3 Reasons Your CrossFit PR Plateaus, and How To Fix It

Written By Ben  |  CrossFit 

For many beginners, it may seem like you can hit a CrossFit PR on demand. You only go to the gym 3 times per week, but you see significant improvement after almost every WOD.

Next thing you know, 8 months fly by and you start to plateau. Instead of weekly PRs, they become monthly. It doesn’t end there. After a year and a half or so, it takes a good 2-3 months to organically hit a CrossFit PR for any of the major lifts (Clean, Squat, Snatch, Jerk, etc.). 

Hit a CrossFit PR

Sidenote: What does a PR stand for in CrossFit? Personal Record!

You begin to wonder, “What’s happening?” You’ve been consistent with your 3-5 MetCons at CrossFit per week routine. You’ve been eating fine. Why aren’t all your numbers going up like they used to?

Overcoming a PR CrossFit plateau comes down to one thing: deliberate practice.

If you want to get better at any particular movement or lift, you can’t wait for it to show up in the WOD once every two to three weeks.

Additionally, the occasional 5-minute skill session before the MetCon isn’t getting you closer to Double Unders or Muscle Ups, and the weekly 15-minute strength session doesn’t lend itself well to PR’ing major lifts. You need to dedicate time outside the WOD to learn the skills and acquire the gains you’re looking for.

1) Your Actions Don’t Reflect Your Ambitions

If there’s a movement in the WOD that we haven’t learned yet, we scale down.

  • Double Unders become 2:1 Single Unders (but this isn’t smart)
  • Muscle Ups become Pull-ups + Ring Dips. 
  • Handstand Pushups become Dumbell Presses

The list of scalable options goes on and on.

I’m not suggesting scaling is a bad thing. I can argue it both ways. It depends on who I’m talking to.

When an out-of-shape friend or family member tells me they can’t do CrossFit, I’m the Ambassador of Scaling Down. I’ll say anything to get one more person to drink the Kool-Aid.

I do, however, become stingy about scaling when talking to box mates that are simply complaining. You heard it before. Hell, you might be the one saying it...

  • “I can’t do double unders yet, so it’s 200 single unders for me!!!” 
  • “Ugh. There’s muscle ups in the WOD today. Why do they program that? Only like 5 people can do them”
  • “Toes To Bar again? Let me go grab my abmat, I’ll do sit-ups instead”

Despite the above reactions, after a little digging I find out that they, in fact, want to be able to perform those movements “RX’d” one day - they just can’t yet. To these people, I ask one simple question. “What steps have you taken to learn the movement you’re complaining about?”

Are you waiting to magically acquire the skill? Or do you just love to endlessly bitch and moan without taking any action to solve your own problem?

We scale down because it feels like the smart thing to do during a WOD. But is it really that smart? What if instead of scaling movements, we scaled reps?

How we react to struggle within CrossFit (and life) defines us.

Do you walk away and avoid obstacles altogether? Are you hoping that movement you can’t do won’t be programmed again for another couple of weeks? Or do you come up with a plan to systematically learn that skill and climb out of your CrossFit PR plateau?

2) Your CrossFit Practice is Imperfect (or Non-Existent)

I learned how to do double unders TWO YEARS after starting CrossFit. Once I finally committed to learning them, it took me about 6 weeks to string together 50 unbroken. I only practiced for an hour after every Saturday morning WOD. Or at least until my calves gave out.

The first two weeks weren’t even well thought out. I applied the brute force technique. Try. Fail. Try Fail. Try Fail. All I got for my effort were lashes on my arms and legs. The next week I did the single, single, single, single, freak-out double, stop. The following week I graduated to single, single, double, single, single. Over the final few weeks, the singles began to remove themselves from the equation. Only doubles remained.

Before I hit my breaking point, I committed to never doing a single under again. I combined that with deliberate practice on a weekly basis. After a few sessions, double unders presented themselves to me on a silver platter.

Thrusters, however, were a different story.

