Use CrossFit Open Results To Improve Your Programming And Fitness Routine

Use your CrossFit Open performance to guide your training and goals for the coming year.

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
-Marcus Aurelius

The 2021 CrossFit Open has come to a close, and now we’re faced with our leaderboard positioning, an important bit of data that we can use to our advantage — or squander.

My greatest pet peeve as a coach of competitive athletes is the fixation with the leaderboard as evidence of improvement year to year. Athletes have learned to look only at their overall ranking to determine their progress, and this has to stop.

Using the leaderboard to answer the question, ‘Am I better, the same, or worse than last year’ is myopic and misguided — it’s looking for an answer to a question that the leaderboard doesn’t answer. The competitive field changes every year, and those variables are too unknown to use the information effectively.

The question the leaderboard answers is not, “Am I better than last year?”

It’s “How can I be better next year?” or “Where are my greatest opportunities for improvement?”

The purpose of competition is not to prove how good we are at something; it’s to shed light on our weaknesses. Our weaknesses are what hold us back from higher leaderboard positions in the future; using competition to expose them is what elite athletes do.

We are wired to deny or to dismiss this information; we prefer our weaknesses to remain in the dark. The leaderboard is a light switch in the garage, illuminating the physical and mental skills that need our attention in order to improve.

It’s easy to play to our strengths and make excuses for why our weaknesses exist. Ultimately, what’s standing in the way of a higher leaderboard position is the thing we most need to work on.

Comparing our standings in each event points us to the exact opportunities we have to improve the most for next year. So, go find your global leaderboard position and see which of the four was the lowest ranking, then take a look below to determine what your areas for improvement are.

Questions to Ask Yourself After the CrossFit Open

In each workout, there are clear physical skills and metabolic pathways that are being tested, but there are more variables to note for ourselves than the workout that’s presented. When you’re looking at your lowest ranking workout, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What was my headspace like going into this workout and during it? What was I thinking about or worrying about? What was I distracted by?
  • What was my preparation like going into this workout? Did I feel prepared for the challenge? Was I underprepared? Would I change anything about my sleep, nutrition, or hydration?
  • Are there any patterns to my lowest performance that I’ve seen in previous competitions or in training? Is there something I’ve been avoiding or not addressing effectively?

What to Learn from Open Workout 21.1

This workout had a few components that may shed light on weaknesses to address:

  • Jumping rope as a skill,
  • Jumping and shoulder stamina,
  • Shoulder and core stability and mobility, and
  • The Frustration Factor.

Jumping rope is a skill of coordination between the hands and the lower body. If you were tripping frequently, check in on your technique. Technique impacts jumping stamina, too. If you’re inefficient, you’re working harder than you have to. Video is a helpful tool.

Shoulder stamina was a large part of the physical test. If your shoulders burned out quickly, determine why. Are you gripping your jump rope too hard?

The wall walk may have exposed a weakness in core or shoulder stability. If you found the range of motion challenging, overhead mobility and stability is your weakness. If you found yourself feeling floppy through your midline (arching the back or wobbling excessively through the spine) or if you were peeing while jump roping, core stability work will be critical for you.

The Frustration Factor is when we find ourselves hitting a setback in a workout and frustration takes over. If tripping on the jump rope or finding the wall walks harder than anticipated led to anger, self-loathing, despair, or internal screaming, developing your internal coach (self-talk that’s helpful rather than harmful) will benefit you.

What to Learn from Open Workout 21.2

This repeat couplet from the 2017 Open will have shown some of us that we’ve improved in the last four years and some of us that we have new weaknesses to work on.

  • Pacing
  • High Rep Workouts
  • Digging Deep

Ascending rep schemes are tricky workouts; the inexperienced will go out hard thinking they’ll come out ahead and will instead crash and burn. If you found yourself breaking for long periods late in the workout because you were speeding through the 20s and 30s, you’ll benefit from learning more about how to pace yourself.

Many athletes have a mental block around certain numbers of reps, and this workout, with it’s 30-40-50 dumbbell snatches may have tested those mental blocks. You’ll know this is you if you see a workout and have a moment of dread at the rep scheme. Progressive exposure therapy is your best medicine. Teach yourself to build confidence at higher repetitions.

