Wednesday, January 10th, 2018: Training AgeJanuary 9, 2018
10 good mornings
5 back squats
6×2 build up (from the ground)
5 back squat 155/105
5 strict hpsu
Greg Kuchan started CrossFit on Jan. 8, 2013. Three months later, the 22-year-old qualified for the Southern California Regional, the final step before the CrossFit Games. The 5-foot-8, 160-lb. former wrestler took 22nd at the regional that year, finishing fourth and ninth in two events.
Most people spend their first few weeks of CrossFit feeling dazed and just trying to survive. Kuchan passed the time destroying everyone around him. He’s a gifted athlete, but years of athletic experience contributed to his rapid success. Kuchan started wrestling when he was 8 and began Olympic weightlifting his junior year of high school. He wrestled throughout high school and college until he broke his neck training jiu-jitsu before his junior year.
The amount of time a person has been involved in organized athletic training or competitive sports is referred to as his or her “training age.” Chronological age is one way to think about the athletes in your CrossFit gym, but it’s important to take their athletic history into account, too.
It can be challenging to coach a CrossFit class that includes people just starting their athletic journeys and experienced athletes with decades of training behind them. Effective coaches know it’s important to understand the different needs of each group in order to get the best out of both.
Defining Training Age
Training age can be evaluated in two different ways. Sport-specific training age is the number of years an athlete has trained in a particular sport. I’ve been doing CrossFit for almost seven years, so that would be my CrossFit training age.
Training age can also be broader and refer to the amount of time an athlete has been involved in any type of organized or competitive sport. I came to athletics relatively late in life, competing as an amateur boxer in my late 20s, so that was my “birth” into sport, so to speak.
Regardless of the definition you choose, it’s not enough to assume all experienced athletes can be treated equally. It’s possible an athlete might have trained badly for 20 years. Or someone might not have any formal athletic training but grew up being extremely physically active. Some athletes, such as gymnasts and wrestlers, generally transfer very well into CrossFit. A lifelong endurance athlete will likely struggle with the strength element of CrossFit at first but still have a leg up as far as overall conditioning. Training age is clearly about more than time.
Olympians and Grandmas in the Same Class
Sheena Lawrick came to CrossFit with a highly advanced training age. The Alberta, Canada, native competed on the Canadian softball team in the 2004 Olympics, where her team took fifth, and the 2008 Olympics, where her team earned fourth. She took up CrossFit in 2009 and began coaching at Windy City CrossFit in Chicago, Illinois, in 2010.
When Lawrick started CrossFit, she had never done any type of gymnastics, she’d never snatched, and she said she was never able to perform cleans correctly the few times she did them.
“Eh, let’s just move on,” she said her University of Nebraska softball coach told her when he watched her clean a barbell as part of softball training.
Her years of athletic training did offer advantages.
“I came in stronger (than most beginners),” Lawrick said. “I already knew I could back-squat 200 pounds. And I could deadlift and I could do single-leg things. That was really encouraging to start. It gives you confidence right from the get-go, like, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”
Someone who has never done any sort of athletics enters the gym completely scared out of his or her minds, she said.
“They look at an empty barbell and they think, ‘How much does that weigh?’ They probably don’t even know what it feels like to put a 35- or 45-pound bar over their head. All they see is it’s something they’ve never done before,” Lawrick said.
As any CrossFit coach knows, the challenge is to coach a five-year veteran and someone who’s terrified of an empty barbell in the same hour.
At CrossFit Windy City, Lawrick said the coaches make an effort to interact with each member during the class to ensure every person is getting what he or she needs out of the group class, despite the variety of training ages.
“If there’s somebody I know who’s been doing this for five years, I’ll go up and say, ‘Hey, what’s your plan with this?’” Lawrick said. She’ll then provide a goal—either a number of rounds or a time.
“(I help) them with setting expectations or intensity realistically so you know they are always improving. And then (I do) the same thing with the person who is new,” she said.
She might tell the new athlete to aim for one quality round rather than sacrificing form to get a higher score. She said this kind of individual attention stems from the coaches meetings, in which they discuss individual athletes.
“It comes from outside the classes. (It’s about) knowing the athletes,” she said.
Vets and Newbies at the Mature Affiliate
David Paradiso has owned Paradiso CrossFit in Venice, California, for eight years, and he’s been doing CrossFit for more than 10. As the owner of a mature affiliate, Paradiso said handling the different training ages of his members is one of his biggest challenges. He must balance the needs of his experienced CrossFit athletes—who have been training for a decade—with the needs of the newest members.
“One of the questions you need to ask yourself is ‘how is your gym going to operate? Are you going to focus on everybody or focus on some of those people?’” Paradiso said.
In his case, the answer changed over time.
“We started off with kind of the typical group on-ramp style, and over time it didn’t work as well,” he said, because that one-size-fits-all approach didn’t meet the diverse needs of his members.
“We moved to doing one-on-one intro sessions. From that first meeting we can give people an assessment. We have some people who have done something like CrossFit previously—they have some exposure—so we say, ‘Hey, let’s just do one more private training session, work on some of the things you need, and we’ll talk about how our gym works, and then I’ll chaperone you through a group class that I’m coaching,’” Paradiso said.