Unlike starting at ground zero with double unders, I understood and knew how to do Thrusters. But I couldn’t put more than 7 together without wanting to die (@ only 95lbs). For the longest time, I made excuses. I told myself, “I struggle with thrusters because my legs are weak and shaped like noodles.” Or, “I’m not good at thrusters because my legs are so much longer than my body”. ← WTF?!

CrossFit PR problems

Time to get vulnerable: My PR Fran time is 7:30. I don’t need to break the pull-ups. The last time I did Fran, I took a video. The time I spent resting on Thrusters exceeded the time I spent actually doing Thrusters. Pathetic...

In January of 2018, I had enough. After every single WOD, for 4 weeks straight (18 sessions total), I did 5 sets of 5 Thrusters at 95 lbs with a partner. The only rest we had was while the other person worked. It took about 2 minutes to complete each session. On Wednesday, January 31st, 2018, this was the WOD programmed at our box:

5 Rounds For Time: 20/15 Cal Row, 10 Thrusters (115/80)

Guess who did every single Thruster unbroken (At 25# more than typical Rx weight)? MEEEEEEEE!!!!! This was a CrossFit PR for me - and to be completely honest, I’m not sure if I had broken my Thrusters plateau... or if I just became comfortable with how much they suck. I guess they’re one in the same.

Deliberate practice for 4 weeks, in a singular domain improved my CrossFit performance.

My accountability partner and I were so happy with the results, we continued our post WOD practice. In February we did 3 sets of 20: GHD sit ups & GHD back extensions. In March we did a 6 minute alternating EMOM: 10 Wall Balls & 10 Target Burpees. Each month, we identify a CrossFit weakness in our game and attack it with an easy, repeatable process.

Are you doing the same?

3) You Can’t F.O.C.U.S

You probably saw this acronym on your favorite motivational Instagram account. F.O.C.U.S. stands for Follow One Course Until Success.

If you’re anything like me, you have a lot of room for improvement across a lot of different movements. So one day you might spend some time after class practicing handstand push ups. The next day you might show up early to pick your coaches brain on bar muscle ups. At the end of the week, you feel like your endurance could use some improvement. So you hit the rower for a bit after class and call it “active recovery”.

WRONG. You WILL NOT get better at any single skill if all of them are begging for your attention.

Sift through the noise. You have to identify the highest impact skill that will help you improve your performance overall. Then commit 100% of your practice time (outside the WOD) to developing that one skill and breaking the CrossFit PR plateau. You need to take advantage of muscle memory and subconscious competence to gain confidence in the movement. That only comes from devoting chunks of time to one thing. If you’re lucky, those chunks of time spent practicing one movement might promote a flow state.  

crossfit PR and practice

CrossFit PR's: The enemy of confidence and momentum is confusion and uncertainty. 

Find a simple model that works and work it to the bone. I wish more athletes started thinking this way. They would start feeling less anxiety about their lack of control when it comes to their abilities.

Reminder: As we discussed above, the WOD you attend 3-5 times per week is NOT practice time. That’s break a sweat, burn some calories, enjoy pain cave, have some fun with friends time. Practice, on the other hand, is a lonely, slow, boring, process.

Short-Term Sprints > Long-Term Goals

The wording here is semantics. CrossFit goals are good, sure. But there’s a difference between something you can achieve in the next 90 days and an overarching vision that takes years to actualize. 

The main difference here is process vs. outcome.

crossfit PR goals

The great thing about process goals is you have 100% control over them. The terrible thing about outcome goals is that you don’t have 100% control over them.

Let’s take an example anyone reading this can identify with: Retirement. Automatically saving 15% of your paycheck every two weeks is a process goal. Retirement is an outcome goal. Retirement in the long-term doesn’t happen unless the short-term process is good enough to achieve the outcome.

A short feedback loop is the main advantage that process goal “sprints” have over long-term outcome goals. The short feedback loop lends itself well to two things:

  1. Increased Confidence - Everytime you achieve a short term goal, you will unlock a new level of confidence.
  2. Taking Action - Short-term sprints force you to take action NOW. Long-term visions or outcome based goals have a way of letting you feel like you can get to them later when you have time. Any procrastinator should know how this works - it doesn’t.

