Skol Sessions – Episode 16: Training vs. Testing

Are you pushing at 100% intensity every time you set foot in the gym? Maxing out your lifts daily and going full send on your metcons? Do you avoid repeating WODs? If so, you’re spending all your time testing your fitness, rather than building it. Most of what we do in the gym should be training, with the occasional test to gauge progress. That’s this month’s topic. Enjoy!

00:00 Introduction
00:42 Calculation Beer Calories
01:30 CrossFit Games Events Were “Tests”
02:21 Constant Testing Outside the Gym Example
04:49 Constant Testing Inside the Gym Examples
07:31 Training vs. Testing Examples in the Gym
11:00 Mixed Modality Training / CrossFit
14:01 Soreness Is a Poor Metric
16:24 Progressing in Mixed Modality Training
19:57 Competitions and Workout Previews
22:59 “Fran” Preparation Case Study
33:24 CrossFit Benchmarks as Tests
34:20 Needs of Competitive Athletes

Welcome to Skol Sessions, the Viking Athletics Podcast, where strength meets smarts. I’m your host, Erik Castiglione, owner, and head coach at Viking Athletics. It is August of 2023 and the CrossFit Games have just ended. Before we delve into our topic this month I am drinking an Imperial Stout, the Oscar Blues Ten Fitty. It’s delicious if you haven’t tried it. It’s called the 10-fiddy because it is 10.5% by volume, so a little more alcoholic of a beer and we have a nutrition challenge coming up.

So for people that might already be tracking macros or people that count their calories, if you want a good way to estimate how many calories are in a beer, 2.5 times the ABV times the serving size. So, a lower alcoholic beer is going to have fewer calories, the double IPAs that everybody seems to like that come in 16 ounce cans are very high calorically. If you want to be a little bit more precise, you need to know the original gravity and final gravity of the beers, and that’s basically telling you what the sugar content is. It’s a pain, it’s not worth tracking down all that information, so just use the approximation of 2.5 times the ABV times the serving size, and there you go.

So the CrossFit Games ended last weekend and we crowned two new champions. I am not going to be delving into the workouts. I’m sure there are plenty of other podcasts out there that are going to do that at nauseam. Instead, what I want to point out is every event this year was called a test. It was not event one, it was test one, test two, and that brings us to our topic for this month, which is training versus testing.

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating and we’re going to do a couple of case studies here to illustrate what we’re talking about. The vast majority of the work that you do in the gym should be training. You should use the occasional test as an assessment to make sure that the training is working. But if you’re constantly testing all the time, you’re going to stagnate. And if we look outside of the gym, this makes perfect sense.

If you’re in school and you’re taking a test every single day, you’re not going to learn anything. You’re not taking time to read, you’re not taking time to listen to lectures, you’re just taking a test.

And the only way that you might get any better is if you happen to have a good memory, and it’s a multiple choice test. You might get lucky with the process of elimination and figure out which answer combination is going to net you a higher score. But again, that’s just manipulating the system. That’s not learning anything. Another fun example of this, I don’t know how old all of our listeners are, but some of you may remember the, we called them bubble tests.

They were thin cardboard sheets in which you inserted a piece of paper. It was a hundred questions. There were different colors for different operations, and it was all basic arithmetic so like I can’t remember exactly the colors, but I want to say that you know green was multiplication blue was subtraction yellow was addition and red was division I’m sure I got those wrong it doesn’t matter. The point is you had a hundred quick arithmetic questions all single digits and the goal that, you know, every day in sixth grade, we had to take one of these to start class and the goal was to do it as fast as you possibly could. And, you know, sure enough, you do it enough and it is no longer sight recognition of what you’re being asked to do mathematically, instead it becomes a memorization game. You know, how many can I memorize the first 50 answers and just write them down and get the fastest score possible.

Or you could do what the girls in my sixth grade class did and they would start the test early and hide it underneath their binders and then when it was time to go they’d already have about 25 to 30 of them done. But the point is if you’re testing all the time you’re not building your knowledge and we recognize this pretty easily in school but for whatever reason we don’t translate that lesson into the gym.