Mat Frankel, former CrossFit Games athlete and CrossFit Seminar Staff said of this workout in 2017: the dumbbell snatches are like digging a hole with a shovel; you just keep going (to which I quipped, “by ‘hole’ you mean ‘grave,’ right?”). What he meant by this is that doing big sets of snatches is often more about the willingness to be deeply uncomfortable than physical fitness.

There is a difference between “can’t,” when the body will actually fail to execute a dumbbell snatch or a burpee box jump over, and “won’t,” where the discomfort is so great that we surrender to it.

What to Learn from Open Workout 21.3

The much awaited gymnastics on the pull-up bar and barbell work. If you scored lowest on this one, your areas for improvement are most likely:

  • Gymnastics skills
  • Gymnastics strength and stamina
  • Grip strength and stamina
  • Intensity Tolerance

Most likely, if this was your lowest ranking event, the reason is behind the gymnastics work. Thirty reps may be a lot or it may be few depending on your skill level. If you were relegated to singles because your kipping is inefficient or if you were no repped because fatigue brought in some poor technique, this is a good place to bring focus in the coming year.

Think back to how you broke up the sets of toes to bar, chest to bar pull-ups, and bar muscle-ups. Performing 30 reps as singles may not be skill related, it may be strength or stamina related. Grip strength and stamina played a big role in this one, too. If you found your fingers slipping, grip work will take you far!

The barbell work was light and low skill. When it came to getting the reps done, it was all about intensity tolerance: how high can we withstand our heart rate and maintain focus on the work we’re doing. If the gymnastics weren’t your weak point, then examine your relationship with the thrusters. Are they efficient? Are you breathing during them?

What to Learn from Open Workout 21.4

A weightlifting complex may seem like a simple strength game, but it’s sneaky when you just finished a burner.

  • Lifting heavy under fatigue
  • Technique
  • Mental blocks around max lifts

There is a difference between simply lifting heavy, like in a 5×5 back squat, and when we lift heavy immediately after jacking up our heart rate. Physically, we’ve just used up a lot of our energy stores, so we have less available to attack a heavy barbell. Fatigue also increases perceived effort, so the weight will feel more challenging mentally.

Olympic lifting is all about technique, technique, technique. A technically sound lifter will be able to call upon skill with less available conscious focus (like when you’re really tired after 45 thrusters), than a less technical lifter. Shoulder to overhead technique in particular was key.

Mental blocks around max lifts take many forms. Some athletes will feel pressure to put up a big score and will open too heavy. Some athletes will underestimate their capabilities (Tia-Clair Toomey-Orr claims this was the case for her 21.4) and will be too conservative. Some athletes will freeze when confronted with max lifts and lose focus on what they’re doing. If this describes you, learning to self-coach effectively will take you far.

Make A Plan

You’ve figured out what your weakest workout was and you’re starting to build understanding around why. The next step is creating a progressive plan for addressing the weakness.

Most athletes finish the Open with a drive to improve, and this is fantastic. Improvement takes reps. Be mindful of creating a plan that is sustainable and progressive, rather than going all in for 4-6 weeks and burning out on the work or getting bored with it. We don’t need to get all the reps in in 6 weeks. We need to spread them out over months.

When you’re creating your plan, ask yourself, “How can I get 1% better at my weaknesses each day?” Small positive steps taken over a long period of time are more effective than making big changes or improvements occasionally. Make confronting your weaknesses a daily habit.

While we’d all rather do the things we’re already good at, there’s little growth to be had in playing to our strengths. Using the Open leaderboard to determine where we’re lacking in comparison to the global CrossFit community is a much better use of our time, both mentally and physically. Use what’s standing in the way as your path towards better fitness in the future.


Jane Watkins

Jane Watkins started working at The Flex Diet in 2021. Jane grew up in a small town in the Midlands UK, but moved to London for University. Before joining The Flex Diet, she worked as a freelance journalist for several health publications. Jane covers health and fitness stories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *