Variability and Randomness

By Jon Gilson

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 17, 2006.]

Crossfit programming is "constantly varied". The immense variety of workouts is meant to prevent stagnation by continually imposing new stressors onto the athlete. This process ensures that the athlete is in a constant state of inadequate adaptation. The workouts never become rote. 

The workout template has been quantified in general terms in the Crossfit Journal (March 2004). The three day cycle consists of: 

A day of "blistering intensity"
A focus day
A day of "blistering intensity"

Within this template, you can impose endless variation. You can also willfully ignore the template for the sake of further variation. I'm going to focus on this second form of variation.

Imagine a very large jar filled with marbles, each marble representing a unique workout. We draw a marble from the jar each day, determining the WOD. Assume that each marble has an equal chance of being selected, regardless of its place within the jar. If we select a marble each day, and then replace it, there is a chance (however slight) that we may select it again on a successive draw. Using this model, there is a chance that we could end up doing the same workout two days in a row.

Using the traditional Crossfit template, this could not happen. We have two separate jars--the "intensity" jar and the "focus" jar. Because we draw from different jars on different days, we cannot get the same workout twice. 

Chad Waterbury, a trainer at T-nation, makes an interesting point regarding repetition of the same exercise on successive days. He notes that in an untrained population, those with the most hypertrophy of a given bodypart are those who use that bodypart every day. Mechanics have big forearms, lumberjacks have broad backs, and basketball players have huge calves. 

Of course, we already know that we can induce muscle growth by working the same muscle group on successive days. We often explain our distain for bodypart splits by saying that life does not care what you did yesterday. It may make you use the same muscles to do the same thing today.

Does this idea extend to the constant variability of Crossfit? Should we distain a switch between "intensity" and "focus" the way we distain bodypart splits? Can we shock our bodies into greater speed and strength by working the same muscle group in the same way two days in a row?

Randomness, as demonstrated by our marble model, would predict that this scenario would occur sooner or later. Eventually, chaos dictates we do the same workout two days in a row. The idea of variation through lack of variation is counter-intuitive, but nonetheless valid. 

I'm going to try this out. It could be totally insane, or mildly revolutionary. Then again, I've found that everything worth doing is usually one or the other.

Jon Gilson is the founder of Again Faster and former member of CrossFit’s Level I Seminar staff. Photograph of Russell Berger courtesy of Evan Saint Clair at the JournalMENU.