Eight Ways to Un-Fuck Your CrossFit Gym

by Johnny Pain

As many of you know, I am no stranger to the world of CrossFit. Since I resigned my affiliation with them, my involvement in the “movement” has far from ceased. I have had the good fortune of speaking to hundreds of CrossFitters at events, and in the consulting capacity via phone and internet. In addition, I have helped several CrossFit affiliates design programs for individuals and groups, and have remained an open door resource for many within the organization on a variety of topics. Besides consultation clients, I have had many CrossFit “refugees” join the ranks of Greyskull over the past few years. It is through these experiences that I have observed some major problems in the design and implementation of a “CrossFit” program. The following list is a collection of eight of the more prevalent ones. If attended to, these items can help make for a much better and more valuable CrossFit practice. I do acknowledge the fact that there are some decent programs out there and I do not believe that this represents the affiliates as a whole. However, stereotypes originate from somewhere, I wouldn’t mention any of these things if hadn’t observed them to be woefully deficient in so many cases. If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Work the Fundamentals

Look, there is no reason to do handstand pushups, muscle ups, or ring dips in any sort of band-assisted or “scaled” manner if the client cannot do a legitimate pushup yet. Scratch that – if the client cannot do a whole lot of legitimate pushups yet. You may laugh if you can’t imagine this, but I have trained people who were all but berated for their inability to perform ring dips and handstand pushups (while still significantly overweight I may add) because they had been “CrossFitting” for two years. It was, however, acceptable for them to perform pushups from their knees if they came up in the “WOD”. Why should this person be working on a much more difficult skill if the simpler and more easily attainable skill has not been worked on, or has not been worked on consistently enough for the simple skill to be attained? Every single sporting event or activity with an organized curriculum follows this concept; I have no idea why it is apparently not applicable to CrossFit methods. I have another male refugee in the gym who could not perform a single legitimate parallel bar dip, yet not only “CrossFitted” for years, but was an assistant coach at an affiliate. The place in question only uses the rings for dips, and when this individual suggested getting some bars in there to work dips in order to “build up to the rings” he was chastised and told that the beauty of the rings was their effect on the “stabilizers.” That sounds wonderful, but if a person lacks the basic strength to dip themselves on a non-moving apparatus, how much work can their “core” or their “stabilizers” get on the rings? Work the fundamental skills. CrossFitters overuse the term “progression” all of the time. Apply it.

Do Strict Chins and Pull-ups

This horse has been beaten, buried, exhumed, desecrated, cremated, and buried at sea already, but for the love of God have your people do strict chins and pull-ups. The benefits of the chin up are immense, and the upper body strength required to perform them is both impressive, and an attribute that virtually everyone walking into your facility on day one will be lacking. Once when I was still a CrossFit affiliate I had a female come to me who could kip her way through all 45 reps of Fran yet could not do one single dead hang chin. Kipping pull-ups are not a “progression” to dead hang pull-ups. Likewise, do not use band assisted pull-ups for the same reason – they make you tremendously good at performing band assisted pull-ups and little else. The refugee horror stories I’ve heard of the slingshot apparatus used to hoist developing and sometimes overweight CrossFitters over the bar rapidly as part of the “WOD” are disturbing at best. It is still impressive to see a female perform dead hang reps and I can tell you from experience that little will excite a female (and therefore bring you more clients) in the gym more than accomplishing that first rep. If you have people who want to compete in CrossFit competitions and need to be able to perform the kipping version later, make sure they have a firm base of dead hang pull-ups before they start working it (at least 10-12 for a male and 6-8 for a female).

Keep it simple

I have a saying that I use here all of the time with regards to a variety of different subjects. I can’t lay claim to coining it, but I have certainly promoted it. The saying is, “An expert is a master of the basics”. It is all too easy and tempting for a trainer (particularly one who is new to the game) to feel the need to vomit all of their knowledge all over their trainees. In keeping with our theme here, the fundamentals are what get the job done. 80% of the results come from 20% of the efforts. I fully encourage continuing education in the field, and feel that it is a key to developing your own strengths as a trainer and as a gym. However, do not abandon the basics for the newest gimmick in town, and do not try to overload your clients with overly complex programming or movements. Work the fundamental skills, do the basic lifts, keep the conditioning work simple and intense. Much can be accomplished with a very small arsenal of tools and movements. I know; I started my business with virtually nothing in terms of equipment. The most common remark from new visitors to Greyskull is “Wow, I thought it would be much bigger.” They always leave with a new perspective on what is necessary and what are simply “pieces of flair.”

