By Geoff Rand

We see this rep scheme show up often, most notably with the benchmark WOD, Fran.  Ever wonder why CrossFit uses this odd number of reps or why it decreases as it does or how Fran was created?  I did some digging and found out why.

In the early 1970s, CrossFit founder and gymnast, Greg Glassman, was looking for ways to be better at his gymnastic routines in the off-season.  He knew that strength training would help him improve and wanted to replicate the intense workout he got from a two-minute routine on the parallel bars or rings.  Coach Glassman knew that points would be deducted if you appeared out of breath or otherwise looked uncomfortable after you dismounted the rings or bars, and he wanted a strength routine that would cause him to breath heavily and to be uncomfortable, which would be a great way to prepare for an intense gymnastics routine.  Glassman took his cement-filled plastic weight plates and bar and as he says, “stumbled upon” the thruster.  He coupled that movement with the pull-up, and after experimenting with some rep schemes, he came up with what we today know as Fran (21-15-9 reps of thrusters and pull-ups 95#/63#). 

CrossFit founder, Coach Greg Glassman

CrossFit founder, Coach Greg Glassman

Coach Glassman tried out this workout in his garage gym blasting through it as fast as he could.  He promptly threw up all over the floor, which his German Shepherds gladly cleaned up for him.  His neighbor happened to come over and asked what was all over Glassman’s shirt.  Glassman told him not to worry about it and to try the workout.  Glassman’s neighbor also threw up immediately upon finishing.  Coach Glassman and his neighbor then went over to the neighbor’s brother’s house.  The brother asked why they both smelled like vomit and declined to try the workout.

If you dissect the scheme, it starts to make sense.  It’s a total of 45 reps, not a huge number and one that is quite reasonable to accomplish.  The scheme is based on the “decay rate” or the fact that as you fatigue, you are able to do less work, as the load remains the same.

You start out with the highest number of repetitions.  Assuming you are fresh and rested at the start, you should be able to get through the 21 reps unbroken.  As you get to the second round, you are starting to fatigue, and 15 reps should feel of similar difficulty in that round as the 21 reps felt in the first.  The final round of 9 is set at that number for the same reason.  Even though each round has fewer reps than the previous round, they are at a sufficient number to still be challenging.

Looking a little deeper, we find that each round is divisible by 3, so the rounds could be broken up as 7-7-7, 5-5-5, and 3-3-3 if you weren’t able to complete them unbroken and were looking for a strategy.  However, Fran is designed to be an all out kick in the balls, and you’d be better served to choose a weight you can do unbroken and move up towards the Rx load as your ability improves.

If you were curious, here are the accepted time ranges for completion of Fran if you wanted to know where you stand.

10:00+ Beginner

10:00-4:30 Intermediate

4:30 – 3:00 Advanced

3:00 or less Elite

The 21-15-9 rep scheme shows up in all manner of combinations of exercises and there’s no way I could include suggestions for each that you’d encounter.  But, if you want to be better at Fran, here are some tips.

1.  Mobilize the thoracic spine and open the hips before the WOD.  Kelly Starrett shows how you can make sure you are fully loosened up before Fran in this video.  He mentions that especially for people coming from a hunched over position at a desk job, this 4-5 minutes of mobilization will not only help your Fran time, but is key to keep you from getting hurt by either collapsing too far forward because your spine is tight, or damaging a knee because your hips aren't opened up.

2.  Know that the second round, 15 reps, is mentally the most challenging.  Keep the intensity up and don’t stop for a break because it will be that much harder to get started again.  Feed off the music or coaches encouragement.

3.  Don’t put the bar down in the middle of a round.  Doing so will cause you to waste energy by having to clean the bar again before getting into your thrusters.  If you have to stop during the thrusters, pause with the bar in the rack position.  If you need to catch your breath, do it during the pull-ups where there is no bar to pick back up and thus little wasted energy if you stop momentarily.

On average, Fran takes between 3-10 minutes to complete.  Someone who doesn’t do CrossFit might not understand how you can be totally spent after such a short workout.  The reason is the rep scheme allows you (or forces you, depending on how you look at it) to expel a high level of energy over a short duration of time, using a moderate amount of weight.  That all adds up to an intense all around burn.

When asked why he named it “Fran”, Glassman had this to say.  “Anything that left you flat on your back looking up at the sky asking what the f*%k just happened to me, deserved a female’s name.  They’re like storms.  If a hurricane that wreaks havoc on a whole town could be Fran, so could a workout.”