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The Sophomore Slump

by Noah Abbott

It’s inevitable. At some time during this great journey that is Crossfit, things are going to get tough.  Your strength numbers stop shooting up, and your metcon times stop plummeting down.  At a certain point what Mark Rippetoe calls the “Beginner Effect” wears off, and you are now faced with the daunting prospect that each gain, each skill mastered, and each second shaved will be done so at the cost of a considerable investment of time, focus, and will.  

Often, concurrent with this realization, you will look around and think “why isn’t this happening to anyone else!”  The guy you share a squat rack with has added 40 pounds to his squat this exposure, while you’ve risked an aneurysm to add 15!  The girl you did foundations with just hit 100 consecutive double unders, and you approach the jump rope like its an anaconda looking to wrap you up and eat you!  You thought you were great at this stuff, and all of a sudden it feels like you barely deserve to wear the ol’ skull and crossbones and call yourself a CFSBKer.

For many, this phenomenon occurs somewhere between 6 and 18 months into an athlete’s development, although it can certainly happen sooner or later, depending on your previous training history.  Often times this double edged revelation- That a) shit is gonna be hard, and b)that on the giant Crossfit spectrum your abilities rate closer to Jason Schwartzman’s than Jason Khalipa’s- results in a drop of motivation, general malaise, and sometimes a loss of CrossFaith.

Congratulations!  You are now a Crossfit Sophopmore, and experiencing your first Sophomore Slump!  At this time it may be meritorious to examine the roots of the word Sophomore.  Although commonly used to refer to the second year of high school or college instruction, it derives its name from the greek sophisma, which means “acquired skill, clever device, method” which was further derived from sophos, meaning “wise or skilled.”  Previously you made gains randomly, almost accidentally, and every lift or metcon was a PR.  Now, as a Sophomore, you must practice sophisma and train methodically and with greater perspective to ensure continued success.

Redefine Goals and Timeframes

At the start of your Crossfit career, goals were short-term challenges and triumphs.  Kicking up to a handstand, one (or ten, or twenty) push-ups or pull-ups, squatting to depth- these were things that you could identify, work on for a relatively short amount of time, and achieve.  For further development as a Sophomore, a redefinition of goals is necessary.  

Previously, we planned forward to achieving a goal.  “I want to squat 200 pounds by the end of the month.”  Looking forward, I challenge you to plan backwards.  Identify your goal, figure out how many training days you can allot per week or month to work on it, and set a long enough timeframe that you will be able to keep progressing slowly and steadily towards success.  Make sure to start submaximally (using weight/reps/etc lower than your current max) to make sure you have room to grow.  The more you can delay hitting the ceiling of your current ability, the more room your ability will have to grow. By starting low, aiming high, and giving themselves ample time to grow Smart Sophomores avoid Ceilings (I think I just made up a new saying!).


Even with perfect planning, great focus, and sustained intensity, some movements,workouts, or even time/weight modalities (Grace vs Murph) will always seem to crush us.  Mobility, diet, sleep, injury history- all of these things blend into potent cocktails that besiege the fledgling (and intermediate, and expert) Crossfitter.   Instead of getting frustrated why not try and re-frame the problem:

First, embrace every exposure to them as an opportunity to practice perfectly and gather experience and insight about a difficult adversary.  Relish in attacking your weaknesses, and try your best to attend days when those weaknesses are programmed, or program them yourself during open gym days.

Second, actively try to maintain perspective about what Crossfit means in your life and your personal reasons for why you keep showing up to a funky old warehouse to get sweaty.  Aside from the infinitesimal percentage of elite, competitive Crossfit athletes, most of us come to the gym for reasons that all fall under the umbrella of “Improving Quality of Life.”  Increasing work capacity, being able to participate in new and challenging activities, looking better naked- all of these are broad, life-oriented goals that we work towards every single time we come to the gym, whether its a day when we hit a PR or where we bail on every set.  

Last, remember what a great privilege it is that you have a life that allows you to spend a nice chunk of time each week picking up heavy stuff, running, jumping, and making yourself Mas Sexy (and I mean that in the broadest sense of the Spanglish malaproprism).  There are a vast number of people out there too overworked, underpaid, untrained, ignorant or otherwise unable to do the things we take for granted.  Your worst day at the gym is better than a day sitting on the couch mainlining Pringles.

