The CrossFit Total WOD: Goal Times, Tips and Safety

This is the ultimate CrossFit test of strength

The CrossFit Total was first developed in 2006 and announced in the CrossFit Journal Issue 52 as a way to increase the strength base of CrossFit. Developer Mark Rippetoe said the CrossFit Total is the best reflection of an athlete’s functional strength capacity, and it appeared as an event at the first-ever CrossFit Games in 2007.

The Total is the sum of three main lifts: the squat, the press and the deadlift. Rippetoe chose these three movements because:

  • they don’t require as much technical proficiency as the Olympic lifts
  • they can be performed safely without spotters (all three lifts can be bailed without injury)
  • they represent functional strength; that is, they are representative of movements you may have to execute in life outside the gym.

The CrossFit Total

Score: Total pounds or kilograms lifted

Equipment needed: barbell, plate weights and a barbell rack

Level: Moderate. Athletes should have proper form and a good understanding of their strength levels before completing the CrossFit Total.

Benefits

Lower Body Strength

Squats will help strengthen your entire body — bones, joints and muscles — because they utilize nearly your entire body and are a weight-bearing exercise (even if you do bodyweight squats). Particularly, squats strengthen the lower body. Your hamstrings, quadriceps, knees, hips, and glutes will benefit greatly from squats. The deadlift is also a highly beneficial lower-body exercise, with a great deal of power coming from your glutes and hamstrings.

Upper Body Strength

During the overhead press, your shoulders and arms press weight overhead. But don’t be fooled — other muscle groups work while that happens. Your core and lower body keep you steady and balanced, and your upper back and chest muscles work as helpers and stabilizers.

Core Strength

All three lifts in the CrossFit Total — the squat, press and deadlift — require you to utilize and engage your core throughout the lift. Without a strong core, progressing in these lifts isn’t possible — or, at least, progressing with good form isn’t.

Functional Strength

Squats are one of the most foundational functional movements in our lives. Deadlifts are a close second. We’re born knowing how to squat — it’s a natural position that we lose over time because we sit in unnatural positions so often. Aside from mimicking natural body positions, the three lifts in the CrossFit Total are representative of movements that most of us execute in daily life, such as unloading groceries.

Baseline Establishment

Completing the CrossFit Total can give you a baseline of strength that you can then use to measure and compare as you progress.

Step-by-Step Instructions

To complete the CrossFit Total, you must execute all three lifts in one session. You can’t leave the area to rest, recover or do anything else in between attempts.

This workout was originally designed without a time cap, but in most situations, you will have one. In an official meet, the Total involves three attempts at each lift. Most CrossFit gyms also follow the three-attempt protocol when the Total is programmed into the workout of the day.

Rippetoe wrote that the first attempt should be a weight you know you can lift for three repetitions. The second attempt should be a heavy single. The third attempt should be a heavier single, based on your performance from the previous two attempts.

The official order in which you must complete the lifts is to squat first, then press, then deadlift. All lifts must be taken from a squat stand or barbell rack.

The Squat

The squat is a very technical movement that requires good form. However, good form is somewhat subjective based on each person’s anatomy, natural range of motion and other factors. Have a spotter available, and then follow these steps to squat safely:

  1. Position the bar: The barbell should sit about 3 inches lower than your shoulders. Your hands should rest evenly on the bar from behind.
  2. Stand with your feet slightly wider than your hips or shoulders — whatever is more comfortable. Point your toes out slightly, and look straight ahead. Don’t look down at the floor or up at the ceiling.
  3. Slowly begin your descent while keeping your torso upright. Don’t lean forward, and keep your hips aligned under the barbell. It’s important to begin the movement by pushing your hips backward slightly, rather than starting the movement off with a bend in the knees. During your descent, make sure your knees stay aligned with your toes. Squatting with knees facing too far inward or outward can lead to injury.
  4. At the bottom of your squat, maintain constant muscle tension — don’t relax or drop into the bottom position. Try to squat so that your hip joint is lower than your knee joint (referred to as “below parallel”). It’s okay if you can’t squat below parallel, but for the purposes of the CrossFit Total, that’s the standard.
  1. Slowly return to your starting position. Keep your torso as upright as possible the entire time. Keep your entire foot firmly on the ground, and drive through your heels. Keep your knees aligned with your toes on the ascent, too.

