How to Win at Open Gym

Does your warehouse gym offer Open Gym Hours?

Many class-based gyms (like CrossFit affiliates) offer very limited Open Gym hours, or none at all.

If you’re a member with access to open gym (like my affiliate, CrossFit9), this revelation might leave you aghast. But as the co-owner of a gym whose product is coaching and programming, I completely understand. Without up-front ground rules and monitoring, it can be tough to manage this beast, harmful to athletes, and even detrimental to the gym’s bottom line.

These sessions can be unpredictable for attendance. Contrary to popular belief, much of the time, Open Gym drives down the dollar value of a member. It can become cliquey very easily, and just like elementary school recess, drama loves unstructured time. Left unwatched, Open Gym can be a petri dish of “us vs. them” mentality– the antithesis of the community culture we demand at CrossFit9. I’ve had more than a few competitive athletes feel entitled to keep coaches late, use excessive space and equipment during busy times, never say hello to another human during their entire time at the gym, and cry real actual tears when told they can’t blow out our speakers and leave Pandora on a station that uses the n-word 50 times a minute while a class is in session. (I’m still waiting on the study showing Lil’ Wayne at 90 dB increases fitness in 24-35 year old athletes.)


Additionally, as I’ve outlined in my previous post, there is a lot that can go wrong when athletes forgo the watchful eye of a coach. Some athletes never recover. Sometimes they quit. Without open, honest conversations, Open Gym can be their first step out the door.

Despite all this, we have Open Gym at CrossFit9, and I would not get rid of it. We have the space and the staff to oversee it. And I believe in having something that keeps athletes from falling off altogether when classes aren’t working for them, or they need more time and space to work on things.

If you have this perk at your gym (and yes — it’s a luxury, not a right), here are ways to make it work for you.


1. Know the End Game

Always start with the end in mind.

Why are you in open gym?

What are your specific goals?

What are you doing that cannot be best accomplished in a supervised class or private coaching session?

When faced with this super-basic inquiry, a majority of athletes:

  1. …say “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh….” until they can come up with an excuse that seems valid.
  2. …admit they haven’t considered any of that and they don’t know the answers to one or more of those questions.
  3. …get defensive and shut down any further conversation.

If you can’t answer these queries succinctly and without turning into a prickly porcupine, there’s a good chance you already know you should be in class, or you have no idea what your end game is. The best way to not reach a goal is not to have one in the first place.

Recommended Reading: If you don’t know how to make a solid goal, check out the Goal-Setting Guide we wrote for our CrossFit9 athletes.


2. Have a Plan

Now that you have real, specific, actionable goals, you need a plan to get there.

No, I do not mean jotting some crap workout down while you’re at the office, programming your three favorite movements yet again for the third time this week, and heading to the gym to get sweaty.

I mean programming. Ideally, personalized programming.

It’s super popular to purchase things shilled by your favorite CrossFit athlete on Instagram. But no matter the program you pick, you need something that checks these boxes:

  • Skill-appropriate. If you don’t have muscle-ups, you should select a program that helps you achieve strong, consistent muscle-ups. Not purchasing a program with dozens of muscle ups on a weekly basis. I’ve made this mistake myself.
  • Volume- appropriate. Ah, volume. Here’s the thing about volume: You need to earn it over time, building up currency with your consistency, or else you’re borrowing from your future self. So no, CrossFitter who has been attending 3x per week for a year, I do not think competitor level programs like MisFit or CompTrain are appropriate for you… yet.
  • All-encompassing, or inclusive. If you are trying to become a better CrossFit athlete, the wrong approach is to do a 12-week, 5x per week Catalyst weightlifting cycle at the same time you’re completing WODs, and a rehab protocol for your bum shoulder, and then putting the cherry on the sundae with a 4x per week gymnastics program, because you know, you need to be well-rounded. If you choose a program, it should either (A) include every facet of what you need to get done or (B) be written with the intent it’s an à la carte add-on to your existing training.

If that balance sounds kind of hard to achieve, it is. There’s an art and science to great programming. and there’s really no match for a custom-made plan that is laser focused straight towards your personal goals, attacking your personal weaknesses, well-balanced, and so on.


3. Fill Holes in Your Game

You hate bodyweight movements. Your upper body strength is dismal. Your terrible barbell technique is costing you in efficiency. You have great endurance, but no hustle whatsoever. A lot of the time we know what our weaknesses are.

