Method behind the Madness, Parts I-III

The Method Behind the Madness, Part I: Programming at Potomac CrossFit

By: Colin Farrell

“Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” This was, and is, the revolutionary definition of fitness proposed by Coach Greg Glassman over 15 years ago.  To put it simply, be able to do more work, and be able to do it quickly. Be able to go long, short, mid-distance, heavy or light, with equal ability; be as proficient at the deadlift as you are at running and climbing ropes.

We achieve this increased capacity by performing “constantly varied, high intensity, functional movements.” We regularly engage in metabolic conditioning (“cardio”), gymnastics and bodyweight movements, in addition to weightlifting and throwing. We mix these as often as we can, in as many variations as we can, and with as many different objects and environments as we can.

The above definitions of fitness and how to achieve greater levels of it are almost universally accepted among CrossFit trainers and coaches. The devil, naturally, is in the details. Do we bias strength (“No one ever said, ‘I wish I wasn’t so strong’”)? Do we bias longer, lighter workouts that keep us moving constantly for 20+ minutes (“The average athlete needs to ‘work’ for more than 18 minutes every time they come in the gym”)? Do we do only strength or only a metcon, or do we do both each day?

If you travel much or spend time dropping in at other boxes, you will notice a massive range of answers to these questions, and many more. Many of the answers to these questions end up falling into the “six of one, a half-dozen of the other” category. In the end, if you’re doing some version of CrossFit, you’re going to get fitter.

Our philosophy is rooted in the fact that you, our athletes, deserve to have a great deal of CrossFit built into the one-hour you are able to spend with us each day. You are here to be coached and to learn movements, but we learn best by doing. Coaches can provide better instruction when they are able to see more repetitions so as to provide the most appropriate feedback. With that in mind, each day you attend a CrossFit Class at Potomac CrossFit, you will have 7 to 10 minutes of warming-up, 15 to 25 minutes of strength or skill work, anywhere between 6 and 20 minutes of a dedicated workout, as well as 5 minutes +/- of mobility work. We want to keep you moving as best as we can, ensuring we also provide the best feedback we can as coaches between repetitions, sets, and/or rounds and repetitions.

Before the conclusion of this blog post, let it be clear: we are always seeking to improve.  Mike Giardina, a CrossFit Level 1 Seminar “Flower Master” once remarked that if it became scientific fact that shake weights and hoola-hoops brought about long term health and fitness, we would program it. At PCF we are constantly trying to find the program that will bring about a broad and inclusive fitness. This is not to be confused with implementing the latest fad or gimmick. Too many affiliates get sucked into programming for the CrossFit Games (Assault Bikes and Peg Boards, anybody?) or some such other fleeting and ephemeral trend in fitness. Potomac is coming up on its 10th anniversary–rarefied territory in the realm of CrossFit–and we are planning for 20 and 30 more years of providing the best gym experience in Arlington. That can only be achieved by implementing a fitness program that stands the test of time, as our community has, and altering it, adding to it, and building upon it responsibly.   

Between Sunday and Saturday, Potomac athletes are exposed to four “strength” sets and two “skill” sets prior to the workout, with Saturdays typically being dedicated to a longer workout, such as a Hero workout or classic CrossFit benchmark, such as Fight Gone Bad. In Part II of “Method Behind the Madness”, we will take a specific look behind the strength portion of each days’ programming.


The Method Behind the Madness, Part II: Strength Programming at Potomac CrossFit

By: Colin Farrell

In Part I, we took a look at the overarching philosophy of the programming here at PCF. The main principle–of course–is to create a broad and inclusive level of fitness by way of packing a great deal of CrossFit, and therefore more opportunities to be coached, into your hour here at Potomac. In Part II, we will have a look at the nuances of our strength work that occurs prior to the workout or metcon.

To dissect our strength program, we will start with the broad brush basics, then dive in deeper and deeper. Our strength work has a fairly regular schedule, but with a layers of variance.



  • (Thursday: Gymnastics Skill Work)


There are, of course, some variations in this schedule in order to keep you guys on your toes and to accommodate other programming considerations, but this is largely the set-up from Monday through Friday.

Now for the real meat and potatoes: the undulating percentages. We reverse engineer from max out dates (theoretical or actual), slowly building back from a 1-, 2-, 3-, or 5-repetition maximal effort for each lift.  We will use the back squat max out as an example, scheduled for Week 6.

Week 1: 5×5 @ 75%
Week 2: 5×4 @ 80%
Week 3: 4×3 @ 85%
Week 4: 3×2 @ 90%
Week 5: 7×3 @ 60%
Week 6: Find a new 3 repetition maximum

Notice that from weeks 1 through 4, the volume (number of repetitions) decreases as the percentage (weight on the bar) increases. In week five we dramatically increase the total repetitions while simultaneously decreasing the percentage by 30 points:

Build strength across multiple weeks, then drop the percentage so as to hammer on mechanics the week prior to attempting a maximal effort lift.  

This methodology is used by CrossFitters, powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, strongman athletes, even endurance athletes. By no means is it the only strength program (Google Wendler, Conjugate or West Side, for some commonly used strength-building protocols), but this program offers the flexibility to fit our Monday-through-Friday lifting schedule and varying athlete rest days.