Greyskull in it’s earliest incarnation

Stick with a challenge

This is one that will outright guarantee you success in the word of mouth arena as a trainer. Create a challenge, and have your clients work towards it until it is completed. You can see this logic applied in our Villain Challenges. Take for example the first challenge of 100 burpees in 5 minutes. I have previously outlined how I recommend conquering this one, and there is no reason that any client cannot undertake this challenge (or an understandably modified one in the case of an elderly or disabled individual). Working towards a goal like that will yield tremendous results in many ways. For one, the sense of accomplishment one gains from doing something they previously thought impossible is beyond empowering. Second, the positive physical changes one will undoubtedly experience in terms of stamina, body composition, etc. are staggering, and are precisely in line with the clients goals upon joining in more cases than not. Assigning “homework” for these challenges adds another layer of commitment for the individual and further pushes them down the lane towards success. I have a young lady who came to me a CrossFit refugee after two years of abysmal handling who is working on that very challenge and has coincidentally lost over 30lbs in the few short months we’ve been working together. Set a goal, stick to it, knock it out, and set another one. It will pay off in more ways than one.

Think outside the Zone

Yes, to each their own, but for most, the Zone sucks. Granted it is a decent general health template for a sick person who is grossly overweight and bedridden, but for a hard training individual it is, in my opinion, nothing more than a version of “Quick Books” for an anorexic. Eat. Food is a good thing. There are many good sources of information on responsible nutrition available to help understand what is needed for a multitude of individuals with a variety of goals. Don’t limit yourself to one source of information because of its endorsement. Remember, there is absolutely no such thing as a one-size-fits-all program whether it be diet, training, supplementation, or anything else. If you are unsure or have a particularly unique case or client, pay someone to shorten the distance for you. Your clients are paying you. It’s no secret that I offer this type of service, but I am not only endorsing my own methods. Robb Wolf is a terrific resource for those dealing with clients with general health and longevity needs as well. Read, experiment, do some research; your clients are depending on you to help them, not to recite what someone else told you during your weekend course.

Strength Train

By this point, most of you have caught on to this one. There is a need for traditional strength training in any good strength and conditioning program. It is way too easy to simply pump some music and get people sweaty for an hour. You have heard from day one that strength loss is what debilitates an individual in their later years, that it is what takes their independence. A squat is how you get off of the toilet by yourself; you know what I mean. The well-known lack of strength training in CrossFit curriculums has led to the creation of several “hybrid” programs with various cool sounding acronyms. It has become fashionable to offer classes in these programs, or adopt the program as the “WOD” for a period in time. Hey, it’s better than nothing. I don’t care how you do it to be honest. Obviously I have my own methods that I use with my clients, but whose method you use is irrelevant so long as your clients are performing basic strength training movements (press, squat, deadlift, bench press, chin ups) on a regular basis in a recorded and progressive manner. Remember, your clients will be weak when they come through your doors more often than not. Getting them strong will be the most valuable service that you can provide for them as a trainer from both a health/longevity/independence standpoint and also an aesthetics aspect. “Conditioning” or getting someone “in shape” in the cardiovascular sense is significantly easier to do, and can certainly be pursued while the client is working on developing basic strength as well. Also remember that strength training and powerlifting are two different things. Keep it simple. I swear, if I get one more picture in my inbox of a CrossFit with a new MonoLift…

If you can’t do at least 20 bar dips, you have no business on the rings.

