How to Adjust Met-cons for Group Classes by kyle ruth

Individualizing Mixed Modal Testers

Writing metcons for group classes can be extremely difficult for athletes seeking long-term development because the same workout can elicit dramatically different training responses in different athletes. It has become clear to me during my career that many coaches struggle to create long-term progress in metcons after the initial beginner-stage training adaptations have occurred. Through my experience as an affiliate owner, coach to Regional and Games level athletes, I have developed a grasp on creating long-term progression in athletes. In this three part series, that will be released intermittently throughout the next few months, I’m going to cover some principles of group programming paying particular attention to creating long-term adaptations in athletes. In this article, we are going to look a specific metcon and explore:

  1. How this workout is different for different athletes (size, energy system profile, skill level in the sport)
  2. The limitations each movement can present for different types of athletes
  3. How you can ‘scale’ the workout to get a similar training response for athletes of different skill levels

Additionally this week I’m going to look at some basic principles that you need to consider when designing group-training.

Metcon Design

Coaches often talk about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ program design but I think that more applicable terms would be ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’ training when discussing group programming. Coaches who arbitrarily throw together combinations of movements, time-domains, and repetition schemes without regard for who or what they are designing the workout for lead to ‘inappropriate’ training for the majority of the individuals in the group. When you take into consideration the following factors before writing your group programming you are far more likely to provide ‘appropriate’ training for the majority of the individuals in your group.

  • Who are the individuals in the population you are designing the training session for?
  • What are you trying to accomplish? i.e. what training adaptations are you targeting?
  • What are your space and equipment limitations?
  • Where does this fit into the grand scheme of the training program?

To illustrate the importance of these factors (particularly #1 and #2) we’re going to explore the variance in training response for one single workout for a variety of individuals.

Example Workout:

5 Rounds for time:

24 Double-unders

12 Burpees

8 Thrusters @ 95/65#

Desired Response

When I designed this workout, the example athlete I had in mind was a talented, mid-sized (5’10, 180# Male OR 5’5, 135# Female) athlete with a 2-3 year CrossFit training history. For this type of athlete this workout would likely create demand on their local-muscular aerobic (shoulders/legs) and central cardiorespiratory (heart/lungs) systems. However, because this metcon incorporates mixed barbell, body-weight, and high-skill movements you can expect there to be a significant deviation from this for athletes of different body-sizes, skill levels, and energy-system profiles. These factors influence the way each athlete moves through a given metcon, furthermore the more complex we make the metcon the more individual variance we can expect. From a programming standpoint our goal is to elicit a targeted training adaptation (i.e. improve strength or improve muscular endurance), therefore in order to ‘standardize’ the training response for each athlete coaches need to carefully consider each component of the workout.

What would happen if we gave this workout to a novice athlete who was just now able to consistently perform sets of 5-10 double-unders and struggles to complete 10 UB thrusters at 95# when fresh? Likely we would see ‘bottlenecks’ created in both the double-under and thruster portions of this workout. The athlete would move into bouts of work / recovery which would drive them away from the desired aerobic / cardiorespiratory adaptations that we are looking for. Instead they would be performing fatigued skill work (double-unders) under time pressure (not a very effective form of skill work!) and broken bouts of strength-endurance work (thrusters) again under fatigue where their movement patterns would likely be deteriorating. Both skill as well as strength-endurance can be trained much more effectively in a non-fatigued, not-for-time setting where a coach can provide effective feedback (rather than encouragement as is all too common during a group-class metcon). Instead of watching the athlete suffer through an inappropriately designed workout it would make more sense to adjust the content of the workout to elicit the desired training response.

In the next section, we’re going to look at limitations for each component of the workout and provide scaling options for each movement in order to standardize the training response for a variety of athletes.

