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Three Principles for Off-Season Skill Development

We are still at the beginning of the off-season for most competitive CrossFit athletes. Next year's Open is almost nine months away. Whether you want to try and qualify for the top 10% in the open, make a run at semifinals, or peak for a local competition in a few months now is the best time to develop new skills or fine-tune existing ones.

Before jumping into your off-season training, make sure you are not making the common mistake of approaching your skill development like the rest of your workouts.

Constantly varied, high-intensity skill training doesn't work. You may be able to use sheer grit and hard work to develop strength or work capacity, but that strategy is a recipe for failure when refining a skill. You will either reinforce bad habits and movement patterns or leave the off-season empty-handed.

When incorporating skill development into your training, stick to these three principles:

1. Train skills without fatigue

Your brain does not learn new motor patterns well when tired. Check out some of the conclusions from peer-reviewed research on fatigue-based skill development:

"The body does not have the capacity to learn movement patterns when highly stressed/fatigued... To learn skilled movement patterns that are to be executed under fatigued conditions, that learning has to occur in non-fatigued states" Williams, L. R., et al. "Motor learning and performance and physical fatigue and the specificity principle." 1979.

"In a series of experiments, we describe how muscle fatigue...impairs motor-skill learning beyond its effects on task execution. The negative effects on learning are evidenced by impaired task acquisition on subsequent practice days even in the absence of fatigue...Thus, the common practice of training while, or beyond, fatigue levels should be carefully reconsidered, since this affects overall long-term skill learning." - Branscheidt, Meret, et al. "Fatigue induces long-lasting detrimental changes in motor-skill learning." 2019.

Learn new skills at the beginning of your sessions. It's also best to train them in isolation at first. Once you have become proficient with the skill, you can begin to add complexity. Here is an example of how you could progress cleans:

Phase 1 = Clean technique work on its own

Phase 2 = Cleans paired with a monostructural movement (i.e., EMOM of cleans and biking)

Phase 3 = Cleans paired with an antagonist movement (i.e., cleans and push-ups)

Phase 4 = Cleans paired with an agonist movement (i.e., cleans and wall balls)

Phase 5 = Cleans in a traditional CrossFit metcon (i.e., cleans with muscle-ups and rowing)

2. Use low reps and high sets

To avoid fatigue, train your skills at low loads with no more than two to three reps. You can still get plenty of touches on the skill. You will just have to add a lot more sets.

Here is one of my favorite ways to set this up in training:

A. Every 60s x 20 sets: 1 Slow Pull Clean @ 60-65%

With this setup, you accumulate 20 cleans at a low load and fully recover between reps. To make the session even more effective, film your first and last set and try to make them look the same before progressing in load or complexity in your next workout.

3. Don't train more than two or three skills

CrossFit can be daunting. There are always so many things to get better at. But, as famous strength coach Dan John says, fitness goals are a lot like chasing rabbits. If you try and chase all the rabbits at once, you won't catch any.

Let's say you wanted to be audacious and try to improve your snatch, bar muscle-up, and double under tech all at the same time. The best way to train a couple of skills simultaneously is to place them on separate days of training. Here is how I would recommend structuring it over a three-week cycle:

Monday: snatch tech

Tuesday: bar muscle-ups

Wednesday: double unders

Friday: snatch

Saturday: bar muscle-ups

Monday: double unders

… and so on

Over three weeks, you will get five touches on each skill. On the other hand, if you only chose to attack two skills at a time, you would get about eight touches on each in three weeks.

Ideally, chase one, maybe even two rabbits, catch them, and then move on to the next.

4. Bonus tip: Train your skills in all of your warmups

This tip would be more for refining an already acquired skill versus learning a new one. For example, if you already have kipping handstand push-ups down but want to work on a consistent hand placement when you kick up to the wall, you could add a few kipping handstand push-ups into every warmup. Tape a box that you have to get your hands in, or film yourself on every set to ensure consistency.

Skill development is not like the rest of CrossFit training. You can't constantly vary it or learn them with high intensity. First, train them in isolation, without fatigue, and without competing inputs (i.e., trying to introduce too many skills in the same session or week).

Let us know if you need any help or guidance building or fine-tuning your skills along the way!

Photo cred: @shotsbysroka @mattdlugos

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