The Hardest CrossFit Open Workouts (So Far)

These WODs are some of the most agonizing tests of fitness we've ever done.

The Open finally returns to CrossFit in February 2021. It will have been about 15 months without drama-filled announcements, in-box throwdowns, and sweatily signing clipboards. It may even take getting into 21.1 before we really remember what it feels like to complete an Open workout.

Let me stir your memory: It hurts.

When asked for his thoughts on the worst CrossFit Open workouts, Dave Castro, the Open’s ringmaster for nearly a decade, said, “If you’re doing CrossFit at its intended intensity, every single workout should bring you to your dark place.”

Some are darker than others. We’ve all got our weak links, and Open workouts have a way of exposing them each year. But there are a few that elicit a ubiquitous stomach flip when they come up on a whiteboard. Below is a subjective worst of the worst list. These workouts were compiled from a witches brew of firsthand-witnessed carnage, war stories from CrossFit veterans I know and my own bouts with these Open titans.

11.3 – Sneaky Heavy Grace

Complete as many rounds and reps as possible in 5 minutes of:
Squat clean (165lb/110lb)
Jerk (165lb/110lb)

Gussy up a girl workout, and it’s bound to be a bruiser. By keeping this AMRAP to 5 minutes, Castro gave 11.3 a Grace engine with a heavier frame. For men, Grace is usually 30 clean & jerks for time at 135 pounds, with the 90th percentile finishing right around 2 minutes. Add 30 pounds and you’re looking at the 90th percentile not even finishing Grace within the 5-minute 11.3 time cap — around 27 total clean & jerks, according to Beyond the Whiteboard.

This is also an interesting one because the clean and the jerk are scored as separate repetitions, meaning you could finish the clean, hit the time cap, and the repetition would count without the jerk.

Fun fact: 2011, the first year of the CrossFit Open, featured six workouts. There have only been five workouts every year following.

12.1 – Buck Furpees

Complete as many reps as possible in 7 minutes of:

The only things worse than burpees in a WOD is when burpees are the WOD. The CrossFit Games team thought smarter, not harder on 12.1, which also featured the simplest description and scorecard of all time. There was no scaled version (scaled division would be introduced in 2015) and no separate standards for men and women. Just bodies hitting the floor and getting back up again… for the longest seven minutes of your life. Athletes could step or jump, and both hands had to touch a target six inches above their max reach. That’s it. A judge’s dream.

If your PR on this one is over 100 reps, keep it to yourself. It’s a sore spot.

12.4/13.3 – Karen and Friends

Complete as many rounds and reps as possible in 12 minutes of:
150 Wall balls (20/14 lbs to 10/9 ft. target)
90 Double-unders
30 Muscle-ups

We had so much fun with this one in 2012, Dave chose it for the repeat in 2013. Remember what I said about bringing the Girls into the Open earlier? Yeah, Karen wasn’t invited. But here she is anyway, dressed to the nines, dripping with complex movements. And if you manage to make it to the other side of that dumpster fire before 12 minutes is up? Your reward is more time with Karen. Though not many people ever did. The 99th percentile for men is 270 reps, right at the total, and 260 for women, 10 muscle-ups shy of a complete round.

In 2012, Neal Maddox got 53 wall ball shots into the second round, with Rich Froning behind him at 39. On the women’s side, Kristan Clever was the only one to finish one round – and she did it on the nose.

For the repeat in 2013, Maddox couldn’t PR, hitting just 50 in round two, while Froning bested himself with 49. Ben Smith eclipsed them both that year with 59 wall ball shots in the second round. Sam Briggs entered the scene and crushed the 2012 women’s scores by 53 reps.

Everyone lost at walking in the days following.

14.5/16.5 – No Safety Net

21-18-15-12-9-6-3 reps for time of:
Thrusters (95/65 lb)
Bar-facing Burpees

I know. This is the one you were waiting for. If you’ve done it, you know. If you haven’t, I know you’re looking at this, and you know it’s bad just by the movements listed and the rep scheme. But let me tell you: The worst part of this workout is what’s missing from that description: the time cap.

There’s no time cap. Nothing to save you from the lactic acid running through your quads. Nothing to save you from the mental anguish of knowing that you will see the third burpee in that seventh round. It just might be days from when you started.
Rather than tell you how awful this one is, I went to Reddit for some beautiful descriptions of 14.5/16.5. Please enjoy:

“That one holds a special circle of hell to itself.”

“There’s only a few WODs where I’ve laid there in a puddle of my own vomit and didn’t have a care in the world.”

“I remember being half way through the 18 burpees and realized I wasn’t even half way through the WOD. My mind started questioning everything.”

