodyweight your connective tissue has to work even harder.
These “prehabilitation” exercises can also as well as a warm-up.
Building stronger connective tissue and joint stability is done primarily through the following:
- Weighted mobility
- This is effectively learning to control and stabilize weight at the end of your range of motion.
- This will also help to increase your range of motion.
- The “lowering phase” of a rep. For example, lowering from the top of a pull-up back down to hang.
- You need to use a slow tempo for eccentrics to be effective.
- Isometrics (static holds)
- You can use both bent and straight arm variations but I highly recommend including straight arm exercises. For example, the ring support hold.
- When straight arm work is completed properly (with straight arms and with the correct scapulae placement) it is a great tool for developing joint stability. All the small stabilizing muscles that you tend to neglect are forced to work together to stabilize the joint and in these type of holds you can build a relatively high amount of time under tension (which is a good thing).
- Finally, although bent arm isometrics work, I don’t believe they are as effective for joint stability and in Crossfit everything is bent arm anyway so you’re more likely to over-train certain movements.
One additional point to understand is that as a result of connective tissue taking longer to adapt, it also means it will break down reasonably fast if you use to much volume and intensity. Be conservative with any weight added and be conservative with the volume. You can always do more tomorrow but you can’t go back in time and do less.
Phase 2: Higher skill attainment and efficiency
This is the stage at which you will dedicate time to developing higher skill attainment. Crossfit is always advancing, so even if you can do all the conventional Crossfit Gymnastics skills, you still need to develop more advanced versions. For example, you might spend extra time practicing press to handstand drills. If anything, this acts as a good way to challenge your bodies awareness, co-ordination, balance etc. If you don’t give the body a difficult enough stimulus, it will have nothing to adapt to.
The second area to emphasize in this phase is skill efficiency. Perhaps you can already do kipping ring muscle-ups but how efficient is your technique? Every time your technique isn’t perfect, you effectively use more energy and ultimately burn-out quicker. Remember that Crossfit Gymnastics is high rep so that’s lots of potential build up for error and unnecessary additional fatigue.
PERFECT practice makes perfect. Practice doesn’t make perfect if you just practice sloppy reps and go through the motions over and over again. It is paramount that you focus during your skill work otherwise you risk actually making negative neurological adaptations. Perfect technique isn’t ever going to come naturally unless you build thousands of perfect reps.
Phase 3: Maximal strength
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the priority if you want to excel at Crossfit Gymnastics is developing muscular endurance. However, you need to first develop some maximal strength to act as a baseline for that muscular endurance. This should therefore be an integral part of your programming for Crossfit Gymnastics. The stronger you are at a movement, the less “energy” you will need to exert for each rep. I’m over-simplifying the point a bit, but hopefully you a can see where I’m coming from. If you can do a double bodyweight 1RM weighted pull-up, you are going to be able to do a significant number of bodyweight pull-ups regardless of how good your muscular endurance is.
Maximal strength is generally developed using the lower end rep ranges with high intensity (high weight) and by high skill isometrics for short periods of time. To make sure the second point is clear, this is the difference between holding a complex skill such as a straight planche for 5s (strength) versus holding a tuck planche for 60s (endurance). Rest periods should be long for maximal strength, at least 2-3 minutes to allow the body to fully recover and keep performing at near full intensity. This phase should emphasize strict Gymnastics movements, you can’t develop maximal strength through kipping movements.
Strength = Neural adaptations * muscular strength
I’m not going to discuss the above in this post because it’s a relatively deep topic, particularly neural adaptations. However, realize that generally speaking, bigger muscles are stronger muscles. People love to tell you how difficult bodyweight training is because they’re a “heavy” athlete. I’m not denying that it is more difficult. I’m relatively good at Crossfit Gymnastics, I have done 50 unbroken bar muscle-ups before but if I wanted to start doing incredible feats like 70 unbroken bar muscle-ups, then yes I would drop 20kg back down to the weight I was when I was doing Gymnastics. But, I enjoy Crossfit and losing that much weight would be a terrible idea. Keep the overall goal in mind.
Assuming you are already relatively lean, then putting on muscle also isn’t as much of an issue as you might like to think, generally speaking. Let’s take an averagely lean guy who for arguments sake can’t do a strict pull-up. Now, he could lose a little bit of fat and it would help but that aside how do you think he is going to get his first strict pull-up? Neural aspects aside, he needs to develop more muscular strength and a bi-product of that is the muscle increasing in size. Let’s say he trains his pulling strength, his muscles get stronger and therefore bigger, and now he can do 5 strict pull-ups but as a result he has gained 2-3kg of muscle mass. Think about that for a second. Don’t jump on the “I’m too big” bandwagon just yet.
Phase 4: Muscular Endurance
Arguably the most important aspect of programming for Crossfit Gymnastics. We are going to briefly discuss volume over intensity. Before the high intensity guru’s jump in, please note that I am only talking about programming for Crossfit Gymnastics and not Crossfit in general. I’m not proposing you take out the intensity of your metcons and increase the volume. However, in Crossfit Gymnastics, volume is important. Much more important than you might think. You are performing low skilled movements for multiple reps and therefore muscular endurance is of paramount importance. At some point Crossfit might start to change the Gymnastics but at this point in time that is absolute fact. To develop muscular endurance, you need volume.