Movement Limitations

Double-unders - despite the fact that those of us who are competent at double-unders generally would consider them as an ‘easy’ movement they are actually a relatively difficult skill to master. The level of coordination required to synchronize hands and feet to allow the rope to pass twice under the feet continuously is far from ‘easy’ for most people to grasp. Add to this the cumulative fatigue of the shoulders and elevated breathing, fatigued double-unders can become extremely difficult for novice athletes. For athletes early in the learning process, the double-under component will likely become a bottleneck. They will fade into a cycle of work / recovery which will alter the energy-system response for these athletes, possibly to the point that this workout loses its positive impact on the cardiorespiratory and aerobic systems becoming nothing more than fatigued skill work. On the other hand, athletes proficient at double-unders with larger body sizes may experience more local-muscular and central cardiorespiratory fatigue here than lighter athletes due to higher power-outputs required to move their body-mass for larger athletes. Possible scaling options would include substituting jump rope singles for double-unders (obvious), creating ‘safety nets” like: if you break more than twice doing double-unders within one set, the remainder of that set becomes jump rope singles, or having athletes perform a cyclical substitute movement (ex: 80ft shuttle run, 10cals on the Assault Bike, etc), thus allowing them to maintain a more even power-output across the workout. Advanced or elite athletes could consider increasing the volume of double-unders here to create more local-endurance limitation in the shoulders.

Burpees - burpees are a relatively low-skill movement which allow us to elicit both cardiorespiratory as well as local-muscular endurance adaptations. However for novice or larger athletes 12 burpees can quickly lead to levels of local fatigue that can bring them to a halt. At that point (where local failure is limiting) these athletes will see a drop in power output that will reduce demand on the cardiac system - effectively turning the workout into a fatigued strength-endurance workout rather than an aerobic metcon. Possible scaling options for athletes limited by local muscular endurance could include removing the push-up from the burpee (No Push-up Burpees) or reducing the number of burpees (8-10 instead of 12). Either of these options can reduce bottlenecking and allow athletes to move more intensely throughout the workout. Alternatively for advanced or elite athletes increasing the ROM through which they have to travel by implementing a target (2012/2013 Open standard) or bar-facing variation may be appropriate.

Thrusters - thrusters, like burpees are loathed by the CrossFit community. If you polled a group of 100 CrossFitters thrusters would likely pop up in the top-3 ‘least favorite’ movement category for the majority. This is because thrusters allow athletes to move large loads (body-weight + external load) through a huge range of motion and the positional requirements challenge mobility and make breathing difficult. Because of the large ROM required, thrusters can create limitations from multiple perspectives: mobility (whether front rack, overhead, or squat depth) and load (requires strength in squatting and pressing). Mobility challenges can be solved by substituting various implements in place of a barbell, for example: a front rack challenged athlete can substitute DB’s in place of the BB while still training a similar movement pattern and eliciting a similar training response. For athlete’s with either squat mobility or overhead mobility issues, thrusters are probably not an appropriate movement. Athletes with squat mobility issues should select a substitute movement with a similar demand on the cardiorespiratory system as well as local-limitations in the shoulders (ex: push press / push jerk). Athletes with overhead ROM issues can substitute front squats or possibly DB thrusters depending on the type/severity of their overhead limitations. As discussed before this workout was designed to be performed continuous and unbroken in order to tax athlete’s local-muscular and cardiorespiratory systems. Smaller, weaker athletes or novice athletes who lack exposure to thrusters may struggle to complete the 95/65# thrusters unbroken and should thus reduce the loading in this workout to allow them to complete each set without break (wallball for these athletes may also be a good choice depending on strength levels and proficiency with the movement). Advanced or elite athletes may consider increasing the bar load in order to elicit a local-muscular endurance limitation in the shoulders.

Novice Scaled Variation:

5 Rounds for time:

80ft Shuttle Run (40ft/40ft)

12 No-push-up Burpees

8 Wallball @ 16/12#

Advanced / Elite Variation:

5 Rounds for time

50 Double-unders

12 Bar-facing Burpees

8 Thrusters @ 115#


It is important for coaches who are programming for large groups to consider the makeup of the group that they are working with as well as what is the desired training stimulus for the session. Knowing and communicating this information to the coaches administering the workout as well as to the athletes themselves will allow for better scaling and over time better long-term adaptations to the training programs you design. Scaling is about adjusting the workout to fit the desired training response rather than adjusting a weight or movement so that an athlete can simply ‘complete’ the workout. Having a basic understanding of the principles of exercise physiology, as well as strength and energy-system training design can simplify this process significantly. When you write your next group-class workout, ask yourself those four simple questions and ensure you can answer them clearly before you apply it to your athletes.

~ Kyle

Created By
Kyle Ruth

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