The ‘Pyramid of Crossfit’ or ‘Pyramid of Training’ is one of the original visuals used to correctly display the importance of certain components of training and the levels you must progress through before reaching the top of the pyramid, which in this case is ‘Sport’.
The pyramid can be interpreted in different ways, but the most common interpretation is that nutrition is the foundation of fitness and you must dedicate more time to this than anything else before you start thinking about moving up the pyramid. Conditioning comes next, followed by gymnastics, weightlifting and finally sport. I appreciate the simplicity of this model as it does give a good visual representation for beginners to see where they should begin their fitness journey and serves as a great outline for most of the general public in how they should be progressing in Crossfit.
However, I have put a little thought in to a more detailed ‘Pyramid’ of my own. I call it the ‘Competitors Pyramid’ as it is aimed at people who wish to eventually compete in fitness. This is the model I would follow if I could start all over again 6 years ago. I have learnt through both failure and success what certain steps are necessary to be a good competitor and I have certainly done some things in the wrong order. As an example, a lot of competitors do not realise the importance of nutrition until they are already a few years in to Crossfit…wasn’t nutrition supposed to be the base of the pyramid? How did that happen? Look at Matt Fraser, in 2014 he would tell interviewers about his famous ‘gains bowls’, (basically a bowl of ice cream and milk) and that he would eat them all the time. A couple of years later he says he has realised the importance of proper nutrition and now he is the most dominant athlete in the world of Crossfit, literally untouchable.
Step 1: Nutrition, sleep, lifestyle, SPORT
Nutrition is the base, I agree that it is the most important factor to get right if you want to progress. Go the extra mile and put in the time with your nutrition. You can get blood work done to outline all the foods your body can and can’t tolerate. Use a macro nutrient breakdown to ensure that your are getting the right amount and type of food to keep your body fueled to an optimum level. Once you have this, the training part should come relatively easily.
Some elements that I have added to the base of the pyramid are:
Sleep. Super basic, get lots of it. I aim for 8-9 hours a night but always take more if it’s on offer. If I get a really bad nights sleep sometimes I don’t even bother with training. We need that time to recover and grow, do not rob your body of it’s repair time.
Lifestyle. You need to begin getting rid of any poor lifestyle habits that may have a negative effect on your training in the future. Social events that negatively effect both nutrition and sleep are usually the main culprit. To be successful you must make sacrifices.
Sport. I have put sport at the bottom of my pyramid more as a per-requisit to starting Crossfit. Almost all successful CF athletes have a background in some sort of team sports. Sports teach basic motor skills and develop general athleticism. Try as many as possible and let your body learn to move and adapt in as many ways as possible.
Step 2: Mobility + Range of Motion, Static Strength in Range of Motion
This is a key element I feel is missing from the original pyramid and this is definitely a step that I missed in the early days (which I am paying for now.)
The first part of your training should be making sure that your body has adequate mobility and range of motion to actually perform the exercises and movements we use in the sport. If you cannot perform a squat, press a bar over head or maintain a neutral spine in a deadlift there is no point progressing to weightlifting or strength training.
Once we have developed an adequate range of motion we can begin building strength through that range of motion. Squat holds, dead hangs, overhead holds, windmills, turkish get ups, kosak squats are all great exercises to start building strength and stability through range of motion.
Step 3: Strict Gymnastics, Raw Strength, Swimming/Running
This is where I would start introducing strength elements to your training. This portion of the pyramid could be weeks, months or a year depending on what your starting point is. A huge base of strict gymnastic pushing and pulling volume will set you miles ahead of 90% of other competitors who neglect this stage.
Raw strength refers to more basic lifting such as squats, deadlifts and pressing. I believe it is better to build a solid foundation here before moving onto more complex movements.
Swimming and running is definitely the first conditioning work I would focus on as I believe it takes the longest to master. Get some help and work on efficiency and technique before adding volume and intensity. Again, being proficient in these two skills would set you miles a head of your competitors when you make it to the final stages of the pyramid.
Step 4: Weightlifting technique, Strongman
Now that you have a solid strength base, it is time to incorporate a more varied repertoire of lifts. Snatch and clean and jerk should be your main focus. Spend time developing technique, but if you followed the steps correctly and you have a solid foundation of both mobility and raw strength, then weightlifting should be a much faster process for you than for most athletes. Be as varied as possible in your weightlifing, CF is not just about 3 attempts at 2 lifts. Practice hang variations, doubles, triples, thrusters, clusters, overhead squats and any other barbell movement you can think of. You should also incorporate some strongman into your training, yoke walks, logs, sandbags, stones, kegs, axle bars and farmers carry. You can get as creative as you like with your strongman training, the easiest is just to move something really really heavy from point A to B. This builds an incredible amount of strength in all kinds of weird muscles and body positions.
Step 5: Barbell ‘Cycling’, Kipping Gymnastics, Anaerobic conditioning
Now it is time to start putting things together. Develop your gymnastic volume by practicing the kip and butterfly technique, this should seem relatively easy now that you can do 20 unbroken strict pull ups and hand stand push ups. Practice moving a barbell fast at various loads, rep schemes and under fatigue.
Develop your anaerobic conditioning and power output with bike, row, ski, run and sled sprints. It takes a certain level of basic fitness before you can really get the right benefit from sprinting.
Step 6: ’21-15-9, AMRAP, RFT’
Throw everything you have learned so far it to the most varied and random combinations of movements, time domains and workout formats. Be as creative as possible. Check www.crossfit.com on a regular basis. This stage of the progression is limitless, you can never be too good at working out. This is also the stage of the pyramid that takes the hardest toll on your body, which is why (see right of pyramid) this is when you also need to start paying more attention to the ‘extra details’ highlighted.
Step 7: Compete
Time to compete in fitness. Put what you have learned into practice and develop the ‘mental side’ of competing. Learn to be composed, how to deal with pressure and when to execute and hit the ‘red line’. Competing is a skill in itself, some are born to do it, some take time to develop in to a competitor. You learn far more about yourself during competition than you do in training. Learn from the experience and enjoy yourself, you just trained for 5 years to get to this stage, be proud of it and take it all in.
Single modality to broad time and model domains
You can see these words on the left hand side of the pyramid. At the start of your journey we begin with just running and swimming in single modality. As we progress up the pyramid we add new movements and skills to our repertoire to use in our training. By the time we reach competition we should be practicing and training as wide range of time domains and movement combinations as your creativity will allow.
This section to the right of the pyramid basically shows how the need for these extra details progresses only as we move up the pyramid. Supplementation and sports massage is not the foundation for creating a good athlete, but they do become necessary tools for recovery and performance as we build up to the later stages of the pyramid and when we eventually reach competing level.
This is just my interpretation on what your training should look like if you were starting from scratch with the goal of competing in fitness. The grey area in CF comes with the idea that anybody can/should compete. I agree that CF is awesome in its inclusiveness to get previously sedentary adults competing in fitness events, but in what other sport do you train for a year before making it to the premier league or world championships? This pyramid is treating CF like any other sport. It takes years to get to the world stage.
If you have views or other ideas about the order or importance of certain levels of the pyramid or if you think I have missed something, please comment below or to the instagram post at @innerfight, I am always happy to have a discussion on the topics I write about.
By: Phil Hesketh, Performance coach and Director of Training at Innerfight , Head of Red Zone Training