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The 7 Biggest CrossFit Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

For every CrossFitter killing it workout after workout, posting legit numbers and seeing his strength, mobility and endurance flourish, there’s the guy cutting corners or going overboard with his training, risking injury (and perhaps his reputation) in the process. Mistakes and faux pas are prevalent in every training discipline, and CrossFit is no exception. Here, two experienced athletes and trainers share their biggest pet peeves to keep you from being “that guy” (or girl).

Mistake #1: Kipping Without a Base of Strength

All you need to do is look at the “for time” direction on “Fran” to realize why kipping pull-ups are more popular among CrossFitters than strict, dead-hang pull-ups. “CrossFit rewards efficiency, so you don’t have to look at the two movements [kipping and strict pull-ups] long to realize that kipping is faster and more efficient,” says Logan Gelbrich, a CrossFit Games competitor and Level 1 trainer at CrossFit Los Angeles who also holds certifications in CrossFit Olympic Weightlifting and Coaches Prep.

“Folks who don’t have the strength to accomplish strict pull-ups or muscle-ups will often bypass the process of growing strength in the strict fashion and will learn kipping, and with that comes increased potential for injury,” he says. Most notably are  wear-and-tear injuries to the shoulder joint, like rotator-cuff and labrum tears.

Fix it: Gelbrich’s stance is that you should be able to do at least five strict pull-ups before doing kipping pull-ups or muscle-ups as part of a workout. “It’s not that you necessarily have to do dead-hang pull-ups for two weeks,” he says. “If you have the strength to do them, it’s irrelevant. You can absolutely kip and kip safely.”

Mistake #2: Cherry-Picking WODs 

Consistency is key to success on any training program, and selecting only certain CrossFit workouts while bypassing others, buffet-style, is the polar opposite of being consistent. “A lot of beginners to CrossFit are really focused on what the Workout of the Day is, and they realize that they’re better at some movements than others,” says Dusty Hyland, owner of DogTown CrossFit in Culver City, Calif. “So they conveniently find ways not to make it to the gym when the WOD calls for things they’re really inefficient at or lack coordination in. A great example would be jumping rope. A lot of people will skip a workout if there’re double-unders in it, especially if they’re brand new to CrossFit.”

Fix it: To establish consistency and minimize cherry-picking among his gym members, Hyland introduces beginners to only two to three workouts a week, consisting of a wide range of movements and skills that need to be improved on in addition to areas of strength. “If we get a consistent training module in,” Hyland says, “then we can increase the frequency to four or five days a week. But if you’re only going to CrossFit one day a week, you’re just punishing your body, so you need to stick to the program. If you can’t, you’re never going to reach your goals.”

Mistake #3: Half-Assing Your Workouts

Cherry-picking WODs shows a lack of commitment to a CrossFit program in general, but not being fully engaged to each individual training session is equally problematic, if not more dangerous. If you’re just going through the motions, you’re not really doing CrossFit. “This isn’t a boot-camp class,” Hyland says. “We’re going to teach you how to move better, how to get stronger and how to be a more mobile human being so that you can do things outside of the gym for a long time. You need to be ready and prepared, bottom line. You can’t half-commit to this because it’ll just crush you.”

Fix it: For starters, show up to the gym on time. “The people who are casual and consistently late aren’t giving themselves the full deal,” Hyland says. “Being on time is going to allow you to warm up, work on the things you need to work on and be ready to do the workout correctly. If you’re rushing the workout and rushing to leave, you’re going to get hurt. You need to be ready and prepared, bottom line, or you’re never going to be successful.”

Mistake #4: Overtraining

Obviously, this mistake isn’t limited to CrossFit. Overtraining occurs in every discipline, from powerlifting to bodybuilding, as well as training for sport or endurance. But the results are pretty much all the same: decreased performance and increased injury risk. “Your training is only as good as your recovery,” Gelbrich says. “A lot of people — especially endurance athletes — get into CrossFit and see that a Workout of the Day is only eight minutes long and say, ‘That’s it? What else do I do with the rest of the hour?’ Given that there’s generally a shorter, more intense time frame, it’s hard for people to wrap their mind around the fact that training this way is enough. So overtraining happens, and people train more days per week than maybe they’re ready for, and they’re not able to recover, which kind of negates the premise of training in the first place.”

So how much is too much? Unfortunately, there’s no black-and-white answer to that question; what constitutes overtraining varies from person to person. “People ask me, ‘Are two-a-days OK?’ Well, four-a-days are OK if you can recover from it,” Gelbrich says. “Very few people have a fitness level to do that, however. For some athletes, it’s perfectly appropriate to train three times a day, six days a week. If I did that, I’d be overtrained. So it really does depend on the athlete.”

Fix it: First, you need to recognize the signs of overtraining: inordinate levels of muscle soreness following a workout; a general feeling of extreme fatigue during the day; mood swings and irritability; not hitting your usual marks on WODs (decreased performance); and elevated resting heart rate first thing in the morning, which is an indicator typically monitored more by more experienced athletes.

