Programming to Incentivize Fitness

The accountability of the whiteboard and the clock in CrossFit means the difference between doing just enough and doing your best.


I’d be hard-pressed to find another fitness modality that can match CrossFit’s ability to get regular men and women with regular jobs to see performance gains not dissimilar to extraordinary athletes. I’ve always said that the clock and the whiteboard in CrossFit successfully recreated the built-in motivation to train that most collegiate or professional athletes share automatically.

After all, it pays to be a winner, right?

Except in CrossFit, the end goal of earning a score next to your name on the whiteboard is enough to give 100 percent effort, like a redshirt freshman would give, even if it doesn’t mean it will win the CrossFit athlete an NCAA championship. The accountability of the whiteboard and the clock in CrossFit fills in that space between doing just enough and doing your best.

Collegiate and professional athletes don’t need a whiteboard to work hard because their own goals of winning games, success and money do that for them. Their competitive arena provides all the checks and balances needed to give their best because “doing just enough” would mean losing their job.

The Culture of Accountability

Oddly, it’s this subtle competitive nature found everywhere in CrossFit that is a talking point for most critics. The critique goes on to say that when people care about going as fast as they can to “win” a workout, they are compromising form to do so, therefore, CrossFit is bad.

We see this issue solved in the collegiate and professional sports world with the simple fact that better movement means better performance. Furthermore, I’d argue, this is true whether that performance is used to prepare to win a Super Bowl or it means using the movement to win “Helen.” Naturally, it may take a good coach to help a CrossFit athlete see this as clearly as a seasoned running back, but if the argument that being competitive is a healthy pursuit in sports isn’t true in CrossFit, I’d like to beg to differ.

When it comes to CrossFit, this brings us back to this concept of incentivizing performance. We can program training in ways that use the natural tug from the whiteboard and the clock to encourage men and women to get fit strategically. Similarly, if one doesn’t understand this concept well, one can cross these wires for an athlete with programming alone.

Take a great movement like the Romanian deadlift, for example. I’d like to argue that the RDL in and of itself pays the biggest fitness return when the athlete challenges the bottom end range of motion of the lift before contracting the rear chain to finish the lift. If I program a seven-minute conditioning workout with an 800-meter run and as many RDLs as possible in the remaining time, I may incentivize my athlete to shortchange his RDLs and subsequently his fitness. Movements with a more defined standard or a performance qualifier that supports speed would align better in an application that has the athlete’s score dependent on speed. Can you imagine the same trouble with other movements?

Programming in CrossFit rewards athletes with a score, whether it’s time, load or total work done. A key concept often not considered is aligning the desired movement with a proper incentive when it comes to score. It’s understanding this very concept that can help coaches include great movements like Turkish get-ups, front levers, back levers, hollow rocks, arch rocks, RDLs, good mornings and other movements that aren’t always made better by asking athletes to do them faster.

What movements would you consider best for motivating athletes to be aggressive with for time? Are there movements that are best prescribed for load? Would you only prescribe some workouts for quality?