CrossFit SV Beginner’s Ladder

By Judd Xavier and Tom Rankin

In Basics, Coaching, CrossFit

October 21, 2008

PDF Article

CrossFit beginners have special needs. They need to learn how to correctly perform exercises and also to build the general and specific fitness to endure intense WODs (Workouts of the Day). One tool that CrossFit Silicon Valley has found useful to help create a strong foundation is what they call the “SV Beginner’s Ladder,” a relatively simple routine that ramps newbies up toward prescribed CrossFit benchmarks.

The Beginner’s Ladder focuses on three bodyweight exercises: the squat, push-up and pull-up. As a group, these exercises are hard to beat for a number of reasons, and are appropriate for CrossFit rookies and veterans alike. As equipment-free (save a pull-up bar) bodyweight exercises, the squat, push-up and pull-up are important because they each teach beginners how to coordinate their body parts in motion before attempting to control themselves with additional resistance.

In this article, Judd Xavier and Tom Rankin explain the ladder in detail, and how to use it with various levels of beginning CrossFitters.



26 Comments on “CrossFit SV Beginner’s Ladder”


wrote …

I don't quite understand. It says,

"Initially do the three-exercise routine outlined in each Rung for 10 minutes, increasing to 20 minutes as fitness develops."

Ok. Does that mean, in a single session, do rung 1, then 2, then 3, and continue up the rungs, until 10 minutes is up? And increase the time limit as performance improves?

Or, does it mean, do rung 1 as many times as possible within 10 minutes, then next session do rung 2 as many times as possible within 10 minutes, and so on, and increase the time limit as conditioning improves?

I've been trying crossfit for a couple of months and my progress has been really slow (I come from a very sedentary background with some running, and I'm extremely skinny, 6'3" 169#), I'm thinking of backing up to this program for a couple of weeks to try to give myself a boost.


replied to comment from Edward Henigin

Hi Edward,

Way to be consistent!
Ramping up to high intensity work is a major step toward your CrossFit success. I think this is a good bridge toward being able to tackle the benchmark WOD's.

Either way works well.

With emphasis on full range of motion and good form, you can work your way up the ladder and stop where your form breaks due to fatigue. If your movement is decent and have range of motion integrity up to the third rung (reaching that chin over the bar on the 3rd pull-up) you may now do as many rounds as possible (9,6 and 3 reps) in 10 minutes.

Shoot for 15 rounds on 20 minutes, then move up a rung.

Try other triplets like the front squat, push press and sumo deadlift high pull especially if those movements need improvement.

Take notes when you scale the loads with bands or go heavy.

Advanced CrossFitters may begin on the first rung on a ring dip, 1.5 x body weight deadlift and .75 x bodyweight clean triplet. This is a great way to prepare for a kick ass "Linda", "Diane" or "Elizabeth" benchmark!

Again, focus on the form especially with more complex movements like the push jerks and cleans.


wrote …

Look into using Starting Strength (SS) for a few months to pack on some bodyweight. Once you get to the 190-195lbs mark, start transitioning back to the WOD's. The extra muscle will make a huge difference and should allow you to make quicker progress in your WOD times/performances. Three to six months of SS will do wonders for you. Good luck...



wrote …

This great, thank a lot. We can't have too many ways to start people.


wrote …

Where is your evidence that using Starting Strength for a few months gives an advantage over CrossFitting for that period? If your argument were correct, we'd see accomplished powerlifters coming in and dominating CrossFit WODs after some exposure. I don't know of a single example of that. Oly lifting, yes. Powerlifting, no.

Now, if you can provide measurable, observable, repeatable evidence showing that beginners who do Starting Strength for several months before starting CrossFit outperform beginners who do only CrossFit across broad time and modal domains, we will rewrite the "Start Here" section of the site and give you (and Rip) credit. I'll even send you $5,000 if you do. But I'm confident my money is safe because I have worked directly and indirectly with thousands of beginners over the last 4+ years, and it's simply not true.

The best way to develop capacity across broad time and modal domains (which is the best definition of general fitness we know) is to do a wide variety of functional movements at relatively high intensity. Limiting yourself to a few functional movements in a single time domain does not have the same broad impact on your development. Just because Edward is skinny does not mean that the first step should be to bulk up. The first step is to start moving correctly. Ladders like this are excellent tools.


wrote …

This is helpful. I've been doing scaled down versions of Crossfit for about a month. I'm way overweight (5-10, 244), which I'm working on. I can't do a pull up. However, I have access to a weight-assisted pull up machine at the Y. Should I do pull ups using the least assistance possible? Or substitute other exercises until I can do a pull up?


replied to comment from edward wills

Yes! Start with enough assistance for you to get 1 pull up to start with first rung. Roll through as many rounds of 3,2,1 reps as possible. Your pulling muscle will soon catch up to your presumably stronger pushing muscles.

You can always do TRX or Ring rows and start higher on the rungs if your squat and push up form is solid.


Michael Chase wrote …

I appreciate what Tony Budding says "if you can provide measurable, observable, repeatable evidence" ... clear and concise.


