A Hierarchy of Skills

Not all skills are the same; especially when it comes to CrossFit.  

If this were some kind of Matrix-esque world where you could plug in and learn anything in a matter of moments; then you ranking skills wouldn’t matter.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), this isn’t that world.  

Instead, you need to consider a few things when it comes to learning a new skill:

  1. How much time do you need to invest to acquire it?

  2. Are there basic requisites to get first (maybe strength or another more fundamental skill?)

  3. Is it even that important to learn?

For our purposes over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to assume the skills we’re trying to learn are CrossFit Open focused.  So keeping in mind the three questions above, how can we optimize our time to learn as many skills as possible while being as efficient with our time (and resources) as possible.

So take something like Double Unders.  Using the questions above, how important are Double Unders to doing well in the Open?

  1. How much time do you need to invest to acquire?
    Not much all things considered.  I’ve seen people go from 0 to 100 unbroken in only a few weeks.  Even the extremely uninitiated can pick up a few double unders in only a few days (of consistent practice).

  2. Are there basic requisites to get first (maybe strength or another more fundamental skill?
    There’s really no strength requirement to learning double unders.  It’s almost pure technique and repetition. I suppose single unders could be considered a “prerequisite” to double unders but they take almost no time to learn.

  3. Is it even that important to learn?
    For the CrossFit Open, this is two fold: How often does this skill come up?  And how much will it impact your score? Double Unders have been in every single year of the CrossFit Open.  So you can all but guarantee you’ll see them again.  How much will it impact your score? Short answer: GREATLY.  No matter how fast you get the rest of the movements done, if you are only doing one double under at a time and someone else is doing 100 unbroken, you’re going to lose at least 4 minutes to your competitor.

So keeping all the above in mind, if you had to invest time in learning Double Unders or Muscle Ups, which one do you think you should master first?  Please don’t make me answer for you…..

The Skills Hierarchy

For the Open, there are 9 basic skills to master.  If you had none and were working on the first one, here’s what I suggest:

Skill Hierarchy.png



Let’s do a quick breakdown of the above skills via the following Categories in their relationship with the Open:

Frequency: How often does this movement come up in the Open?

Impact: How much will getting better at this movement improve your score?

Prerequisites: What do you need prior to practicing this skill?

Proficiency: At what milestone would consider you “proficient” at this skill?

Mastery: At what milestone will More practice only produce marginal benefit?


Double Unders

Frequency: VERY HIGH

Double Unders have been in every single year of the open. Only Toes to Bar, Pullups and Thrusters have also shown up every year.  So it’s a REALLY good bet Double Unders will be in the next Open.

Impact: VERY HIGH

Because good Double Unders are fast and voluminous, being slow sets you at a tremendous deficit.  Decent CrossFit athletes can 50 double unders will take ~28 seconds and they’ll be relatively fresh afterwards.  

How long does it take you to do single-double-single-double?  We’ve timed it and on average it takes people ~1:14. 46 seconds might not seem like a lot but that’s over TWICE as long.  Imagine if it took you twice as long to do every movement?   

Prerequisites: None

None!  Maybe, Single Unders but of the very few people I’ve seen that can’t do single unders, 10 minutes of practice was enough to learn them.  There are no strength/balance requirements so they really are the ideal movement to start with.

Proficiency: 40 unbroken

I would consider a proficient Double Under-er to be 40 unbroken.  It’s enough to get through most sets in 2 to 3 sets but not quite enough to call it good and move on.

Mastery: 100 unbroken

I would consider a double under “master” 100 unbroken Double Unders.  Once you can do 100 unbroken there’s really no need to keep practicing on a daily basis and simple upkeep is enough.  The good news is once you can get to a proficient 40 Double Unders you’re only a week or so of practice away from 100.  The learning curve is steep with these.

Toes to Bar

Frequency: VERY HIGH

Toes to Bar (like Double Unders, Thrusters and Pullups) have also been in every single Open since its inception in 2011.  So, like Double Unders above, it’s a safe bet that they will be in the next one too.

