5 Steps to Attack a Workout with CrossFit Games Masters Athlete, Brown Russell

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A couple weeks ago, we got a chance to hear from CrossFit Games Masters Athlete, Brown Russell, who talked about energy systems and his formula for attacking a workout. While this topic is going to be geared for athletes who understand their body, their thresholds, and ultimately their strengths and weaknesses, any athlete can and should start applying this information for each workout they complete. This will help build that body awareness and help maximize your results in a workout.

In his lecture, Brown talked about 5 key components he uses to attack a workout. Like he did in the lecture, I will list them first and then talk about them one at a time. Keep in mind many of these components are linked and it’s important to look at all 5 when completing a workout.

The 5 components to attacking a workout are:

  1. 1. Manage Movement Speed
  2. 2. Manage Work Sets or Set Size
  3. 3. Manage Deliberate Rest
  4. 4. Manage Transitions
  5. 5. Use Objective Help


  1. 1. Manage Movement Speed

According to Brown, this refers to “Speeding up a movement or slowing down a movement”, and he goes on to say, even “by a quarter of a second”.

By managing your movement speed, in other words, speed up or slowing down the movement, you can preserve or exhaust the energy you have available to complete the rest of the workout. The faster you go, the less you can breathe and the faster you will deplete your energy reservoir. By slowing the exercise down, you can breathe between reps and preserve your energy for more reps and other exercises. 

The key is to find a speed for each exercise that allows you to complete the entire workout as fast as possible. In his analogy, he talked about the Thruster. This is a compound exercise that combines a front squat and an overhead press and can be performed using a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, a sandbag, and, we’ve even seen parents doing thrusters with their little kids. (Awwww…..How cute.) Take the workout everyone loves to hate, “Fran” as an example. This workout consists of 2 exercises, thrusters and pull ups, and an athlete must complete 21, 15, & 9 reps of each exercise as fast as possible.

Now, if an athlete drains their energy reservoir in the first set of 21 thrusters, and then must continually take breaks to help them get through the rest of the workout so they can breathe, or put more energy in the reservoir, they probably are going to take longer to accomplish the workout, not, get as good of a score or maximize their potential. However, if they slow the exercise down, breathing between each rep, giving them the ability to break each exercise into larger sets, they will probably get through the workout faster. Plus, with energy left in the tank, they still have the option to drain it in the last set of exercises, in the case of “Fran”, the final set of 9 thrusters and pull ups.

2 Manage Work Sets or Set Size

This depends on a lot of factors. The exercise, the weight, the total number of reps, etc. etc. The point is that every time you break and put down the piece of equipment you are using, this is going to take time. The more breaks you take the longer the workout is going to take.

The point is to take the fewest number of breaks possible while still preserving your energy reservoir so that you can complete the workout in the best time possible.

Since we started with the thruster, let’s keep that going and talk about another workout everyone loves to hate, “Karen”, which is 150 wall balls for time. The wall ball is essentially a thruster where the athlete throws a medicine ball to a target. Sure, there are plenty of athletes in the CrossFit Games who can do this workout in 3 sets or less, in other words, 50 or more wall balls at a time. For the average athlete, they are going to need to take more breaks to complete the workout.

The key with managing your sets is to be able to keep enough energy in the tank to be able to take a short rest, number 3 on our list by the way, and quickly be able to get back to the next set. Instead of draining 100% of your energy reservoir, in other words, going to failure, and needing to take a longer rest to refill the tank before going to the next set, going to 40-50%, and a shorter rest will help you maintain your pace and get you through the workout faster.

In the case of “Karen”, 150 wall balls for time, if athlete A breaks their workout into sets of 20 and athlete B does sets of 10, athlete A is going to break almost half as much as athlete B. If they rest approximately the same amount of time between sets, athlete A (20 reps at a time) is going to finish the workout faster.

Let’s apply this one to the upcoming CrossFit Games Open competition where we have seen a high number of wall balls in many different years. It may benefit an athlete to complete a max effort set, in other words, go till failure, of wall balls a day or two before they complete the actual workout to figure out an appropriate number of reps to perform in each set using a calculation of 45% of their max. Depending on the other exercises required in the workout, they may even want to reduce this number to 40% of their max.

