Athlete Case Study - Ryan Hignell by max el-hag

Every coach works with athletes they wish everyone else would emulate. Ryan Hignell is one of those athletes. His success, where others may fail, are largely attributed to his execution of the long-term plan, staying consistent, continually learning, becoming independent, and learning to ask me for what he needs. I fight with some of my other athletes to report their results. I tell some athletes that they need to fix their movement only to find out that they short their time investment to their movement corrective training. These types of frustrating scenarios don’t happen with Ryan. I tell him what needs to be done and he does it. This very simple and very effective dynamic has allowed us to grow together. More importantly, he is now closer than ever to his own athletic potential.

As you read through the construction of his templates and the reasoning just know that a plan is only as good as the execution. If you are not willing to be as methodical and dedicated to your craft as is Ryan, then you are likely to fall short of your goals.

Outside of the Gym

Prior to getting into the specifics of training, I want to talk about Ryan as a human being. I think it is important for people to understand this for a couple reasons. The first is that the seal of my business has “Corpus-Animus” written on it, which loosely translates to mind and body. I made this a permanently visible aspect of my business because I believe people should grow and evolve over time in both facets of their life. Many people in training cultures measure success purely by the physical. If they (or their athletes) hit a pr or attain their six packs, they sometimes forget they have lives outside of training. These other aspects of self will likely extend far beyond the amount of years dedicated to fitness. Life is more of a marathon than a short race to the goal.

The second reason I feel this is important to verbalize is because ALL elite athletes have their own journeys. Ryan took 12th this year in the California super-regional at The CrossFit Games™, and set a world record on the 6th event. But, Ryan is more than just an athlete. He is a business owner of a very CLEAN (emphasis on clean here!), very big, successful CrossFit™ gym. He has cultivated his business, built a community, coached athletes, and put as much care into his business as he put into his body. Ryan’s growth outside the gym mirrors his growth in the gym. This has allowed him to understand his training results don’t define him. The removal of this pressure has made competing fun again, and his enjoyment of the process of athletic development has kept the typical performance-anxiety demons at bay. Most athletes feel tremendous pressure, and sometimes how you approach life outside the gym can actually have benefits on your performance in the gym.

For those of you questing to be the best athletes you can be, knowing you can’t be a full time sponsored athlete in a young sport, and for entrepreneurs trying to balance their physical bodies here is an athlete to model yourself after. Not everyone will be as successful on both fronts as Ryan has been, but at least you can see the development of both aspects can be done effectively… perhaps this is what the yen and yang is all about.

Ryan's First Cycle

Ryan started with me in April of 2012. At this point, the competitive sport of CrossFit™ was still largely in its development phase. The numbers you see today of top athletes were almost incomprehensible at the time. Athlete’s training structures were largely inconsistent, lacked strength work, lacked progressions, and often left them unprepared for the sport’s yearly transformation. Today, the game is much different. You see much more intelligent structures by most of the elite. They have structure in their strength work, their energy system training, their gymnastics training, and their movement preparation.

In my initial consult with Ryan, it was very clear to me he was simply too weak for the sport. I knew that based on his size profile, the numbers he reported to me, and the weights that were used in the 2011/2012 tests for opens/regionals, that he would need to get stronger to compete with bigger or more powerful athletes. His testing was very basic and gave me a clear starting point for his training. It is funny to look back on the full testing structure and realize how remedial it was in relation to where we are today. I feel proud of the growth of my testing and training structures, and also happy to see there were still some very solid design principles in his initial cycle. Principles seem to stand the test of time no matter where the sport will develop even if the methods or experts we look to change.

Here are some initial testing numbers to give context to Ryan’s strength in 2012:

  • Back squat 300
  • Power snatch 190
  • Max power clean – 245
  • Strict press - 170

Below are 2 tables. The first is the weekly template and the second is the actual training week

Global Themes of First Training Cycle

At the time Ryan had no real dedicated strength protocols. He was extremely good at breathing and gymnastics, but not efficient in strength work. He typically only dedicated small chunks of time to strength development in the period before the met-con, which is typical of today’s general class, but not elite, members. Because of this lack of strength training history, he needed higher time under tension strength training, higher than usual rep schemes for strength adaptations for motor learning, some structural balance work to offset the amount of repeated contractions he did in the bilateral saggital plane (back squat, front squat, OHS, snatch, clean, thruster, etc), less workouts that require maximal respiration, more unilateral work, and an emphasis on power in the broadest sense of the term.