So if we think about lifting, hopefully it becomes pretty obvious. If I’m trying to max out all the time and every day that I’m squatting, I just build up to a one rep max squat and that’s all I do. Maybe I’ll make a little progress in the beginning depending on how familiar I am with the movement, but ultimately I’m gonna stagnate. Now there are a couple of ways that you might see a little bit more progress, but it still falls in the realm of testing all the time.

Take my gym in Philadelphia (this is over a decade ago). When I moved down there, we would cycle through all the squat variations. So, we had front squat, overhead squat, low bar back squat, high bar back squat, and dead lift, so five variations there. And we would cycle through all the press variations, strict press, push press, push jerk, split jerk, and bench press. And we would start with three sets of five. So, the first squat day might be front squats. And you’re going to do five, five, five. The goal was to build up to a five rep max in three sets. And then you would, the next squat day, do a different squat variation, same format. And once we had hit every variation, we would go back to the first one in front squats. And we would do five sets of three. And the goal was to build up to a three rep max. And we’d cycle through all of them again. And then we would do seven singles and try to hit a one rep max. And then we would have sets across at some light weight. And then we would rinse and repeat.

And for a while, if you’re new, you might make some progress there. You know, you’re getting a little bit of a build in with the fives and the threes, but ultimately people hit a plateau pretty quickly on because they weren’t getting enough training volume in at a sub-maximal load. So, it was the same kind of thing. You’re testing all the time and then you know Classic CrossFit would tell you, oh, well, you’re doing the conditioning pieces that’s gonna help you build strength, too. That would depend on the loads being used in the metcon and in our case the loads were not anywhere near heavy enough to stimulate strength, maximal strength. Instead, we were building muscular endurance. So, I illustrate that because it’s a common flaw that we see in some CrossFit gyms.

And we didn’t remedy that until I was allowed to take over the programming and we focused a lot more on submaximal work. You know, when it comes to training your lifts, the vast majority of what we want to do is going to be between 60 and 95 percent depending on your goal. If you want to build muscular stamina or muscle mass, you’re going to go on the lighter side. If you’re trying to build strength, you’re going to go towards the heavier side and you’re going to vary the percentages based on fatigue and what else is going on in your client’s life, but you don’t build strength by testing it, you build it by doing just shy of that and getting in your repetitions. That’s where the growth happens.

So, I think most people in our gym recognize that, at least from a lifting perspective. And I think if we jump next to say a single modality style of training, like let’s say you got somebody that’s planning to run a marathon, you’re not going to train for a marathon by running a marathon every single day. And that seems incredibly obvious too. You know, oh, I’m going to mess myself up if I try to do that. Instead, what do people end up doing? You know, your total training volume in a week will eventually exceed 26.2 miles. You’re going to have some faster runs; you’re going to have some slower runs. And then as you get closer to the event, you’re going to have some longer runs to make sure that you can handle running for that duration of time.

So again, when it comes to that kind of single modality for running for whatever reason, that seems pretty obvious. We’re not just going to test day in and day out. We are going to build. If I were going to be training for a 2K row and let’s say I’m trying to get my 2K row time to under eight minutes, I wouldn’t just sit and row a 2K every day and I think people have started to recognize that as well. It’s the same kind of deal. I’m going to be doing some pace work. My pace to break an 8 minute 2k, I need to row just under 2 minutes per 500 meters. So maybe I do some intervals at a slightly faster pace than 2 minutes per 500 just to get used to maintaining the pace that I need to sustain. Maybe I’ll do some other interval work a little bit slower but just having me on the rower for longer than eight minutes to get used to rowing for that duration of time. You do both of those in a week and then you play with your pacing, and you manipulate your rest time.

So maybe I start out with five intervals of 500 meters at a 1:59 pace. So now I’ve accumulated more than 2,000 meters at the pace that I need in that workout and maybe I repeat that workout, but I just decrease the amount of rest that I’m going to take and then maybe I increase the duration and instead of doing 500 meter intervals I do a thousand meter intervals and I do three of those and manipulate the rest time and I gradually build up to that 2K and then when I test it hopefully I’ve put in the right amount of work and I can achieve my goal.