Get rid of the “one size fits all” program

The worst violators of this one are the gyms who charge people money in order to allow them to use their facility to perform the prescribed “WOD” from the main site. There is no more complete acknowledgement of one’s inability to teach and provide a valuable service in my opinion than this practice. The notion that all of your clients will need the same things in the same amounts is asinine at best. This is where the concept of “scaling” comes in to play. This is one that more people get wrong than get right. Remove the notion that there needs to be a “WOD” for everyone to do, and that if they can’t do it as prescribed then they should do some lesser version of it. Understand that your clients will be diverse and will have a variety of needs. Address their needs on an individual level and design their training accordingly. If you are using a class format, that is fine, just make sure that all get equal attention and receive the same level of concern for their progress. The majority of the hour should be being spent performing a lift or lifts, and skill practice. If there is a “WOD”, make sure that each person is doing what represents a valuable stress for them, not just something that looks like what the “firebreathers” (did I really just type that?) are doing plus some bands or half range of motion movements. Longer duration events such as 5k runs are easily “scaled” for those who cannot complete them in a manner that makes them practical or mirrors the stimulus received by others, so those days are simple to adjust for. Remember, your bills are being paid by your clients, ensure that they are getting something of significant value for their inflated monthly rate. Avoid putting all of your attention into the few who came into the gym from a sports background and are therefore good athletes. Remember that the overweight middle-aged woman will always be the number one demographic in any training market. Make sure that all are getting their money’s worth and then some.

Have some standards

This one should go without saying, but unfortunately it does not. Set standards for the movements done in your gym and enforce them. Do not appease clients by allowing high squats or counting repetitions of pull-ups or pushups which do not complete a full range of motion. You would not allow someone to run two miles of a 5k race and still give them a time as if they had completed it so why do it with anything else? As the old saying goes, if you cheat you’re only cheating yourself, and that is true; but remember that you are being paid to help these people change for the better, and you are not doing that if you are letting them get away with cutting corners. Your clients and anyone observing your practice will respect you a whole lot more if you set some standards and hold everyone, including yourself, accountable to them.

That’s the short list for now. I should add that in addition to the normal schedule of Greyskull Methods, and other StrengthVillain Seminars this year, we will be conducting a “Seven Habits of Highly Successful CrossFit Gyms” seminar series as well. Drop me an email for more information or to inquire about scheduling an event at your location.


50 Responses

  1. Scott Lowther

    Great article and a great way to kick off 2011 !

    January 1, 2011 at 5:58 am

    • Greg

      Very good points there , not only for cross fitters but all trainers !!

      August 4, 2012 at 3:33 pm

  2. KittyMcTaco

    Awesome article. Start 2011 off right and go un-fuck yourselves 🙂

    I think it is great that you are offering additional seminars. They undoubtedly will be the most beneficial event a gym could have.

    January 1, 2011 at 2:20 pm

  3. Frankie P.

    Johnny… I wanna make out with you… at the squat rack so its more manly.

    January 2, 2011 at 2:51 am

  4. Ronin 3

    Well said I love the sheep that charge a buck fifty a month only to copy whatever the main page is doing.

    Just wanted to say this site kicks ass, Im working on the Villain Challenges, I can kill most of them but the Burpees are kickin my forth point of contact

    January 2, 2011 at 3:19 am

  5. “I swear, if I get one more picture in my inbox of a CrossFit with a new MonoLift…” Rad

    January 2, 2011 at 9:01 pm

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  7. Jeff

    “Wow, I thought it would be much bigger.” That’s what she said…sorry couldn’t resist.

    As a former trainer at a local box I can ID with this list. I tried numerous times to get the owner to focus on strength because the vast majority of the gym was very weak but he “never could figure how to do a strenth workout and a WOD in the one hour class time”.

    I decided to go back to my garage…

    January 4, 2011 at 11:16 am

  8. Meagan

    Ahhh, this makes me want to train at your gym/makes me miss my old gym, which practiced much of what you’re preaching. Sigh.

    January 6, 2011 at 2:25 pm

  9. Johnny,
    Your website is fastly becoming my favorite. I couldn’t agree with this article more. You’ve hit the nail square on the head. Will you ever do a seminar in the Phoenix area?