Jeff Martin wrote …

I'm with Tony and appreciative of his stand here. We have long understood that segmented training leads to segmented capacity. Pursuing a single parameter of fitness to the exclusion of all others will not increase work capacity over broad time and modal domains as Tony points out.


wrote …

I have no direct evidence other than the numerous posts I read on the Crossfit forum that made the same suggestion to me over a year ago. When I started Crossfit I struggled to make progress due to what I think was a lack of strength. I was scaling everything without making progress. On the forum I found several suggestions to use starting strength for 3-6 months and then jump back into the WOD's. I did so and it helped tremendously. I was able to do my first Fran as Rx'd within the first few weeks back on the WOD's. The reason I followed the advice in the first place is due to an article regarding the crossfit total and why it was implemented. It stated something about those with an established strength base always made faster initial progress in the WOD's than those coming from an endurance background. All of this advice worked wonders for me and I thought I would just pass it on to Edward. I'm sorry if it ruffled some feathers, it was not meant to. I take it from the tone of your post that this issue (or advice) probably comes up frequently and is possibly a sore subject. Again, I am sorry aa I meant no disrespect to crossfit.



wrote …

This is a great article! My wife wants to start crossfit, however, she has never been into fitness. I was wondering how I could ease her into crossfit. Now I know. Thanks again CF community.


wrote …

No disrespect taken (at least by me). I know the advice is passed around commonly, but I have never seen any evidence of its merit. Don't hear in this that I think Starting Strength is not effective for building strength. What I question is its superiority over CrossFit in progressing beginners along the path of a broad, general, and inclusive fitness.

Your story is interesting. Can you email me a fuller description of it. What were you doing before CrossFit? How did you start? Did you work with a trainer, an affiliate, or just off the website? If the website, what information off the site did you use to scale the workouts? What did those scaled workouts look like? How did you determine which workouts to do? How and where did you implement SS? What gains did you see? What was the re-entry to CrossFit like? What was your diet like? Did you make any changes to your diet throughout this process? When did all this occur? What are you doing now? How is the current progress?

I suspect that your story could make a great Journal article itself. My role is not to promote any one particular approach to working out. The CrossFit Journal is a source for information about, and support for attaining, measurable, observable, repeatable fitness. If your experience is typical in any way (either that SS is in fact a better way for at least some folks to start CrossFit or that the information you had about how to start CrossFit was inadequate to get the results that I personally see all the time), sharing that experience should benefit all beginners and trainers alike.

This is also an invitation to anyone else reading this that has a relevant experience to send it in. We all want results, and the more information we have about what really works, the better choices we can make.



replied to comment from edward wills

Hi Edward! Yeah, I have trouble with pullups, too. I love to use the Gravitron machine (weight-assisted pullups and dips) and use about 50% of my bodyweight as the counterweight to work on pullup strength. Sometimes I'll do 21 reps-15 reps-9 reps to simulate "Fran" or use even more counterweight to do "Angie." As long as you utilize full range of motion and proper technique plus give it everything you got, you'll still be a CrossFitter :^)


wrote …

I have a question; I am 48 and embarassingly out of shape. To use this ladder program to reach a starting point to begin the regular program, is the ladder to be used every other day, daily, or some other scheule?

Thank you,


wrote …

Like all WOD's (Workout of the day), the ladder is another benchmark WOD. You can "test" yourself once per week much like we we use "Fran" (21-15-9 thrusters and pull-ups) to test our overall work capacity. The ladder is easier and focuses on technique, therefore you can use more often since it is not meant to exhaust you right away. However, you can pick up the intensity and do as many rounds as possible for time through the various rungs. Example: 20 rounds on rung 3 last month, and then 10 rounds on rung 5 a week later, then 3 weeks later 16 on rung 5- Time to move up to rung 6!

Now try the ladder using different triplets (3 exercises other than Squats, Push-ups and pull-ups). Try Double unders, Sit-ups and burpees!

Follow the CrossFit suggested 3 on 1 off cycle. Of the three training type (Metabolic conditioning, Gymnastics, Weightlifting) the ladder is mostly technique based and can take elements from all three depending on the exercises chosen!

I hope this helps



replied to comment from Judd Xavier

Thank you. That was very helpful. As long as I work in triplets 3 0n-1 off to the best of my ability I should be ok.


wrote …

I have a shoulder problem that I have been dealing with for over a year (rotator cuff with complications). Is there some other movement to replace the pull-up that could also be effective (especially when the assisted dip/chin maching is unavailable)?




replied to comment from Valerie Wutti

I'm assuming that you are working out in a big box gym (such as Gold's). If this is the case you have two options if you still want to progress towards doing pull ups. I'm also assuming that you can't do a pull-up or at least not many due to the assisted pull up machine. So here goes:

Option #1: Stretch bands
You can search in the forum to find more about them but they are essentially large rubber bands. You can take them into the gym and quickly loop them around a regular pull-up bar and step into them. They will assist you. Different bands provide different resistance so you might consider a set.