3 Manage Deliberate Rest

Deliberate rest, I often refer to this as “organized rest”, is the amount of time you are taking between each set of exercises. In the case of the above example, “Karen”, each time you break, you are taking deliberate rest. 

There are a few ways to manage deliberate rest. The first is a certain number of breaths before resuming your next set. Taking 3-5 deep, diaphragmatic, breaths before getting back to your wall balls to refill your energy reservoir. Diaphragmatic refers to deep breaths that come from your diaphragm which is a muscle located at the base of your lungs. It’s a skill to work on and can be practiced especially when you feel like you are out of breath like after a sprint or an exceptionally fast paced workout. The challenge with this is slowing down your breathing enough to be able to take those 3-5 deep breaths.

That brings me to another way to manage your deliberate rest and that is time. Look at the clock or count in your head as you take those 3-5 deep breaths. The important point is to make sure you are getting as much oxygen in as possible during your deliberate rest. You can watch the clock all day long, if you aren’t getting more oxygen, or energy, in, you are going to have a hard time maintaining your sets and speed.

Almost every athlete at WildFire has had a coach come up to them and count backwards from 5 to keep them moving. You can do this for yourself by counting backwards from 5 as soon as you break, just be sure to get those 3-5 deep breaths in at the same time.

4 Manage Transitions

Transitions are the amount of time it takes to go from one exercise to another. As Brown explained, “transitions can be extremely useful during a workout, and they can also eat up a lot of time”. There are some transitions that are going to be out of your control. In the case of the upcoming Open competition, there is only a certain amount of space we have for equipment and for each athlete in the heat to perform their exercises.

That said, the closer you can keep your equipment, water, chalk, and everything you will need, the faster you can transition between exercises. Let’s switch gears and talk about the workout “Diane” which is another 21, 15, and 9 reps for time, only this time it is deadlifts and handstand pushups.

In “Diane”, you want to keep your bar as close to the wall as possible and use the least amount of external equipment as possible such as weight belts and wrist wraps. Sure, putting on a weight belt might help make the deadlifts easier, however, in the case of handstand push ups, can get in the way, and taking the belt on and off is only going to increase your transition time.

Please understand, I am making a point about transition time, not telling you NOT to use a weight belt if it helps you maintain your form during your deadlifts.

Logic says that the longer you take transitioning between exercises, the longer the workout is going to take you OR the less reps you will get in the given time. Chalk is another transition time killer. If you require chalk after every few pull ups, toes to bar, or muscle ups, that is only going to add to your overall time. Again, not telling you not to use chalk, just saying that if you can limit it to one time between each transition and keep it close to where you are, you will be able to get after it faster.

5 Use Objective Help

You are going to use objective help on each one of the above components. For a runner, objective help is going to be using a stopwatch to stick to a pace. In the case of CrossFit, where we have an unlimited number of exercise combinations, there are many ways to rely on objective help.

In the case of a rowing workout, it may be looking at the monitor to maintain a pace. That pace is going to be different if the row is the only exercise vs having other exercises to complete. The point here is to know your body, know your work capacity, and then enlist the outside help you need to maintain your workout plan.

Just remember, according to Brown, “no plan survives contact with reality”. According to Coach Tiffany, “have a plan A, a plan B, and a plan F”. You must know that once the workout begins, you may have to make changes to your initial plan. Now, I am not saying don’t have a plan, it’s going to change anyway, I am just saying you have to be flexible, calm, and collected and that sticking to your plan to the best of your ability, you are going to get the best results possible.

The more you know your body, your work capacity, and how the exercises being performed are going to affect them, the better you will be able to plan each workout we complete.

Also, use these steps in the gym for each workout we complete. Think about it ahead of time. We post everything in advance. By performing each workout with a plan, you will get better and faster and ultimately increase your level of fitness.

And at the end of the day, remember to have FUN!

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