Reflecting On The 2017 CrossFit Open Workouts

Training for the CrossFit Open is always a bit of a guessing game, and Dave Castro certainly loves to throw out some cryptic clues on his Instagram to stoke the piranhas of social media into a feeding frenzy of speculation.

While I think this speculative game is usually not worth playing, there’s a lot to learn every year from the Open. Extracting key principles is important to guide training going forward for athletes who wish to compete in CrossFit as a sport.

Historically, the Open has leaned heavily on a few types of workouts. Keep in mind these discussions center around people who have the baseline strength and capacity in gymnastics movements to do these workouts.

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The Open usually features these main styles of workout:

Gymnastics Bottleneck

  • Example: 15.2 (Overhead squat, chest-to-bar pull-up)
  • Limiting factor for most people: How many chest-to-bar pull-ups can you do before your upper body pulling muscles give up?

Battery

  • Example: 14.3 (Deadlift, box jump)
  • Limiting factor for most people: How long does it take to recover between heavy lifts on the deadlift?

High Turnover Conditioning w/ Muscle Endurance Limiter

  • Example: 14.5 (Thruster, bar-facing burpee)
  • Limiting factor for most people: What kind of pace can you keep without your shoulders and/or quads locking up and slowing you down?

High Power Output/Suffering:

  • Example: 15.5 (Row, thruster)
  • Limiting factor for most people: How fast can you keep the row pace and the thruster cycle time without succumbing to acidosis?

How We Prepped For The 2017 Open

In training for the Open, the goal is often to bring up an athlete's individual weaknesses - whether those are movement patterns, energy systems, or specific types of workouts throughout the “off-season” - then peak them to compete in their chosen sport over the several months leading into that event.

At this point, almost everyone has to treat the CrossFit Open as a peaking period. The days of “cruising through the Open and training for Reigonals” are gone for almost everyone. Every year, the field gets deeper. So the opportunity for one “bad” workout to disqualify a competitor keeps growing.

This peaking process usually involves:

  • Increasing the weekly volume of movements you know are likely to appear in the Open (handstand push-ups, chest-to-bar pull-ups, thrusters, double-unders)
  • Decreasing the volume of accessory work (single-arm DB rows, Powell raises, sled drags)
  • Increasing the amount of “uncomfortable” conditioning (“for time” pieces with high turnover, high power output intervals of 20-60s w/ longer rest)
  • Keeping enough touches on "weakness building" and Regionals movements (strict muscle-ups, legless rope climbs, GHD sit-ups, etc.), so people who are likely to move on don’t get smoked when they start training for the next stage.

Reflecting On The 2017 CrossFit Open

This year's Open showed a more diverse set of tests than in previous years.

The last few years of testing in the Open relied heavily on gymnastics bottlenecks and muscle endurance limiters, while usually one heavy/battery tester and one high turnover conditioning test.

This year, there was more diversity in the tests and more opportunity for athletes to have different experiences on the tests.

We will break down each workout in terms of what I think were the most salient features of the test and the limiting factors.

17.1 - Dumbbell Snatches and Burpee Box Jump Overs

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I like tests like this where there’s no magic strategy to fractioning your reps or perfect work-to-rest ratio to nail - to do better on this workout, you simply go faster (or shorten your limbs).

Improved performance on 17.1 came from:

  • Increasing the cycle time on dumbbell snatches and burpee box jumps
  • Understanding how to pace relative to the increasing rep scheme

I saw several people get caught by surprise in the set of 50, but significantly improve on a redo simply because they knew what to expect in terms of how they were going to feel throughout the workout.

The time frame here was a little long to be truly metabolically devastating - like the row thruster combo in 15.5 - but many people ended up pretty messed up after this from sprinting through their final set of burpee box jumps. For most people, they were able to push hard to finish that last set of 15 in about 1 minute. Moving at a near all-out pace for one minute while already pre-fatigued tends to make people feel awful.

I also like the burpee box jump as an option to keep the box jump in the Open and in Regionals. With the rash of Achilles tears seen in competitions with rebounding box jumps, this is a clever way to keep the movements in rotation without exposing people to unnecessary risk.

17.2 - Walking Lunges, Toes To Bar, Power Cleans, Bar Muscle Ups

I got quite a bit of different feedback in terms of how 17.2 felt for people.

My first intuition was that athletes would have to be careful with their fractioning on the bar muscle-ups to avoid missed reps. And that was certainly the case for some athletes.

However, some people felt their grip blow up from holding onto the dumbbells for the cleans, the lunges, and the bar for toes-to-bar and bar muscle-ups.

Other people went over their threshold somewhere in their sets of bar muscle-ups. After digging a bit too deep to get through their muscle-ups, they were in the hurt locker on their lunges and cleans.