Option #2: Body weight rows
There are many ways to do this but I'll focus on the easiest way to do this in a gym. You go find a Smith machine (one of the machines that has a bar that goes up and down on a track) and lower the bar to a appropriate level. Most Smith machines have two hooks on either side that will catch on pens. Once you lower the bar grab it with both hands and kick your feet out in front of you and pull your chest to the bar. The motion will be somewhat similar to a reverse push-up. The closer you are to laying flat the harder it will probably be. Experiment with different levels until it feels right.

Also you should probably ice your shoulder after to work out to keep the inflammation down. Try to avoid Advil and its kin because it can reduce your strength gains. Take it slow and build up your shoulder muscles and your strength and hopefully you can make the entire progression.


replied to comment from Shane Scott

I can second Shane's experience, it is similar to my own.

I have started CrossFit twice. The first time I did no supplemental weight lifting. Just did the WODs - sometimes scaling and sometimes not. I did have a qualified instructor and I was already somewhat strong in limited areas. On a good day I could do about 60-70 fairly strict pushups. Then along came one of the WODs requiring body weight bench presses. I wrecked a shoulder doing it.

After shoulder reconstruction, physical therapy, and a very careful few months on Starting Strength (SS) I am back to doing the WODs. My metcons still suck but are coming along, and the heavy lifts are not nearly as threatening this time around. I credit the improved strength and security in the heavy lifts to the SS program. Also, since I dropped the SS workouts my heavy lifts have been getting weaker. This is a disappointing result since I expected the heavy lifts to continue increasing, but possibly at a slower rate while doing just the WODs.

John Schroeder


wrote …

Crossfit Members,

My name is Jeremy Brinkley. I am a 22 yr old Marine currently in Iraq. I am 5-11 195 lbs. I am definitely not as lean as I want to be though. Being in the Marine Corps I find myself to be in well enough shape to move up the Beginners Ladder quickly. Where do I need to look, or what do I need to do to get on a concentrated crossfit workout for myself. Any information or suggestions for a beginner is greatly appreciated.



wrote …

Hi! I drank the Kool-aid and discovered that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak! Because of my poor physical condition...5'6" and 220lbs I was getting pretty discouraged until I discovered the ladder, which I have been doing for about 10 days. My problem is that I can't do a pull-up. I've built a pull-up bar in my garage, purchased some elastic bands, and started dieting (1/1/09). In ten days I have seen some progress re: the pull-up.

My fitness plan is as follows:
Mon, Wed, Fri: 15 minute warm up on stationary bike, then the ladder-rung 1 for 20 minutes.
Tue, Thu, Sat: cardio for 45 minutes with strong emphasis on intervals (run/walk; timed intervals on bike; skipping rope--alternating these for diversity)

This morning I did a 15 minute warm-up and then rung 1 (3 squats, 2 push-ups, and 1 pull-up) for 28 rounds in 20 minutes. My squats are easy, my push-ups seem about right because I can barely finish them at the end, but my pull-ups still suck. Even with the elastic bands my form sucks and I can barely get my nose to the bar.

I have two questions: 1) when do I advance to rung 2, and 2) am I on the right track or would I better off doing something else?

Thanks for your suggestions.


wrote …

Hi Ryan,

With respect to the 3 exercises, the pull up is where you "suck at"- so, work on your pull-up technique often. With bands, they do not have to be strict pull ups. You should add a little body English on them (kip). Check out this video I found on Vimeo from CrossFit Rockwall-

Congratulations on your progress. You may need stronger bands or if you must, resort to jumping pull ups!



replied to comment from Judd Xavier

"TRX or Ring"? I'm a newbie and appreciate the ladder strategy. I don't have access to all the equipment or a coach (I am deployed) - so simplicity in explanation is helpful. Crossfit has a language all of its own.



replied to comment from Allysa Kropp

Hey all,
I love this forum!!
I'm new to Crossfit and after a number of false starts am ready to go again. I'm excited about the whole thing--I did a few sets of air squats in the bathroom at work yesterday during my 12 hour shift, LOL--but have minimal endurance so far. Looking forward to learning along with other beginners. With regard to the ladder, are these squats body weight only (air squats) or are they supposed to be with a PVC pipe or actual bar? And does anyone have advice for how to get my squat to be less "folded in half" (meaning I have very little flexibility in my back and have a hard time sitting back on my heels and staying balanced).

Be well and Thanks for the inspiration everybody :)


replied to comment from Anna Engberg

Hi Anna,
At least in the beginning, I'd expect the squats are actually air squats. The article suggested other types of squats as variety, with a progression of weights, as you advance. Likely you want to improve your air squat form before trying, say, an overhead squat; if you're struggling to maintain lumbar curve and an vertical torso, the OHS could be a disaster. Or a challenge that forces improvements that translate to a better air squat :) What do I know?

Try heading to the message boards :

There are forums for Starting, Exercises as well as Digital Coaching that may provide better info.



replied to comment from Tony Budding

very disappointed by the tone of your response here. One of the things that makes crossfit great is its open source nature and its open-arms approach to methods that WORK. Responding to what somebody is sharing that worked for them in such a combative manner is sure to make others reluctant to share their knowledge in the future.

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