Programming modalities and priorities

In the  Constantly varied, functional fitness, at high intensity, that is universally scalable definition of Crossfit, each work out has a clear  intended stimulus that trains varying levels of the 10 general physical skills.

When we looked at Macro level programming to subject of modalities was touched upon, there are three different modalities in Crossfit – Metabolic Conditioning, Gymnastics, Weightlifting – and there are three ways that these can be combined – singles, couplets or triplets, giving 7 combinations (note MGW or the triplet is only counted once) the theory is that these 7 combinations give athletes the chance to train in Metabolic Conditioning, Gymnastics, Weightlifting in all possible combinations, which supports the Constantly varied aspect of crossfit in a controlled manner.

What it neglects, however is what movements can be inserted under each of the three modalities, which can result in an infinite number of combinations, the art in programming comes from balancing these movements under the 3 modalities so that the athlete doesn’t develop deficiencies whilst developing  work capacity over broad time and modal domains.

Looking into class level programming – the concept of priorities was touched upon. the idea of priorities is to consider the application of intensity to a WOD regardless of the 3 modalities (Metabolic Conditioning, Gymnastics, Weightlifting), from Crossfit threshold training, we know that movement needs to be developed from Mechanics, to consistency, to Intensity. we also know that each WOD has a clear  intended stimulus.

Consequently the concept of priorities is the application of these considerations into a given WOD. there are three priorities – Element Priority, Task Priority, Time Priority. so when combined with the 3 modalities (Metabolic Conditioning, Gymnastics, Weightlifting) and the 3 ways that these 3 modalities can be combined – singles, couplets or triplets, you end up with 18 possible variations (element priorities only focus on single modality days). again, we see how even those the combinations are extensive, they are ‘controlled’, its not entirely random, and the only element left to experience or preference at this stage is still the movements selected.

Focusing on the three priorities – Element priority focuses on technique, consistency and focus on building on a single modality. Task Priority, focuses on a ‘task’ by this we mean a clear end, such is with a for-time or rounds for time style work out, the focus here is to develop speed towards an end goal, the work is fixed and the time is variable. Time Priority focuses on achieving as much in a fixed time as possible, so the work is variable but the time is fixed.

the difference between Task Priority and Time Priority can seem superficial, but strongly influences the pacing and strategy an athlete would take to approaching a workout.

there are other additional factors that need to be considered in programming-

  • Duration
  • Weight
  • Skill complexity

however, given the focus on high intensity, these variables directly influence on the level of intensity a workout can deliver and can be addressed in the workout simply by addressing the scaling.

Class level crossfit programming


In our post about Macro level Crossfit programming the concept of the 3 modalities was touched upon, these 3 modalities set out the primary focus for Class level crossfit programming for the class, for example if the modality focus for today was metabolic conditioning and weightlifting, then using the table attached, this would allow the coach to program according to movements categorized under each of the 3 modalities. Adhering to Crossfits aim of developing  work capacity over broad time and modal domains, through WODs that are Constantly varied, functional fitness, at high intensity, that is universally scalable definition, the coach would also need to plan this on a macro level to ensure that the movements are not too regularly repeated at the expense of neglecting other movements.


In addition to considering the 3 modalities. the coach also needs to consider the priority  – task, time, element, and  the intensity prescription – long, skill, heavy.  these additional considerations are where the art of good crossfit programming really become apparent, how do you balance between covering as many variable as possible, without spreading the variations so thin that the athlete doesn’t get consistent enough focus on each?

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.” -COACH GLASSMAN

Good quality Crossfit programming should ensure a balance between skill, intensity, and the 3 modalities. But really all it boils down to is – has the programming improved work capacity over broad time and modal domains, through WODs that are Constantly varied, functional fitness, at high intensity, that is universally scalable definition. For most beginners and intermediate athletes, most decent Crossfit gyms should reasonably achieve this. It can be easy to get carried away with focusing on programming, but only advanced athletes will have the need to micromanage this element of their training, for the rest of us, general adherence is more than sufficient.

Macro level Crossfit programming


Macro level crossfit programming

Most Critics of Crossfit would argue that theres no programming at all, that Crossfit is simply high intensity interval training done totally randomly with no rhyme or reason, but as you’ve see, there’s actually plenty of logic, planning and science that supports why and how Crossfit works, whilst on the surface theres no programming, upon closer inspection you’ll find that its simply that the programming is quite complicated and detailed, its not as simple as prescribing 8 reps of whatever exercises focus on the body part of the day. The root of this is in Crossfits aim of developing  work capacity over broad time and modal domains, through WODs that are Constantly varied, functional fitness, at high intensity, that is universally scalable definition.

So on a micro level each work out has to be different each day, but taking a further step back, to a macro view, each workout should also have different intended stimulus that covers varying levels of the 10 general physical skills, thus, not only is each individual workout different, but each day of training also needs to be different in terms of its focus and structure. Because of this, the programming can appear random and unpredictable.

Whilst its ok that it’s unpredictable given the overarching concept of Crossfit aiming to help people prepare for the unknown, its most certainly not random.

You can see from the image, there are 3 main modal focuses  – metabolic conditioning, gymnastics and weightlifting that are combined and planned across the training cycle, you can also see how successive cycles would mix these 3 modalities in various combinations, but there are finite combinations.  you can also see that rest days are programmed into the cycles as well. so in this sense, on a macro level of programming, Crossfit training cycles aim to cover every combination of the 3 modalities with rest days factored in.

You can also see how there are 3 types of days – single modality days where the focus is only on 1 of the 3 modalities, double modality days where 2 of the 3 modalities are combines, and finally triple modality days where all 3 modalities are combined. The typical prescription of this macro level crossfit programming is on a 3 on, 1 off cycle, but in reality, most athletes with day jobs typically find the 5 day on, 2 day off cycle more fitting. Whilst fitting to a cycle like this is ideal and will benefit the athlete, the reality is most of us don’t have the kind of time to commit to something so structured, the key however is that programming should ensure that all 3 modalities are covered and combined in as many combinations as possible, with adequate rest included.