Considering I’m a powerlifter by trade, you might assume that I don’t like CrossFit, but that’s actually not the case.
I like CrossFit, or at least I like aspects of it. Like many strength trainers who’ve given the CrossFit system an honest shot over the years, I think it has a lot of positive attributes to offer the fitness community. But it also has a number of significant negatives that due to my powerlifter roots prevents me from blindly endorsing the infamous Glassman Kool-Aid.
So what do I like about it?
I like how it gets people to work hard, which is probably the main element lacking in most recreational lifter’s programs. It doesn’t just sneak hard work into the workout; it slaps you in the face with it from the get-go. As a coach, I like and respect that.
I like how the entire workout is often timed. One way CrossFit attempts to separate the very fit from the not-so-fit is by tracking how long the workout takes to complete rather than just focusing on simple load or rep progression. That’s an interesting and enlightening way of doing things. More on this later.
I like how the system focuses on big, compound lifts. I give tall props to CrossFit for re-introducing the “scary” Olympic lifts like the snatch and power clean back into the recreational lifter’s exercise repertoire while deep-sixing the pink dumbbell triceps kickbacks.
I like how CrossFit trains all of the energy systems, which is another thing lacking in many lifters’ programs and is great for improving overall fitness and reducing bodyfat.
And finally, I like how everyone can do the same workout so that each lifter can compare themselves to one another. This promotes competition, which is widely regarded to be a major factor in increasing motivation and performance. As a competitive guy myself, it’s fun to do a workout and then log in and see where you stand and what times other people are doing. It’s nice for the ego when you do well; it’s humbling and motivating when you don’t.
But as stated in my introduction, CrossFit has a number of weaknesses I just can’t get past. The programming is a little haphazard for my taste. Sometimes there is too much load on the shoulder girdle, the knees, and the lower back. It may be okay when you’re lifting lighter weights, but ask anyone who can push some serious poundage and they’ll tell you that as you get stronger, recovery becomes more of an issue.
Along similar lines, although I like the Olympic lifts a lot, for many lifters that are too old, too inflexible, too big, or perhaps a bit of all of the above, it may not be worth it (or even feasible) to learn how to do things like cleans and overhead squats effectively enough to get a productive training stimulus.
I also think the workouts are a little too intense. I know that may make me sound like a pansy, but once you’re skilled at the things you’re trying to do, you can take yourself to pure exhaustion relatively easily. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but doing energy system work at or near failure 1-3 days a week, combined with heavy lifting 1-3 days a week, is rough to do long term if you have a reasonable level of experience.
And finally, while I like the idea of emphasizing the compound lifts, the idea of doing no isolation exercises at all if you’re trying to shape your body or improve weak points is a flaw to me. Call me a meathead bodybuilder, but no forearms (no arms at all for that matter), no knee flexion, etc. is not a positive programming note in my mind.
Introducing the Ultimate Test of Strength and Conditioning
Although the CrossFit system has too many limitations for me to endorse it as stand-alone system, there are too many good things about it for me to abandon it entirely. In particular, I’ve become a fan of the timed-workout approach, but in a specific application. It’s not something I’d use day-to-day to train or develop strength, but it’s fantastic for the establishment of training benchmarks, something sorely missing in many strength and conditioning programs.
CrossFitters constantly chew up bandwidth by challenging one another to beat their best Fran time, as it’s one of the benchmark workouts that many CrossFitters use to measure themselves by. As strength and conditioning enthusiasts, what would our benchmark be? The old school football standard of a 225lb bench press repetition test? What if you can’t bench 225? What if you weigh 400lbs and can bench 225lbs 56 times but can’t walk around the block without wheezing? I think we can do better.
So my idea was this: come up with a good, solid CrossFit-style benchmark workout, but geared toward strength athletes, that you could do in almost any gym (no special equipment required). The weights would be heavy enough to challenge even strong folks, but light enough so that almost any lifter could at least get through it, albeit at a slower pace.
CrossFit has their ‘Fran’, well now we have our ‘Valeria’.
Here is the workout: simple, brutal, and if you’re perverse enough in the head, fun.
