How to break through a CrossFit plateau

One of the most effective aspects of CrossFit training is its variety. Not only does the daily variety of stimuli help keep athletes interested in training, but it also serves the important function of staving off a plateau well into your training life.

When does a plateau occur?

Let’s set some parameters for this discussion and assume that you are training consistently for at least three hours per week. If you’re struggling to get in the minimum effective training time, your plateau is more behavioral than physiological.








For most consistent trainees, the plateau in this graph usually represents the 18-24 month mark in their training. You’ll see that improvement happens very rapidly at first but then slows as time goes on.

Why does this occur? 

This plateau can be summed up simply: The thing that resulted in you initial fitness won’t be the thing that improves your next phase of fitness. There are two distinct types of plateaus that are caused by basic physiology. As I’ve talked about before, continued improvements in fitness require that you not violate the SAID principle: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. In short, you can’t run the same speed and distance or lift the same weight at the same speed and expect to improve. In CrossFit, we measure the improvement of fitness with power.

Power = Work / Time

Let’s turn back time 20 years and look at our old formula to understand the new formula. Back in the days of leotards and body-building, we didn’t have a tight definition of improved fitness. That’s because how your body looks was superior to how your body performs.

In bodybuilding, the formula looks like this: cause as much muscle fiber damage as possible during training, then eat enough calories to put on muscle but not excess body fat. 

Still a pretty simple formula, but very few people with full time jobs and families have the time to effectively train this way for years without a plateau. That’s why most of your “globo-gyms” are set up to encourage this type of training. They know that you’ll never show up after six weeks, so they over-sell their memberships by a factor of 10. Imagine an airline sells 10 times the seats on each flight, knowing that only 10% of the people who have paid them will board the plane.

So we changed the formula of fitness. Power encompasses performance, not just looks. But — turns out — power also has favorable benefits to physique. Win-win.

Plateau type 1: You’re not doing enough.

In our power equation, “work” can be reflective of the size of a dumb bell, a wall ball, the distance you run, or the calories you row. “Time” is simply how long that work took you to do; either the total time it took to perform the workout or the nanoseconds it took for your elbows to turn around on a clean.

The first type of plateau occurs when you settle into the same “work” each time. Type 1’s were usually very intimidated at the thought of CrossFit and barbells and relative intensity. You probably spent upwards of 12 months considering even stepping foot into an introductory class.


Nice work!!! But still in the back of your mind there is this nagging fear of failure. That you don’t want to try too hard and fall flat on your face.

I’m not advocating for unsafe movements or loads whatsoever. 

I’m saying that you’ll need to eventually swap out your 10# wall ball for a 14# wall ball. You’ll need to get knocked down the mountain just a tad in order to push through this plateau. It will feel as uncomfortable as day 1, but it’s absolutely necessary.

Is this me?

  • Track your workout times for a week and make note of where you fall in relation to the intent and the rest of class. If you’re 10% or more under that number, choose something each day that is just a tad more difficult than you normally would.
  • Make a mental note of your fellow athletes’ post-workout response. Are they writhing on the floor in a heap of sweat after one of Coach Josh’s “Impossible WODs?” If you had the energy to notice someone else’s response or performance, you probably weren’t doing enough. 

Plateau type 2: You’re doing too much.

This one is a little more difficult to diagnose because your judgement is clouded. You were plateau type 1 at some point and then you took my advice and did more. And it worked!

You started to do “Rx” weights and you maybe even started seeing yourself at the top of a few leaderboards. So you did more of what worked the first time. But then your equation got a little top heavy.

A top-heavy power equation results in injury, fatigue, weight gain, and — hopefully this is the one you recognize first — a decrease in performance. 

A top heavy power equation inevitably leads to a lower “time” in the bottom half of the power equation. By nature, an empty-barbell thruster will travel at a greater speed than a bodyweight thruster. But there’s a balance in there that must be met. Here’s an example workout to illustrate this point:

5 Rounds for time of: 

5 Power Cleans, 225 / 155
10 Handstand Push Ups
15 Wall Balls, 30 / 20

Intent: sub-12:00

Pretty nasty workout, right? But, what makes it “nasty”? The sub-12:00 intent. This intent exists to create balance in your power output equation; it assumes ~2:00 rounds. 2:00 rounds means that your power cleans will need to be quick singles with less than 5 seconds rest in between, your handstand push-ups unbroken, and your heavy wall balls unbroken.

But “time” in the power equation isn’t just your WOD time. It’s also the speed at which you lock out a push-up or the micro-second turnaround time on your dumb bell snatch.

The question you ask yourself becomes not “can I do that” but rather “can I do that with the power output required to meet the intent.”

If the intent were sub-22:00, we’re shooting for a low power-output stimulus. You can do those heavy power cleans every :45, you can break up your handstand push-ups into slow, slogging sets, and you can do three sets of five wall-balls. Same workout, entirely different stimulus. Both versions of this workout have a place in your training — you’ll need to start to recognize the difference.

I’d personally opt for a 175# power clean, stick with the HSPU as written (they’re a strength of mine), and do 2 rounds of 30# WB & 3 rounds @ 20#. Could I power clean 225? Yes. But it’d be sluggish, outside the intent, and result in me having a worse overall power clean than when I started.

Are you type 2?

  • You’ve been time-capped more than twice a year for reasons of load or gymnastics complexity (time caps are typically set 15-20% outside intent; i.e. shouldn’t happen).
  • You’ve thought “yeah Bill got a faster time than me, but I did the ‘rx’ weight”
  • There is a big discrepancy between your efficiency in one area vs. another; this is typically endurance/strength or strength/gymnastics.

What everyone can do about it.

  1. Don’t use a WOD to get better at gymnastics or stronger on a barbell. This will result in poor power output, making your plateau even worse.
  2. Take a video of yourself. Set up your phone against a chalk bucket and look at your lifts compared to someone you’d consider “fast” or “snappy” in their lifts (i.e. Coach Mindy). Use weights that have you looking like her in a conditioning workout.
  3. EMOMs are the best thing, ever. You’re likely here 5-10 minutes before or after class starts. Use that time to work on something. Here are some of my favorite ways to get better:
    1. 10:00 EMOM of 2x Snatch: start with an empty bar, adding 10-20 pounds each minute. Make note of the weight at which your reps slow down.
    2. 5:00 EMOM: 3x PERFECT handstand push-ups
    3. 5:00 EMOM: 5x butterfly pull-ups, adding 1 rep each minute
  4. Only good reps count; bad reps subtract. There’s a lot of debate on the “10,000 hour” rule. But, let’s use it for the sake of argument. Performing 10,000 power cleans will not make you world class. Performing 10,000 excellent power cleans just may. BUT each sluggish power clean performed while fatigued will count against your 10,000.

Be patient when pushing past a plateau. Just like climbing mountains, there are times when you’ll need to backtrack in order to find a path of less resistance. You got this!