The Press

The press is often called the strict press or the military press. It’s one of the most difficult lifts because it uses smaller muscles and very little momentum. Done correctly, it’s extremely effective for building upper body and core strength. Here’s how to do the press correctly:

  1. Stand with the bar in the front-rack position: The bar should rest on your shoulders near your collarbone. Your hands should be underneath the bar where it rests on your shoulders. Push your elbows upward, trying to create a parallel line between your upper arm and the floor.
  2. From the front-rack position, press the barbell over your head until it’s balanced over your shoulders. The barbell should not be too far backward or forward: It should align with the middle of your foot. Do not use your legs during the press — keep them straight. Using momentum from your legs or hips will disqualify your lift for the CrossFit Total.
  3. Lock your elbows at the top and shrug your shoulders toward the ceiling to engage your upper back muscles.
  4. Lower the barbell back to the front-rack position.

Keep your core engaged throughout the entire lift so that you don’t hyperextend your lower back. Think about drawing your belly button close to your spine.

The Deadlift

Another highly functional movement, the deadlift is essentially picking up a heavy weight from the ground and putting it back down. This mimics everyday activities, like loading and unloading heavy groceries, picking up a child, and moving boxes. To do the deadlift correctly, follow these steps:

  1. Stand with your hips at hip- or shoulder-width. Position your feet so that the barbell hovers over the middle of your feet.
  2. Bend into a partial squat to grab the bar. Your grip should be about shoulder-width.
  3. With a neutral spine (maintaining your natural lumbar curve), begin lifting the barbell off of the ground. Keep your chest up, and use power from your glutes and hamstrings — you don’t want all of the tension in your lower back.
  4. Stand all the way up until your hips are locked out. Maintaining a crease in your hips will disqualify your lift for the CrossFit Total. Keep your feet flat on the ground.
  5. Lower the barbell back to the ground.

To avoid injury, your lower back must stay neutral. This gets difficult when deadlifts are heavy. However, rounding your spine is dangerous because it puts uneven pressure on your spine. Just like with the squat and press, make sure you engage your core the entire time. A strong, engaged core is the foundation for all functional movements.

Common Mistakes

A few mistakes are prevalent when it comes to the CrossFit Total, namely, disregarding form and disrespecting your body’s limitations.

Going Too Heavy

In the CrossFit Journal article where Rippetoe announced and described the Total, he wrote: “Anyone in a position to attempt a legitimate CrossFit Total should be familiar enough with their capabilities on the lifts to have a fairly good idea of what might be possible for a one-rep max.”

This means that you need to know how about heavy you can go before you attempt the Total. It’s helpful — and arguably critical — to know your one-rep maximums for each of the three lifts before you try the Total. If you don’t know your one-rep max for any or all of the lifts, you can use percentages of your two-, three-, or five-rep maximums as guides.

Trying to lift a weight that is too heavy for your current capabilities can result in injury.

Doing the Total with an Injury

Speaking of injuries, you shouldn’t attempt the CrossFit Total if you have a pre-existing injury. Doing so can worsen the injury and require you to discontinue exercise. At worst, attempting the Total with an injury can cost you money, time off of work, and time away from daily activities if you end up needing medical attention.

Disregarding Form

Neglecting to use proper form or being careless with the execution of your lifts can result in a subpar score at best and an injury at worst. Ask your coach or workout partner to critique your lifts with light weight before attempting the Total. As a general rule, if you can’t attain proper form with light weight, you definitely won’t be able to attain it with heavy weight.

Skipping a Warm-Up

Another surefire way to injure yourself, failing to warm up before the Total could be considered gross negligence if CrossFit were the law. Warming up primes your body for exercise by increasing your heart rate, pumping more blood and oxygen to your muscles, and preparing your joints for movement.

