Against the WOD Culture

You've seen it before: before the class, the coach jots down a workout on a whiteboard. It may follow a common protocol, such as:

  • Warm-Up
  • Skill
  • Strength
  • Metabolic Conditioning
  • Cool-Down

Within that framework, the exercises vary in mostly random fashion. And not just the exercises—the sets, reps, and rest intervals are randomized as well. So one day you're squatting heavy with a barbell for 5 sets of 5 reps. But then you might not repeat that squat protocol for 4, 6, or 8 weeks. In between you'll do lots of other kinds of squatting (wall balls, overhead squats, pistol squats etc.), but there's no consistent application of the exercise prescription.

This is the essence of what I refer to as WOD Culture: the "workout of the day." Popularized by CrossFit but imitated by countless others, WOD Culture is a pervasive force in our modern fitness culture. It's easy to see why: it's actually not very difficult for a relatively inexperienced trainer to put together a brutally demanding workout. For example, following the skeleton protocol above, I'll randomly put this together:

  • Bodyweight squats, hip hinges, and shoulder dislocates, 3 sets of 10 each
  • Pistol Squat instruction
  • Deadlift, build to a maximum triple
  • Ladder 10 to 1 of two-arm kettlebell snatches and pull-ups, done for time
  • 1 kilometer row

That could probably be done in an hour pretty easily, and it'd be really hard—especially if you use enough weight for the snatches and/or you're not very good at pull-ups. And for clients spending their hard-earned money on a personal trainer or coach, that's the appeal: it feels like you've accomplished something. It was a brutal workout, but you did it! Great job! You're hot, sweaty, and tired, and you get a nice endorphin kick from the fatigue to give you that coveted post-workout high. 

But where does this workout fit in with your overall goals? What specifically is it doing to get you there? Are you getting progressively stronger? How do you know? Is your work capacity objectively increasing? How do you know? 

Mark Rippetoe, founder of Starting Strength, famously opined that there is a difference between exercising and training. Training is structured. It takes into account your needs, abilities, and goals, and gives you a concrete plan to achieve them. Success is planned—not accidental. The latter, by contrast, is haphazardly tossed together with little or no long-term structure. 

Clients in the general public, simply because they don't know any better, can easily confuse tough workouts for effective workouts. Effective workouts might, on any given day, not be particularly exhausting. Other days, they might put you on the floor. But in a sound training program, the coach understands that intensity must necessarily be varied; loads, rep, ranges, and exercises may indeed change, but they change methodically—not randomly. 

For example, let's say that a coach wants to increase an athlete's tolerance to higher-volume training. Research indicates that increases in volume are highly effective for increasing strength [1], but it takes time for the athlete to acclimate to the neurological and metabolic demands of increased volume. So as volume increases, loads should initially decrease. Over time, loads can be increased—first across a small number of total sets, and gradually across a higher number of total sets. If the coach simply increases the volume without adjusting the load, the athlete will quickly experience symptoms of overtraining. When workouts are essentially randomized as they are in WOD Culture, there's no way to plan for acclimation to increased volume. So the athlete will experience unusual fatigue on high-volume days, and average or low fatigue on lower-volume days. How do you know the athlete is improving? Without concrete metrics, it's impossible to say.

There's an important caveat here: that randomized workouts can still be productive and effective. They're not a waste of time, per se; they're just not the most efficient use of time. A good coach can still make workouts fun and interesting without abandoning planned progress through well-structured program design. But coaches do have the responsibility to educate their athletes on what to expect from such a program, and often what the athlete associates with strength and fitness is driven by cultural norms and social pressure rather than sound science and experienced coaching. Let's educate and guide our clients rather than kowtow to misguided expectations.