Box Development June 9, 2017

The Benchmark Series


Thank you for the introduction, Drew! I am very excited to team up with the SugarWOD crew and talk all things affiliates!
Let’s dive in! First up – why and how we run the Benchmark Series at CrossFit Roots.
The impetus for the Benchmark Series at Roots was simple – I watched my athletes do the workout Isabel and thought to myself, this just doesn’t look right. As I coached people through the workout, I saw that our top end athletes were not able to do this workout RX’ed and folks who had 3:00 minute Fran times and fluid thrusters, were struggling to cycle through sets of 3-5 snatches. For a gym that had been open for five years at the time, it seemed that a gym weakness I had not identified was all of the sudden staring me in the face.
In the early days of CrossFit Roots, I was always hesitant to program a benchmark workout because I had a mindset that it meant we were missing out on doing other stuff. Other stuff boiled down to me thinking that I needed to program new and different workouts all the time – that somehow programming something that my members had already done, would be boring.
I came around to the idea of benchmark testing when two things happened. First, I realized that our gym hadn’t done some of the classic CrossFit benchmarks – EVER – and we certainly hadn’t retested them. How was I to evaluate if we were getting at the goal of CrossFit – increasing work capacity across broad time and modal domains – if I wasn’t testing the fitness of my athletes in a planned and structured way? Second, as mentioned above, when our gym did Isabel I realized that testing benchmarks would help me identify and then address gym weaknesses through our programming.

How was I to evaluate if we were getting at the goal of CrossFit – increasing work capacity across broad time and modal domains – if I wasn’t testing the fitness of my athletes in a planned and structured way?

While the workout of the day lays the foundation for the program – constantly varied, functional movements, executed at high intensity – the benchmark workouts evaluate the quality and effectiveness of the program.
In 2014 CrossFit Roots introduced the Benchmark Series to our affiliate. The initial goals of the program were to:

  • Develop a structured format to test and retest benchmark workouts
  • Keep the coaching staff honest in our follow through to retest workouts
  • Give us a way to evaluate the growth and development of the athletes at the shop
  • Inform gym-wide areas of weakness and address

In this post, I’ll outline what is the Benchmark Series and how we run and apply it at my affiliate.

What is the Benchmark Series?

The Benchmark Series is a collection of 13 workouts scheduled on a 4-month cycle, meaning that each benchmark is tested 3 times over the course of a year.
It looks like this on paper:

Benchmark Series Schedule (2017)

Each year we sit down and come up with a list of workouts that are reflective of all areas of fitness. Our goal is to select a group of workouts that tests general physical preparedness – ie CrossFit. We look at time domains, movements, reps, the skill level of the movements, loading, the improvement from the previous year, and the strengths and weaknesses of our gym specifically (using coaching observations and SugarWOD data).
As an example, we want our selection of workouts to cover a broad time domain – from short workouts lasting 3 minutes or less to longer efforts that take 20 minutes or more. In the table below, you can see the analysis process that we go through to select workouts and evaluate the breadth of our Benchmark Series. In the Time Domains column, you’ll notice a variety of time domains covered, with the largest grouping in the 5-15 minute category.

Benchmark Selection Analysis (2017)

After selecting the workouts, we assign them to a specific 4-month schedule. From there, it’s simply a matter of programming the workout sometime in that month. One thing we aim to improve on in the coming year is to give our athletes a heads up when each Yearly Benchmark is programmed within the month. This way, athletes can plan to be there on benchmark days, and we get more data!
It took us a few years to settle on the number of benchmark workouts and the number of times to repeat the workout each year. In the first year, we selected 12 Benchmark workouts and 4 lifts to make for 16 total tests – and we completed them every 3 months, so four times in one year. That was a bit too much. This year, we landed on 13 tests total and will test them every four months, or 3 times this year.
There were a number of reasons for this, mainly, we targeted Olympic Weightlifting and barbell cycling workouts to improve on the gym’s weakness and programmed them on every 3rd rest day of We needed some more space in the programming to do this!

Why Does it Work?

There are a number of reasons that the Benchmark Series has proven so successful – we’re in our 3rd year!

People will track and see their results.

Let’s face it – people like seeing when they PR. When that PR SugarWOD confetti comes down on my screen (whoops! – just leaked a beta feature), it makes my day. By creating a benchmark series, people are more inspired to log their scores, take detailed notes, and have a desire to take part in the series. When we are too afraid to program a workout “that we’ve already done” no one gets confetti…

It helps gauge the progress of the gym and to address gym weaknesses.

When we first introduced the Benchmark Series, we had a hunch that our gym as a whole was not that good at Olympic Weightlifting and barbell cycling – then we did the workouts Grace and Isabel and realized that we really had a weakness there! By selecting Isabel as a benchmark workout, and pairing it with Olympic Weightlifting programming in group classes every 12th day, we felt we had a way to address and test whether this area of GPP was getting better.

It helps evaluate the effectiveness of your program.

We are all tied to our programming, I know I am, but at the end of the day, if we are training for the intent of CrossFit, our programming should deliver increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. By having a benchmark series that tests the breadth of time domains, loading, skills etc. we can make sure that we are moving people forward in all areas via the programming we offer at our gym.
As an example, if my gym does the workout Grace and posts scores that make me want to challenge gyms across the world, yet when a 5K run is programmed, just 3-4 male and female athletes are breaking 23:00 minutes (a 7:30 per minute mile pace), we need to reevaluate our programming efforts.

It helps with client retention.

A little PR confetti paired with a bunch of fist bumps helps people remember that they’re a part of something bigger than “what’s the workout.” Tracking benchmark progress enables clients to see their progress and the results of the program over time. Without this, people can get into an abyss of “am I fitter?”, is this working?

It helps get people back on track.

When workouts are not retested, an important and underutilized metric is eliminated that helps people realize that their lifestyle needs a check. If you do Helen in 7:52 one month and 8:45 three months later – you’re going to think big – about your sleep, stress, and lifestyle. And that’s when a coach can help them get back on track.

How do I implement this at my gym?

Implementing a benchmark series at your gym is quite simple. Here is a list to get you started:

  1. Select 12-16 benchmark workouts that cover a broad test of fitness. You can also jump in on this one for the remainder of the year – and we’ll release a new one in 2018! If you want to create your own set of workouts, create a simple yet informative system to evaluate the selection of workouts. You can view our example here and be sure to check out both tabs!
  2. Announce the Benchmark Series to your gym. Use your blog, social media handles, and put up signs at the gym to announce and raise interest. You can see an example of how we introduced the series here and here.
  3. Program and incorporate the workouts into your monthly programming.
  4. Remind your athletes to log their scores and to take detailed notes!

We usually do a big announcement (and unveiling) of the benchmark workouts at the start of each new year and the coaches remind athletes on days when it is a yearly benchmark so they are sure to track their progress.