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Shutdown to Showdown: How to Prepare for the 2021 CrossFit Open

With many athletes still getting back into a routine, how do we ramp up for competition time?

In the midst of a chaotic, dividing year for the world as a whole, CrossFit also lost out on the annual event that brings its community together: The CrossFit Open. But we found some solace in a September announcement from new CEO Eric Roza: The Open will return in 2021, and to its original time frame, spanning five weeks in February and March.

Just like everything else, Open prep will look a little different this year. With just over four months to prepare, most of the community is just settling into group fitness again after COVID-19 shutdowns. Some gyms are still only open on a limited or outdoor basis. Good coaches are easing athletes back into metabolic conditioning and strength to avoid injuries and overexertion.

So how do we go from zero to sixty in less than a year?

We recalibrate our expectations. And that doesn’t have to mean lowering them. By bringing things back to basics and cleaning up movements, even those we’ve already checked the box on, we can set ourselves up for a successful 2021 Open.

Training Volume and Efficiency

Let’s get this out of the way: This may not be the Open to go from five kipping pull-ups to a muscle-up or to PR a lift. And that’s okay. Almost every Open workout includes movements you see every day on the whiteboard. But the quicker and more efficiently you can perform them, the better your placement on the Open leaderboard.

For those of us who aren’t international competitors, one of the biggest separators on the leaderboard isn’t the overall reps or total weight moved – it’s the tiebreak time. And faster tiebreak times come from moving effectively and efficiently. This means holding on to the barbell for another few reps, stringing together longer sets of double unders and avoiding time-wasting no-reps on wall balls. As you use the next few months’ worth of training time to build capacity for Open workouts, think about making your judge’s job easy: clean movements, big sets, maximized rest time.

Let’s take a look at some focus areas and common Open movements:

Gymnastics Movements

Highly likely: toes-to-bar, chest-to-bar pull-ups
Likely: handstand push-ups, muscle-ups (bar or ring)

Yes, some years, chicken-winging your way through one muscle-up can be a huge separator on the Open leaderboard. But it’s not a barrier of entry like toes-to-bar and chest-to-bar pull-ups are in many Open workouts. Building capacity and strength in the latter movements is a smart place to start when thinking toward the 2021 Open – and eventually progressing toward highly skilled gymnastics movements.

We’ve seen toes-to-bar in every single Open, and often in larger sets as one of the first or second movements. So if you don’t have them down yet, adding this movement to your toolbox can be the difference between completing the workout scaled or Rx, if that matters to you. If you have them, work toward larger sets – through kip drills and strict bar work – so they are less of a limiter. This can buy you a faster tiebreak time and some leeway in case you do “level up” and get a few attempts at a bar or ring muscle-up in the second round, a la 17.2.

The 2020 Open was the first not to feature chest-to-bar pull-ups in a workout. While we can’t predict the future, odds are good they’ll make a resurgence. Working pull-ups is a benefit not only in improving Open scores but to the myriad of other pulling movements we see in CrossFit.

When it comes to gymnastics: strict is king. There are many athletes in CrossFit boxes who skip right to kipping gymnastics movements before mastering any strict repetitions. While kipping isn’t wrong, athletes can potentially reduce injury chances if they have the prerequisite strength to, for example, control the head down to the mat in a handstand push-up versus crashing down on the cervical spine. (1)

We saw this strength disparity in the last two Opens: in 2019, strict handstand push-ups came to play, knocking out a solid portion of the field. Of the men who attempted 19.3 Rx, 40,568/72460 (56%) completed at least one repetition of a strict handstand push-up in 19.3. The women’s numbers were predictably lower at 13483/64039 21% women in 2019. Compare this to 2020, when we saw a flavor of Diane surface in 20.3. Athletes were allowed to kip their handstand push-ups: 45665/45691 (99%) of Rx men and 18321/38520 (48%) of Rx women completed at least one handstand push-up.

Consider setting yourself apart from the crowd and taking these next few months to build your strict strength. Your kips and butterflies will thank you for it.

Monostructural Cardio

Highly likely: Burpees, Double Unders
Likely: Rowing

If you’re wanting the biggest bang for your training buck, double unders are money. They have shown up in every Open and are often paired with a very “doable” movement for most athletes. There’s not much more frustrating than a rope getting between you and completing a workout.

They are also easy to tack on to the end of your daily WOD – try practicing a 2 minute AMRAP each day or completing 50 double unders and trying to reduce the number of sets and total time. If you’ve been swapping out double unders for twice as many singles when they show up in class, talk to your coach about ways to get in some practice. This could look like 30 seconds of attempts or penguin taps, depending on your skill level.

Rowing is a common movement efficiency pitfall. It feels like the faster we move our body back and forth off the footplate, the quicker we should hit our calories. But rowing is much more about power output than speed. Focus on driving hard with the legs while over time reducing the strokes per minute it takes to maintain a particular pace (say for a 2:00 500-meter pace, see if you can stay at 30 strokes per minute or under).

And burpees. The movement everyone loves to hate. If you are looking to move to an Rx standard (jumping back and jumping up), consider scaling back burpee volume in everyday WODs to practice this standard as you build capacity. A wider base with the will also reduce the range of motion and help conserve energy as you move through larger sets of burpees.

Weightlifting

Highly Likely: Thrusters, Snatches, Wall Balls
Likely: Deadlifts, Cleans

Barbell cycling is the name of the game when it comes to the Open. While every so often, Dave Castro blesses his followers with a one-rep max lift, you’ll likely get more application out of smoothly moving “doable” weights than trying to increase maxes.

By focusing on form and cleaning up technique, odds are good you can add a few more pounds to those maxes when they do come around.

While not a barbell movement, wall balls can be notorious for gassing even the best engine in the box. And with several aspects of fitness going on in one movement – accuracy, strength, coordination, stamina, to name a few – there are many opportunities for improvement. Judges will be looking for squat depth and a crisp hit to the target every time. If either of these are a trouble spot for you, reduce your chances of time-wasting no-reps with some practice.

For a workout like 19.1, unbroken sets of wall balls can be a huge advantage, since the row is relatively unbroken for everyone. This would be a solid practice Open retest to work on training unbroken wall balls and rowing efficiency:

15 minute AMRAP:
19 wall ball shots
19-cal row

The CrossFit Open’s Bigger Goal

These next few months are a great opportunity to drill the points of performance – it’s what judges will be looking for anyway. Many of us are still rebuilding some lost strength and skill work and remembering what it feels like to be in “competition mode.” A shift in focus from racing to the next progression to maximizing our current skill set can set us up as better lifelong athletes. Outperforming expectations in the 2021 Open is a great goal – but an even better one is still being able to compete in the 2031 Open.

References

1. Banerjee R, Palumbo MA, Fadale PD. Catastrophic cervical spine injuries in the collision sport athlete, part 1: epidemiology, functional anatomy, and diagnosis. Am J Sports Med. 2004 Jun;32(4):1077-87. doi: 10.1177/0363546504265605. PMID: 15150061.

Featured image: @nohlsen on Instagram

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