Open gym is the perfect time to tackle these weaknesses.

Remember, in CrossFit we’re trying to make athletes who possess:

  1. Endurance
  2. Stamina
  3. Strength
  4. Flexibility
  5. Power
  6. Speed
  7. Coordination
  8. Agility
  9. Balance
  10. Accuracy

If you need help looking for your weak points, this list of athletic traits is a great place to start.

And how about energy pathways? This checklist gets less play, but it’s super important. Do you know an endurance athlete who could run for miles on end, but couldn’t complete ten heavy deadlifts to save their life? Or a meathead who gets winded running to the end of the block and back? Exactly. Your motor needs to have different gears, and you need to train it to do so.

There are multiple energy pathways our bodies use to fuel our various outputs, but in CrossFit we use a simplified version of three, and for clarity’s sake, we’ll stick to them:

  • Phosphagen: You’re using this anaerobic metabolic pathway for extremely short, intense bursts of effort. Think of your 1 rep max back squat, measuring your vertical, or sprinting to the fridge when you know there’s Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer. Length: <10 seconds or so.
  • Glycolytic: Still moving real fast and sprint-y on the anaerobic side of things, but now we’re a touch more sustained in effort, in the 20-120 second range. Think of running a 400 m dash, 30 heavy kettlebell swings for time, or crushing 200 proficient double unders as quickly as possible.
  • Oxidative:  All my cardio queens were wondering when we’d get to the aerobic side of the threshold, and now we’ve officially arrived. This is our low power output, but much more enduring energy pathway. We’ve moved into the Oxidative state anytime we cross over two minutes in effort duration. So we’re looking at your max mile effort, “Murph”, triathlons, and beyond.

To be a proficient athlete, you need to have your engine tuned for all three of these metabolic pathways. If you want to further geek out on the topic, this CrossFit Journal article is the best place to dig into this concept.


4. Prehab, Rehab, and Recover

We all get little aches and pains. This is part of living a life beyond the safety of your couch.

Addressing stability, mobility, and flexibility during your free time can go a long way towards keeping you in the game for years to come.

Is your back weak and seizes up every time you deadlift? Tight ankles keeping you from squatting below parallel? Old rotator cuff injury in need of gentle rehabilitative exercises? It’s on you to make your unique needs happen, and Open Gym is the perfect time to do so.

Strike the word “accessories” from your mindset. However unsexy, these things are complete necessities.

On the recovery end of things, at CrossFit9 we give athletes access to premium tools like Compex muscle stimulators, TheraGuns, and Crossover Symmetry bands, along with easy access to ROMWOD to entice athletes to stretch while they’re still warm post-workout.

I think of an athlete’s body like a well-loved vehicle. As we put on more miles, it’s going to need preventative maintenance, early response to weird noises and flat tires, and the occasional system overhaul.

Open Gym is your garage time. You’ve got the tools available. Your body is the vehicle. You are the mechanic. Make the necessities happen so you can age like a fine, well-tuned classic muscle car. Neglect them and you’re screwed, because this metaphor has met its limit. You don’t get to trade your body in.


5. Get Sport-Specific

I know my #CF9Barbell folks are feeling a bit sold out at the moment. Keep your Fleos on, lifters. I know you need Open Gym to get on the platform.

CrossFit is a generalized fitness regimen. It’s fantastic for non-specific performance goals. (i.e. “I want to be healthy.” “I want to lift my groceries without pooping my pants.”  “I want to have a six-pack so I can put it on Tinder and find the love of my life, or at least get laid.” As a methodology, it’s not meant to be its own sport. Ideally, your gym provides unbiased programming to create well-rounded athletes.

By contrast, powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, gymnasts, endurance athletes, etc. are biased in what their sport demands. While they will get heath benefits from some exposure to the General Physical Preparedness (GPP) provided by CrossFit methodology, they will naturally need time and space to dedicate to the specific things that they get judged on. At the end of the day, a powerlifter gets judged on three lifts, not her Fran time.

Now what?

You might be totally on one side of the Open Gym fence, or the other. If you’re still unsure if it’s a wise use of your time, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with yourself, and possibly a conversation with a trusted coach.

In short, Open Gym is exactly what you make of it. You can use it to sharpen the ax and become an even better athlete, or you can use it as an escape when you don’t feel like performing as well as you know you should. The choice is yours, so choose wisely.


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