17.3 - Chest To Bar Pull Ups, Squat Snatches

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This type of weightlifting battery test has become definitive of CrossFit competition - like the snatch ladder at Regionals last year, the clean/double-under/toes-to-bar triplet from the Open last year, and the ascending snatch/burpee ladder in 2013.

The separator on a workout like this comes down to the recovery time an athlete takes between snatches.

The overall volume of chest-to-bar pull-ups relative to the snatches was somewhat moderate until you get into the final round. This was reflected by people doing reasonably well on the workout by sticking to singles the entire time on the chest-to-bar pull-ups in an effort to avoid the eccentric contractions and save their shoulders.

An athlete at my gym finished the workout in a respectable time doing singles the entire time due to an irritated pec that didn’t react well to the bottom of a kipping pull-up.

The time caps do present an interesting dynamic. Some athletes have to push to make it to the next round - then then they find themselves useless to get anything else done.

Note that 1RM snatch is not a great predictor of performance on a workout like this. Obviously, an athlete needs to be able to lift the last bar (and probably a bit more) to be able to clear the ladder. However, there are plenty of people with impressively heavy snatches who got caught on the fourth bar - simply because they couldn’t recover quickly enough between lifts.

17.4 - Deadlifts, Wall Balls, Rowing, Handstand Push Ups

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Redo workouts are always interesting and they play interesting psychological games with athletes. There’s obviously the expectation that you perform better after a year of training - but how much better? And how much better has everyone else gotten?

This is a microcosm of the psychological "pressure cooker" that the Open creates for almost all competitive athletes. You’re stuck relentlessly and obsessively comparing your performance to your past self and the past performances of others. You are trying to extrapolate where you “should” be on the workout after a year of training while also trying to guess how much others have also improved.

It’s one thing to tell people to only focus on things they can control, but the reality is that a vast majority of athletes who take the Open seriously spend a lot of time every March freaking out and melting down while staring at a leaderboard and cycling through all of the Instagram training highlights they can see and replaying their rival's highlight reels from training throughout the year.

Anyway, the handstand push-up bottleneck creates an interesting dynamic here. People who are quite good on handstand push-ups were able to coast through the first three movements, knowing they’d be able to make up time on the handstand push-ups.

I also saw athletes who know they were going to struggle with the handstand push-ups push the pace dramatically on the deadlifts, wall balls, and rowing in order to give themselves more time on the wall.

Based upon the dynamics of the movements here, you could end up with people getting the same score on the workout who got to the wall 3 minutes apart.

For people with the level of fitness that resulted in getting significantly into the second set of deadlifts, deadlift battery and muscle endurance played a significant role in their score on this workout - some people were able to get through 30+ deadlifts with 90s left on the clock, and others were only able to pull slow singles.

The workout also features a blend of flexion-based and extension-based activities. If you don’t have good control of how and when to create flexion and extension through the hip instead of the low back, it’s really easy to end up with a super pumped up blown out low back on a workout like this.

17.5 - Thrusters and Double Unders

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My first intuition was “Oh man, that will suck.” Pretty much everyone knew that some combination of thrusters and double-unders was likely to be the final workout based upon the movements that hadn’t yet been tested in the Open. We’ve also seen a continuous theme of having some sort of awful thruster-based piece to close out the Open.

However, I don’t think this workout sucked for people as much as I thought it would.
 
Most people who I talked to were limited by shoulder muscle endurance - particularly on the double-unders. Pacing was about managing shoulder fatigue so that the double-unders didn’t fall apart.
 
For a few folks, any sort of high repetition squatting with moderately heavy weights becomes a problem. For these people, they had to pace the workout relative to their thrusters. Fortunately for the people who I talked to in this position, they were quite good on double-unders so were able to put up decent scores based upon their speed and efficiency with the jump rope.
 
I think this workout also revealed many double-under efficiency flaws for people. In most other workouts with double-unders, you can get away with being a little sloppy on them as long as you start right up again when you miss. A few singles before getting started on your sets of doubles doesn’t really matter much, either.
 
However, in this case, little ticky-tack things on cycle time and transition time actually made the difference of quite a bit of time over 10 rounds. In a workout like this where all the times are clustered very tightly together, these details “matter” much more than in something with more moving parts or more opportunities for people to struggle.
 
I also think that - for people who did quite well on this workout (low 7 min or better) - that they were mostly good enough on double-unders and thrusters to push the pace without worrying about muscle endurance. But, since they’re good on the couplet of movements, very few of them ended up in the “hurt locker” like people did after 15.5. It’s difficult to create enough power on double-unders to put yourself that far over the edge when you’re very efficient on the movement. 

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About The Author

Todd Nief is the Owner and Director of Training at South Loop Strength and Conditioning. He blogs regularly on all things strength and conditioning at southloopsc.com/articles

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