How Often Should I CrossFit?
By: Josh Dempsey
The effectiveness of any workout routine, CrossFit included, lies largely in the dose. Perform it too infrequently, and you are more likely to experience soreness than progress. Perform it too frequently and you can expect soreness, mental and physical fatigue, and increased risk of injury. We are frequently asked the question, “how often should I do CrossFit?”. However, the question that really needs to be asked is the following: “what is the optimal amount of CrossFit I should do?” In order to effectively answer this question, we must also take into account the individuals ability level, lifestyle, and current goals. A full accounting must take place before we can get to the final workout prescription and ways of structuring the training week.
First, remember your “why” for coming to the gym in the first place. Nobody starts doing CrossFit with a goal of getting really, ridiculously good at doing CrossFit. The reason you start CrossFit is to try something new, challenging, and different than whatever you’ve been doing (or not doing) up until that point. You do CrossFit as a means to be healthy, move well, feel good, and like how you look in a bathing suit. You do it to support your outside the gym activities and pursuits as well. Keep these concepts in mind when you are thinking about how much time you should dedicate to being in the gym. With that in mind, here are a few of the most common training templates worth modeling your own workout habits after.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m only going to focus on training frequencies of 3 or more times per week. While lower volumes than these are still beneficial, they are too infrequent to merit additional consideration for how they should be structured in the context of a training week.
“3 x 52”
3 days a week, 52 weeks a year. You pick the days, whether consecutive or spread apart, just make sure the work gets done each and every week. For most people, this is what optimal training looks like. 3 sessions a week seems to be the minimum effective dose threshold where you can make great progress and cultivate a respectable level of strength and capacity, while still leaving plenty of time for other activities, family, work, life, etc. Don’t fall into the trap of “more is better”; in reality, it is probably just more, providing marginal additional benefit. 3 sessions a week allows you to spread apart your workouts and hit it hard every time you train, or give you a little extra recovery time when things are hectic at the office. The key with this plan is consistency; you can’t reap the benefits of this program if you aren’t disciplined in you adherence and regularly miss workouts. Conversely, you could likely follow this kind of in the gym template for the rest of your life and see great results with little downside risk of injury, or chronic soreness / fatigue.
“3 on, 1 off”
This is the classic CrossFit prescription for experienced athletes, typically those with who are strongly concerned with performance as primary goal. This training split doesn’t take into account weekdays versus weekends or other possible scheduling constraints, and is intended to be followed on a continuous basis. The logic here is that intensity and quality tend to drop off significantly after the 3rdhard day of training, hence the rest day on day 4. This is an old school CrossFit approach; while no doubt effective, the athlete must have a strong recovery capacity and lifestyle to support this frequency of training without breaking down. This means there must be an emphasis on sleep, nutrition, body maintenance, and stress management for this plan to be sustainable.
“3 on, 1 off, 2 on, 1 off”
For the recreational CrossFit athlete with full time job (aka real life), this is a winning template. 5 sessions per week, with 2 rest days inserted to smartly partition the training volume and allow for adequate rest as well. Depending on your schedule, you could also do 2 on, 1 off, 3 on, 1 off with the same expected results. While quality is undoubtedly better than quantity, high volumes of quality work lead to the best outcomes. In order to continue to develop your fitness, your body will require progressive overload- heavier weight, faster paces, more technical movements, more volume, etc. There is a simple reality than you can’t cram 5 days worth of training into 3 days. If you want to get better faster, this is a great approach. Like the aforementioned “3 on, 1 off”, lifestyle considerations must play a major role in order to be sustainably successful with this approach.
A few other common templates worth exploring are, “4 on, 1 off, 1 on, 1 off”, and “5 on, 2 off”. Both of these approaches are focused on getting the bulk of the training week done during weekdays, allowing for more flexibility on the weekend for other activities. There are many other viable approaches to structuring the training week that are beyond the scope of this post, such as multiple sessions / day (short version: don’t do this). The most important thing to consider is the reality of your schedule and desire to train. “3 on, 1 off, 2 on, 1 off” may appeal to you in theory, but in reality “4 on, 3 off” may be a much closer approximation of your schedule. In that case, follow the option that is realistic and attainable, not optimal in theory.
The last concept worth revisiting is the idea that we do CrossFit not simply to be good at CrossFit, but to enrich our lives and support our other pursuits. Play new (or old) sports and activities, get outside and run, hike, bike, play, and generally strive to be more active. Put your fitness to good use and don’t simply pursue increasingly higher levels of fitness for its own sake (unless that really is your “why”!). Use this guide to hopefully strike a better balance between hard training and the necessary rest and recovery your body needs in order to sustain it over the long haul.