Polarized Training for CrossFit: Are we flat lining our athletes?

December 5, 2017




Let’s get the elephant out of the room straight away – I’m not a Crossfitter. However not because I’m a CrossFit hater or shamer, I’m actually an advocate of it when done properly and used appropriately. I programme for a small number of sub-elite CrossFit athletes but mainly work with professional athletes from other sports. With these athletes I programme CrossFit style workouts for them on a fairly frequent basis (Angie, Barbara and Karen have been used a few times to separate the wheat from the chaff!) so have experience to back my scientific rationale.


Unbelievable Progression


My background is physiology and sports science and through this lens I have assessed the majority of CrossFit prescription that I have seen. Some of it is great and some of it is a little bit copy and paste.


For the majority though the same problems exist – unbelievable progression for newbies then horrible, sustained, monotonous flat lining for the regular CrossFit aficionado. Hopefully this might give you a few ideas as to why and how to create more op


CrossFit, by its own definition, is a test of an athletes whole physical capacity – physiologically, mentally and kinaesthetically. Training is made up of coaches favourite WODs as well as strength training, conditioning and gymnastics to name but a few elements that we work on. Most sessions maximally tax us in some way or other and many people see huge improvements in the first year of training. This can continue as you focus more on your weaknesses.


This is mostly seen in strength and gymnastic skills where the majority have their weaknesses. Whereas conditioning is often the first to plateau. Ever noticed that you can improve your ability to do pull ups or cleans snatches nearly every week but your time for 400 metres or 10km seems to take an age to improve. Why is this?


Value for money


This is because conditioning as a training component is relatively simple. Every session involves some form of ‘fitness’ – whether aerobic, anaerobic or all out maximal sessions. What you find in CrossFit boxes with the mid-level athletes is a disproportionate amount of maximal sessions. The need for ‘value for money’ at a Box means squeezing in as much quality as possible into a session and you see sessions which will read Warm Up, Strength Component, Skill Component and then a WOD. This means the client gets what they think they want and the coach gets to teach them what Matt Fraser does on Instagram. It’s all very good business.




However, nearly every energy system will be used and none will be maximised. Added to this a normal CrossFit session will last 60 mins (if group training) so everything is crammed into this time period. This creates an inadequate setting for conditioning development as low level aerobic adaptations will take a minimum of 40 mins so with a warm up don’t leave much time for anything else, and conversely maximal sessions can be over in less than 10 mins and leave you unable to do anything else.




What occurs for most individuals is what a physiologist might consider threshold training. This means that most training is completed in and around lactate threshold (Z2) and below lactate turnpoint (Z3 below). We have tested athletes in numerous Boxes and found resting lactate levels sitting in this zone (between 2 and 4 mmol) never mind when they are training. When we look at their training loads they are high – between 7 and 10 sessions a week and an average rating of perceived exertion of 7 out of 10. They have plateau and can’t work out why.





The reason is likely a lack of time for adaptation and classic overtraining (shown below). A study on CrossFit training for recreational gym goers showed that 4 weeks of normal CrossFit programming (5 days per week or mixed training including strength based training, rowing intervals, body weight WODs and Olympic lifting WODs) can result in functional overreaching - i.e. you need a break or you are going to plateau or worse, breakdown (Astorino et al, 2017). Your body needs time to repair muscle damage, rest neural processes and mentally prepare for future training episodes. If you don’t you are just running your engine with little to no fuel and will eventually stop working. 


Polarised Training


One way to try and combat the emotional need for training and the physical need for rest is to complete polarized training. This basically means you tailor your training sessions to target either end of the lactate curve and focus on this for the majority of your sessions throughout the year. In the table shown previously this means training at Z1 and Z3 only. Z2 is saved for competition WODs where you may need to pace yourself.


Your training NEEDS to be monitored with a HR monitor to make this work properly and better yet you need to know your lactate curve to accurately identify your three zones.


A weekly schedule should be split into 60% Z1, 30% Z3 and 10% rest and recovery. Z1 is all about keeping your heart low and concentrating on longer workouts and more technical work – think running, cycling, gymnastics, bodyweight chippers, technical weightlifting. The key here is to keep your HR low throughout and continually move through whatever exercise you choose.





Don’t try to complete Murph as quickly as possible but try to continually produce good movement and work through the WOD efficiently. You shouldn’t be getting out of breath during these sessions. This is your old-fashioned build a base session.


Next you have your Z3 workouts. These must take your HR into a maximal zone which shouldn’t be too difficult during your WODs. For best results choose WODs that have blocks of hard work lasting 4-6mins. This taxes your aerobic system maximally and gets your muscles and energy producing systems to work under duress for extended periods of time.


Basically, put yourself into a world of pain. A workout such as Fran might hit the high notes but isn’t likely long enough to have lasting effects so try to couple WODs of this nature to get best results. You only do these sessions twice per week and never on consecutive days so you can go for it. 


This type of training was shown to produce better results for total time to exhaustion in cycle based tests, increases in cardiovascular fitness and peak power at lactate threshold compared to high intensity interval training (5-6 HIIT sessions/WODs per week) and high volume low intensity training in a group of well-trained endurance athletes (Stoggle and Sperlich, 2014). Not only this but it’s been shown to work over a 5-month period as well!


"enjoy Z1, avoid Z2 and get after it in Z3"


With all the elements of CrossFit required for success there’s always too much too fit in and a need for doing lots of WODs every week. It’s the philosophy of CrossFit to go hard or go home which means your body and mind are battered every week. Adopting this type of polarized training has the ability to improve you physically and mentally and still let you release the beast a few times per week. If you stick to the mantra of Stoggl and Sperlich “enjoy Z1, avoid Z2 and get after it in Z3” you’ll very quickly get more results from your training and feel fresher for it.



Are you looking to try out a polarised training structure?  We have put together a quick pdf which has two example weekly structures in it for you to download and use.  Download Here




Astorino, Todd, et al. "Effects of Short-Term CrossFit TM Training: A Magnitude-Based Approach." Journal of Exercise Physiologyonline 20.2 (2017).


Stöggl, Thomas, and Billy Sperlich. "Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training." Frontiers in physiology 5 (2014).

Hydren, Jay R., and Bruce S. Cohen. "Current scientific evidence for a polarized cardiovascular endurance training model." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 29.12 (2015): 3523-3530.





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