For whatever reason when we get to mixed modality training, that mentality goes out the window and instead everything comes all about going all out max effort all the time. You know, full send if you want to call it that. And there’s various reasons for this when you look back at classic CrossFit. When CrossFit was in the counterculture you would see as a badge of honor, puke buckets. Oh, I worked out so hard that I threw up. You know, the sweat angel, they even made a t-shirt blessed by the sweat angel. People would be lying on the floor after a workout with their arms spread out. And then you get up and you left a sweat stain, and it looks like it’s, you know, there’s an angel but it’s made out of sweat. That was a badge of honor. Ripped hands, badge of honor. And I’m guilty of this too. I mean, I remember when I started CrossFit. I was so gung ho, it was nice to be in a minority, training in a way that actually yielded results rather than just going through the hamster wheel that is the typical global gem sitting on a treadmill, not really doing much.

And, you know, you pride yourself in being hardcore. It’s certainly changed now. You know, we have learned a lot more after decades of CrossFit, we know that that level of intensity isn’t sustainable, and walking around, feeling sore all the time, really isn’t the best way to live your life. I remember CrossFit Journal doesn’t really exist anymore, it’s archived, but they don’t publish any new content. One of the members of my gym down in Philly actually was featured in a CrossFit Journal article, and it was entitled A Life of Soreness. And it was basically how she had lost a ton of weight and was happy with how she looked and how she was performing. But she’s just used to being sore all the time now. And unfortunately, that’s a really shitty way to live. We see people, elderly people that are in chronic pain with arthritis and other ailments, and part of the reason that we tried to train, at least most of us, is to stave off that kind of physical degradation. But if I am training so hard that I am making myself that sore all the time, then it’s incredibly counterproductive. What am I doing? I’m getting sore now so that I can stave off soreness later. On occasion, okay, but if you’re doing that chronically, something’s wrong. And, you know, like I said, I was guilty of this when I was younger. I’d walk around like, oh man, hurts to walk down the stairs today. Oh, that workout was brutal. But we want to evolve our thinking.

Recognize that, you know, if I can take two people and they have the same goal, which is to deadlift 500 pounds, they’re starting at the same place and let’s assume that they respond to the same kinds of training because that’s another issue is some people respond better to a little bit higher volume. Some people don’t. Let’s assume that they adapt the same way. And I take person A, I give them the bare minimum, and they complete each session occasionally their sore, but most of the time they’re fine. They can go about their daily life and their jobs without soreness. And then I take person B, I go well above the minimum, and they people get to that 500 pound deadlift at the same time, which method would be better?

Why do all that extra work for no return and just experience a decline in your daily life because you’re sore all the time and you can’t actually enjoy things? I think we would all choose person A, but again that mentality for whatever reason when it comes to mixed modal CrossFit workouts doesn’t really exist. So, I keep harping on this because I want people to understand that training for maximal intensity doesn’t mean training at maximal, maximal intensity all the time. And we need to apply this to mixed modal workouts, not just single modality like rowing or running and lifting. And you can see the mark of a new CrossFit gym because a lot of times they don’t know what to do programming wise and you’ll see the coaches just program a bunch of different CrossFit benchmark workouts. I’m happy to see that CrossFit HQ has shifted their mentality and they actually mention this in the level one now. Definitely in level three and in their programming workshop. They want you to use benchmarks as fitness tests, not as daily workouts to be done on a regular basis.

The other thing that we see is no repetition of workouts. And I’m guilty of this too when I was young and starting my programming journey as I didn’t want to repeat workouts other than the benchmarks I wanted to keep things fresh. But there’s a balance to be struck. In order to make progress, ideally, we would want to repeat a week’s worth of workouts the following week, and see what kind of improvement we get. A lot of that is going to be based on a better strategy. Some of it’s going to be physiological adaptations, but I guarantee if you did two weeks’ worth of workouts, I’m sorry, a week’s worth of workouts, two weeks in a row, you would see improvements all across the board the following week. The problem with that approach is that people get bored and so what we’re stuck with and the reason that a lot of people come to cross it in the first place is they’re trying to avoid that boredom.

