Sometimes the tougher the accomplishment, the better. As JFK put it, “We choose to go… not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Or in the words of that other great American statesman, eight-time Mr Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman, “Ain’t nothin’ to it, but to do it.”
Both quotes speak loud and clear to the CrossFit mentality. If it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong. So what, then, is the hardest workout?
In a sport of such variety, of constant variance and unknown unknowables, this is a bit like asking the length of the proverbial piece of string. Everyone has a WOD that’s right in their wheelhouse – and everyone has a goat or two.
Even the greatest can be undone by the simplest workout. Take, for instance, past champion Jason Khalipa’s 2012 CrossFit Games. The California bear took a beating in the Saturday morning Sprint event, crashing to a second-to-last place finish. He then went on to own the next three events. Khalipa’s three successive second-place finishes in the Rope-Sled, the Clean Ladder and the Chipper was the best streak of any man at the tournament. In each event, he was only pipped to first place by a single athlete: eventual runner-up Matt Chan, training buddy Neal Maddox and repeat champ Rich Froning, respectively.
The point is, asking what is the hardest WOD is like asking which was your favourite burpee in Open 12.1. Most all of them suck – but you still go back for more.
Don’t fool around
The safe answer has to be Fran. Few workouts get the pre-WOD adrenaline pumping quite like the famous thruster pull-up couplet. As Greg Glassman explained in his 2005 CrossFit Journal article, Fooling Around with Fran: “First exposure to this workout reveals Fran’s penchant for throwing a beating. Repeated exposures, where the goal is improved time, demonstrate a ferocity that speaks to the painful cost of elite fitness.”
In this article – which is well worth a read – Coach goes on to pinpoint why Fran is such a cruel mistress. “Coupled, the thruster and the pull-up work all major muscle groups, are perfectly complementary in that each contains exactly what the other lacks,” says Glassman.
The destructive nature of the short, intense metcons is such that athletes might feel fewer jitters staring down the barrel of Double Fran than the original. Fran epitomises the concentrated insanity at the core of CrossFit and the addictive pain of lactate threshold
Fran has plenty of friends. There are a multitude of workouts around that sub five-minute red zone. The beauty and the horror of lactate training is that the fitter the athlete gets, the faster they go – and the more pain they can self-inflict.
Dancing on the red line
One CrossFitter who has taken her fair share of trips across the pain threshold is 2012 Games second-placer Julie Foucher. She tells The Rx Review: “I don’t think I can pinpoint one workout as the ‘hardest’. I can think of a number of experiences that would fit this classification, usually involving workouts that allow you to push just to the edge of your breaking point, in combination with a mental state where I allowed myself to dance right on that red line.”
Unable to single out one specific WOD that reigns supreme, she instead points to “basically any workout where you can physically go unbroken and you are in a mental state to not allow yourself to take any breaks”.
Foucher nods to hero WOD Roy (five rounds for time of 15 deadlifts, 20 box jumps and 25 pull-ups) as a particularly tough challenge.
During the most intense workouts, the body will swiftly reach a point where it can no longer sustain such high intensity training above the lactate threshold. The point at which the athlete hits this wall depends on his or her fitness, but eventually, everyone reaches a stage where they physically cannot keep red-lining.
That’s why some of the most brutal programming contains enough rest time between rounds to properly reset. One such WOD sticks in Foucher’s mind – an AMRAP of power snatch and toes to bar broken into three-minute segments with a minute rest in between.
But is it fair to call any three-minute metcon the hardest WOD? Sure, programming thatputs the lactate system into over drive hurts, but by their nature, these WODs are also over quickly. There’s an argument that those long, grinding workouts deserve the title of hardest.
Search the CrossFit forums for people’s most harrowing workout experiences, and one notable choice rears its ugly head. Unlike the feminine nominatives of the Girls, thehomages of the hero WODs or cute titles given to notables like the Filthy Fifty, the Burpee Mile does exactly what it says on the tin. Get on a track, do a burpee, jump as far as you can, repeat… for 1,600 metres. No walking allowed.
The average score is 600-800 burpees – depending on the distance of the broad jump. An hour-and-a-half is a decent time. The Burpee Mile is the kind of nuts rite of passage that many CrossFitters hear about and simply have to try (post to comments below if you join the Mile Long Club).
Blood on the bar
When it comes to killer workouts, veteran CrossFitter Chris Spealler has plenty of runs on the board – and blood on the bar. The only athlete to have competed in every CrossFit Games, ‘Speal’ says the toughest event at any of the six tournaments was the 2009 couplet of 30 wall balls and 30 hang squat snatches, coming after a gruelling program that include a 7km run, deadlift ladder and sandbag sprint on the famous hill at Aromas. “My back was so smoked from all the other work done in that day,” he tells The Rx Review.
But when it comes to the picking the hardest WOD of all, Spealler calls out The Seven.
“I’ve done it twice and as much as I love it, it kicks my butt. It’s programmed so well so you can keep moving through and the movements are coupled great. I’m always smoked afterwards,” says Spealler.
This brutal hero WOD is dedicated to seven CIA officers killed in Afghanistan. It takes its seven-fold structure to brutal extremes. The workout comprises seven rounds for time of seven handstand push-ups, seven reps of 135-pound thrusters, seven knees to elbows, seven reps of a 245-pound deadlift, seven burpees, seven 2-pood kettlebell swings and seven pull-ups.
When The Seven was published on CrossFit.com back in 2010, Spealler posted a time of 20.56, a minute and a half slower than Finnish cyborg Mikko Salo’s 19.19 but almost four minutes faster than that year’s eventual Games winner, Graham Holmberg, who logged 24.37.
The hardest WOD of all?
If there’s a common thread from Foucher to Spealler’s comments, it is the savagery of the hero WODs. The routines, designed and named to honour those killed in the line of duty, are by their nature intended to test even the most elite CrossFitters.
So it should be no surprise that one hero workout comes up again and again when discussions arise about the hardest WOD of all. Jump on the CrossFit forums, and there are a number of threads devoted to a specific workout that is particularly vicious. It is a WOD about which former strongman and all-round beast Rob Orlando posted, “I’m more proud of that time than almost any other WOD I’ve ever done.”
The workout in question is Kalsu. Like so many of the nastiest workouts, it sounds simple: do five burpees then max rep thrusters on the minute, with a goal of completing 100 thrusters in total. Simple in structure maybe, but even on paper it is clearly one to separate the men from the boys.
The workout itself was first programmed in 2010 by the guys at CrossFit Football. It honours fallen soldier Bob Kalsu, a former American pro footballer killed in action in Vietnam in 1970. Kalsu also gave his name to Forward Operating Base Kalsu, a US military facility in Iraq that was in operation from 2003 to 2011.
Luke from CrossFit Football tells the Rx Review that the workout came about from a brainstorm between the program’s founder, John Welbourn, and Andy Stumpf, a former Navy seal who works for CrossFit HQ. It has since ascended to an almost mythic status among diehard CrossFitters. Examining comments everywhere from the thread on the CrossFit Football site to the mainsite community by way of dozens forums of individual affiliates, the internet is littered with Kalsu carnage.
Descriptions of the workout include “humbling”, “beastly”, “sinister” and “life-changing”. It is best summarised by one user on the CrossFit Football forum, who says he did a scaled version of Kalsu at the Iraq military base that shares the fallen solder’s name. He dubbed the experience “soul crushing”.
You’ve been warned… time to get down the box.
What’s the hardest WOD you’ve ever done? Have you tried Kalsu? Post your thoughts