Impact: HIGH

Even moving from beginner to proficient will result in a tremendous score improvement with Toes to Bar.  A good TTB-er will be able to do 10 reps in ~14.5. People who can’t control their swing and end up doing 2+ kips can often take more than 30 seconds to complete the same 10 (and that’s assuming they don’t drop).  Inefficient TTB also result in hanging on the bar longer which leads to grip fatigue (crucial in a good open performance) as well as more tears. Outside of Double Unders, TTB absolutely have one of the largest impacts on your Open score.

Prerequisites: 3 Strict Knees to Elbows

If you can do 3+ Strict Knees to Elbows than you have the requisite capacity to do a Kipping Toes to Bar.  Though some people find the flexibility tough and full knee extension and hip flexion isn’t exactly required for a TTB, it’s certainly helpful so being able to touch your toes from a standing reach is helpful.

Proficiency: 8

A proficient TTB-er should be able to do 8+ consecutive TTB.  After that, it’s merely a question of anterior hip and abdominal endurance.  Some people are strong enough to grind their way through 8 or more strict-ish TTB because they are strong enough in their anterior hips and abs.  So if you find yourself getting 8+ consecutive but quickly dropping to 1 or 2, you likely need more work on your kipping mechanics than your strength endurance.

Mastery: 30

If you can hit 30+ TTB you’ve likely developed the requisite technique and strength endurance to warrant moving on to another skill.  The marginal gains compared to the benefits of more than 30 TTB should be considered a inefficient use of your time.  


Kipping Pullup*

Frequency: VERY HIGH

The final of our “VERY HIGH” impact skills.  Just because it bears repeating, the kipping pullup (and/or it’s Chest to Bar cousin) have been in every single Open since it’s inception.  Even more so than Double Unders and Toes to Bar, you can bet your bottom dollar this one will be in the next open and everyone after that.

Impact: HIGH

Almost every time the Pullup is featured in the Open it’s in a couplet.  CFHQ loves a Pullup/Squat Movement couplet.  Most times the ability to large sets of pullups are what makes or breaks the workout.   Whether you’re at the Games just trying to beat the guy next to you, 9 times out of 10 your ability to do large chunks of pullups in a Pullup couplet will be the make or break element.

Prerequisites: 3 Strict Pullups

I’m not one zealot who thinks it’s a sin to do kipping before you can do a few strict pullups.  Any evidence I’ve seen of shoulder injuries is completely anecdotal and completely ignores the fact that many people who can do loads of strict pullups still injure their shoulders kipping.  However, I do think until you can do 3 strict pullups you’re hyper hyper inefficient at pullups. Learning the strength will give you a solid base to clean up your kipping technique and not fling yourself around wildly.

Proficiency: 10 Kipping Pullups

Once you can do 10 Kipping Pullups you’ll likely be capable of finishing any WOD with pullups in it.  Now the downside is Open WODs almost always Chest to Bar pullups in them so that should be your next step before eeking towards the “mastery” of the Kipping Pullup. 

Mastery: 50 Kipping Pullups

If you can do 50 Kipping Pullups you should at the VERY MINIMUM have moved on to practicing the Butterfly Pullup.  If you’ve ever seen the video of Spealler doing 100 kipping pullups you have hopefully realized that getting to 100 (and honestly, anywhere past 50) just isn’t worth the squeeze.


*I’ve left the Butterfly Pullup off this discussion because I’ve tried to narrow to movements that have been (or might be) explicitly required in the Open.  Since both a butterfly and regular kipping satisfy the rules, I’ve left it off of this discussion.  But once you can do 20 Kipping Pullups I recommend learning the Butterfly pullup as your default pullup.  Also, many people WRECK their shoulders trying the butterfly so it’s a bad idea to jump into too quickly.

Chest to Bar Pullup

Frequency: HIGH

Everything I mentioned above applies to the Chest to Bar Pullup. In the Open every single pullup has been a Chest to Bar Pullup but it’s not out of question that they might not require it someday and a Chin Over Bar Pullups is certainly a pre requisite to the CtB so it’s worth investing your time.