Just Show Up

Which brings me to my last point and word of advice during slumps, Sophomoric or otherwise.  JUST SHOW UP.  Every day you are in the gym working is a day you are improving, even when it doesn’t feel that way.  Tangible increases in strength or speed are important, but so are intangible gains in familiarity with movements and a greater understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations.  Broadening your knowledge and confidence is just as worthwhile an endeavor as broadening your back and thighs.  Sometimes you will surprise yourself with gains you make when you feel like you are standing still.  Plus, your friends want to see you, sweat with you, and laugh with you, and, if you don’t show up, your coaches will have nothing to do but compare deadlift scars and throw chalk at each other.

A Long Crossfit Road

Hopefully after reading this, some of you will feel rejuvenated, and apply these humble tools to break out of the funk you are currently in.  Although this article deals with the concept of a Sophomore Slump, rest assured there are Junior Slumps, Senior Slumps, and a wealth of postgraduate, doctoral, and extracurricular opportunities in Slump Science as well.  Now you have the weapons to fight back.   Redefine your goals and adjust your timeframes to allow steady progress towards said goals. Strive to maintain perspective and always reflect on what Crossfit means to you, why you do it.   Most importantly, even when it’s tough, find value in simply stepping into the ring.   So equipped, all of these Slumps will be just small road bumps on a long road.  Trust me, one day you’ll look back at this stuff, and laugh.

Reader Comments (40)

Great read Noah, maintaining perspective is always difficult, but worthwhile when successful.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDH3

Nice piece, Noah. (Cue "She said" comments.)

Coming back to the box Friday after what felt like a crazy-long hiatus to let some bumps and tears heal up. And I am...nervous!

What if all my gains are suddenly gone?!

In my time off I did manage to kick off my career as a paleothlete. There is a LOT I could say about this, highlights:

Day 3: Partner agrees to do paleo together! Yay.
Day 7: I hit rock bottom. Called out of work.
Day 11: Feeling leaner. Down 5lbs?!
Day 13: Bad idea night. 5 bites of pizza. We both barf.
Day 17: Today. Notice that I can tell that my rotisserie chicken has some kind of artificial flavoring or oil. Can't bring myself to eat it. Given an 'all-beef' burger. It tastes like weird flowers. Quality, grass-fed meat is no longer an intellectual concept, now a genuinely perceptible 'flavor.'

I feel I am eating all the time. Will be interesting to see what happens when I start hitting WODs hard again.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBilly Keefe

Great writeup, Noah. I have definitely felt the sophomore blues of late. The "just show up" stuff really resonated. Sometimes it's enough to have that as a goal, when the idea of the hard work it will take to achieve something specific is just too daunting. Just logging hours in the gym, I start to reconsider the art of the possible and regain my optimism. (After first stopping "Elizabeth" halfway through and running out of the gym in tears. fun.)

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte

@Billy - That's Awesome! Good for you. It is funny how quickly the body starts to adjust - there are those few weeks of pain and then taste buds etc. start to help you out. The post cheat nausea is pretty amazing isn't it? I am excited to hear how this goes for you. Good Luck and stay strong as the holiday sugar starts to flow. Let us know if you need any help.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaurel

Nice article Noah.

Had a horrible nightmare that the box was filled with all these clunky weight machines that didn't work and had to be moved around for the metcon because it was so crowded. My machine wouldn't allow me to go to the top or the bottom of a bench press and the bar was at a 30 degree angle. Suffice to say, I woke bolt upright in a cold sweat. Shudder.

I'm glad the t-shirts are in... What about the Athlete of the Month t-shirts? Our heroes deserve a t-shirt--retroactively! I'm calling our movement "Occupy T-shirts". If you want to lobby for AOTM t-shirts, just type in Occupy T-shirts in your posts.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Great read and perfect timing for me. I've been out for a month and feeling anxious about coming back and just need to show up. Thanks for the really thoughtful piece and perspective check, Noah!

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterariel

Nice work Noah - great piece. I like the little etymology lesson in there. Now people know where "sophist" and "sophistry" come from as well.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSamir Chopra

He proves the childhood book contract wasn't a fluke!

Well said Noah. Very well argued and sound perspectiv.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMargie

Totally dig your article, Noah. Thanks for writing it!

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris A.

Sarah H, Jess Bails, Margie, Jeremy, Fox, D. Byrd, and Gabrus:

I can't wait to cheer you all on as you don your singlets and kick some butt at the powerlifting meet this weekend! Good luck and see you in PA.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbecca ESS

Great post Noah! I'm totally still in the beginner phase, breaking tiny records left and right! However, I'm kinda excited to hit this sophomore slump... so I can stop feeling like a freshman.