    January 6, 2011 at 2:49 pm

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  11. Lloyd Braun

    Great article. I have one more–quit telling your clients they’re pussies if they need to skip a workout due to injury. Challenging yourself and working through soreness I understand, but continuing to beat on an injury can lead to lifelong limitations. Best to let something heal and work out for a lifetime than sabotage your body for ego purposes.

    January 8, 2011 at 2:17 pm

  12. Your home is valueble for me. Thanks!?

    January 9, 2011 at 5:06 am

  13. Bethany

    Great article JP!

    January 9, 2011 at 3:42 pm

  14. L

    Wow this is an awesome list of things! things that as a crossfitter who wasnt afriad of seeing the flaws, kinda got run out of her box for even so much as suggesting. Things like..oh I dont know..if you have been crossfitting for over 6 months and you cant do a full push up maybe you shouldnt be doing ‘rxd’ kipping pull ups in a WOD. lol

    January 10, 2011 at 12:49 am

  15. Mitch P

    I recently left a crossfit affiliate because of the exact type of bullshit you are addressing. I was ostracized because I insisted on doing strength training before a wod, at least four days a week. Then when I suggested that it may be necessary to miss a wod or two and focus on strength those days you would have thought that I mentioned raping the owner’s sister (or mother). The owner of this affiliate said she could not envision getting stronger on any program that did not incorporate the mainsite wod. And I thought, “well fuck me”.

    January 11, 2011 at 2:34 am

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  17. Gs

    I love the videos on the cf site that show the participants performing incorrect reps and counting toward the work out. They get treated as if they’re beasts, the pinnacle of fitness. It makes me laugh. Great site. I’ve been following your posted workouts since you were an affiliate with cf.

    January 18, 2011 at 9:53 am

  18. clare

    This was great! I am sharing it on fb!

    January 29, 2011 at 12:05 am

  19. Neal

    Thanks bro, my gym was totally fucked until you posted this.

    February 2, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    • Anytime

      February 3, 2011 at 12:56 am

    • Miranda

      Your gym is awesome Neal!

      February 17, 2012 at 3:50 pm

  20. good stuff.

    February 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm

  21. Pingback: Eight Ways to Un-Fuck Your CrossFit Gym – by Greyskull Barbell « FIT AS FU*K

  22. I’ve had trainers and athletes who say they want to get stronger. They’ll come to me and ask me what to do. It’s always the simple answer of lifting heavy and cutting back on the met-cons. What are they doing tomorrow? Conditioning, conditioning, conditioning.

    I think it becomes some sort of addiction to them, as well as the fact that they can look badass during any conditioning workout as long as they are yelling and moving around fast, but their egos would take a hit if you had them doing the basics – people would clearly see how much weight is NOT on the bar.

    I actually had a trainer get outraged when I posted up Rip’s strength standards in the gym. He asked “what is this? who determines this?”. Sounds like someone just realized they sucked.

    Great article!

    February 24, 2011 at 11:18 am

  23. Great article. A lot of what you wrote rings true – as a new Crossfitter.

    March 10, 2011 at 7:39 am

  24. Alexi

    An exceptional article. I’ve played around with crossfit for a while but always find myself changing certain elements/adding in additional strength training workouts. This piece sums up what I’ve be thinking for a while and raises some brilliant points.

    April 28, 2011 at 9:33 am

  25. Johnny,

    You write about excellent points based on your own personal experiences. Which are really hard to find these days.

    The points that really has great meaning to what we should do as we train, and strive to learn more through ourselves today.

    I’m not a trainer at the box I go to, and don’t intend to be one down the line. But I know as a person who’s been growing within the community and also observing other variances, and resources .. It’s good to know there’s somebody with your mindset today.

    Initially I came across your previous article on why you de-affiliated yourself from CrossFit. It was interesting with a good underline of what you were getting through with your message there. Can’t disagree at all on what you wrote.

    Sadly, I can forsee your main reason to why you left the community happening at the box I train at sooner or later. The plans of “expansion,growth,commercialization” I’m not sure how all this will play out in the end, but i know and feel exactly the same as you do in what you’ve mentioned before.