With muscular endurance, you need to be performing sets for at least the same time period that you are resting but ideally more so. For example, a good workout for muscular endurance would be 30s work, 30s rest. As you get better you can start to decrease the rest period. When you get more advanced you can increase the work time to greater than 30s but most people aren’t advanced enough to keep moving and repeating a Gymnastics skill for longer than 30s without breaking. It’s important that you hit large unbroken sets and try not to keep stop-starting. For example, there’s no point doing bar muscle-ups for 30s on 30s off if you can only get 3 reps in the 30s. That’s not muscular endurance and you need to spend more time developing the skill and/or potentially improving your maximal strength first.
This phase should combine both strict and kipping movements depending on your weaknesses.
Phase 5: Capacity Development
This phase is dedicated to developing your capacity in kipping movements. How effective are you at cycling through high rep kipping movements, particularly whilst your heart rate is high?
This phase is looking to:
- Increase your max unbroken sets of kipping movements
- This will likely already have increased through the work in previous phases
- Learning to maintain good technique and control breathing whilst under high heart rate and fatigue
- It’s all very well perfecting your technique when you are fresh but can you keep it when you’re tired? This is of paramount important for Crossfit
Phase 6: Crossfit
Crossfit is high intensity and constantly varied. Although, you should have a pretty good idea of what the typical Crossfit movements are by now. This is the phase in which you begin to mix different movements outside of Gymnastics (weightlifting and mono-structural movements) with Gymnastics.
Putting it all together
When discussing programming for Crossfit Gymnastics, I refer to these principles as “phases” but this doesn’t mean phases shouldn’t overlap. I really believe that you should train all of the areas year round, regardless of your goals and whether or not you are trying to peak for a specific competition. However, you should put EMPHASIS on the difference phases depending on your weaknesses and whether or not you are looking to peak for a particular competition or looking to be competitive year round.
If when writing your programming for Crossfit Gymnastics you are looking to peak for The Open, then you should set-up a macrocycle for the year. The macrocycle would look similar to the order of the phases, as I explained.
- Phase 1: Building a foundation
- Phase 2: Higher skill attainment and skill efficiency
- Phase 3: Maximal strength
- Phase 4: Muscular endurance
- Phase 5: Capacity development
- Phase 6: Crossfit
So, you will start the year (your “off season”) with developing the right foundation. Just to re-iterate, do not only focus on foundational development, you still need to develop the other areas but the primary focus should be building a foundation. This acts as the basis for everything else so is important not to neglect. Particularly if you want longevity in the sport, you need to keep your joints healthy to avoid detrimental deterioration. Depending on how well developed your foundation is, you might concentrate on this anywhere from 1-3 months. Next you will focus primarily on higher skill attainment and skill efficiency. At this point you will start to reduce the volume of foundational work and focus more on maintaining the foundation instead of improving it (although, in most cases you will find that it continues to improve anyway). So on and so on.
Obviously, you need to cater to your weaknesses. If you are terribly weak then you will need to spend more time focusing on developing your strength and probably muscular endurance. However, generally, the order of the phases is relatively important. For example, your capacity in kipping movements is not going to develop at a fast rate unless you have nailed your kipping technique and efficiency first.
If when writing your programming for Crossfit Gymnastics you are looking to be competitive year round then the phases might become weekly sessions, for example;
- Session 1: Building a foundation and higher skill attainment / skill efficiency
- Session 2: Maximal strength
- Session 3: Muscular endurance
- Session 4: Capacity development / Crossfit. Please note that in most cases this overlaps with your general Crossfit training and might not be required.
- Session 5 (recovery): Flexibility
If you cannot commit to 4 Gymnastics sessions (+1 flexibility / recovery session) per week then you can reduce the volume and/or overlap sessions. You might also reduce the sessions that are deemed to already be a “strength” and focus more on your weaknesses. Alternatively, you can increase the length of session cycle. So, instead of doing 5 sessions over a week, you might expand the sessions over an 8-day period.
Please also note that this is a very generalised approach and as mentioned, you will need to individualise certain aspects. I would also recommend overlapping the sessions. For example, skill sessions won’t fatigue you much, so I recommend adding in short skill sessions at the beginning of workouts with the goal of building thousands of technically sound reps. Skill work and prehab can also act as a good warm-up so you don’t necessarily need to dedicate a long session to them both each week but instead split them out into lots of smaller sessions. I did, however, want to give you a simple plan that’s easy to follow, so please treat the above as exactly that. A simple but effective generic plan that is easy to follow.
I’m not going to delve into micro-cycles at this point because there’s already a lot of information to take in. However, if there’s enough interest I will consider writing a “part 2” in the future. I see a micro-cycle as effectively a 4-8 week cycle focusing on developing a specific skill. That might not be a completely accurate definition of a micro-cycle but that’s how I define it in terms of programming for Crossfit Gymnastics. For example, let’s say your general muscular endurance is good specific to Crossfit Gymnastics but for whatever reason your C2B pull-ups are lagging behind the rest then a micro-cycle might be an 8 week cycle that develops your efficiency, muscular endurance and capacity in C2B pull-ups.
I hope you have enjoyed this post on programming for Crossfit Gymnastics. If you have found it useful, please share. Thank you! 🙂