How Often Should I CrossFit?
One of the most common questions I get from athletes at Sycamore CrossFit is, “How often should I train?” If you are considering CrossFit as your strength and conditioning program then you also may be wondering, “How often should I CrossFit?” CrossFit.com prescribes 3 days “on” followed by 1 day “off.” But is this the right CrossFit frequency for everyone? Certainly not. Read more for the full story.
The Short Answer
If you aren’t interested in reading the full explanation below, then I recommend the following training frequency for the average Sycamore CrossFit athlete: Train 4 or 5 days per week. Generally, train 2-3 days in a row. Above all, listen to your body, but be aware that you must work through soreness and fatigue. However, never work through pain, especially acute pain. With that guidance, check out the four simple examples below and see if one fits your lifestyle:
The Long Answer
The intent of your individual training frequency is to train often enough to reach your fitness goals, but not so often that you overtrain or develop overuse injuries. Training frequency is dependent upon many factors, the most important of which are goals, intensity, rest, nutrition, and existing level of fitness. The remainder of your daily/weekly schedule is also a relevant factor. Let’s examine how each one affects your training.
If you simply want to maintain an adequate level of fitness for daily life and ward off obesity, then your training frequency will differ substantially from an elite athlete seeking to compete in the CrossFit Games. Training more frequently will advance your fitness faster, to a point. You can’t just keep adding workouts until you’ve gone 11 days without rest, as that will lead to overtraining (under recovering), which is counterproductive for any athlete of any fitness level. However, there is a substantial difference in the level of fitness that can be reached by those who train twice per week and those who train 5 times per week, so make sure you are coming in frequently enough to meet the goals you have set for yourself.
If you train more intensely then you will require more rest than if you train less intensely. If CrossFit is your workout regimen, then we can probably summarize your workout intensity as either “intense” or “very intense,” assuming you are putting 100% effort into your workouts. You may need to alter your training frequency to rest more during periods of multiple, very intense workouts and increase your frequency during periods of short or otherwise less intense workouts. Personally, I focus on 80% efforts most of the time to create a training stimulus vs 100% effort which is more like a competing stimulus.
Quality and quantity of rest are a huge factor in training frequency. Quality rest increases your ability to train more frequently. I’m defining quality and quantity in two principal ways: your level of activity on your rest days and hours of sleep per night. If you do manual labor for half a day on your rest day then it wasn’t especially effective rest. Similarly, if you sleep only 5-6 hours per night then you also didn’t rest very effectively. The most effective rest is lack of prolonged or intense physical activity during the day plus 8.5-9 consecutive hours of sleep per night. Yes, that’s asking a lot of the typical American schedule. Guess what, your body doesn’t care. Less/low quality rest means training less often at high performance. More/high quality rest means you can train more often without overtraining or incurring overuse injuries.
This is pretty simple. If your body is getting the nutrients it needs to perform tissue repair and fuel your workouts, then you can train more often. If you eat poorly, then you will inevitably train less often or with less intensity, and you will require more rest when you are done. Your body also won’t get as full a benefit from the workout because you haven’t supplied it with the tools to fully adapt to the stress you provided during the workout. Sure, you may get 80% of the adaptation, and that may be fine with you, so judge accordingly. Proper nutrition can be simply expressed as high quality meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, a little starch and avoid the sugar or alcohol and keep intake levels that support your fitness/health but not increase body fat. Keep it simple, results reflect your nutrition and your training.
Existing Level of Fitness
This is also quite simple. Novices train less often than elite athletes. They require less stress to disrupt homeostasis and may require more recovery time for the disruption to be fully synthesized into an adaptation. Elite athletes, however, require quite a shock to disrupt homeostasis. In fact, they may require several workouts on consecutive days (or multiple workouts per day) to greatly disrupt homeostasis and trigger an adaptation. This means they must train more often, simply in order to provide the necessary shock to keep advancing their fitness. Life is tough at the top…or so I’m told.
We don’t live to workout; we workout to live. Therefore, our training schedule must coexist with the rest of our life. But don’t be confused, you must make time in your life for workouts if you wish to advance your fitness. The time will not free itself, and if fitness is a priority in your life, then you must allocate your time as such. However, you may not be able to workout at the perfect time or on the perfect days, but you must find a balance between reaching your fitness goals and your other goals (holding a job, parenting children, cultivating vegetables, etc).
Considering all of those factors, what is right for you? While only you can fully answer that, here are some general tips and examples:
- Start with the standard crossfit gym 2-on/1-off, 2-on/2-off standard and adjust from there.
- If you go more than 3 days on, then realize your intensity will suffer. More than 4 days on is probably not a good idea. However, some people go 5 days on during the work week and then take the weekend off. I think you would actually get better results by inserting a rest day in the middle of the work week to allow for recovery and then more effective work thereafter. We can discuss a training level that makes coming 5 or 6 days a week work. If this is you, talk with a coach or set-up an athlete check-in to see if you are overtraining or under recovering with your current workout volume each week.
- If you don’t get adequate rest or if you have poor nutrition, think about reducing your load to 1-on/1-off. However, reducing your frequency means you must keep the intensity high during each workout for optimal effect.
- 2 Days per week or less is only very effective for the complete novice. If that’s you, that’s OK. Nobody emerged from the womb with a 3-minute Fran. If you’re new to exercise, very deconditioned, or overweight then you may want to go 2x per week for 2-10 weeks until you build the capacity to go 2-on/1-off without debilitating soreness.
- Advanced athletes may want to add skill, strength, or sport-specific workouts to their regular CrossFit regimen. This is best done by adding the additional workout at the opposite time of day as an existing workout, which allows for some recovery during the day. Many athletes have had great success with morning and afternoon workouts with work/school/daily life in between. Rest is still important when programming with this model, but an advanced athlete might sometimes reduce his rest day to an “active rest” day. This means that instead of complete rest the athlete would participate in a short and/or light workout that does not substantially tax their body. This maintains neuromuscular pathways. However, for life-long fitness I recommend everyone take at least one day of complete rest each week. Lofty ambitions and competitive goals are good, but not if you irreparably break yourself trying to achieve them.
What is your health and fitness goals and does your training volume support them? Do you find yourself working out to much and recovering to little? Little niggles or aches and pains that don’t go away are not normal. Talk to a coach or ask me how to get past injuries or pain, rest may not be the answer, continuing to work through it without sound reason is definitely not the answer.