Bucket List Programming – Forming Strong Foundations In Group Fitness Classes

It was August of 2011 – I was lamenting to one of my trainers, Chad Lammert about the difficulty in catering to differing client schedules in the context of a group fitness class. I was trying ensure that each of them would be getting some foundational strength work off of which to build metabolic capacity in our group classes. This concept grew from observations that smart coaches in the CrossFit community started making about about a decade ago – stronger athletes coming to the CrossFit world of metcons, given a few months of adaptation, had the potential to become monsters in events favoring the glycogen pathway. If I scheduled lift days consistently for Monday, Wednesday and Friday, people who had Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday schedules, or something similar, would largely, if not entirely, miss out. If I varied the lifting days from week to week, then it’s likely everyone involved in our classes (outside of the people coming for 5 days/week) would get some sort of half-assed, inconsistent, shotgun approach to strength/power work that would in quick order limit results.

Chad shared his experience he had while on the high school hockey team. Each team member was given a sheet each week with the lifts, sets, reps, etc. printed out on it. It was up to them to determine which days they made it to the weight room to complete the tasks assigned to them. It wasn’t long after that talk with Chad that I decided to take the same approach with our group classes. End result – everyone gets their strength/power work in and no cherry-picking happens either. 

I’ve presented the article below in almost it’s original form, making a small correction for my misunderstanding of the Starting Strength template that I had at the time of the writing. Other, minor corrections were made to aid in clarity. In a future article, we’ll revisit this concept and I’ll elaborate on how we’ve evolved the concept into the form it’s used at our gym today.


The Bucket List

By Ryan Atkins

November 2011

(Originally published in Performance Menu #82)

Setting up monthly programming can be a challenge for owners of the micro-gym running group classes. Sometimes it’s tough to match training objectives to the variety of attendance patterns among a client base. Some clients will come twice a week, some up to five or even six times (crazy bastards). Some clients play sports or have other phsyical activities outside of the programming created for the group; some use the gym environment as their sole physical outlet. It’s been mentioned in the early days of CrossFit that the nature of the group class will work against optimizing results for people who are the least and the most fit. On top of that, you will have clients that, if your workouts are posted online/made public, will avoid certain workouts that play to their weaknesses (damn cherry pickers). Despite all of this, it would be remiss of gym owners and training professionals not to take the appropriate steps to attempt to maximize quality of training for all involved.

This is where the Bucket List comes into play. It’s a simple way of reorganizing your schedule so that your strength/power/focus work doesn’t become locked into a pattern. It’s structured enough to be applied to the group class environment, but flexible enough to accommodate the varying nature of people’s schedules and ability levels. There are a couple of premises that led to the creation of the Bucket List. They are as follows:

  • Stronger athletes will more quickly adapt to the nature of mixed modal metcon work than their weaker counterparts. Therefore, even if general physical preparedness (GPP) is the ultimate goal of a program, dedicated, consistent strength work has to not only be part of the training equatin, but must be given top priority in most circumstances.
  • Your group class clients are all training with you AT LEAST twice a week. I don’t think I need to go into the details as to why anything less than this is not only counterproductive, but possibly dangerous as well.
  • Not everyone will be doing exactly the same thing in a given class on a day-to-day basis. This was one compromise that had to be made in order to allow some flexibility in the design of this application. That being said, some semblance of a group class environment is maintained as there will be a designated time during the group sessions for strength training, and the results for gym members will remain on a portion of the whiteboard for the entire week (i.e. Billy can come in on Wednesday and look at what Bobby squatted on Monday). 

Before going into too much detail on how the bucket list works, let’s put things into context. Check out the sample of one week’s worth of programming done recently at CrossFit Milwaukee (Table A).

ScreenHunter_01 Feb. 08 21.22

At CrossFit Milwaukee, we’ve been using added strength work to our normal Workout of the Days (WODs) since 2007. We’ve used anything from Wendler’s 5-3-1 to Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, to bastardized versions of conjugated programs and CrossFit Football. For the past couple of month’s we’ve been using Rutman’s Maximum Effort Black Box (MEBB), so some of you may recognize the alternate day lifting pattern, with a full body lift, a lower body focus lift and an upper body lift completed during the sample week that’s pictured. Although the structure works well for the most part, there are some issues. If someone comes in Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they will receive the full benefit of the MEBB cycle, getting all three of their lifts in along with a healthy does of mixed modal conditioning (‘sexy metcon,’ ‘cheesecake,’ ‘soup,’ or whatever you want to call it). But what about a client who comes in Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday? Or only two of those days? Not so much. In the past I’ve tried to accommodate for this in part by “shifting’ the strength work days from week to week. This approach is only partly successful because, unless a client is coming to class 4-6 times/week, they are likely missing out on solid, consistent strength work on week-to-week basis. I think most fitness professionals would agree on the importance of prioritizing this kind of work.

