In the early days of CrossFit, many people and gyms trained simply by following the CrossFit main site programming. As the time went on, though, more and more people took an interest in the programming behind their results. Now, there are thousands of different programs available.
Many of the successful and well-known gyms have made their programs available online for free, like The Outlaw Way, Competitors Training, CrossFit Invictus, and OPEX Fitness. There are numerous gyms that design and follow their own specific programming. We have also seen a significant rise in the number of external programmers who offer custom-made programs to gym owners for a price.
So what method is best? Should you do your own gym programming, follow one of the popular sites, or hire an external programmer?
There are pros and cons to all three options, and that is exactly what I will be covering in this article. As a gym owner, the ultimate decision is up to you – neither I nor anyone else can tell you what is right. But what I can do is provide insight into the matter and help you make a more informed decision.
Over the past month, I spoke with a number of different box owners and coaches who have been involved with CrossFit for a number of years to find out what they have to say and what has given them the most success.
Following Your Own Program
Every coach I spoke to owns or is the head programmer for his or her own gym. Each of these gyms has its own distinct style of programming and specialty areas. Despite their differences, one thing everyone agreed upon is that the biggest benefit of programming for your own gym is the ability to tailor everything to your athletes. As a box-owner and coach, you know your space and athletes best, which means you can take into account things like:
- Individual strengths, weaknesses, and goals
- Space limitations
- Equipment availability
An external programmer may be at a disadvantage as they will be less familiar with your space, equipment, and athletes. Jesse Bifano, from CrossFit Squamish, says he often makes small adjustments from week to week based on what he sees on the gym floor. This is something that would be almost impossible without daily interaction with clients.
Another benefit of programming yourself, according to Simon Damborg from RainCity Athletics, is that it forces you to pay attention to the process and understand the reasoning behind each and every movement. Throwing together a bunch of movements that can make an athlete sweat and give them a good workout is one thing, but what about putting together a program that:
- Develops our strengths
- Minimizes our weaknesses
- Reduces risk of injury
- Makes us as well rounded as possible
- Requires a thorough understanding of training philosophy and can help you be a better coach
The number one drawback mentioned by everyone I interviewed was the amount of time programming can consume. Building a program that is specifically designed for your athletes can create superior results, but it can also be a huge time commitment. And time is something gym owners may not have.
Gym owners, especially those who own smaller boxes, are responsible for many different aspects of keeping the business running – like customer service, coaching, finances, cleaning, etc. – and finding the time to sit down to develop a good program can be a challenge. Although the amount of time taken to write programming varied between gym owners depending on their process, every person I interviewed said they typically dedicate several hours to the task each week.
In addition to the amount of time programming can consume, another potential downside is programming biases that reflect the biases of the programmer. It is important to be aware of our own strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Otherwise, it is easy to fall into the trap of programming the stuff we like/are good at and ignoring aspects we need to work on.
Hiring an External Programmer
If the main drawback for doing your own programming is the time commitment, then it comes as little surprise that one of the biggest benefits to hiring an external programmer is the amount of time it can free up. This can be a big selling point for gyms in which the owner handles the bulk of managing the business by themselves.
Another benefit to working with an external programmer is that it can introduce you to different styles of programming and training methods. Or, as Kevin Hughes from FTF Fitness put it, “There is more than one way to skin the cat.” (Kevin programs for his own gym, as well as a number of other gyms as an external programmer.)
And last but not least, Simon Damborg pointed out that many people find it challenging to program for themselves and/or follow their own programming, which means as a coach/gym owner it may be beneficial for you as an athlete if someone else is telling you what to do.
Outsourcing the programming can free hours of your time, but a hired programmer can get pricey and even the best programming isn’t worth it if you do not have the income to support it. Simon from RainCity considered hiring an external programmer when his gym first opened, but he ruled it out in the end because the anticipated cost ($300-400/month) simply did not fit into his budget.
Keep in mind that prices may vary significantly depending on how a programmer sets their fees. Kevin of FTF Fitness says he typically charges $100/month, not because he doesn’t value his program, but because he wants to make it accessible to small businesses. “We’re here to make a difference, not break the bank,” he told me.
Another potential drawback of outsourcing your programming is that it may not be as specific to your gym’s needs as you would like. As a gym owner, you interact with your athletes on a regular basis, which means you can see how they are progressing or not progressing and adjust accordingly. An external programmer doesn’t get the same interaction, and without this feedback, he or she will have less understanding of what your athletes need.
Following a ‘.com’ Website
There are numerous programs available online from gyms such as Invictus, Outlaw, and OPEX. Many people are drawn to these programs because they are free, convenient, and these gyms generate many top-level athletes. Good athletes don’t happen accidentally, and if a gym can create multiple top-level athletes can be an indicator they know what they are doing.
Following a program from a website is one-sided and non-specific. By that I mean, there is no opportunity for feedback and adjustment. Yes, it may be convenient, but it does not and cannot take the needs of your athletes or any equipment limitations into account. As a result, you may end up spending more time than anticipated adjusting the workouts to fit the needs of your gym. Even then, the programming may be less than ideal for your athletes because it doesn’t properly address their needs.
According to Jesse, one of the biggest things we have to realize as coaches is that “using someone else’s system, [even if it works really well elsewhere], doesn’t guarantee success because there are too many factors that exist off spreadsheet to account for.”
Instead, Jesse recommends you borrow ideas, movements, and concepts from great coaches and gyms, but build your own system and template into which you can incorporate these things. Initially it may be slower than simply copying and pasting someone else’s work, but if you pay attention you will become a smarter and greater coach for it.
How to Handle Your Gym Programming
Each programming option has pros and cons to take into consideration. Before you make a final decision as to which route you will take, I recommend sitting down with a list of these pros and cons and comparing them to your:
- Available resources (time, money, etc.)
If money is an issue for you, then hiring an external programmer may not be the best option. On the other hand, if you have the financial resources but are consistently short on time, it may be a worthwhile investment. If you decide to follow one of the main sites, keep the needs of your gym in mind and remember you may need to adjust elements in order to get the results you want.
Whichever route you take, try to learn as much as you can in the process – either from programming or from watching how others do it – as this can help you become a better coach in the long run.