What we like to say is they’re trying to avoid accommodation which is when your body stagnates from doing the same thing over and over again, but instead they end up avoiding adaptation which is your response to training which is what we want. If I am never repeating workout and I am doing different workouts every day, P90X might call that muscle confusion. We call that “always testing.” You are never training. You are always testing because you are giving your body a new stimulus every day. So, what is it that we want to do?

How do we avoid boredom while still getting some measure of repetition? We want to use workouts that are similar enough, and maybe they’re a progression off of something that you’ve already done that you get the benefits of adaptation while not being bored. So, you know, our workout today was longer intervals. We did four rounds, each for time, 750 row, 20 wall balls, 20 kettlebell swings, 3 minutes of rest between. I guarantee our athletes have seen that combination of movements in that same order previously. I also think that the last time we did it, it was 4 minutes of rest. So, we can still do intervals with mixed modality work and less rest. And that forces you to develop your higher intensity aerobic engine. There’s three energy pathways and we’ll get to that in a minute. But ultimately, we want to see a progression in the workouts.

Another example would be if we did say 21-15-9 of power cleans and bar-facing burpees. And then a week later, instead of doing 21-15-9, now we’re going to do 30-20-10. You know, we’ve just increased the total volume that we’re doing. But you’re repeating the same movement patterns in the same sequence, because when it comes to a workout, sequence matters as much as the movements themselves and the total number of reps. Doing a hinge following a squat is going to be different than doing a squat following a hinge. It just affects you differently.

So, bearing that in mind, the other thing that we tend to see where the idea of training versus testing goes out the window is when people have a competition coming up. So the CrossFit Games don’t release all the workouts ahead of time. Some of them are released, some of them are not. Most local CrossFit, excuse me, local functional fitness competitions, unless they’re sanctioned by CrossFit, can’t call them CrossFit competitions. Most people release the workouts ahead of time and athletes that want to do the competition, you know, the recreational athlete might try the workouts, or they might not, they might not even care. But people that go to local competitions with the intent of dominating will hammer through these workouts several times if not six or seven, depending on how far in advance they’re released in order to try to get better at them. And that is once again using the idea of I’m just going to keep testing myself in the hopes that I get better. It is the completely wrong approach to take if you want to be successful in competition. So, this is where our case study comes in.

We’re going to go old school CrossFit and we’re going to look at Fran, 21, 15, 9 thrusters and pull-ups. So, for the uninitiated, that would be 21 thrusters, 21 pull-ups, 15 thrusters, 15 pull-ups, 9 thrusters, 9 pull-ups. If that is the workout that we have coming up, how are we going to prepare for this? Well, how do you prepare for any workout?

We need to break it down and look at what exactly we’re testing, and then we need to train those constituent parts and then put them together. So, it would be beneficial to give a dry run of Fran and see where you’re at. What went wrong? Where did you break down? Why did you break down? Where are we weak and what do we need to fix? But let’s assume we have somebody who just went completely off the rails and had no idea what they were doing was their first CrossFit class, and they wound up doing Fran. And this is not an uncommon example. Unfortunately, if you go to your CrossFit level one, I don’t know if they’re still doing it. I’ve talked to some people that recently did it and they got to do Fran. My CrossFit level one, we did Fran. And for some of the people there, interestingly enough, it was their first exposure to CrossFit. They were not CrossFit athletes. They just decided today, this looks interesting. I’m going to fork up $1,000 and go get my CrossFit Level 1. And then without any real fundamental basis of how to move, they wound up doing Fran.

So, we need to break down the workout and look at what exactly we need to be successful. So bear in mind the world record top athletes in Fran go unbroken. They do all their sets without stopping. And they can finish the workout in under two minutes. So, if we’re trying to recreate that kind of experience, that is helpful to know because when we look at energy systems, which is the first thing we need for conditioning, time domain is very important.

So, for a short sprint like Fran, and it is longer than 20 to 30 seconds. So, it’s not an all-out max effort sprint. It is extended a little bit beyond that. We are looking at what we call the lactate endurance system. So, you’ve got three energy systems. You’ve got your ATP, phosphocreatine system, which is an impulse basically for conditioning. Think of a 10-second all-out max effort bike sprint. You don’t really get winded by the end of that the first time you do it. If you do repeats you’ll get winded but it’s testing all-out max power and you don’t really get sore from that either because you’re using the phosphocreatine system which doesn’t produce any lactic acid.