Impact: HIGH

See above.  Everything I said applies.

Prerequisites: 10 Kipping Pullups

If you’re strong enough to ugly your way through 10 Kipping Pullups then you’re ready to start ugly-ing your way through Chest to Bar.  If you’re not overly strong but can comfortably kip your way through 10 then it’s also time to start working on Chest to Bar.  

Proficiency: 10 unbroken

See Above.

Mastery: 35 unbroken

See Above.

Handstand Pushup

Frequency: Medium

The Handstand Pushup has been a relatively (since 2015) but frequent movement in the Open (it’s been in every year since).  I think it’s a very fair assumption HSPUs will be in the next one. Maybe even their older brother, the Strict Handstand Pushup.

Impact: Medium/Low

The Impact of the HSPU really has two tiers.  It’s either a make or break a timecapper (if you don’t have one) so that’s a tremendous impact or an Unbroken-Fest if you’re good so not as much impact.  So if you have zero it’s well worth the time investment to get 1. Your relative score will be dramatically improved. If you have 5-10 your impact will be dramatically less.

Prerequisites: Push Press 75% of your Bodyweight

If you can Push Press 75% of your Bodyweight you definitely have the strength to do a HSPU.  Likely your sticking point is uncomfortability or technique in the kip. But either way, if you can’t Push Press that relative amount your time is better spent focusing on your overhead pressing strength.

Proficiency: 10 Unbroken

Once you get 2 or 3 you’re really right around the corner from getting 10.  Understanding how to properly load and use your hips, as well as the correct lean and tripod bottom and the movement quickly becomes less about strength and more about efficient technique.  Linking 2 or 3 shows you’re close to getting the technique (or are really strong) and more are coming soon.


Mastery: 40 Unbroken

Although once you start aiming for mastery, and have gotten the basic technique concepts down, the movement quickly reverts back to shoulder/tricep strength endurance again.  Once you start approaching the 30+ mark each extra rep is likely coming more from strength endurance games than skill. Your skill has therefore taken you far enough and it’s time to just get stronger.


Muscle Up

Frequency: High

The Muscle Up is probably the most frequent movement I would consider “high skill.”  For many in CrossFit the Muscle Up is the Great White Whale they’re searching for. Despite its relative difficulty for the average CrossFitter, it comes up and comes up often.  Though it has a few variations (Bar & Ring), the Muscle Up is always in the Open.  

Impact: Medium

Even more than the Handstand Pushup, the Muscle Up can be a make or break movement.  For the beginner striving for their first MU, the impact is tremendous. Just performing 1 Muscleup can catapult you hundreds to thousands of placements in the Open rankings.  For the more advanced athlete there’s a relatively lower impact but it’s still significant. It doesn’t quite make the impact that being efficient at Pullups or Toes to Bar does, but it definitely still makes a medium athlete really good if they have effortless muscle ups.

Prerequisites: 3 Strict Chest to Bar Pullups & 3 Strict Ring Dips

There’s no denying Muscle Ups are an incredibly important skill for your Open Performance.  The reason, though, they aren’t as high as the other movements is due to the effort and time requried to learn them.  Many people practice for a year+ to get their first muscle up. In my experience they are the most difficult movement to learn in CrossFit, but due to their commonplace nature, more people get good at them due to necessity.

Proficiency: 3 Unbroken

1 can be a fluke.  2 in a row means you can definitley do them.  3 in a row means you’re pretty dang good! Once you can do 3 in a row I’d estimate there’s a 80% probability you can do 1 at a time.  And one at a time means you can do some damage when it comes to the Open. YOu won’t be a pro, but you can definitely do some proficient work.


Mastery: 15 Unbroken

I don’t know what percent of CrossFitters can do 15 unbroken Muscle Ups in a row but I have a feeling they are all doing really well when it comes to the Open.  Once you can bang out 15 ina row you’re likely able to keep your weakest sets above 3. If you know even at your most tired you can bang out 3 muscle ups you’re likely to get through any amount the Open might throw at you. 

