by Ryan Atkins
Earlier this month, we posted one of my first articles I wrote for the Performance Menu. In short, it was about something called the Bucket List, a way of arranging a micro-gym’s lifting program around the variety found in attendance patterns of the gym’s clients involved in group fitness classes. It’s goal is to create enough flexibility in class format on a week-to-week basis to ensure that clients develop/maintain a good foundation in strength and power regardless of which days they attended classes. This article will take a look at how we started implementing the concept at our gym and how we’ve changed things over the course of time to better serve varying needs of our client base.
Let’s review, for a second, how the Bucket List operates. Originally a list was given to the athletes at the beginning of each week with a series of tasks on it, maybe something like the following: Power Clean 5RM, Back Squat 5RM, Press 5RM. As people come to class during the week they chip away at the list until it’s completed. For a person coming to class three times per week, it’s pretty straightforward – after the general warm-up pick the first lift on the list and spend the next 15-20 minutes working on it. The next time in class, choose the next lift on the list and so on. People coming to class only twice per week might have to double up on a lift on one of those days to get through the list. People coming to class more than three times per week are encouraged to ask their trainers for additional/auxiarly work and/or perform mobility work to address their personal weaknesses. The next week, a new series is posted. If we follow the initial example listed earlier, and keep using the Maximum Effort Black Box (MEBB) template, the next week’s lifts would be a 3RM of the same movements we used for the first week.
At our gym, we used the MEBB template for nearly a year before switching things up. This meant we’d use one lift each for full body (FB), lower body(LB) and upper body(UB) emphasis for a three week period, cycling through a week of 5RM attempts, then 3RM attempts for the following week and finishing with a week of 1RM attempts before taking an ‘off’ week, where we typically dropped the heavy lifting and went for some all out efforts on traditional CrossFit benchmark metcons. In the last couple of months listed here we also started adding in some light tempo work, when applicable, during the deload week to prepare athletes for the movements they would see in the next three week cycle. Here are the cycles we used over the course of that year:
08/22-09/18 Hang Power Snatch, Front Squat, Pull-up
09/19-10/08 Hang Power Clean, Deadlift, Bench
10/17-11/05 Push-jerk, Back Squat, Pull-up
11/14-12/03 Snatch, Front Box Squat, Dip
12/12-12/31 Clean/Deadlift, Overhead squat/Back Squat, Pull-up
01/09-02/04 Hang Snatch/Bent Over Row, Front Squat, Incline Bench/Bent Over Row
020612-022512 Hang Clean, Deadlift, Press
030412-031112 Push-press, Back Squat, Chin-up
040212-043012 Hang Snatch, Front Box Squat, Dip/Bent Over Row
043012-050512 Thruster, Deadlift, Pull-up
052812-061512 Clean, Back Squat, Press
061612-063012 Muscle Snatch, Snatch Deadlift, Sotts Press
070212-070812 Hang Clean, Front Squat, Chin-up
071512-081112 Push-Press*, Deadlift, Bench Press*, * = super-setted with bent over rows
This list fails to tell the whole story, however. As we continued towards the trend for shorter metcon cycles (5-15 minute range typically) in our programming for various reasons (better recovery, decreased injury rate, etc.), we found we had more class time available for lifting. In some cases I tweaked the standard MEBB cycle. In one example, instead of stopping at our max effort for cleans, we kept adding weight to the bar, finishing with a max effort deadlift to boot. In other cases, you’ll see some bent over rows thrown into the mix.
Did the system work? Without going into too much detail, I would say that it definitely did. Whenever a lift was revisited it was commonplace for me to write PR (personal record) next to several of the names and numbers being posted on the bucket list for that week. But one of the cruxes of the issue was that whole ‘revisited’ aspect of the program. Given the nature of the cycles we were using, we might not see a movement for a whole month or more for maximum effort lifting. Now this works wonderfully for those who are sufficiently familiar with all of the movements being rotated and for those who love variety. But for those less so exposed to the movements, a trainer would be doing a disservice to only expose a client to a technique once per week for three weeks before changing things up and introducing new movement patterns to the mix. I have always felt that one cannot have too much practice in foundational skills. And, for most of the people that come to our gym for training, starting, and staying with, the basics of strength and power for a good amount of time is the primary requisite for long term fitness/sportive gains. A couple of changes occurred in the structure of our programming for our gym as a whole that allowed us to realize this goal.
We put trainer Alex Schuld in charge of a Strength and Skills class in 2011. Look for an Olympic Lifting warm-up and progressions article featuring him at a later date. Generally speaking Alex’s class amounts to about 50 minutes of (usually) Olympic style weightlifting with some gymnastics skill (handstand push-up/muscle-up progressions) or a very short metcon (tabata burpees) thrown in at the end. The addition of this class gave an avenue for people to obtain reasonable skill acquisition in the Olympic lifts. After almost a decade of coaching CrossFit classes, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to develop anything other than modicum ability in the snatch and the clean and jerk, you’re going to have to consistently devote a good amount training time and effort to do so at the possible exclusion of some other elements. It’s probably not going to happen efficiently and effectively in the context of a CrossFit class, unless the person programming those classes makes a point of skill practice in that domain almost every class, and trying to squeeze such skill work in between a generalized warm-up, mobility work and some crazy metcon that clients are salivating about just might not do sufficient justice to the intricacy of the movements.
