Whack-a-Mole CrossFit: Progress, Plateaus, and the Long Game

Ahhh to start CrossFit! Alas, you can only do it once.

At first you just show up and do your best. Surviving the workouts seems like a good starting point for most, because it is always hard work if nothing else, and at our gym we pride ourselves on making sure beginners don’t overdo things and stay within the margins of their abilities.

Then, once you’ve proven you can do that, you start to set some realistic goals for yourself and, to your delight, surpass them with ease! This is what is often called the “honeymoon phase” of training. Things are still hard — they always are — but you are able to maintain traction. Your wheels don’t spin in the mud, they grip the pavement and you accelerate into progress, improving your strength and metcon and even random skills, often simultaneously. This period can last any where from a few months to over a year. It is awesome!

And then, to make a long story short, things can get complicated. PRing and even just performing at the level you have already done before is all of a sudden not so easy. Take a 2-week vacation? Ughh this feels like starting over again. The PR board may even be missing your name for a month or two. It can be frustrating!

If you’ve been coming to Cypher and training for a while – say 6+ months — you have probably noticed how much you have improved and how, over that period of time, a phenomenon of diminishing returns seems to take hold. We’re here to tell you that it’s okay, plateaus are a real thing! However they are not ceilings, and we must work together to surpass them.

As we’ve discussed with a few of you individually, congrats and welcome to not being a Beginner anymore :). There are many factors at work here, but let’s get a few things out of the way:

  • CrossFit training is hard. The higher up the ladder of your genetic potential you climb, the harder it gets to make a similar amount of progress. There is even a common phrase for this: “twice as hard for half as much.” If you had expectations of being great at CrossFit because you are a badass in other areas of your life, please take a moment to relieve yourself of that notion.
  • There are no shortcuts. This is where the title of this article is derived from. “Whack-a-Mole” as it pertains to CrossFit, is what tends to occur with people who feel stuck in the beginner-intermediate phase. Upon realizing how hard making incremental progress in the many domains and aspects that make up the entire CrossFit cake is, some choose to focus in on just a few elements to get their mojo back. Say, for example, do a strength/lifting program for a couple months. Getting strong is awesome, and a foundation of strength is essential to becoming a better, fitter athlete overall, but there is a question we must ask ourselves when we do this: is this optimal for fitness? (Side note: if you just want to get strong that’s cool and in that case following a strength program probably is ideal, but for this article we’re talking about general fitness).
  • Optimal Programming for well-rounded fitness is complex. To this day, even the most experienced coaches in our community often disagree on how to optimally train athletes, and I mean athletes as in YOU, not CrossFit Games crazies. How much strength versus how much metcon? How many short workouts, how many long ones? Which skills should we practice and how often? The phrase “everything is everything” has arisen in response to this, an acknowledgement that if you zoom in too much on one thing, you lose sight of the big picture.

Okay, these are the main challenges as we understand them. But what should you do? Well, here are my recommendations based on experience:

  • Commit to the long haul, but be present. No one rep, set, or even entire training day even is going to make you strong and fit. It is in the process of being consistent for weeks, months, and years where we find success and high level abilities. At the same time, you must strive to focus on each rep as if it were of great significance. This is a dichotomy we must learn to balance.
  • Get Strong vs. Improve Metcon vs. Do It Quickly. You can only have 2 out of 3 at any given time. If you train CrossFit you will become better overall but it will mostly be slow and steady progress. If you focus on lifting or gymnastics for a time you will gain strength/skill rapidly, but your metcon will probably fall off proportionally. You can rebuild it again but it will be work.
  • Trust us. There is a reason why it’s taken many years for the programming at Cypher Health & Fitness to evolve into what it is today. Balance is hard.
  • Chase those Goats. This is probably the defining quality of the CrossFit community: we work hard at the things we suck at most! You know that thing you HATE and dread when it comes up in a workout? Or that workout you don’t show up for because it has that thing you hate in it ;)? Yeah, that’s the thing you need to do. If you are a naturally explosive athlete, intense conditioning workouts may feel like death for some time. But you won’t actually die, and you will get better. If you come from an endurance background, grinding out light thrusters and 400m runs may not even bother you that much (personal note: I am a little jealous/disturbed by such people). But graduating to Rx level scaling, or putting 50# on your Back Squat might.
  • Dream so big you want to keep it a secret. Tell everyone anyway. Set goals for yourself that are well outside of your current reach, and go to work. If you are a socially motivated person (most are), share your goals with your friends, it will make them more real, as well as your commitment to them. Or you can just tell us coaches.
  • Take pride in your work. Quality of movement must always be at the forefront of your mind. You don’t get to “check out” if you want to do things you have never done before. This has the dual benefit of being a welcome distraction of sorts: when you’re focusing on making your movement excellent, you don’t have as much bandwidth to think about the mountain of work you have left to accomplish.
  • Help us problem solve with you. Some of you have nagging mobility problems and/or movement faults that will not improve by simply running up against them over and over again. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Invest in your success. Read books. Attend seminars. The myth of the training monk who figures everything out on their own in solitude is just that: a myth. Get out in the community and pay attention to what the best are doing. This is a field full of tinkerers; no one’s got it all figured out.
  • You ARE always getting better in at least one thing. That thing is “grit.” Training through adversity, coming back from injuries, necessary breaks, falling off the wagon and getting back on, etc. These are all things that make you a stronger and more complete human being, whether you write it on the PR board or not.
  • It’s about the Journey. You will make mistakes. Forgive yourself easily. It’s okay to feel like quitting sometimes. But don’t ever give up!

Here is a video of the last time I did “Fran”, in 2013! I did it in 2:23, which is my lifetime best and something I am proud of (I think I had done the workout Rxed about 7-8 times up to this point). At the time, I was like “well, probably shouldn’t do that workout for a while, or ever again lol.” Because who wants to work super hard to maybe PR by a couple seconds? Or, more likely given how my training has diverged over time, un-PR by a lot (do worse)? Well, this guy has grown up a bit since then. For the most part, it doesn’t matter what my time is. What matters is that I try, and don’t let my assumptions about what I have done before or about what I can do today deter me from putting myself out there anyway. Time to schedule a date with “Fran” again.



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