Weakness Bias Training

By Dan Williams

In Rest Day/Theory

March 08, 2010

PDF Article

Dan Williams proposes CrossFit athletes are only as strong as their weakest links and suggests a way to train these weaknesses to produce better all-around athletes.

The essence of CrossFit lies in its ability to define the previously undefined. Pioneering definitions have been created for such concepts as fitness, health and work capacity. Let’s consider CrossFit as an adjective rather than a noun. I am CrossFit, as opposed to I do CrossFit. This also deserves defining. What is it to be “CrossFit?” I propose that you are CrossFit if you are generally physically prepared for the unknown and the unknowable. It comes back to that random physical task you would least like to see come out of the hopper. I propose your performance in this least-favorite task is your true measure of CrossFitness.

You are only as strong as the weakest link in your exercise chain. The weight hanging on the end of this chain is your level of general physical preparedness (GPP). The more the chain can support, the higher your GPP. If each link in this metaphorical chain represents a component of fitness (cardiorespiratory endurance, stamina, strength, etc.), the focus of training should be obvious. The first link to snap and drop your GPP is the weakest link. To increase GPP, our weaknesses should not simply be overcome but rather improved to match our strengths. To quote Coach Glassman in What Is Fitness?, “You are as fit as you are competent in each of these 10 skills.” Perhaps this could be narrowed to state, “You are only as fit as you are proficient in your weakest skill.”

We have a CrossFit strength bias, a CrossFit endurance bias and, for argument’s sake, a CrossFit power bias (CrossFit Football). So why not a CrossFit weakness bias?

Free Download


10 Comments on “Weakness Bias Training”


wrote …

Great Article and lots to think about. Just to be picky though I don't like diagram 5. It shows an athlete with a high power output yet lacking in speed. I don't know if that is possible since power is derived from strength and speed. I would even go so far as to take power out of the 10 fitness skills since it is an additive skill that is dependent and cannot exist without speed and strength. Maybe I am out to lunch...I did have to get up pretty early today :)


Monique Ames wrote …

Very good article and tremendously helpful idea.
You could even call this "The GOAT Bias"
Theoretically - everything is perfect.

There's one major glitch with the system though due to inherent complexity of CF overall - STRENGTH. Look at Fig 8. Strength is at 8 out of 10. Yet that assumption is true only of Lower Body Strength & Upper Body Horizontal Pressing (due to Linda Rx'ed when the guy is clearly not light).

Yet it's clear that Pull-up strength is a dramatic weakness & yet when the programming is created - a Weighted Pull-up day is subbed with sprints, "Tyler" is subbed with Wall-ball & so forth - thus leaving the biggest weakness undeveloped.

Also at this point we can guess that although the guy is possibly on the heavier side, he can not be that heavy - otherwise the loads on DL, Bench & Clean would be phenomenal and 25:37 with that would be almost a world record.
That means that he's completely terrible with pull-ups.

The other trouble with such a system is that although the theory is cool - practical app is questionable. L pull-up, rope climb, HSPU, Pistols, GHD sit-ups. And who knows what can come up at the Qualifiers.

The specter of movements is extremely broad.

So if the theoretical part is beautiful, but the application part is imperfect - how can we improve upon it?

I'd say in this case a better way would be to develop a specific warm-up regimen that the athlete would do daily to develop the necessary skills/abilities etc.

So for a guy like John CrossFit I'd create a warm-up consisting of Day 1 & Day 2: one day working on Pull-ups, the other on Muscle Ups one time/Rope Climb the next.

Day 1 Warm-up
Pull-ups 5x3 Deadhang
Wall Ball 5x10

Day 2
Pull-ups 3x3 Kip
Rope Climb 3x1
Sprint 100x5 or 200x3

and so forth. Add HSPU, OHS or whatever necessary along the line and break it into 3 day rotation if the list would become too long.

This way it's a very linear type progression that's done often enough to elicit great adaptation & not nearly as random (which in GOAT training is essential, same way a 1 hr snatch extravaganza once a month isn't nearly as effective as 15 minutes of practice once a week for 4 weeks).

Hope this makes sense.

Leo S
CrossFit Evolution


wrote …

Very interesting article and template. I like that the Dan took the article all the way through, from theory to practical application, to give a great example of how this might be applied. Like Leo wrote, there are probably some issues with this application vs. the "standard" GOAT practice which generally includes additional warm-up and practice tacked on to the beginning or end of a WOD.


wrote …

I'm going to echo a lot of what Leo S. said, as his advice mirrors my experience.

I agree with Leo that the idea of quantifying weaknesses, even subjectively, is good for both coach and athlete. Giving yourself hard (less soft?) evidence in the form of numbers will focus you both better.

I strongly agree with Leo that attacking weaknesses as part of the warmup and/or supplemental work has shown the greatest increase in capacity within those weaknesses compared to tweaking programming.

Most weaknesses, if it is not dietary, is modal and either a strength or mobility/flexibility issue is at the heart of it.