By implementing the bucket list, the randomness of various client’s schedules no longer becomes an issue. They are held accountable by trainers to make sure they are getting the required strength work in on their list before they ‘die’ (i.e. jump into the metabolic conditioning circuit for that day). If they’re only showing up two days/week and there’s a sufficient number of lifts on the bucket list, particular clients may have to shorten or potentially forgo their metcons altogether (“NO ‘SOUP’ FOR YOU!!!!”) for the week, if strength/power emphasis is the goal. All we do from a scheduling standpoint is to shift the lifts required for the week to a column to the left of the rest of the days of the week. Here’s how the above sample sheet would look under the new format (Table B):

ScreenHunter_02 Feb. 08 21.22

If we have a lifting program involving more  volume, more time will be devoted towards the strength/power end of things. Below is the same week, but with the lifts from the 09/26/11 week of CrossFit Football (Table C.)

ScreenHunter_02 Feb. 08 21.23

In this case, the athletes coming in only twice per week will likely be doing strength/power work the whole time. Using the above example, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to get the squats, press and deadlift in on one day and the overhead squat, power snatch, bench and (possibly) box jumps in on the other. Although this is by far ideal as general conditioning goes, consideration must be taken into account for the types of clients that use a CrossFit type box and only come twice per week. I have experience working with distance athletes, professional MMA fighters and general fitness enthusiasts. In most of these cases, it was standard practice for people falling into these categories to have other domains of their fitness addressed by their sport training or other activities outside the context of their time spent in our gym. The fact that they would be focusing on strength and power will work to enhance their GPP in cases such as these because it likely complements the work they are getting elsewhere. And this type of twice per week/full body workout scheme correlates with the practices of professional sports teams faced with a heavy in-season playing schedule. Lastly, if a client is only making it to the gym twice a week, it’s arguable that their optimal mix for training would focus on a  handful of full-body lifts with a dose of cardio on the side.

As demonstrated in the example above, when we’ve been implementing the bucket list at our gym, we instruct our clients to do the lifts on the bucket list in the order presented. This way when we draw up our programming, we can have them more effectively follow certain protocols. For example, if we are drawing from Westside principles (potential bucket list: 5RM Back Squat, 10×3 EMOTM Pull-ups (70% 1RM), 8×2 Power Clean and 3RM Bench Press), we would want our clients, to the extent possible having some separation between the maximum effort and dynamic effort days for the same body part. If we decide to follow a Starting Strength format (potential list: 3×5 Back Sqaut, 3×5 Bench, 1×5 Deadlift, 3×5 Squat, 3×5 Press, 5×3 Power Clean, 3×5 Back Squat, 3×5 Bench, 1×5 Deadlift), I wouldn’t want a client to into a second day of doing squat/bench/deadlifts if they haven’t worked power cleans or press at all that week. In the last example, we must acknowledge the fact that, for the 2x/week attendee at least, that not ALL of the lifts will get done, but there will still be a good balance between push/pull movements.

By utilizing the bucket list in this fashion, several objectives are accomplished:

  • Flexibility – a wide variety of strength programs can be worked into a gym’s otherwise generalized program.
  • Accountability – with all of the class participants for the week being listed on a single portion of the whiteboard, it becomes easier for trainers to see who is getting the required strength work in for that particular week and who needs to be ‘motivated’ to do so. Also, should clients complain about not making progress quickly enough, it is potentially easier to access records of their lifts. In my mind there witll always be a strong (pun intended) correlation between the athletes that are disciplined about getting their lifts in regularly and the ones smashing CrossFit benchmark WOD scores and accomplishing other fitness goals.
  • Recognition – with the new organization of the board, it’s really easy to see how much progress everyone is making. Within the first two weeks of implementing the bucket list at our gym, we had a slew of personal records from both beginners and veterans alike. It was hugely motivating to see “PR” writeen next to so many of our clients’ names and all on the same section of the board. I firmly believe that, because clients didn’t have to hunt through a week’s worth of workouts to find their buddies lift results, that this more easily helped motivate others to reach goals in their own lifts throughout the week.
  • Prioritization – that’s right, Kids. No more cherry-picking workouts. If you want your metcon madness, you have to earn it. And once you do, you’ll likely be happy with your results.

Try working with the bucket list the next time you’re charged with programming for a group of people. Let us know how it goes. Because of its flexibility in design, it will be perfectly compatible with the subject of part II in this series concerning programming options – the “Play Day.”

About the author – Ryan Atkins has been involved in coaching in some way, shape or form since he was 18, when he taught martial arts classes. From his karate beginnings he would branch out during his college years, eventually focusing his efforts on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai and other elements contributing towards Mixed Martial Arts, which he competed in with a winning record from 1997-2001 (when fighters didn’t get paid jack, and got to fight multiple times in one day). In 2003, he found about Olympic Weightlifting and via Google searches on that subject, CrossFit. Some of his writings have been published in CrossFit Kids Magazine and the Performance Menu. He coaches via multiple venues as a CrossFit affiliate owner, the Strength and Conditioning Coach at Dominican High School, a contractor to the Fire Science Dept at WCTC and other gigs. He continues to harness his efforts on a daily basis to improving his knowledge base in regards to training and aspires to spread tidbits of information to the fitness/performance world.


One thought on “Bucket List Programming – Forming Strong Foundations In Group Fitness Classes

  1. Pingback: The Bucket List Evolved – Progression and Customization | Proving Grounds MKE

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