CrossFit Calvinball

In the greatest comic strip of all time, Bill Watterson invented the game “Calvinball”. As the panel above suggests, Calvinball has no discrete rules – they change on the go, and the only permanent rule is that you can’t play the same way twice.

I’m a big fan of Calvinball (as it derives from the greatest comic strip of all time). But very often, I see athletes approach CrossFit workouts as though they were Calvinball workouts, and that’s a bad idea, as it’s likely to result in a pretty large loss of efficiency in both training and competition. In this post, I’m going to offer a basic strategy to learn your way out of this tendency.

First, let’s talk about efficiency. What I mean is this: under perfect circumstances, 100% of your physical capacity is available to you to apply to any given workout. Circumstances never being perfect, you’ll almost never be able to use actual one-hundred percent of your resources. Any reduction of the capacity you’re able to express in a given workout is a reduction in efficiency. Many reductions in efficiency are due to factors outside of your control – anything from a poor night’s sleep to an extra long workday to someone moving your box between rounds. Let’s say that on an average day, you have 90% of your physical capacity available to you.

In general, athletes spend a lot of time and effort trying to avoid reductions in efficiency – paying attention to sleep, food, hydration, stress levels, and the like. But even very good athletes sometimes fail to take seriously the tactical component of a workout – that’s what I call CrossFit Calvinball.

Playing Calvinball with your workout is a completely avoidable reduction in efficiency. By going in without a plan, you commit yourself to figuring it out as you go. To some extent you will always have to do this, even with a plan – the map is not the territory. But with a map, you’re able to make detours that make sense within the greater context of the workout, rather than floating in space looking for something to grab onto.

The good news is that it’s really easy to start improving on this habit, and the dividends can be massive. Take three steps:

  1. Five minutes of planning before the workout. In particular, you want to establish what the limiting factor of the workout is (I take this concept to be fairly self-explanatory, but will aim to write a more in-depth post about it in the future.) Once you know what the limiting factor is, you can plan around it. The most important things to plan for are your rep breaks and your rest times. Rep breaks are how you break up the sets of movements in the workout – 30 Chest-to-Bar in three sets of 10, five sets of six, or something else? Rest times are the amount of time you’ll take between sets and between movements. If you’ve ever read my Open strategy posts, you’ll be very familiar with the dictum rest on the clock, not in your head. Your head is a liar. It will tell you that it’s been five seconds when it’s been fifteen. Your rests must be measured against the clock.

  2. In the workout, make changes as you go, and do your best to keep track of them. The key is that the changes are measurable. If you planned to do your 30 chest-to-bar in sets of 10, but isn’t working out, make a specific decision to switch to sets of eight – don’t just hop on the bar and see what feels good. If you need to drop lower again, that’s fine…just do it with intention. Same goes for rest periods. If you planned on five seconds but that isn’t enough, pick a number and rest that long, rather than just feeling it out.

  3. Review your work. When you’re done, compare your original gameplan against the way things actually shook out. This will both give you data for more effective gameplanning in the future, as well as help you get a clearer picture of where your capacity stands in any given movement.

Calvinball is fun, but save it for Sunday mornings. Come to game time with a game plan and reap the rewards.