If someone joins Paradiso CrossFit without any athletic experience, Paradiso advises against immediately jumping into the group class. With busy classes full of experienced athletes, Paradiso knows a beginner would get lost in the shuffle and feel overwhelmed, so new members at Paradiso CrossFit are encouraged to do private training before joining group classes.
To get inexperienced people up to speed, Paradiso CrossFit offers a free two-hour monthly seminar that covers CrossFit, health and fitness, and how individual needs can be met in a group environment. The affiliate also offers an in-house physical therapist, nutritionist, weightlifting coach and gymnastics coach, with different levels of service available from each: free information on the website, small-group seminars and private training.
For those who are ready to join the group classes but still need some extra help, Paradiso offers PCF University classes. These six-week intensive blocks focus on a particular skill, such as mobility, gymnastics or Olympic lifting, in a small-group setting. Participants get instruction and homework.
“The idea is someone comes through, they meet a coach, we assess where they are at and kind of construct a plan for them to move forward,” he said.
Paradiso CrossFit has also implemented eight-week training cycles so athletes know they can expect a specific lift on a certain day.
“We can say, ‘Hey, for the next eight weeks, every Monday is going to be snatches. You are going to have an opportunity build off that every week,’” Paradiso said.
While the programming is perhaps not as constantly varied as you might expect from a CrossFit affiliate, the routine is an investment: The newer athletes don’t have to worry about every aspect of the snatch in one class and can instead pick one part of the lift to target each week as they learn.
“You can work with them individually and say, ‘Hey, this week I just want you to use the PVC (or an) empty barbell, and we are going to build off that.’ Because it’s not randomized, it takes away from that need of not knowing when you are going to see the snatch again,” Paradiso said. “As a coach, you can build off of what you taught last week.”
While the coach is giving pointers to the newer athlete, the advanced athlete is putting weight on the bar and warming up. By the time the experienced athlete is at his or her working set, the beginners are set up and working on what they’ve learned that day. The coach can then turn to the advanced athletes and offer coaching when they are at a heavier weight.
“That’s the kind of system we developed to allow both sides to maximize their time,” Paradiso said.
Most of his members have an advanced training age, and the programming reflects that. More complicated lifts and movements, such as snatches and muscle-ups, are part of the regular programming at Paradiso CrossFit.
Paradiso knows many gyms choose to focus more on foundational movements in all classes—“which is really good for people just getting started,” he said.
The training age of his membership requires a different approach both to programming and welcoming new members.
“For people who have never done CrossFit or don’t have an athletic background, they immediately find it intimidating, because our community is more athletic,” Paradiso said.
The advanced programming satisfies the long-term members, but it means Paradiso and his team have to work hard to show new members their quality coaching and welcoming community.
Training Age and the Mind
Experienced athletes know their way around the gym, but coaching them can present challenges.
“It seems to be very individual,” Paradiso said about coaching experienced athletes. “Some athletes are very coachable. They walk in and they call you ‘coach’ right off the bat. They want to be coached, and they want to learn.”
Some experienced athletes come to the gym with an ego and aren’t receptive to guidance from the coaches.
“Most of our coaches are good at saying, ‘Hey, when is the last day you took a rest day? More is not better,’” Paradiso said.
Similarly, Lawrick knows the challenges of reeling in headstrong athletes.
“(It’s) making sure they don’t get to a point where they overtrain,” she said. “I think I went through a period of overtraining. (I want to make) sure that doesn’t happen for them.”
No matter how experienced the athlete, it’s likely some of the movements will be new. Lawrick said she tries to make sure the competitive spirit of these advanced athletes doesn’t trump form. She also encourages them to join a class with some advanced CrossFit athletes.
“I’ll say, ‘Hey, at 5:30 there’s a couple people I think you would do really well pacing off of.’ … So they get that competitive need met,” Lawrick said.
Paradiso said it’s more challenging to integrate someone who comes to CrossFit with no athletic background because most of those people sign up for aesthetic reasons.
“Most of them are like, ‘I just want to lose weight,’” Paradiso said. “So we have to work through a whole mindset with them, getting them to see that we are treating them like an athlete, and (by) becoming a better athlete and generally fit they will look and feel the way that they want.”
Paradiso said people with athletic backgrounds immediately get that concept, and they focus on performance much faster than gym newbies.
“Getting people to shift that mindset is a big challenge, and that’s one of the primary reasons I do that monthly seminar thing to get people to understand this is a paradigm shift in how they view not just what you do in a gym but how you view yourself, the value of your health and fitness,” he said.
The Complete Picture
Kuchan decided to step away from competitive CrossFit after competing on the CrossFit Pacific Beach team at the 2014 Southern California Regional, where the team took sixth. An injury in 2015 pushed him to focus on a career in real estate and take a break from competitive CrossFit. An avid surfer who is always active, Kuchan started training again in his garage gym in 2016.
His years of training will always offer Kuchan an advantage in athletics, but training age is only one part of an athlete’s story. A person’s attitude, drive, goals, natural talent and lifestyle can have as much influence on his or her progress as training age. Hard work leads to results, no matter when you start.
Training age is important, but it’s not destiny.
About the Author: Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health and wellness content. In addition to writing articles, online content, blogs and newsletters, Hilary writes for the CrossFit Journal. To contact her, visit hilaryachauer.com.
Cover image: Cheston Brogue