The exact repetitions and percentages above change slightly from lift to lift and week to week, but charted across multiple weeks they follow the aforementioned pattern. In the interest of variance and the fact that hundreds of human bodies that roll through the gym don’t always adhere to the machinations of the above program each day, instead of “Back Squat 4x3x85%” the strength work will occasionally be written as “Back Squat 5-4-3-3-3-3” or as “E2MO2M for 14 Minutes Back Squat, 3 Reps.” The goal of all three versions is similar, but the latter two offer athletes an ability to scale up or scale down based on personal goals, fatigue (or lack thereof), as well as a variety of other personal factors.

Many gyms rotate their strength days so as to be “random” (surely there is a rhyme and reason to the rotation, but that is not to be expounded upon here) as far as which days of the week/month they perform specific lifts. There are, to be sure, benefits to switching up which days of the week and month we perform and practice the major lifts.  As mentioned in Part I of “The Method Behind the Madness”, at Potomac we implement what we know works and what has stood the test of time: when it comes to building strength, a more strict schedule, or periodization, works extremely well.

In the coming year we will begin to implement additional accessory and auxiliary lifts to give you a more well-rounded strength and help athletes break through any plateaus you may have found yourself stuck on. This also adds additional layers of variance. The more you are exposed to, the better off you will be as athletes.

We will continue to research, study, test, and retest various methodologies and movements in the world of strength-training so as to deliver to you the best possible programming to increase your work capacity across broad time, and modal domains. Of course, we want to have fun and be safe along the way, and that is something we will never lose sight of.

In Part III of “The Method Behind the Madness” we will take a gander at the methodology behind the metabolic conditioning workout (“MetCon”) programming for each day of the week.


The Method Behind the Madness, Part III: MetCon Programming at Potomac CrossFit

By: Colin Farrell

In Part II of “The Method Behind the Madness” we took a dive into the world of Potomac CrossFit’s strength development program. We have chosen and implemented a system that fits well into our gym’s community while considering a variety of factors, chief among them safety and effectiveness.  There are dozens, if not hundreds, of strength programs CrossFit affiliates around the world follow. Even more numerous, however, are the methodologies surrounding the programming of the metabolic conditioning workouts.

Many are extremely similar, many are immensely effective, and some are not as effective.  As with our strength program, we will continue to research, test, re-test, and implement (when appropriate) improvements to our program.

When looking at our MetCon programming, it is important not to use “random” and “varied” as synonyms for what is going each day of the week.  There are a dozen or so factors to consider when putting together the workout of the day, here are just a few:

  • Anterior chain- vs. posterior chain-dominant lifts
  • Cycling through pulling, pushing, “cardio”, and conditioning movements
  • Number of days we squat in a row, number of days we press overhead in a row
  • Class attendance as it corresponds with day of the week
  • Average athlete work:rest ratio
  • Number of modalities/movements (couplet vs. triplet vs. chipper)
  • Workout length
  • Strength programming for the week
  • Weather/time of the year
  • Et al.

All of the above factors are listed in no particular order, and that is not a complete list. Data shows that most athletes who work out 3 or more days per work most often come every other day, so many workouts are programmed with that in mind.  Secondly, we balance anterior chain movements (things like lunges, squats, wall-ball shots or thrusters) with posterior chain movements (kettlebell swings, deadlifts, power snatch) so as to ensure we don’t hit one or the other too many days in a row.  Additionally, we layer on pushing movements (ring dips, push press, etc.), and/or pulling movements (rope climbs, toe-to-bar, etc.), and/or conditioning (burpees, box jumps, etc.), and/or “cardio” (running, rowing, double-unders). These movement categories are kept in a constant rotation to ensure balance and calculated variance.

How many, and which, movements we choose are based on day of the week, in large part. Mondays and Tuesdays we usually have a higher volume of members in the gym. For that reason, we don’t often do chippers, workouts with 4 or more movements (i.e. potentially lots of equipment), as there is often not quite enough room. Because we squat every Monday and Friday, when possible, we try to avoid high volume or heavy squats more than one day in the middle of the week.

Saturdays are typically Hero workouts. These are benchmark workouts that we prefer not to tweak or change too often. Silly as it may seem, those workouts were written with a person in mind, and we don’t like to make too many adjustments to them. When choosing a Hero workout each week, we simply look to see which movements we have not used recently, which will fit within the confines of a one-hour class, what workout can safely be done given space, equipment, and athlete capability.

The factors are many, but in the end we aim for safety, effectiveness, and balance when choosing what movements to perform, how many repetitions, the loading, the length of workout, etc. We want to constantly shrink the margins of our experience so as to broaden our base of fitness. We will implement new strategies, movements, and methodologies when appropriate and when we can.

The MetCon-only Day

After looking at the results of our benchmarking back in January and early February, it became apparent that we had a large number of athletes that were quite strong and proficient when it came to barbell lifts. However, those same athletes (in general and across the board, not any one or set of individuals in particular) were not as proportionately capable during benchmark workouts like Fight Gone Bad, or Fran.  For example, we had a number of men in the gym that had 400+ deadlifts, 300+ back squats, but very few could go sub-4 minutes on Fran.

With that in mind, one day each week we will substitute our lift + a workout, for merely one, long workout.  This will allow more time to develop gymnastics skills, and expose us to longer workouts more often, hopefully building up our cardiovascular engines a bit more. Which day of the week this is will be determined by where we are in our lifting cycles.  

As ever, we are aiming to be as well-rounded as possible. You should be just as comfortable deadlifting heavy as you are running a 10-km or completing Isabel