To avoid overtraining altogether, Gelbrich advises CrossFit newbies to start out doing only two or three WODs per week and progressing from there. For those already in an overtrained state, he says to first look at your sleep and nutrition habits. “If you’re sleeping and eating well, the only other variable is to cut back on training,” Gelbrich says.

Mistake #5: Too Much Competing, Not Enough Training

Competition is at the very core of CrossFit. Pushing yourself to beat a personal record on a benchmark WOD or simply wanting to “hold your own” with others training alongside you at your gym produces results that would be next to impossible to achieve in a noncompetitive environment. That said, when every workout is a competition in which the only goal is to do X amount of work in less time or more work in X minutes, you’re missing out on some key training adaptations.

“It’s important to differentiate between training and competition,” Gelbrich says. “There’s a time and a place for competition, and it’s very useful, but treating every workout session like a competition is a good way to lead to overtraining, injuries and poor technique.”

Fix it: Slow down a little. Sure, this might hurt some of your workout times, but it’s the only way to improve movements in terms of flexibility, skill level and mastering proper form, especially in areas of weakness.

“The better the movement, the more access you’ll have to increased fitness,” Gelbrich says. “We’ll use the squat as an example. If my hips are too immobile to achieve full squat depth, I’ll always be hindered because of that. If I can improve my hip mobility and maximize that movement, I’ve opened more doors that access more fitness. If I’m always competing and I’m not slowing down enough to learn and improve movements, that competition attitude will build a ceiling above me for my fitness gains. Training is important in terms of increasing ROM, nailing down skills and improving habits so that when I need to compete later on, I have more output and more ability.”

Mistake #6: Lack of Accountability on ROM

Accountability applies to many things, but in this case, we’re talking specifically about what you write on the whiteboard after a day’s workout. “Accountability is the biggest issue with range of motion on movements,” Hyland says. “If you’re putting big numbers up on the board but you’re not squatting to full depth and you’re not doing real push-ups, ultimately you’ll fail, you won’t stick to the program. And sooner or later, people are going to be like, ‘You’re kind of a D-bag.’ And not because your number’s bigger than mine but because you’re not really satisfying the requirement of the workout.”

On the competitive side of CrossFit, this often presents itself in the form of the athlete who apparently performs well in open competitions held at his or her affiliate gym but then goes to a regional competition and literally can’t complete a workout because of insufficient range of motion. At all levels, such training habits will diminish results and promote injury. “If you can’t squat at depth on an air squat, how are we ever going to get 300 pounds on your back — or whatever your goal may be?” Hyland says. “Bad repeated motor patterns equate to injury, muted hip function and poor posture. We don’t want to reinforce bad behavior.”

Fit it: Be a stickler on your form, evens if it means a slower workout time because you’re going down farther on squats — below parallel instead of just above it. Also, don’t be a prisoner to the whiteboard; understand its purpose. “You’re not putting your workout up on the board as a declaration of your fitness,” Hyland says. “It’s more about accountability, knowing what you’re lifting and knowing where you’re headed. As coaches, we look at the board and we look at your results, but step one is really just to get those numbers on the board.”

Mistake #7: Avoiding Scaling for Rx Distinction

Scaling is a key component of CrossFit training, the means by which you and, say, Rich Froning can do the exact same workout and get equal results. But it’s also one of the most underused components of CrossFit, mainly because scaling often involves picking a lighter weight and not achieving the coveted “as prescribed” distinction.

But scaling is not only underused; it’s also misunderstood. The way Gelbrich sees it, just because you’re able to do a given WOD as prescribed doesn’t mean you should. Scaling doesn’t exist only to help you complete a workout; it’s also there to help you achieve the workout as it was intended. Take “Fran,” for example. Many would say that if you’re able to complete all reps (21-15-9) at the prescribed weights (95 pounds for thrusters, bodyweight/no assistance on pull-ups), then you should, even if it takes you 20 minutes. Gelbrich disagrees. “That would be inappropriate scaling,” he says. “Yes, the athlete achieved the Rx distinction, but that’s not the response that workout is looking for. Fran should be a really short, high-intensity workout intended to be just a few minutes long. The question is, Can you do all those pull-ups and all those thrusters in six minutes or less? If so, you’re feeling the same experience as the world-class CrossFit athlete who’s doing Fran in two minutes flat.”

Fix it: When deciding whether to scale down on a particular workout, determine what an appropriate time or work output should be. If you’re that guy who does Fran as prescribed in 20 minutes, drop the weight on the thrusters by 20 to 30 pounds, do the pull-ups with elastic bands and try to complete the workout in six minutes or less. Don’t just finish the workout — finish it while achieving “the type of response you’re supposed to get out of it,” Gelbrich says. “That’s where the training gains are made. As you build strength and power output, you can work your way up. It takes maturity to take a step back, but you really need to check your ego at the door.”

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