Of course this all requires that I get over this god awful cold/flue that has been keeping me from the box all week. This was supposed to be my first week of 5x/week and I am at 0x/week right now. UGHHHH WHEN WILL THE END?! :(

Billie, Keep up the good work!! I've been struggling a bit with the urge to eat bread since I'v been sick but... I'll be posting more recipes on BKPaleo once I'm feeling better (My food intake hasn't been very exciting lately... just lots of chicken broth and the urge to eat bread and crackers). Lucky for me, Coach Fox just submitted a recipe to make up for my slacking, which I will undoubtedly have up soon, it looks amazing!!

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLana

Check out the big brain on Noah.

When does the below start happening?

"Your strength numbers stop shooting up, and your metcon times stop plummeting down"

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBen W

Definitely a great post. I do try to keep telling myself that just showing up is half (my) battle. I haven't hit Sophomore status yet, mostly because I had a 9 month gap ( failed out my freshman year).

In terms of showing up, worth noting that i was the only one at the gym for 6 AM today -- thanks, Jess, for the 1:1 training (read: nowhere to hide).

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Ditto on the great post. Sometimes I need a little reminder that just walking in the door does the trick. Thanks, Noah.

Please take photos of anyone wearing singlets at the meet tomorrow. I'll need them for... uh... research.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobin

Guys, this morning just showing up was a big win. Thanks to everyone for not booing me out of the box. I have some gnarly junk on the front of my knee that hurt like hell from the barbell scrapes during the deadlifts. And things got uglier from there. It was really great to be back and reminded of how valuable each day in the gym is to my health (and friendships).

Jay, if you are out there, I kind of like that we always get paired up. Someday can we hang out when I am fully fed and not panting? Have a good trip this weekend.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBilly Keefe

Attention Robin Reed:

I got you.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermichele

Hey all, I will probably be tweeting powerlifting results from @SarahHaskins if you're dying to know what's going on. Thanks for all the best wishes.

December 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterSarah H

Great write up...Totally appreciate it's content and the timing could not be better..tks Noah.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAsh

@Lana- I'm getting over this cold right now. It's a stone cold bitch. Feel better.
Thanks for the post Noah, referring to the above cold, it was nice to come in on wednesday night (post contagious phase) and just move. Just getting back to routine is important.
Good luck to the competitors this weekend! Can't wait to hear about it!!!

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeb

Thank you for that write-up Noah. It was a fun read and full of good perspective reclaiming tips. The most helpful of which is: just show up. It's so easy to find excuses to not come in. But 9 times out of 10 I feel better after than I did before.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca R

nice one noah!

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMcGrath

Just to chime in with the Noah praise: nice one! I suspect I will be re-reading that many times in the coming years.

I've also had a cold all week and not made it in once (though I did keep setting my alarm each night with the intention of going for 6am class). Will be good to get moving again tomorrow.

And good luck powerlifters. Do we have skull and crossbones CFSBK competition singlets? That'd be cool.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIan L

Thanks for this post, Noah. I haven't hit the sophomore slump yet but I know it's probably coming in the not-too-distant future. Plenty of food for thought when that happens.

I took today off from work so I had the rare treat of a noon class with Shane (and fellow FGBadass Chris A). Did yesterday's WOD. Deadlifts: 135, 145, 155, 165, 170. Glad I was able to do these with reasonably good form -- I know I tend to round my back unless I'm concentrating on not doing that!

Metcon: even 100 points. I swear I wasn't trying for it (do you think I can actually do math in the middle of a WOD?!). I did chinups on the thin green band and 1pd KB swings instead of double-unders. I was shocked that the chinups, and not the burpees, were definitely the limiting factor this time around.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStella

Great write up, Noah. Solid.

I can't wait for a photo of me lifting in my singlet to be my FB profile pic. Yup.

Stella - 170? How you've grown...Nice!

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFox

Hey Paleo kids!
What is your favorite butcher shop in Brooklyn?

I keep looking for the best place to procure natural chicken and GF Beef.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenternywineguy

whoa um

Fleisher's (5th ave, Slope)
Meat Hook (bum fuck)
Staubitz (Court Street, Cobble Hill)

Park Slope Food Coop (yeah, I said it!)