If the weakness is something like pullups, it's usually a "skinny guy" that doesn't have the strength or a "big guy" that has to lose body fat or lacks the mobility in the shoulder joint to effectively kip. Your approach to these two athletes shouldn't be the same.

For the "skinny guy" we just need to develop strength. A supplemental plan that we've used frequently with good success is:

Skinny Guy Pullup Development

Day 1
3-5 sets x 10 seconds, Flexed Arm Hang

Day 2
3-5 sets x 5 Negatives, jump up over the bar, slowly lower down to full extension

Day 3
Kipping pullup practice with band. Don’t work to failure, just trying to encourage good muscle memory. If you need more than a blue band, sub Adrian’s Kipping Pullup progression on this day.

Big Guy Pullup Development

If we had a bigger guy, we would obviously tweak his diet (depending on his goals) and work on some serious shoulder mobility. Kelly Starrett and C. J. Martin are good sources for places to start. The same principle applies that we used above: give the athlete 10 minutes a few days per week of warmup/supplemental work.

Developing Everything Else (modally)

The same approach can be taken in commonly challenging movements like Ring Dips, Handstand Pushups, Snatch or Jerk. Identify whether it's a strength or mobility issue. Then prescribe a specific protocol to address that issue.

Developing Everything Else (generally)

For issues like "Stamina" or "Power", I do believe some amount of specific programming is called for. However, within more developed athletes, coaches need to be careful to recognize what can get significantly better, and what can only get a little better.

Trying to get a 30 round Cindy out of a 5'5, 185 lbs, male athlete with a 225 lbs squat snatch and a 295 lbs clean and jerk is going to kill both of you. His capacity in longer body weight based WODs is never going to be at that level, and even if programmed extremely well (focusing on interval based training for these weaknesses, rather than consistent AMRAP 20 minutes WODs) you will nearly always cause more damage than improvement.

Better to make him passable at Cindy and Kelly, and get him to crush Isabel, Grace, and Fran. Both psychologically and physically you will produce a better athlete.


wrote …

Interesting idea and a good general theory that should be applied by most crossfitters, but I would argue a few points:

The chain analogy does not completely hold true (you are not limited by your weakest link) because you can overcome some weaknesses with other strengths. Khalipa is a good example by overcoming poor flexibility with strength. Sure he can improve performance by improving flexibility, but he can also improve it by improving strength or stamina and not working on his flexibility at all. Which is more efficient? I have no idea.

Secondly I would argue that focus on weakness cannot be limited to the 10 general skills (speed, stamina, etc.), rather they are actual skills (muscle ups, handstand pushups, etc.) Specific skills are far more likely to get you a DNF at the games than a lack of power or lack of flexibility. Annie being a great example: it could be argued that she was well rounded in all 10 skills, but just couldn't do a muscle up. Said another way would focusing on power have helped her muscle up? Strength? Flexibility? Or just doing muscle ups?

And finally a question as I didn't know that the CFJ was a peer-reviewed journal--where can I find the reviews? I’m curious to see who was selected to review and what their comments were.


Marco Petrik wrote …

Thank you Dan for that great article, one of the best I´ve read in the Journal.

My suggestions for the weakness-bias would be to include the 4 skills agility, balance, coordination and accuracy. I think sometimes it can be more usefull to practice those skills than to improve a single "trainable" skill. To stay with the example of Annie, I think, like Kyle did, if Annie practiced the musle-up more (coordination, agility, accuracy and balance) also her power and speed would improve (and I´m sure she had enough of them in the games), maybe even more if working them directly. Read the article of Greg Amundson about his struggel with the double unders and the improvements he made practicing them.

Nevertheless great inspiring article and lot to think and discuss about. ;-)
Regards from Munich, Marco


replied to comment from KYLE MARSATON

If improvement in all of the different skills exhibit a saturating exponential behavior as shown in Starting Strength, and all skills feed in equally to one's GPP, then the fastest overall improvement will be garnered by working on the weakest skill.

Said another way, if a trainee has 500 lb. deadlift and is no longer a novice, but has the flexibility equivalent of a 200 lb. deadlift, then he/she ought to devote more time to training flexibility and not strength.

Just an idea :)


wrote …

Seems a lot of these comments (our peer review) have to do with specific skills, and not necessarily the general skills. Specific skills will still have to be trained (reference Annie and her muscle up issue) but I think the weakness bias is more applicable to general skills. It's genius in that simplicity. If the "software" skills (agility, balance, coordination and accuracy) are to be included, perhaps they can be lumped together as a 7th spoke and attacked as such...although it's arguable that all the other general skills develop those skills. Nice work Dan, you gave me something to ponder for an entire day!


Frank DiMeo wrote …

Excellent & well-written!
Thank you for the "useable" information!


replied to comment from brian wilson

Brian said:

"I'm going to echo a lot of what Leo S. said"

What did Leo S. say? I don't see any post from him.

Leave a comment

Comments (You may use HTML tags for style)