A New Track on Basic Strength and Conditioning

Amber Poppe performs quarter-bench bottoms-up kettlebell presses during a strength and conditioning workout. The movement challenges core stability.

“’The needs of our olympic athletes and grandparents differ by degree, not kind.’ That is to say, everyone needs to perform an intelligently selected variety of functional movements at a level of intensity appropriate for that individual…This is the pursuit of fitness, and the ability to maintain that fitness throughout your life is a defining measure of health.” — from CrossFit’s website AT HOME introduction

This spring, we made CrossFit optional at our Box.

Our athletes now choose between two types of workouts during regular class or open workout hours:

  • A CrossFit workout in the typical format — i.e., activation plus skills work plus metcon, etc. — using the full array of CrossFit skills
  • A strength and conditioning workout that focuses primarily on building strength and mobility, using lifts (pulls and pushes) and skills that are accessible to the majority of masters athletes. Metcons are short, and often built into the strength workout.

We’ve been Affiliates since 2012, but this change represented something more than a seven-year itch. Other numbers mattered more, first among them our ages: we are 67 and 64. Given that, it’s not surprising that more than 60 percent of our members are older than 45 as well.

We aren’t a typical CrossFit Box, but we intimately know the joys and limitations of working with — and being — a masters athlete. We’ve always stressed strength first with all of our athletes, but this year’s Open crystalized our feelings about what is important to us. Like Greg Glassman, we want to refocus on fitness, with less emphasis on sport.
We do enjoy the sport aspect: two dozen athletes between the ages of 15 and 71 participated in the Open at our Box this year, and we had a blast. Our top performer was a 45-year old master who finished in the top 2 percent of his age group, with another half dozen RX athletes landing in the top 7 to 15 percent of their divisions.

But for the first time in seven Opens, Dave, at 64, did not perform all workouts RX. We encouraged another six of our 60-plus athletes to do workouts scaled, and they uniformly crushed them, with three of our 60-plus women finishing in the top 6 percent of the scaled division.

As impressive as their performances were, their overall rankings were hundreds of places behind athletes whose Coaches encouraged them to squeak out a few reps of an RX skill they hadn’t mastered. That’s a philosophy we don’t buy into.

The reality is that unless an athlete has a specific desire to enter CrossFit competitions, most older masters don’t see much practical payback for the time and effort it takes to master the most difficult CrossFit-specific gymnastic skills.

After seven years as Affiliate owners, and as aging athletes ourselves, we’ve observed that the majority of 55-plus masters struggle to consistently meet standards or use significant weight in movements like overhead squats or squat snatches. Gymnastic moves like muscle ups, toes-to-bar, chest-to-bar pull ups, handstand pushups and double unders simply weren’t happening for many, despite frequent programming. Going at them at the speed and volume called for in CrossFit metcons didn’t improve performance, either.

Particularly for those of us heading into the 60-plus age group, we felt it more important to spend our time building and maintaining strength than mastering double unders, handstand walks, muscle ups or overhead squats. We think it is more productive to lift heavier weights in simpler lifts than to struggle with complex movements at light weights due to limited mobility. 

In our new track, we focus on basic strength movements like deadlifts, landmine squats, strict pull ups, push ups, bench presses, cleans, shoulder to overhead, kettlebell and dumbbell work, along with aerobic conditioning. We’ve eliminated movements like kipping pull ups, toes-to-bar, double unders, snatching, overhead squats, handstand push ups and walks.

The strength and conditioning workouts are designed to be more accessible for all ages than typical CrossFit WODs, but they aren’t easier. At its roots, it is still CrossFit, with progressions designed to build meaningful, measurable strength and adaptations. 

The strength and conditioning track has quickly became popular, especially with our masters athletes. Within the first month, athletes of all ages saw strength and movement improvements, particularly older masters who hadn’t seen gains in a while. After years of bands, jumping pull-ups and ring rows, 64-year old Kathy and 62-year old Janyce are pulling strict pull ups. At 72, Jan is finally squatting below parallel with weight — without folding over. Scott, who’s 76, deftly handles five by five strict presses at 75 pounds and is ready to go heavier. His strict pull ups are impeccable.

We are proud of our younger athletes who are dedicated to the sport of CrossFit. We will continue to foster and support that part of our community. For our aging selves and others like us, we’ll be concentrating on the basics. 

Most importantly, we’re looking forward to workouts in a way we haven’t for a long time.

Darlene Prois
Darlene Prois, 67, has co-owned CrossCut CrossFit with her husband Dave, 63, since 2012. She moved to the resort community of Hayward, Wisconsin, after a 30-year career as a Minneapolis Star Tribune photographer, reporter and editor. Her inner-athlete was dormant before meeting Dave, a former detective sergeant and training supervisor, in 2002. Their short courtship included 400-mile bike trips, inline skate racing and wilderness camping. The couple started a kettlebell club for fun in 2008, which eventually morphed into their current business. Contact Darlene on Facebook @CrossCutCrossFit or by email at deprois@aol.com.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Gary Larrison

    May 19, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    This story was timely for me, I am 72 years old and coach a “Silver Strength” class at Sooner CrossFit in Norman Okla. I personally gave up regular CF Wod programming when I was 65. I was getting injured and could never seem to recover fully without injuring myself again. Well since then it has been a strong emphasis on Strength training and less CF skill movements mentioned in your article. Our class has yet to gain the traction with only 3 to 4 people who are regulars. We have a very young population at our gym and it has been slow to take hold. I commend you for your realization of needs over wants for the aging body. Long term you and I have a better chance of helping our population than regular CF programming, thanks for your story and keep on keeping on!