Valeria – Workout for Time (Elite Level)
- Bench Press: 275 x 21 reps
- Deadlift: 405 x 21 reps
- Pull-ups: +50 lbs x 21 reps
- EZ Bar Curls: 135 x 21 reps
There are other levels of intensity listed below.
In this workout, you perform all the reps of one exercise before moving on to the next exercise. You can rest whenever necessary for as long as necessary, but the goal is to do the total workout in as short a time as possible.
Another thing I like about CrossFit workouts is that they’re scalable. The Elite level is designed to be very challenging, so listed below are 3 different levels for both men and women that you might work up to as you progress. These levels also account for bodyweight. Remember though, this is written for strength athletes, so the expectations of what you can lift will be reasonably high.
Men (220 lbs)
|Very Good (<30:00)
|Bench||185 or .8xBW||225 or BW||275 or 1.25xBW|
|Deadlift||315 or 1.5xBW||365 or 1.75xBW||405 or 2xBW|
|Pull-ups||BW||BW + 25 lbs (x.125BW)||BW + 50 lbs (x.25BW)|
|EZ Curls||85 or .4xBW||110 or .5xBW||135 or .6xBW|
Women (135 lbs)
|Very Good (<30:00)
|Bench||75 or .5xBW||105 or .75xBW||135 or BW|
|Deadlift||135 or BW||185 or 1.5xBW||225 or 2xBW|
|EZ Curls||45 or .3xBW||55 or .4xBW||65 or .5xBW|
Remember, you’re to do 21 reps of bench, 21 deadlifts, 21 pull-ups, and 21 curls.
A note about the exercises: I chose these exercise for a number of reasons–they cover the majority of the body, they can highlight different weak points a person might have, and minus the curls they’re big, compound lifts that most people know how to do with little instruction.
The Bench Press
I chose the bench press because most CrossFitters don’t like the bench press. I can respect the idea of the bench press getting too much publicity and liking the shoulder press more, but simply not doing the bench press is a flaw in my opinion. It hits more muscles, improves push-ups and dip performance more, and it’s arguably the most popular exercise in the world.
I’ve seen way too many CrossFitters with a crappy bench fail to make progress in the bench because CrossFit workouts rarely include the bench press. I can see not over emphasizing it, but I can’t see basically ignoring it.
Pretty self explanatory, but just to be clear- bring the bar down to your chest, lightly touch your chest, and then press back up to full or near full extension. That’s one rep.
In this workout, the deadlift reps do not have to be dead stop reps, but they’re not loud, bounce reps either. Lightly touch the ground and come back up. I imagine CrossFitters and non-CrossFitters alike will agree on how cool and beneficial the deadlift is.
Again, pretty self-explanatory: load up the bar, pick it up (whatever style you prefer) to lockout, lower the bar, touch the ground, and do it again.
Another CrossFit classic, although this is the non-kipping variety (it’s hard to kip with weights attached). Pull-ups will also help separate the fat, strong souls who might coast through the other 3 exercises from the in-shape strong souls whom can handle all 4 exercises.
Pull-ups are pronated; pull yourself up so that your chin is above the bar, then lower yourself down. Go to full or near full extension. I’m not expecting dead stop pull-ups here but half reps don’t count either. A little leg movement is fine but you shouldn’t look like a flailing inchworm on the pull-up bar.
I’m sure some of you won’t like the addition of curls to the workout, and curls certainly haven’t gotten much love lately. Honestly, I don’t understand it. I love curls. I loved curls when I was 15 and I still love them today. It’s good that the pendulum has started to swing away from people just doing bench and bis 3 times a week like they did back in high school, but in my opinion it’s swung way too far to the other side.
Curls are a great exercise for developing your arms and I’ll say that using your biceps in relative isolation (elbow flexion) is one of the most functional things (I just said the F-word) that you can do. We do basic biceps curls and holds all day, like lifting something out of the trunk of your car, holding grocery bags or kids in your arms, and carrying the laundry up the stairs.
But whether you like curls or not doesn’t really matter to me, the more important question is, how good are you at curls? If you suck at curls, then that’s a signal that the compound movements that you thought were doing such a great job of hitting your biceps perhaps aren’t doing what you intended.