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermichele

however, as someone who has experimented a lot in obtaining quality meat, the farm share is the best option in all regards - price, taste and convenience.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermichele

First time for a two-post day. Love the noon class on fridays and this was a big one with a pleasant surprise visit from Stella (Badass) Zawistowski. DL 285#. WOD went 76, 36, 24, 18 (hike) for 154 total. Pleased with the row as I think I paced it out right. Burpees were ok. Thought I'd hit more pull ups. DUs just plain sucked. I'm so out of practice and need some remedial work on those. You wouldn't know by watching me today, but I used to count DUs as a strength. Sigh.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris A.

los paisanos on smith and wyckoff -- they have a lot of grassfed beef and lamb as well niman ranch pork. unfortunately they don't have pastured chicken. if you don't see what you're looking for in the case you can always ask for it. they also sell natural by nature milk (one of my fav brands), kerrygold butter, really good cheeses, etc.

i agree with michele that the CSA we have with herondale farm through the gym provides the best meat i've ever tasted along with better prices than you'll find at a butcher shop.

December 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterNick Angiolillo

btw marlow & daughters in south williamsburg -- which i would normally not recommend because the people behind the counter are snots and everything is overpriced -- does have pastured chickens. it will cost you like 40 bucks for a bird but it did look really good when i was there. you can probably get something cheaper at a farmer's market.

December 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterNick Angiolillo

i wouldn't call the supply of grassfed at Los Paisanos reliable - that's my experience in several years of patronizing that shop.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermichele

michele -- that's fair. if i go in specifically needing, say, grassfed flank steak, they may not have it. but they usually have several grassfed/pastured options so i don't often leave empty-handed.

December 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterNick Angiolillo

On yesterday's post, I just would like to mention that I think it's great that Kristen has started a business like that. Small businesses that people start with a passion are truly the lifeblood of this country, and small, local businesses are just great for the community. It takes a lot of guts, and I think it's great.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJR

Chris gets extra badass points for spelling my name right!

My maiden name is Daily so I definitely traded up in difficulty.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStella

7am class. Deadlift-120#. WOD: 89 points. Rowing was ok, burpees sloppy, pullups with green band ok, but my attempts at double-unders were truly awful today. Oh well...

What a wonderful article! It helped put everything in perspective i.e. even though my attempts at double-unders today sucked, at least I was able to wake up early (on my day off, mind you) to get myself to CrossFit! So, thanks for an inspiring post.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTraci T.

This was great to read, thanks Noah. It made me think about how the "Beginner Effect" is a very general phenomenon. One of the few "laws" in experimental psychology is the Power Law of Practice. Basically, the first few exposures to anything are when you get the biggest gains in performance, after that progress inevitably decelerates.

I think there are exceptions to this that result from disruptive events, like getting a magical cue from a coach, or having a magical moment where a cue the coaches have been giving you for weeks finally "clicks," or passing some invisible threshold on a factor that was holding you back (grip strength, core stability, etc.). Of course, for those things to happen, you have keep working for a while with no visible results.

So yeah, here's to just showing up. And unexpectedly PR'ing in this morning's deadlifts! (245x2)

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJZ

strength cycle week 3.3

squat: 245x5, 245x4FFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU, 225x5
so on the board was my same weight as wednesday, which i sort of muddled through in the last class. the goal was to lock this weight in today so i could move on. but fuck man i just failed on the last rep of my second set. this was my first time failing a squat in either cycle. i am bummed about it but i know it's not the end of the road. i'll deload a bit and see what happens. all my other lifts are still progressing well. my PR for reps is 240 btw, which was my final work weight last cycle.

press: 90x5x3 (PR)
these felt pretty good all the way through. last rep is always a bit of a challenge but i think i got through these well.

power clean: 145x3x3 (PR)
i was sort of rushing through these since the gym was closing down and i was running behind the rest of the class. i got them all up but i think they could have been a bit more elegant. still a PR.

December 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterNick Angiolillo

Thanks everybody for the very kind words about the article.

The one thing I forgot to add is that if you've read the article, decide you want to make a longer range plan, but don't know exactly what to shoot for, or how to gameplan it backwards, just ask one of the coaches, we will be happy to hash it out with you.

Glad everyone liked my ramblings, its going to be a semi-regular thing, so if you have any ideas or topics you'd like touched on, email them to me at noah(at)crossfitsouthbrooklyn(dot)com

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNoah


180x4 (fail 5th rep); 175x5, 175x3 (fail on 4th rep) - very discouraging but I'll come back and try and crack the 180x5 barrier then.

Chins: 30x5x3
Dips: 25x5x3

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSamir Chopra

Nice article......thanks for it. VERY encouraging and brings things back in perspective. I have been crosscutting since 2009 and saw great gains for the first year and a half. Then the slump hit and to make matters worse our gym got bigger and more people with athletic Backgrounds came in (athletes that could already squat 300+ and deadlift 400+). So to read this article gets me into the right mind set to get in the gym and progress. Thanks again.

December 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWestcoast Slumper

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