Why Are You Still Using RX?

August 23, 2019 by
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Do you know why you are still using RX? 

When I ask that in coaching workshops, I usually get a gym full of people looking at me as if I were eating kittens, then a bunch of tilted heads, then shrugged shoulders. Then the rueful admission that they have no idea why they are still using RX. Just, well, isn’t that what CrossFit is? That’s what we’ve always done. 

Sure, when we opened Rocket CrossFit, we used RX just like everyone else. After about three years, we realized that RX wasn’t a useful tool for building community, so we started shying away. About a year after that we realized (embarrassingly late, really) that RX isn’t useful in training either. 

Why? Because we are a GPP gym. Our mission as a gym is to help the largest number of people be the fittest they want to be. But those people are all different, they’re all starting in different places, and they all have different goals. 

As it turns out “one size fits all” actually fits almost no one. Not only does it’s one-sizeness make it meaningless, it also undermines community, which is what most CrossFit gyms claim to be about. 

If RX weights were a good training goal, other strength-based sports would use them. But can you imagine a world-class weightlifter getting a program that says “5 back squats at 95 pounds” rather than “5 back squats at 85%?” It would never happen. Because the goal of training is to find an intensity at which strength is increased and risk is decreased, for that athlete. Training requires individualized targets, competition requires standardized targets. What we do in the gym is training, not competing.

Telling all the men they should do 95 pounds and all the women they should do 65 pounds doesn’t accomplish that. You’ll get some people who do the RX even though it’s too much, because they don’t want to feel like failures, thereby increasing the risk of injury. 

So what do we do instead? 

First, we prioritize the intent of the workout. We talk about what we’re trying to accomplish with the days programming, and that includes addressing the time domain, because we’re looking for a specific metabolic pathway. So, right off the bat, they know they need to finish the work in a certain amount of time, not that they need to move a certain amount of weight. That it’s about getting a workout, that’s it. 

Then, when it comes to talking about weight, we approach it either as a % of 1RM or as RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion.) Really, it’s a combination of those things. A typical whiteboard session for us will be something like this: “This workout needs to be completed in the 5-7 minute range. For weight, we’re looking at roughly 60% of your 1RM, but you should be able to do 8 reps unbroken and not want to die, maybe just hate me a little.”  

No RX weight, instead we’ve given people a way to find the right intensity for them, based on the metabolic response we’re after, and how they are feeling that day.

You might say, “Hey, that’s just scaling, we obviously do that.” Cool, I’m glad to hear that. But if you’re already doing this, then why add the extra, and totally meaningless, step of saying “This is the standard, and none of you are going to meet it?” That has an impact on the community. 

I know, I’ve heard the RX theory too: you should program for the elite and scale for the rest. But how does that practice stack up to the messaging that we’re all about community? It doesn’t. What we’re saying when we do that is “we built this place for the elite, but you can come along also.” 

The truth is that the “we’re here for the best, but I guess you can come along too” is the very mentality that probably kept a lot of people out of sports for much of their lives. Those are the people we can help the most. That pool of people who have previously felt like fitness wasn’t for them are precisely the pool in which you can grow the most successful business and change the greatest number lives. 

So where will you find RX at Rocket? Maybe once a month you’ll see it in a benchmark WOD, just for fun and testing. But in our daily programming, it’s relegated to a tiny set of parentheses, and prefaced with the word “comp.”  

Here’s a recent example from August 9.
WOD: Squat Clean, Burpee, Russian KB Swing

20 squat cleans
20 burpees
20 Russian KB swings
15 squat cleans
15 burpees
15 Russian KB swings
10 squat cleans
10 burpees
10 Russian KB swings
5 squat cleans
5 burpees
5 Russian Kettlebell swings

Notice there are no weights listed, just the movements. The only place that weights are listed is for what we call the “competitor scale,” which on this day was: 

Competitor Scale = 
20 squat cleans (115/75 pounds)
15 squat cleans (135/95 pounds)
10 squat cleans (185/135 pounds)
5 squat cleans (225/155 pounds)

We only publish the comp weights, but we make clear that’s what they are. Very few people do them, because most of our people don’t want to compete, they just want to get healthier. So we program for the diverse community, and call out the competitors as the exception, because they are. 

At the last CrossFit Health conference, Gary Taubes used a great illustration. He explained that we’re not all the same, any more than all dogs are the same. Look at a Greyhound and a Basset Hound, for instance. Greyhounds are sleek and fast. It would be patently absurd to look at a Basset Hound and say “If that Basset Hound just ate and trained like a Greyhound, it too could be a Greyhound.” You could try it, but all that you’d get is a skinny and sad Basset Hound, that still wouldn’t be a Greyhound. Conversely, you could assume that the Basset Hound standard of movement was as good as it gets, and never create opportunities for the Greyhound to really run. Then you’d have a sad Greyhound who never knew they could do more.

We stopped doing that to our members with an arbitrary RX. We are all different. Help people find and train at the right, individualized intensity for themselves. That will always be the best way to train any athlete to be the best that they want to be. 

Competition will always be there to test against others for those who want it. 

And I will always be a happy Basset Hound. 

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