Fast Forward Three Years

Ryan has continued to gain strength, kept up with the progression of athletes in the sport, and is a much more complex case study. Some of his needs in relation to the elite include: squat repeatability in heavy/moderate loaded met-cons, faster respiration based workouts with lower complexity, squatting absolute strength, and heavy pulling repeatability (deadlift primarily). You can see that the needs of more high-level athletes in the sport get more specialized as the athlete develops big picture themes like “engine”, “strength”, skills, muscle endurance, and gymnastics repeatability. For basic athletes, you should be training more basic themes. But for advanced athletes your training priorities need to become more specific and specialized or they will likely stagnate. If you don’t have enough dedicated training exposure to the individualized needs of the athlete, how can you expect to improve upon weaknesses?

For reference, this is where some current maxes are in strength levels relative to testing, and below is a current training week.

  • Front squat – 375
  • Snatch – 285
  • Max Power clean – 330
  • Strict press- 215

And here are 2 more table of his most recent training week/template.

Template(scroll left/right)

Current Training Cycle Themes

You can see that there is a simultaneous training of higher time under tension work and typical strength protocols in the lower rep scheme/longer rest time format. This is because he can now elicit a more appropriate strength response from lower reps due to his strength training age having increased. He also needs to train all categories of the strength curve, and the endurance of each of those categories requiring much more variance in the strength training structure. As well you should notice that his total training volume has increased. We are able to do this because his strength numbers are much closer to the elite, and concurrently training aerobic adaptations and strength adaptations is a more optimal strategy for an elite level competitor. Generally if you are more advanced or closer to elite in both endurance and strength, you can afford to have slower progressions in each system to ensure they both increase. If you are further away from where you need to be in strength for the sport’s requirements, it would be a good idea to remove hard breathing training and stick to a properly designed strength program. Then when you are closer to your desired strength levels, you can layer your harder aerobic training in over time. This is a more effective periodization layout because adaptations will come faster without as much concurrent signaling for most athletes.

On top of this training structure, he also has a ~60 min movement protocol to be done daily as either it’s own session or a warm up. You can see that the level of training has increased tremendously to meet the demands of the evolving sport. The athletes of tomorrow require this level of dedication and I believe that high levels of thought should be put into the long term training structures.

Closing Thoughts

Many coaches love putting themselves on the throne of supremacy taking credit for their athlete’s success. I’ve learned SO MUCH in my tenure as a coach, but perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that I know nothing. My athletes are perpetually teaching me about humanity, and in return I teach them about themselves. I may know more about how to improve their bodies from a performance perspective, but that doesn’t make me a flawless authority. Each athlete allows me to be both student and teacher.

Ryan, among other things, has taught me what hard work and determination really look like. He has taught me how your growth as a human being can be leveraged into your growth as an athlete. He has shown me a level of loyalty I’m not always accustomed to seeing. I’ve watched him honestly express disappointment, then embrace his perceived failures, then finally accept them gracefully. This process has allowed him to grow into a more rounded and resilient human being. He has also challenged me to accept gratitude without feeling uncomfortable. Accepting thanks and love in any form are not strengths of mine, but he has continually forced me to listen to him express that I do in fact impact some people’s lives.

My athletes are my inspiration. They are my business, they are my community, they are my family, they are my future, and they are my legacy. Without them, I don’t know exactly how I would define myself in the world. I never could have imagined the relationship that started on a phone call in a small cubicle full of curse words and laughs would have become such a pivotal moment in the creation of the future I am experiencing today. I am glad to call Ryan a friend and I am more grateful than I could ever express having had the opportunity to work with him. To a great past and hopefully a better future!

~ Max

Created By
Max El-Hag
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