Strict Handstand Pushup

Frequency: Low

The Strict Handstand Pushup has only occurred once (the most recent Open) but it feels like a movement that will creep up again.  

Impact: Medium

Virtually everything said about the Muscle Up can be said about the Strict HSPU.  For many beginners, the Open WOD is a race for a tiebreaker at the first HSPU. If you can get one you’re likely to see a gigantic boost in your score.  The downside is some people can will themselves into a Muscle Up. The Strict HSPU? Not so much. If you don’t have them, you very unlikely to find one at the last second.  

Prerequisites: Strict Press 75% of your Bodyweight

The reduced range of motion in the HSPU (only to the top of your head) makes the strict press comparison not quite 1:1.  But the honest truth is that there’s very little technique to the strict HSPU. If you’re unable to get one, just get stronger.

Proficiency: 2

Once you can do 2, it’s not a fluke (though it unlikely ever was with this movement).  Just get stronger.


Mastery: 20 Unbroken

If you can do 20 you’re strong enough.  Keep getting stronger, but seriously at that point are you really practicing Strict HSPUs?


Pistols

Frequency: Low (as in… never)

Call it a hunch, but I think Pistols are a mortal lock to be the “new movement” in the next Open.  I just have a feeling.

Impact: Medium

Well they’ve never been done so its a bit hard to predict how CFHQ might deploy the Pistol.  Is it 100 straight and you need to grind through? Or will it be just a few that you’ll need to be consistently fast on?  Who knows… But considering how much I see people struggle with pistols it’ll be a good bet that if they come up, it’ll be a good opportunity to separate yourself from your competitors no matter what level you’re at.

Prerequisites: Feet Together Front Squat @ 100% Bodyweight 

The main difficulty of Pistols is the mobility requirement.  Full ankle range, ful hip range and balance to boot are all required.  A good test is putting your feet together and see how much dorsiflexion you have.  If you can’t even do one without a bar you need to improve your mobility. Which, unfortunately can take quite some time.  If you’ve had major surgery on any of your ankles invest in a significant heel lift.

Proficiency: 5/leg Unbroken

Unbroken as in, no falling over or touching the ground with your non-working leg.

Mastery: 20 Unbroken

20 Unbroken Pistols with no faults means you’re pretty much there.  It’s just a question of how fresh can you remain and can you not load your knees so much that you tear a miniscus. If you can do 20 I’m pretty convinced you can do 40 or 50 too.


Handstand Walk

Frequency: Very Low

They’ve only appeared once (last year) and, in my opinion, they were kinda out of place.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see this movement not come back next year. 

Impact: Very Low

Handstand Walks are usually buried at the very end of Open Workouts and are really only designed to challenge the top dawgs.  If you’re spending any significant amount of time working on HS Walks but still are barely proficient at Muscle Ups you need to read the beginning of this article and better prioritize what you’re spending your time and effort learning.

Prerequisites: 5 Second Free Standing Inversion

For almost everyone the hardest part of the Handstand Walk is the balance.  Finding your hips over your hands can be very tricky. Learning to find that balance in any direction is the first step.  Don’t worry about moving forward, just practice being able to support yourself on your hands for a good 5 seconds and come down in control.  After that it’s just a matter of leaning your hips a litle and keeping your hands underneath you.

Proficiency: 5m Unbroken

And I don’t mean like you fell over and managed to keep your hands under you.  I mean you kick up, control, Handstand Walk, and kick down. Maybe you moved back or forward and hand to regain your balance, but you managed to control your way through the whole 16ft in control.

Mastery: 20m Unbroken

Once you can travel 20m unbroken you likely have figured out the balance requirement that makes the HS walk difficult.  Now it’s a question of shoulder stamina and neck strength.


So… what next?

Over the coming weeks we’ll be releasing a guide to learning each of these skills.  Whether you’re a beginner (you have zero) you’re proficient (you have a few) or you’re close to mastery we’ll have a guide for you.  Starting with Double Unders obviously…..

Stay tuned and if you have any questions, we’re always here to help!

Andrew Killion