No More Newbie Gains? Here’s How To Break Through A Plateau + Be A Happier CrossFitter

breaking plateaus

The newbie gains come thick and fast when you first start CrossFit, but unfortunately they don’t last forever…

A year down the line things start to plateau and PBs are fewer and farther between. When I watch CrossFitters walking on their hands and repping out muscle-ups (heck, even repping out pull-ups) I still feel very new to the sport – despite having been doing it over two years now – although something that does remind me that I’m not so green anymore is my lack of newbie gains: that is, every time I go into the box I’m not hitting new PBs like you do in those golden first months of CrossFit. Even though we’re all supposed to be doing this sport for fun, it can get you down and you may not be that happy-go-lucky CrossFitter you were when you were PBing every week!

I’ve switched up my training strategy of late and last week I finally added 5kg onto my split jerk after being stuck on a plateau for a year. Hooray! That doesn’t mean the spell is broken and the hard work is over – I’m consistently working on a few different strategies to ensure I continue to progress in CrossFit. Read on to find out what I’ve been trying to finally smash through my plateau now my newbie gains are well and truly over.

breaking plateaus

Truth is, for my whole second year of training I hardly hit any new numbers, and I think that’s because I was coasting along, assuming that doing the same thing would bring the same progression as the first year. It did not. Newbie gains are our nervous system becoming adept at movements, and our bodies plateau at their natural limit. Once this has been hit, we start having to put real work in, and following programming to the letter in order to progress.

And honestly, for that whole second year I wasn’t a happy CrossFitter, either. I was exhausting myself by training twice a day trying to get better at gymnastics, weightlifting and cardio, but I was doing this without any plan or strategy. I was also eating badly which was not only affecting training, but my wellbeing too. The shots in this post from my Rainhill Trials competition in May (by Neil Shearer Photography, thanks buddy!) are painful for me to look at as I know how tired, run-down, and frustrated I was with my training, and subsequently I hated the competition experience. I was gutted as I always thought I’d love competing! That was my turning point and I’m pleased to say I’m much happier and feeling the benefits of training – with the below points making a difference to me. I’m booked in for another Rainhill Trials in November, so that will be the true test…

So, here’s what I have been trying recently, which is a combination of advice from coaches, research, and a little trial and error.

Practising strict strength

Strict  strength isn’t as sexy or instantly gratifying as kipping and jerking, but it’s the foundation of everything we do in CrossFit. I’ve been adding in things like 5 x 5 strict shoulder presses, dips, or pull-ups to the start or end of two sessions a week, then re-testing movements like kipping pull-ups or a push jerks, and I’ve found that if I’ve not PBed, then the movements have looked a lot stronger and felt much more stable.

breaking plateaus

Watching nutrition

Your nutrition might be pretty good… But could it be better? I know the day after eating a McDonalds my performance isn’t at its best, and after a week of eating clean I somehow feel more able to tackle gassy workouts and seem to tire less quickly. I’ve added in more greens, eaten lean protein, and been watching the beers – you could even count macros if that’s your jam – and I’ve noticed the difference in feeling of gassy WODs. My pull-up numbers and TTB technique have improved as I’ve gotten lighter, too.

Getting friends to load up

Sometimes it’s just knowing what’s  on your bar that can mentally switch you off achieving a PB. The split jerk I mentioned? That was with a men’s bar, so I was confused with what I was lifting, but just got on with it anyway. Try getting a friend to load up, use pound plates instead of kilo (or vice-versa – whichever you’re not used to) or try using a different bar to normal. It might just work!

breaking plateaus

Practising movements as EMOMs

For things like push-ups, pull-ups, or anything where you quickly reach a max rep number and it’s difficult to increase, I’ve found out what the max number of reps is in the movement (say, 4 push-ups) before the movement degrades. Then, I’ve done that number of the movement every minute on the minute for 10 minutes. Aim to increase the number you do EMOM by one each week. In a few weeks’ time I’ve found my new rep max is a number I never thought possible – and because everything in CrossFit is transferable, I’ve been noticing the benefit in other movements, too.

Utilising accessory movements

There’s two arms to this – if you’ve been doing the same accessory movements for a long time but haven’t seen any difference, then maybe it’s time to switch these up to better task your body and motor skills for the movements you’re lacking in. Your coach will have a full knowledge bank of these, so tap into this for your specific skill gaps. However, if you’re trying out different accessory work week-to-week, then it’s time to stick to the same movements for a little while to see if you’re feeling any different. I was in the former camp, so I’ve been sticking to the same movements for six weeks to gauge the difference.

breaking plateaus

Sticking to the plan!

Throughout all this, it’s important to stick with the programming from your coaches, whether that’s class WODs or personal programming – this is done in blocks to work different energy systems or movements at a time. I was sometimes joining in, but sometimes doing my own thing, so I wasn’t feeling the benefit of the programming. This almost certainly contributed to my plateaus and my unhappiness.

Stick to the plan, eat well, add some extra movements around your usual workouts, then retest! And if you don’t break your plateau? It’s back to the drawing board once again, but the main thing is to enjoy the process and be a happy CrossFitter – then breaking new PBs will just be the icing on the cake!

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