Modifications and Variations

The CrossFit Total was designed as a way to measure true, functional strength in athletes. To modify it would be to reduce the effectiveness in measuring that strength. However, the CrossFit community’s take on exercise is that everyone should be able to partake. Additionally, if each person measures their performance the same way each subsequent attempt, the results remain accurate for that person.

Modifications for the Squat

Front Squat: If the back squat is uncomfortable for you, you can try squatting with the barbell in the front-rack position instead. Most people cannot lift as much weight in the front squat as they can in the back squat. Just remember that if you do the Total with a front squat, it won’t be accurate to compare your results if you later do a back squat.

Heel Raise: If lack of mobility causes you to struggle to squat with good form because your ankles or hips are tight, raising your heels may help. You can either wear weightlifting shoes with a raised heel, or squat with your heels on small weights (like a 2.5-pound plate) on the ground.

Decrease Depth: Even though the standard for the CrossFit Total is to squat below parallel, your body just may not allow for that (and that’s okay). Just squat to a depth that is comfortable for you and won’t increase your risk for injury. In the meantime, try working on your mobility.

Wider Stance: Because of the way our hips are structured, some people need to squat with a wider stance than others. Experiment with your stance to find one that’s comfortable for you.

Modifications for the Press

Change Grip Width: Similar to the hips, everyone’s shoulders are slightly different. You may be able to press overhead with more comfort if you use a wider or narrower grip.

Modifications for the Deadlift

Sumo Deadlift: A sumo deadlift is a deadlift done with a wide-leg stance. The sumo stance is ideal for people who have concerns about or issues with their lower back and hips. The wider stance shortens the distance between the floor and your upright position in the deadlift. 

Elevate Starting Point: Elevating the starting point for deadlifts is technically not allowed for the CrossFit Total, but you may want to try this technique if you have back pain or have had a back injury or surgery.

Safety and Precautions

There are several precautions you should take to maximize safety when completing the CrossFit Total.

Warm Up and Mobilize

You should take care to complete a thorough warm-up before attempting the CrossFit Total. Your warm-up should include light aerobic work to increase your heart rate slightly and increase blood flow to your muscles, as well as mobility work and dynamic stretches so that, as Rippetoe wrote, “the knees, hips, back and shoulders are not too terribly surprised.”

Hydrate

Drinking enough water before any workout is essential, including ones that may not make you sweat so much. The American Council on Exercise recommends the following hydration guidelines: Drink 17 to 20 ounces of water two to three hours before you start exercising. Drink 8 ounces of water 20 to 30 minutes before you start exercising or during your warm-up.

Eat Enough

The CrossFit Total is a sum of max-effort lifts, which, by nature, require a vast amount of energy. Make sure to eat enough throughout the day to ensure you don’t become light-headed, dizzy or nauseated when attempting the Total. By the same token, eating too much right before your Total could also cause nausea or vomiting.

Rippetoe provided his own facetious precautions in the CrossFit Journal article that announced the Total (the CrossFit Journal is notorious for being tongue-in-cheek, and it’s popular with their readers):

Don’t Be Stupid

“Don’t Total if you’re injured to the extent that a total will aggravate the problem. This will cost you in at least training time, and possibly time off of work if you’re ultra-stupid.”

Don’t Be Greedy

“Learn to recognize the difference between greed and ambition, and be merely ambitious.”

Don’t Be Pig-Headed

“If your first attempt tells you that you need to lower your second, do so, without a misplaced sense of diminished self-worth. It’s a test, and it’s designed to measure what’s there, not create something that’s not.”

A Word from Verywell

The CrossFit Total is simply a method used to measure strength, with an emphasis on the movements and positions that CrossFit athletes are required to execute often.

The Total can be extremely useful and exciting, especially if you beat a personal record while attempting the Total. However, it presents an opportunity for injury, and the potential for injury should be taken seriously. If you want to do the CrossFit Total, do so in the presence of a qualified coach or trainer, and respect your body’s limits.

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