Curls were also included to prove a point to the CrossFitters that you usually need to do some isolation stuff to get good at the isolation stuff. If you want to whine about including curls but you aren’t good at curls (i.e. you can’t get through the reps), then honestly I’m not interested in your opinion.
Please note that I’m not saying that curls alone make you strong. I’m saying that if you suck at curls, how can you consider yourself strong?
Form wise, I’m not expecting a strict curl so this doesn’t have to be performed up against a wall, but it should still look like a curl. I call it a power curl where a little bit of swing is acceptable, but if you start leaning forward or backward more than 20 degrees in either direction, you’re probably cheating too much.
Having said that, by the time you get to curls you’ll be exhausted, so I’ll be a little more forgiving on the form than if you were just doing a single set of curls.
One other thing to mention, most EZ curl bars are either 15 or 20 lbs (actually they’re often 16 or 22 lbs because they’re usually 7.5 or 10 kg), rarely the 25 lbs many people assume they are. Weigh yours if you’re not sure. You can do this exercise with the straight bar if you prefer.
(It was suggested to me that dips might be a better exercise than a biceps curl, but I disagree. While that may stem from a long-term programming perspective, don’t forget that this is a test of your strength, conditioning, and mental toughness. I like biceps curls here because they target a potential weak point, and doing curls after pull-ups and deadlifts is just extra brutal, which adds to the toughness of the workout).
For all of the exercises in this workout, feel free to use a belt and/or wrist wraps, and chalk is fine as well. No wrist straps, and no other gear like bench shirts, knee wraps, or anything like that are allowed.
Remember, you must finish one exercise completely before you start the next one. No super-setting is allowed.
My Own Experiences With Valeria
My goal is for T Nation readers to give this workout a shot, but I couldn’t suggest you perform this workout if I hadn’t tried it myself.
Brutal sums it up nicely.
I forced myself to do a cool-down on the treadmill to bring my heart rate down (after lying on the ground for 2 minutes) and then just sat in a chair with my head down for 30 minutes before I even started to feel normal. At a bodyweight of 198, I did it in 14:36 with the Elite weights.
I felt confident I could do it in less than 20 minutes and had dreams of doing it in 12:30, but obviously Valeria had other plans for me. The fatigue built up quickly and the deadlifts and curls were harder than I expected, so I needed 3 sets to complete each one of them instead of 2. That added a minute to each one of those exercises, and is why I was 2 minutes over my ultimate goal.
I think anything under 10 minutes is exceptional, although there are likely some freaks out there that could do it in less than 5 minutes, which I’d consider to be world class.
Anyone else brave enough to test their strength and conditioning levels? Why not take a break from your program and give this workout a shot over the holiday? Please post your time in the discussions forum along with your bodyweight and the weights you used. (Note: any ass-kicking times performed with the Elite weights will require video verification.)
Can’t (or never could) complete the Good level with the weight and reps suggested in under 30 minutes? Sorry, you’re not a strength athlete, but keep training and you should be able to do that in a few months. (But please, until you can at least complete the Good level, go easy on dispensing strength-training advice, especially to non-beginners.)
Finding it too easy? Either move up a level or use the weights listed and/or bodyweight ratios provided, whichever gives you a higher number. The Elite level is what you’re after if you want to consider yourself a bad ass. Once you hit the Elite level and the maximum weights, just try to go faster with the same weight.
Just so we’re clear, my goal is for people to do this once. Hit it hard, post your time in the discussion thread and see how you measure up. Then, whenever your fitness/strength levels have improved enough that you think you can perform better (by following whatever program you choose like CrossFit, Sheiko, I Bodybuilder, powerlifting, total body, etc.), test it again.
Do NOT repeat this program weekly, even monthly. A couple times a year would be about right. This workout is intended to test your strength and conditioning, not develop it. If you find that in six months your Valeria performance has improved, then you’re onto something. If your progress has stagnated or re-lapsed, it may be time to re-work your program so you don’t waste another six months of lifting.
So many strength athletes punish themselves for years without ever knowing how well they match up. So if you a want a true challenge of strength and conditioning, give this a try. Valeria awaits.
“Do you want to live forever?”