For an example of a worst case scenario of this phenomena, I’m reminded of a time when one of our new people was participating in our OnRamp class. We were covering the Burgener warm-up that day. When I demonstrated the movement that warm-up would build up to (hang power snatch in this case), he remarked how he had done that movement during a trial visit at another gym. I remarked how he, given the information he just relayed to me, probably had seen this progression, or something similar to it, before. He hadn’t. It turns out the coach running the class had instructed him to try the movement. No break down, no progressions = no bueno.
Whenever we discuss the option of clients exploring attendance in the Olympic lifting classes, we usually strongly encourage them to spend at least a three month block devoted to just that option. By doing this, we hopefully establish a solid enough of a base with the movement patterns involved in Olympic lifting so that, if clients decide to use technical lifts in a conditioning cycle, a little bit of fatigue won’t turn their form to utter dogshit.
Let Them Be Strong…
Now that our gym had specialized classes for both our new clients and those interested in gaining proficiency in the Olympic lifts, I was able to hone the focus a little more for the Bucket list that we use in our regular group class. Although we wouldn’t completely ignore Olympic lifting in the regular classes (we still keep the power variations), I decided that, since another avenue for specialization already existed in our schedule, that I would hone the efforts of the group class to work on some basics. As our gym continues to grow I recognize two common traits in most people walking through our doors – 1.) A lot of them could benefit in their fitness and/or chosen sport simply by being stronger, 2.) many people don’t know how to activate the muscles of their posterior chain to a significant degree, if at all and 3.) IF they’ve had ANY barbell training in the past, oftentimes it’s of dubious quality.
To fulfill these goals, we turned to the format of CrossFit Football‘s novice program. The lifting part of the program is based off of a four day rotation that is broken down as follows:
Monday – Back squat 3×5, Press 3×5
Tuesday – Deadlift 1×5, Pull-ups 3x max reps*
Wednesday – off
Thursday – Back squat 3×5, Bench press 3×5
Friday – Power Clean 5×3, Chin-ups 3x max reps*
*Dead hang. More capable individuals will do 3×5 weighted movements once they can do 15 reps in a single set.
Now in a perfect world, all of my clients would make it to class four days a week, taking every Wednesday off and maybe coming in on Saturday for some conditioning. Remember though that the Bucket List principle is based on anything but a perfect world scenario. The approach we have adopted at our gym is to ditch the week to week nature we originally used for the bucket list and instead adopt a rotating schedule based off of the eight movements (seven, if you only count squats once) found in the CFFB novice program. Those coming to class four times per week get through all of the movements on a weekly basis, though not necessarily on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Those coming only three times per week don’t get through the full cycle during that particular week, but they will continue on the sequence of lifts where they left off from the previous week when the next one starts, thereby getting equal practice in some great fundamental movements and ensuring a balance between pushing and pulling development.
Outside of frequency and timing of attendance, this iteration of the Bucket List also isn’t perfect on other levels. Linear progression models won’t work forever, but, unless a potential client has prior experience as a power lifter, Olympic weightlifter, collegiate level track and field athlete or high level football player, there’s a very good chance that the strength boons garnered from such a system will greatly improve their overall athletic output and/or general health in addition to laying the foundations for forays into new athletic endeavors. The fact that the program focuses on a handful of lifts is another advantage for people with little to no experience under the bar. It gives them consistent, frequent practice in five elemental barbell movements (back squat, press, deadlift, clean, and bench press) – movements that, after about 6-9 months of training, when the benefits of linear gains will curtail/cease, can lend some carryover to the more technical, explosive components of advanced training.
One of the original positives of the week-to-week Bucket list was that results were posted on a regular basis on the whiteboard. With our new system, each client is given a copy of the rotating bucket list to track their progress. The disadvantage of not having public motivation via tracking on the whiteboard is in some part made up by the fact that we now have a base template off of which we can customize certain aspects of each individual’s training. For example, because of my contention that most clients need better hamstring/glute activation, I gravitate towards the use of the low bar back squat as described in Coach Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, at least in the initial stages of their training (incidentally, it was Coach Rip who designed the novice lifting program for CFFB). That being said, the more and more I train people, the more and more I come to the conclusion that I can’t completely wed myself to any singular paradigm. If I have a client who, despite drills/cueing/other reasons, can’t maintain a neutral spine in the low bar position, I might have them switch to a front squat. They’re still squatting after all and it’s arguably easier for people using the front squat to maintain a better back position. We start with, in most cases, a standardized program and modify things based on individual needs and will do a significant overhaul once we’ve reached the limits of linear periodization with any particular client and determine what their overall goals are once they’ve established some base strength levels.
Beyond the Basics
At a certain point, a trainee’s progress will stall, regardless of the program. Once they’ve established themselves as being somewhat competent in the domain of strength a trainer can explore further training goals with the client. Does the athlete want to compete in the CrossFit Games or on the platform in Olympic Weightlifting? Well, in the context of our gym, I’d direct them to Alex’s class, especially during their off season, to start getting solid technical foundations in the full versions of the lifts involved. And if they want to continue focusing primarily on strength and power gains? Well, we could look at Westside or possibly the Texas Method as some potential training options. These are just a few examples of the array of potential options in store for clients. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that, using the flexibility of the Bucket List, along with some specialized classes trainers can give a very personal, very customized approach to each client that has been at the gym long enough to deserve more specialized attention, all while having them participate in group fitness classes instead of paying the high prices of personal training. I suspect that this type of service level would be on the priority list of any gym owner who truly cares about the success of their clients.