    Quality control is going down at my place as far as I know. On that part, I won’t go on too much with it. But I’d just like to say again that, your points are excellent and it’s great to have perspectives like yours. Keep it up man.

    May 3, 2011 at 2:29 am

  26. J Steve

    Thank you for this article. I joined Crossfit 6 months ago and loved it. However, I was already in pretty good shape can could do mostly all the exercises. My wife, however, had a hard time since can’t do many pushups or any pullups. Why would they have her attempt snatches, ring dips, cleans, wall hand stands, etc.? It made no sense to me. I will say that she was more engaged in the workout trying this stuff, but it is a recipe for injury and limited improvement. Fundamentals is where it’s at. Everyone should perfect Olympic lifts before incorporating them in a WOD. Anyway, it’s home gym from now on. And it’s cheaper too.

    July 26, 2011 at 1:30 pm

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  28. Fonz

    I agree with a lot of what you said. I’m on my third month of crossfit and have switch to crossfit football just to get on a set strength program.

    November 8, 2011 at 3:27 am

  29. Bert Fehrenbach

    Enjoyed your perspective and found everything you said to have value. I have a long list of clients that range from beginners to advanced tri people and I am just incorporating more crossfit mentality into all their workouts. I make sure all basic movements are performed. Their is much wisdom in your approach and I’m sure your clients are reaping great results.I have a tendacy to rely to much on weight training for my people, as a 9x masters BB champion, that part of their training comes easy for me. What I’ve seen with crossfit I really like and am now headed in that direction. Thanks for your time and web. Bert

    November 10, 2011 at 9:08 pm

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  31. Perfexelence! This is going in my big book of essential reading. These are great reminders of what most should already know and implement, but get lost in the fray.

    December 13, 2011 at 9:15 am

  32. That is a fucking awesome article. That’s getting spread right now.

    March 20, 2012 at 3:33 am

  33. Great article! I am on the fence (as I type)about whether or not I will be dropping my affiliation. To be honest, its been tormenting me for a few years. I dont follow the crossfit method and dont participate in the local crossfit community. I became an affiliate in 2007 because I liked the fact they promoted olympic lifting. I have competed and coached for years now and believed this would bring the sport to the mainstream and expose more athletes to the lifts. However, as time went I became more dissolusioned with the HQ programming and the incompetant people becoming crossfit trainers.
    My dilemna now is too whether ride the popularity or to go solo again. I have carved out a bit of niche in the local market as the “the guy” to go see to get strong and lift heavy stuff (15 yrs in the business).
    I love the “barbell club” branding, but I always get negative feedback when asking others opinion.
    need help!!

    May 16, 2012 at 12:09 pm

  34. Cpl Reedy


    First time I have ever been on the blog, and damn I am floored man. Being in the USMC, we focus on a lot of the points you hit on. Especially full body movements, and not cheating your self out of the rep with bands and gimmicks. Brother, when your deployed you need 4 things to stay active, push ups, pull ups, sit ups, and a place to run. Everything else are comforts. Great article, your site is definitely my new home page.

    June 20, 2012 at 5:45 am

  35. Nice to see someone offering critical assessment of a flawed process but you miss the first and most fundamental issue with CrossFit. The non-existence of a proper warm-up protocol. Addressing the 3 planes of movement, joint mobilisation, muscle activation (esp. glutes), progressive dynamic stretching and core activation should form part of any integrated warm-up especially prior to such demanding and dynamic work as you would do in CrossFit.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:11 pm

  36. Oops and some decent SMFR as well!

    September 12, 2012 at 8:12 pm

  37. Jess NZ

    I found this article by accident but I am so glad! It is brilliant. It is great to see people talking about honest training. So many of my friends and colleagues ‘buzz’ after their latest achievement in a crossfit ‘WOD’; and I think giving that sense of accomplishment has tapped into the human desire for belonging. Totally agree with kicking the bands to the curb, and that push ups on the knees are for babies. Of all the people I’ve trained, none of them have ever gotten any better until they go knees away!
    Power to the deadlift, squat, push and pull movements; to increased core stabilisation, flexibility, and proprioceptive control. With improved function in these primal movements, we can then attempt the complex ‘functional movements’ that crossfit pedals. Meanwhile a large majority of their client base continue to lack functionality. Word to the honest trainer!

