gym programming

PRVN: Gym Programming for Elite CrossFit Athletes

It’s Spring TRAINing at PushPress! Today, we're talking to Dwight Upshaw from PRVN Fitness about offering gym programming for elite CrossFit athletes.

Emily Beers
April 11, 2024
PRVN: Gym Programming for Elite CrossFit Athletes
It’s Spring TRAINing at PushPress! Today, we're talking to Dwight Upshaw from PRVN Fitness about offering gym programming for elite CrossFit athletes.

It’s Spring TRAINing at PushPress! All month long, we’re talking to some of the world’s best gym programming companies. We gave them each an opportunity to pick the topic of their choice to help with the success of your business. Today, we’re talking to PRVN Fitness - available on PushPress Train - about programming options for elite CrossFit athletes.

CHECK THIS OUT: For a limited time, you can get 30 days of PRVN programming FREE! Plus, try PushPress Train for 30 days FREE for new subscribers. (Offers valid through April 30, 2024).

Have you ever wondered about the process of programming for a Semifinals or CrossFit Games athlete? One common question is whether athletes with the same coach do the same training, versus having a completely custom program. Another is how far in advance gym programming is written.

And what are the steps involved for elite athletes with an entire year of programming laid out as they prepare for Semifinals or The Games?

Olivia Kerstetter gym programming
PRVN athlete Olivia Kerstetter works on conditioning for the CrossFit Games. (Photo credit: PRVN Fitness)

We spoke with Dwight Upshaw, Director of Global Affiliates for PRVN Fitness, about everything that goes into programming for elite CrossFit athletes. In addition to that role, he’s also the personal coach of a handful of Games athletes, both current and aspiring. These include 2023 rookies Sydney Wells and Olivia Kerstetter, and up-and-comer Luis Oscar Mora.

Three Elements of Gym Programming for Elite Athletes.

1. Identifying Individual Priorities.

Because each athlete is unique, Upshaw said the first step is pinpointing their priorities.

“You look at priorities (first),” he said. “And we want to tackle the priorities and then build the cycle with those priorities in mind.”

For example, Wells’ priorities this season were largely strength work, barbell cycling and gymnastics. For Kerstetter, it was aerobic endurance. Specifically, running was her big focus, especially in the off-season.

This means the two athletes’ programs were completely different from last August until this year’s Quarterfinals. Wells spent the off-season working mainly on gymnastics and barbell. Meanwhile, Kerstetter was logging more than 20 miles over four days each week. Upshaw says the prescribed paces were very specific to her abilities and goals.

One additional factor for the priorities in each athlete’s gym programming is the order of their training. Upshaw places these first on the training list for the day. As an example, Kerstetter’s pure strength is undeniable. But the priority is running, and she isn’t normally accustomed to starting her day that way. So instead of lifting, her first training session was programmed as running.

2. Considering All the Details of the Athlete’s Life.

After training priorities are set, Upshaw said the next step in gym programming is looking at the athlete’s life outside the gym.

For example, Kerstetter is only 18 years old. She was still in high school last season and wanted to attend events like homecoming and prom. So Upshaw was mindful of letting her experience normal teenage things “and have more freedom in life.” Part of the goal was also making sure she doesn’t get burnt out with CrossFit.

Dwight Upshaw from PRVN Fitness
Dwight Upshaw, Director of Global Affiliates for PRVN Fitness. (Photo credit: PRVN Fitness)

On the other hand, Wells is 28 and has more of a consistent schedule. So Upshaw described her program as “much more routine-oriented.” Nevertheless, he also made sure she had the freedom to take some vacation during the off-season.

Meanwhile, former teen CrossFit Games athlete Oscar Mora is trying to break through as an individual in 2024. One of his priorities was to compete more in the off-season, so Upshaw factored that in to Mora’s gym programming. This affected both volume and intensity leading up to the competition.

As a result, Upshaw estimates the three athletes’ programs were 90 percent different from each other. However that will likely change as Semifinals approaches.

“We just need to target the stuff that’s going to come up (at competitions),” he said. “So it makes sense that they’re all hitting more similar things. And very sport-specific CrossFit workouts. And having them have data between each other as we get into the season actually allows them to understand, ‘Ok what is a good score for this?’”

3. Being Prepared to Adjust the Plan.

In general, Upshaw writes each athlete’s gym programming approximately six weeks at a time. But even then, he describes it as a general idea and feel, or a skeleton.

“The biggest thing about programming for individual elite athletes, based on the amount of volume that they hit, is that programming is actually more day-to-day,” he said. “And you’re not going to know how the athlete will do day-to-day until they’re in the thick of it.”

Upshaw explained that it’s a constant process of adjusting and juggling. Sometimes, an athlete’s central nervous system gets drained from the previous day. Other times, someone might feel some pain or the start of an injury, and he has to pivot. He builds the initial roadmap, but knows that the turns may change.

“It’s kind of like Nashville,” he said. “Where it’s constantly under construction so you have to find a new route. It comes down to developing a trusting and communicative relationship with your athletes.”

He sees Wells and checks in almost daily at the gym, and cited Kerstetter with being great at communicating from afar.

Sydney Wells CrossFit Games athlete
Sydney Wells training for the 2024 CrossFit Games. (Photo credit: PRVN Fitness)

“She talks so openly and gives such good feedback,” Upshaw said. “If something comes up, she’s the best at saying, ‘This hurts right now. I’m not going to do it. I cut this.’ And then we adjust for the next couple days and try to bring it back, layer things back in, and she stays healthy that way.”

In Summary: How Gym Programming Looks Different for Elite Athletes.

When it comes to gym programming for elite CrossFit athletes, Dwight Upshaw said it’s important to keep it simple.

Start by identifying the athlete’s priorities. Then take a look at the big picture of the athlete’s life. And finally, be prepared to adjust the plan along the way.

“You can get lost in the weeds and think that you have to do everything,” he explained. “Or that you have to be unique. And to the point that you actually lose what the most important things are.”

He then added, “The biggest point is to look at your athletes, set their priorities and program for their priorities. What are the things that they are limited by the most? How do I tackle those, and also how do I keep their strengths? Just think about what’s going to make them better. Don’t think about the new cool program you just saw out there that looks exciting. Think about the athlete first, not the program.”

Emily Beers

Emily Beers is a health, fitness and nutrition writer. She has also been coaching fitness at MadLab School of Fitness in Vancouver, B.C. since 2009.

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