Physical Activity

Programming Pitfalls for New or Prospective Gym Owners

You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, ‘You can’t do a thing’… Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of ‘you can’t’ once and for all. – Vincent Van Gogh

Being a new gym owner can be exciting, empowering, intimidating and at the same time all together terrifying. Aside from being consumed by the all too real realities of ,”How am I going to keep the lights on at the end of the month?” designing and implementing a quality program may be tucked away in the back of your mind until a blank page and flashing cursor are staring you in the face.

Anyone can throw a bunch of movements and timeframes at the white board and see what sticks. But to design a beautiful, elegant and most importantly effective program takes time and experience — a little guidance doesn’t hurt too much either. Like Greg Glassman said, “The magic is in the movement, the art is in the programming, the science is in the explanation, and the fun is in the community.”

Striking a balance between all facets of programming is crucial. Am I doing too much or too little? Am I devoting enough time to skill and strength development? Is my programming biased? Am I meeting the needs of the individual along with the group? These are all questions you need to answer.

Hence the reason it’s never a bad idea to subscribe to an already proven, pre-thought out template while you’re still finding your footing as a coach. Take for example. While maybe not addressing individual needs of specific athletes, the main site thrives at providing an appropriate level of volume without allowing biases for time frames or movements to creep into your daily programming.

This can translate into a tremendous learning experience. Don’t just blindly follow whatever program you decide to follow. Do your research. Ask yourself, “Why?” Try to crack the code and decipher why they’re programming the way they’re programming. Anything to get yourself looking at the big picture while simultaneously studying the minutiae of it all. And when you finally decide to venture out on your own and grab the reins of your own programming, hopefully this guide will help point you in the right direction.

The Most Common Programming Pitfalls

Trying to Do Too Much

CrossFit is a culture of “more.” More strength. More volume. More skill work. More new shoes. The list goes on and on. In fact, it’s laughably easy to get swept up in the undertow pulling you toward more. Yet resisting the urge of more may be the best course of action to programming for a successful gym.

Perspective is key here. It’s important to consider for whom and why you are programming the way you’re programming. It’s easy to become mesmerized by the CrossFit fantasy world depicted on Instagram. Volume with a side of volume sprinkled with a little volume on top.

Yes, every Games athlete trains longer than 60 minutes per day but remember that little perspective talk we had earlier. That’s not who you are programming for. You are programming for the masses. The overwhelming majority of people that walk through your doors are just there to hopefully become a little fitter, improve their quality of life and have a little fun while doing so. To deliver on that promise is worth its weight in gold and wholly independent of excess volume.

This brings me to my next point. It’s a question as old as time… or as old as CrossFit time — so about 2005. Anyway, it’s a question you won’t only have to answer but justify no matter if you’re a new gym or you’ve been around the block a few times. “What else are we doing today?” does a great job of evoking this question when it programs something like a 7×1 squat clean. People expect to sweat. They expect every class to end with them questioning every life decision they’ve made up until that point. And it’s easy, as a coach, to be tempted to give the people what they want — hell, that’s why most of them got into CF in the first place.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a coach, it’s this: Never undervalue the importance of a good warm up and skill development over volume. It’s your job as a coach to create a culture that understands that. If the workout calls for 7×1 squat cleans building to a heavy single, it should go without saying that a thorough warm up plus skill work is a necessity for most before you even put your hands on a barbell.

This all equates to more than enough time to fill an hour. Adding a metcon at the end because “your members need it/won’t show up without it” just shortchanges the rest of the class. Focusing on the task at hand will produce better results in the long run and keep the members who understand and are dedicated to the process coming back for more.

Programming for the Games

Volume is one thing but mistaking the programming at the Games for typical day-in and day-out programming is another problem all together. Yes, CrossFit has evolved — especially the “sport of CrossFit.” Every athlete at the Games can move a barbell and every athlete can do a set of pull ups so large it’ll give you calluses just from watching.

So for them, the test comes in the form of the unknown and unknowable, in the unique. The modal and time domains that are atypical in a normal day of training. This overly complicated, overly strategized, overly over-paced mentality has seeped its way into normal programming.

In a 2012 article in the CrossFit Journal, Pat Sherwood reiterated something Greg Glassman had been preaching since the inception of CrossFit: “Classic, elegant, wonderfully effective CrossFit GPP programming lives in couplets and triplets” (1). You need to carry a piece of that old school CrossFit mentality with you and let it become a part of your programming.

Recent programming has become too oversaturated with the ideal of pacing. There’s nothing wrong with pushing till the wheels fall off. In fact, I can promise you every Games athlete has paid his or her dues in this respect. That’s how they’re able to know how to pace themselves. That’s how they’re constantly able to push the envelope of what they’re capable of. Stress — pushing beyond one’s comfort zone — causes adaption. In this case, positive adaptation.

Getting Stuck in Routines or Biases

Routines aren’t an inherently bad thing within the fitness world. In fact, most would argue just the opposite. Yet, CrossFit bills itself as the anti-routine fitness regime — the antithesis of the traditional fitness landscape. Many people are drawn to CrossFit exactly because they’re tired of the routine — the “Monday is back and bi’s” crowd. Routines often become predictable, which in turn become boring, which makes people less and less enthusiastic about showing up.

Despite everything I just said, of course routines have a place within CrossFit! Routines are fantastic for skill and strength development. You just have to be clever when crafting them.

Incorporating skill work into a warm up, varying movements and rep schemes on “heavy” days, designing workouts to produce the intended stimulus — these are just some of the ways you can disguise routines so people aren’t even aware they’re doing them, yet still reap the benefits of them.

Along with getting stuck in routines, letting biases creep into your programming is equally as damaging. It’s not always a conscious decision. Let’s say wall balls and burpees aren’t exactly your thing, yet somehow, miraculously, they rarely ever show up in the program you designed. Weird.

It’s important to hold yourself accountable to create the most well-rounded athlete and version of yourself. The pendulum can swing in the opposite direction as well — over-programming weakness work and losing sight of the big picture or what’s best for the greater majority rather than just yourself. The best course of action is to create a template with every movement, modality and timeframe you can think of. Check off the movements and timeframes as they show up in your programming and pay careful attention to the trends that dictate if your programming is leaning in any one direction.

In the end, no matter how many books you’ve read, videos you’ve watched or tips you’ve garnered from a sleep deprived blogger, the best teacher is always experience. When the time comes, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Devise a program, track the results, and if they’re positive, then keep doing what you’re doing. It couldn’t be any easier.


  1. The CrossFit Journal. Pat Sherwood. 2012.