The terms ‘big monkey’ and ‘little monkey’ were coined by John Welbourn, founder of CrossFit Football and owner of CrossFit Balboa in Newport Beach, Calif.
In short, they refer to two separate workout styles and training adaptations that athletes possess—how your body responds to training.
The theory of monkeys, in reference to training, stems from a Russian science experiment, in which researchers studied two different types of monkeys:
Large monkeys that were naturally active (They spent most of their waking hours moving around, eating, and playing)And smaller monkeys that, left alone, were naturally less active. (They abstained from activity outside of a small amount, just enough to eat once or twice a day).
The Russians had a theory that there were two basic types of athletes, ones that benefited from larger training volumes and others, who naturally benefited from less activity.
During the experiment, they forced both monkeys to swap lifestyles. The big monkeys (active) were put into cages and allowed only a small amount of time each day to eat and move around. The little monkeys (less active ones) were put in a situation where they had to navigate an elaborate maze with various activities and obstacles to get food each day to increase activity levels.
The results supported the Russian scientists’ theory. Both types of monkeys experienced significant decline in health, temperament, and performance. The Russian scientists concluded that, in some respects, athletes may be predisposed to varied training volumes, but even the best training isn’t good at high volume for a little monkey, or less volume is best for a big monkey.
Big monkeys and little monkeys are naturally wired to respond to training in their own unique ways.
Some people are ‘big monkeys’ and can workout 6-7 days a week. Most people are ‘little monkeys’ and can get the same results only training 2-4, maybe 5, times per week. Anymore and they start to break down and get injured.
Every athlete’s workout needs vary from person to person.
Some people do better with high-volume training and quickly recover from day to day. Other people only need two to four, maybe five days, per week of training hard to reap the most benefits—more is not necessarily better for them.
No matter what type of monkey you are or how much you train, to maximize intensity in each workout, you need to give 100-percent. This is the key to making gains, not necessarily “how much” you workout each week—be it 3 times a day 7 days a week, or 3 days per week for 1 hour each day.
Several of the most elite athletes in the world only need to train 1-2 hours per day to bring their ‘A-game’. They are stronger when they train less—not necessarily more.
Others, (think Sam Briggs, Rich Froning) thrive off of training for hours upon hours each day and have the ability to recover 100% between workouts.
Not everyone is the same, and one is not better than the other.
All this means is that not everyone needs to train the same to reach their fullest potential.
Big monkeys can’t claim to be a little monkey and get by with less volume without leaving performance on the table. And, little monkeys can’t claim to be ‘big monkeys’ (or try to train like big monkeys), because in essence, they will just run their bodies down or stall in their progress.
This is not to say that with some time and training under your belt, you can’t adapt from working out 2 days per week when you initially started CrossFit, to working out 5-6 days per week…or that if you train 6 days per week now, that you can’t obtain ‘results’ and progress still if you scale back to only 3-4 days per week.
But, in general, you are hardwired to be one or the other.
It’s all a matter of assessing whether you are a ‘big monkey’ or ‘little monkey.’
So what is best for you? How much do you train? How much should you train? Are you getting the most out of your workouts—and your recovery days?
Take a moment to think about how much you train, if you’re seeing the results you desire, how you feel after rest days or how often you need rest days.
Remember, not one is better than the other.