It’s also known as the ALACTIC system. If you’re trying to extend the ability of that system to push, we go out to 20 to 30 seconds, and that’s what we would call the alactic endurance. When that runs out of fuel, we get into the glycolytic system, which everybody thinks is what CrossFit is all about, but realistically, that only lasts for about, you know, from 10 seconds to a minute.

That is the energy system that burns when you, you know, people always say, oh, it’s the lactic acid buildup and I’ve covered this before. It’s not technically lactic acid. We don’t need to split hairs and delve into that and get all technical. But that is what burns. That is when your muscles really start to scream. You’re getting into that system which produces lactate. So that is the Lactic Acid System, also known as the glycolic. If we get out beyond one minute, which is what we’re doing with Fran, we’re talking about lactate endurance, how long can I push and suffer through that burning and maintain that level of power?

That is right where Fran falls. And the world’s best athletes can extend it beyond two minutes to maybe three. After that, we get into the aerobic system and the vast majority of CrossFit workouts transition to that aerobic system, so we get competitive athletes that want to push hard all the time, but they leave 50% of their ability on the table because they never train cardio, they never build their aerobic system, they’re all about building the anaerobic side of things, which are your first two energy pathways. So, when it comes to energy systems development, we want to build the aerobic system because that’s what fuels our recovery.

You do that with long, slow cardio, or longer intervals that are, you know, call it four plus minutes at slightly higher intensity than conversationally paced, and that is where the bulk of our aerobic training should be. Same as lifting, we want sub-maximal effort, and we want to accumulate volume there because that’s what’s going to make us better.

We also need to develop the anaerobic pathways that we’re going to be using in Fran, so that is lactate endurance, which means we want to train higher intensity intervals as well. Now, you can do this on a bike, you can do this by mixing in modalities, you know, you can do a bike kettlebell or bike burpee combination. What have you? Sky’s the limit when you’re just doing energy systems development, but if we’re trying to go purely to develop those energy systems, I generally advocate for simpler workouts, thoughts, something that’s very low skill, or that’s not going to be a limiting factor.

Because the next thing that we need is skills development. You need movement coordination. So, at least in the beginning of our training, we want to keep them separate. In the case of Fran, we need to be efficient with our thrusters, and we need to be able to keep doing pull-ups and string them together. The more efficient I can be with these movements, the less energy I’m going to waste. So, if I’m all off balance when I’m doing a thruster or the bars coming out in front of me overhead and I can’t maintain a proper position or I lose my core, I’m going to expend a lot more energy trying to hold onto that bar. So, the more efficient I am, the less energy I waste. That’s the skill development piece. Muscular stamina kind of ties into that.

That’s the third piece. Do I have the capacity to do 21 thrusters in a row? Gotta get there. I’ve got to be able to handle a set that big. That’s the easy part of the muscular stamina. The hard part and the round that always gets everybody if you’re trying to go unbroken and Fran is the round of 15. Can I do 15 unbroken thrusters when I’m under metabolic fatigue? So how do we build that capacity? Once I know that I can do 21 thrusters in a row if I’m fresh and I can do 21 thrusters in a row, then this is where a mixed modality can help you.

Maybe I’m going to do a one minute near sprint on the bike, get off the bike can go do 15 thrusters unbroken. Same thing kind of goes for pull-ups. I’ve got to build that capacity. Can I do 21 kipping pull-ups in a row? That’s a big ask. Can I do 15 kipping pull-ups in a row when my heart rate is already through the roof? Bigger ask. Got to train both of those things.

And then lastly, we have the mental game. And depending on the workout, this is going to come in a number of different ways. If it’s a longer workout, we’re talking strategy. With something like Fran, I guess we could still talk strategy. Usually when we say strategy it would be how am I going to break up my sets of 21 how am I going to break up my sets of 15? If our goal is to do this unbroken and hopefully break two minutes, then our strategy would be, which way am I going to face during pull-ups? Which way am I going to face during thrusters? Do I allow myself three steps so that I can take a couple of deep breaths in between these sets? How long am I going to stare at the bar before I get on to my next set? Little things like that that are seemingly insignificant, but when every second counts, that’s something that we need to consider. So that’s part one of the mental game.