“Took me 32 minutes then I went outside and cried for 5 minutes. Hard.”

15.5 – Goodbye My Lungs

27-21-15-9 reps for time of:
Row (calories)
Thrusters (95/65 lb)

Okay, if it wasn’t 14.5/16.5 you were waiting on, it was this one. If you haven’t caught on by now, the final week of every open has always included thrusters. These nasty, full-body barbell lung burners are bad enough, but coupled with a row and the heart rate really doesn’t get a break. Pacing, pacing, pacing is the name of the game on this one.

Unless you’re Mat Fraser or Rich Froning, of course. In 2015, Fraser and Froning completed this one on the same day at the same time, but in different states. While each had their share of choice words when it was all over, they shared one sentiment: “I don’t care what he got. I’m not redoing that one.”

For the record, Fraser finished at 5:19, Froning at 5:35.

16.1 – The Judge’s Nightmare

Complete as many rounds and reps as possible in 20 minutes of:
25-ft. overhead walking lunge (95/65 lb.)
8 burpees
25-ft. overhead walking lunge
8 chest-to-bar pull-ups

While this was a tough workout, it was more of a logistical nightmare than anything. Small gyms held their breath and got creative trying to find unbroken stretches of 25 feet. If they could accomplish that, there was the taping off of five-foot sections to contend with.

And if you were a judge, you needed your blinders on for this one. You were responsible for backing athletes up behind five-foot marks if they dropped the barbell, failed to tap the knee to the ground or lost overhead lockout on the lunges. And chest-to-bar pull-ups are concentration-taxing too. This WOD was a very long 20 minutes for everyone involved.

17.1 – Spinal

For time:
10 dumbbell snatches (50/35 lb.)
15 burpee box jump-overs (24/20 in.)
20 dumbbell snatches
15 burpee box jump-overs
30 dumbbell snatches
15 burpee box jump-overs
40 dumbbell snatches
15 burpee box jump-overs
50 dumbbell snatches
15 burpee box jump-overs

Time cap: 20 minutes

You remember that now-memed 2003 interview of Mike Tyson after knocking out Clifford Etienne? The one where his exchange with the reporter went:

“I broke my back.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“My back is broken.”
“What like a vertebrae, or —”
“No. Spinal.”

I’m pretty positive 17.1 was responsible for the viral fame of that interview. This workout came after the Great Dumbbell Frenzy of 2017. For those who don’t remember, Castro gave affiliate owners about a month head’s up to stock their boxes with dumbbells before the Open. And he delivered a doozy for the first Open workout to feature the globo-gym staple.

Coaches and athletes alike were new to dumbbell snatches, which started from a much lower, narrower position than a barbell snatch: The standard required both dumbbell heads to touch the ground between repetitions.

As athletes fatigued, form inevitably broke down, and the high volume snatches — 150, if you’re counting — became lower-back busters. Throw in the burpee box jump-overs and your odds of standing up straight the next couple days were next to none.

In my experience as a coach, we’ve buckled down on drilling good dumbbell snatch form to mitigate lower back pain. We’ve also moved to a one-head tap for many workouts that incorporate the movement, reducing the range of motion required to complete the rep.

18.4/20.3 – Diane’s Revenge

For time:
21 deadlifts, 225/155 lb.
21 handstand push-ups
15 deadlifts, 225/155 lb.
15 handstand push-ups
9 deadlifts, 225/155 lb.
9 handstand push-ups
21 deadlifts, 315/205 lb.
50-ft. handstand walk
15 deadlifts, 315/205 lb.
50-ft. handstand walk
9 deadlifts, 315/205 lb.
50-ft. handstand walk

Time cap: 9 min.

If you were like me, you looked at the time cap on this, realized it about your actual Diane time and rolled your eyes.


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Or maybe you’re not like me and have handstand push-up strength and a cooler temper.

Either way, this was one to remember and merited the repeat Dave gave it in the 2020 Open. There’s a wide range of skills you can improve in this one for a solid retest. Worked on pure powerlifting strength? Those deadlifts would feel easier and could be completed in larger sets. Focused on shoulder strength? Hello, more handstand push-ups.

Got fancy and got some gymnastics skill work in? You’ve opened the doors to handstand walking on the back half of this WOD. No matter your skillset, with the combination of heavy deadlifts taxing the lower posterior chain and the handstand work burning up the shoulders and upper back, there were a lot of chiropractic visits after this one.

This one also had a little extra spice thrown in on the regulation side of things with yet another new handstand push-up standard that left even skilled athletes struggling to complete reps.

Featured image: @thedavecastro on Instagram