    January 2, 2013 at 8:20 pm

  38. Awesome. I have clients that keep asking me why I dont get CF certified and be an affiliate. It because i dont need to nor want to. We are on the same level of thinking. Nice to see a former affiliate speak the truth on the problem I will share your thoughts as 3 rd party validation. Thanks

    January 11, 2013 at 5:22 pm

  39. Pat

    Great article.., when I was searching for a place to do crossfit around me, I visited many places, I ended up settling on where I did, because they seemed to emphasize the basics, as well as everything else. They run rowing classes, so you can learn the proper way to row, they have Olympic lifting classes, so you can learn the proper way to do all the Olympic lifts, they have a “squats and pull-ups” class, which simply works on all variations of squats and, getting your pull ups in order ( or getting pull ups at all, if you can’t do them ), they will scale or change portions of a WOD, if that’s what you call for ( I’ve had shoulder surgery, and I can’t do OHS, because my shoulder can not perform it, they always rotate that out for me, and put in front squats or clean and jerk, or whatever they think works during that WOD for me )… I believe it all lies in the owners, and instructors of that affiliate where you are at, just like a personal trainer, some are good, some are not so good for certain individuals… I can tell you, that the two closer affiliates, did NOT take all of these types of things into consideration, hence me ending up where I did..

    January 12, 2013 at 5:42 pm

  40. Well said, too many CrossFit trainers give in to gadgety things too soon. Unfortunately, with the relatively low entry barrier, we are seeing a number of boxes opened by people whose only CF training was Fran in their L1.
    I don’t see it changing soon either. Hopefully as clients / athletes become more savvy the lower quality boxes will raise their games or go out of business.

    March 5, 2013 at 9:55 am

  41. Great article. I am a CrossFit coach but with BS in Phys. Education and my background come from the sports..and many years involved in different ways to train. I am glad your way of thinking, that give me a good feedback that I am doing well in my gym/box. I have just read your book LP 2.0 and I have got a ton of ideas from it, great job and thanks.

    April 24, 2013 at 5:28 pm

  42. TJ

    Great article…cuts through much of the BS that frequently surrounds CF.

    April 30, 2013 at 6:10 pm

  43. zoom

    kipping pull ups are good for hip drive and bands are good for working the bottom end of the pull up movement. ive had tons of crossfitters who couldnt do pullups and with some band work kipping excerises they were able to perform pullups. once they figure out hip drive and bottom end we drop them to a strict pull up and eventually they were able to perform strict pullups. same methodology applies with dips just different ranges of motion. im not discrediting what your saying im just noting that kipping and bands have worked countless times with our crossfitters if done properly.

    bachelors science
    certified oly lift
    crossfit cert
    played college football and wrestled
    3-0 mma fighter
    competed in crossfit games

    May 21, 2013 at 1:57 pm

  44. eb

    I some how stumbled onto your article. Wow! Very well written.

    September 18, 2013 at 12:49 pm

  45. eric

    as an affiliate owner, i take a big gulp from time to time and google shit like “worst crossfit gyms” or “why crossfit sucks” and expose myself to the harsh criticism. as a result, I came to your site and really enjoyed the article.

    Happy to report that there is one more affiliate to add to the mix that is out there upholding (what we all seem to agree) is important shit for a successful program.

    got a few ideas too…

    one side notes on equipment, gadgets and keeping it to the basics. I find this a trap of marketing. Case and point: in 2013, Rogue released “The Pig” after the games. It looked cool enough that people bought them out of hype – they were colossal pieces of shit in a box environment.

    I think all of the tricky doo-dads get recognized for what they are sooner or later. I’ve seen dozens of weird ass products come and go from people trying to ride the CrossFit gravy train.

    October 16, 2013 at 6:02 pm

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