Part two would be your mental toughness. The world’s best athletes at Fran can only go faster by physically moving faster. They’re already going unbroken, they need to cycle the bar faster, and they need to cycle their pull-ups faster. And that hurts. Are you mentally tough enough to push through that burning and to hold on to the bar? The only way that you’re going to be mentally tough enough is if you have some exposure to that kind of feeling. So, doing sets of thrusters and pull-ups or mixing those movements with something else that recreates that kind of metabolic fatigue. We call it Fran lung for a reason – where you’re coughing up because you’ve gone so hard that your heart rates about to explode, your heart’s about to explode out of your chest and then you just start coughing and it burns – we call that Fran lung for that very reason. You need to get exposure to that feeling, because if you’re not experienced with mental discomfort or physical discomfort during a workout, mentally you’re going to want to give up.

So those are the four pieces that we would need in order to improve our friend. We need energy systems development, which is done with simple workouts. We need movement fluency. We need to be comfortable with thrusters and pull ups. We need muscular stamina, particularly under metabolic fatigue. We need to be able to handle those big sets of 21 and 15 under metabolic duress and we need to be mentally tough enough, and to set up our environment in such a way that we are going to be okay. So, you can use that kind of approach for any benchmark workout or for any workout that you’re going to see in a competition, and that is a more effective way to train than just repeating the workout at nauseam.

Depending on how long you have before you do the workout, maybe it’s worth testing a second time, just to get an idea of, is my strategy working? But, ultimately, you don’t need to try it out more than once before testing, if your game plan is solid. You can break down those constituent pieces and put them back together.

So, when we say that we want to spend the bulk of our time in the gym training, those are the kinds of things that we’re building, and then we test them with a benchmark workout. That is the goal of the benchmarks. And you’ll see that in our CrossFit programming. We’re lucky enough now that the CrossFit Open ends in early March, and that usually gives us about 12 weeks to prep for Murph. We do the exact same thing. We break down Murph into its constituent pieces. We look at what it is we’re trying to train, and we train those pieces before we put it all together for Memorial Day and test.

And we do that throughout the year. We just don’t typically take 12 weeks. Usually, we take about six between benchmarks. And we build the necessary skills so that when you test the benchmark you’re prepared and you’re ready to go rather than just oh, hey, we’re doing a named workout today. How about it? We want you guys to improve, and we use the benchmarks as gauges, so we spend the vast majority of our time training.

For competitive athletes, it should be no different. And unfortunately, they think they need a whole lot more. If they’re going to do more, the vast majority of that more should be steady state cardio. Build that aerobic base so that you can recover. But, you know, Games athletes understand that, but people that are lower level but want to be competitive don’t seem to. And I think it bears repeating, you’re never too good for the basics.

One of my favorite quotes from Tommy Hackenbruck, whose team was the first team to win back-to-back games was, “You say you need more advanced programming? Bullshit. I saw you row 500 meters. You walked away afterwards. What you need is some honesty.” In other words, you didn’t sell out on your 500 meters sprint. You need to push yourself harder. You don’t need harder programming. That was one good one.

And then the other thing that I hope reminds people that you’re never too good for the basics is rich Froning used to do 100 air squats every day because he felt that his squat pattern was falling apart. 100 air squats every single day as part of his warm-up. This is from a four-time individual champion, and I think he’s up at, I don’t know, six team championships, like ten times across as Games champion. You are never too good for the basics. That should be the bulk of what you’re doing. That is what training is.

And for the other call it 20% where you’re testing. So, 80% building, maybe 20% testing, and that’s probably skewed too, I would actually do more than that. But if you’re a competitive athlete, 20% of the time, maybe you wanna test.

Anyway, I appreciate you guys taking the time to listen and for our members that are listening, that is why our training looks the way that it does. Because we spend the vast majority of our time building you guys up and hopefully not beating you into the ground so that you can make progress with as little soreness as possible and then we want to test from time to time to show you guys that you are making progress. We’ll see you guys in the gym. Skol!

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