CrossFit PR & Plateau Takeaways:

  1. Identify your lead weakness domino. The skill or movement that translates to overall CrossFit success the best. If you can’t do double unders and muscle ups, it’s probably better to learn double unders first as they are programmed more. If it’s between your pistols and pull-ups, I’d suggest attacking the pull-ups first.
  2. Practice deliberately. Dedicate time (15 minute sessions 3-4 times per week) outside of your WOD to improve the skill you are trying to achieve.
  3. Set yourself up for success with short-term sprints. Don’t make your goal, “Learn double unders in 2019”. Make it, “Get the rope under my feet twice at least once today”. Then, “Get the rope under my feet twice, and keep the rope spinning for one more single” next week.

Here’s my CrossFit PR action plan for you... 

In the comments below, write your short-term process goal that you’ll implement next week. Be specific with when, where, and how you’ll be taking action, as this will make it even more realistic.

If you need help with any of the movements listed below, click through to get our free training guides. WODprep has helped thousands of athletes apply focused, deliberate practice to their training, and we’d love to help you too. 

  • nice article! how would you advice to attach a weakness when it is a movement such as snatch or clean & jerk? These are not really easy to work on in 15 minutes before/after a WOD.
    Thank you!

    • Hey David! Definitely. Adding something like this before a WOD:

      For Snatch…

      EMOM x 10 min:
      2 Snatch Grip Push Press + 1 Snatch Balance w/ 3 second pause at dead-bottom of your OHS. Use about 70% of your 1RM snatch.

      Or for Clean and Jerk…

      E2MOM for 10 min:
      1 Clean + 1 Hang Clean + 1 Push Jerk + 1 Split Jerk
      Work up to a weight that feels challenging in a quick warm-up, then stick with that weight for all 5 sets.

      These are just a couple really quick examples off the top of my head. Think of them as technique development, not pure strength development. Shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes from the time you touch the barbell since the complex acts like it’s own warm-up.

  • Great minds think alike. I started CF back in September 2017, exactly … 8 months ago. What I am working on at the moment at the end of each WODs are either handstands or strict RMUs.

    • Alvin, great to see you in the comments! Always appreciate hearing from you. Hope all is well! Keep your nose to the grindstone. Your success is around the corner. All the best. 🙂

  • Butterflies. I did Cindy this morning and they are literally the only thing holding me back. I just can’t do them! I will go back to the gym in the evenings 3-4 times per week (depending on when I can leave work) and work on butterfly drills.

  • I have so much I need to work on I often get overwhelmed so I love the idea of picking a weakness and drilling it into submission! Haha.
    This month double unders- 50 every weekday. Next month hspu

  • Hi! I bought the shoulder Rom unlocked and hand stand push-ups. I started them both but couldn’t keep up. So I am focused on the shoulder mobility and start with the hand stand push ups afterwards. I stopped running when I began with crossfit and that was my biggest mistake. I start running again in January and can feel the different and afterwards I am working on my shoulder mobility. Next goal is handstand push-ups!

    • Bonita – good call! It’s better to focus on one at a time to make sure you stick with it. The last thing we want to happen is for you to become overwhelmed and stop the programming for both. ShoulderROM Unlocked is a great program to hit just before the HSPU Power course! 🙂

  • Sunny – your Thruster story is super motivational (and impressive), I love it! You’ve convinced me to get back to intentional BMU practice 3x per week 🙂

  • Wodprep best post! I started CF in september ‘17, did the open this year which went well except for 18.3, which exposed my weaknesses. DU, RMU and BMU. So I got little frustrated thinking so much to learn and where to start. I started with DU, going from 5 to 30 unbroken now. So this post just showed me i’m on the right path by taking small steps to bigger

    • Awesome Richard – glad to hear the post resonated with you 🙂 Excited to hear about your progress

  • Hey guys! Great article, I hear the same excuse from folks that has never done CrossFit even though they know the sport. I tell them the same thing, scale the workout to meet your needs and go at your own pace. I have been doing CrossFit for almost 6 yrs and it has taken me 3 yrs to get my DUs down pat. Just in the past month, I have been able to get close to 50 Unbroken but still have room for improvement.

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