Helen WOD: Setup, Safety, and Scaling

Back in September 2003, CrossFit Journal introduced the first six “Girls” (“Angie, Barbara, Chelsea, Diane, Elizabeth, and Fran) and later two new additions Grace (that we’ve covered already) and Helen. These were considered the benchmark WODs to measure your fitness progress and performance. We know how gruesome these beauties truly are from the previous “girls” we’ve reviewed.

Today, I’d like to talk about the girl that’s managed to trick most CrossFit beginners for years. From the first glance, light weights and no time limits pint a delicious picture for a CrossFit enthusiast – finally something easy!

If it only were so…

I hope this article can truly provide enough tips to ease the WOD for you a bit.

What Is Helen WOD?

what is helen wod
Helen WOD is one of the initial 8 “girls” released back in 2003, at the beginning of CrossFit. The workout is as follows

Three rounds for time:

Run 400 meters

1/1.5 pood Kettlebell X 21 swings (or 55-pound dumbbell swing)

12 Pull-ups

Helen is a lightweight WOD meant to bring speed and intensity to the frontlines. Therefore, this workout should feel fast and light. However, these particular details make Helen so tricky. You rush into the run and feel the light breeze of victory ahead. That is until round three comes, and you feel Helen killing you instead of the other way around.

Throughout the years of tracking your progress with this benchmark WOD, you’ll learn the optimal pace and movements to ease into the exercises. Beginners, however, have to take it slower to live to the end of the workout.

Scaling

Your first Helen (and even a few subsequent ones) will be in need of scaling down.

CrossFit coaches recommend pacing the 400-meters run a bit down, separating swings and pull-ups into two chunks with a short rest, and using lighter kettlebells.

The intensity is lost if you need to separate swings and pull-ups into more than two chunks. In this case, scale down drastically:

Beginner Helen

Three rounds for time:

200-meter run

15 Kettlebell swings (1/0.75 poods)

9 jumping pull-ups

This is the perfect plan for the several initial Helens for you.

Pull-ups would be the most challenging part of the workout for many people. There are several ways to modify the WOD so you can actually manage all three rounds. Kipping pull-ups are easier than strict pull-ups, but use a band if they are still too hard. Band-aided pull-ups would become the best alternative for beginners.

What Are Helen WOD Goals?

helen wod crossfit

Helen’s goal is to complete it as fast as possible. Beating your PR should be the priority.

Generally, the CrossFit community sets the following timeframes as the standard:

Beginner: 15 – 17 minutes
Intermediate: 11 – 14 minutes
Advanced: 9 – 10 minutes
Elite: under 9 minutes

Often, the third round may take almost as long as the initial two combined. Thus, don’t relax too much after completing the first round in record time! The hardest (and longest) part is still ahead.

How to Do Helen WOD?

The Helen WOD consists of three exercises.

The Run

The run is a simple enough introduction to the WOD. In most cases, you just measure 200 meters for the run and back, considering the limited gym space, and set the gear for the following exercises at the start/end of the track. You’ll need a kettlebell and maybe a pull-up band.

The Swing

After a short breather, set up the kettlebell right between your ankle bones. Start in a deadlift position, bend knees, keep shoulders in and take the kettlebell. Lift it up off the ground and start gaining momentum via hip hinge and thrust. Engage the core. Push your weight to the heels and hinge your hips back, knees bent slightly. Thrust the hips and power the weight winging upward. Ideally, the kettlebell should reach your chest height; arms extended. As the weight moves back down, shift your weight to the heels and repeat the movement.

Remember that the swing is not about upper body strength as it may seem to an untrained eye; it’ll be about the posterior chain’s work: hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.

The Pullup

The pull-up is quite a common exercise in CrossFit. Even a beginner should know its basics.
Place your hands in an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-length apart. If you don’t reach, stand on a box before the start. At this stage, you should also attach the band if you are using it. Then, lift your feet off the floor, engage your core, and pull your shoulders slightly back and down. Bend your elbows and reach all the way up towards the bar. As your chin reaches above it, the pull-up is properly counted. Lower to the starting position in a controlled motion.

Helen WOD Safety and Tips

crossfit helen
Kettlebells swing crossfit exercise man and woman workout at gym

During the Kettlebell swing, keep your back straight at all times. A rounded back will automatically switch off the core, and you’ll be using the wrong muscles.

Stationary hips are yet another widespread swing mistake. You have to let the momentum take your hips forward and back to reach a full range of motion.

Many beginners forget to pull their shoulders back and down during the pull-up. Retract and tighten. Shoulders down, chest up. Do not try to pull your whole body with arms only. It’s a full-tension exercise.

Pay attention to your running technique. Most people don’t think of a technical aspect of running, and do that is not the optimal way. For sprinting, use the forefoot stride, so your toes propel you. On a treadmill, use shorter strides and don’t hang on to the rails.

If you are a good runner, be fast and save yourself time for the other exercises; if not, it’s better to allocate a few extra seconds for the run, so you have energy left the swing and pull.

What Are the Benefits of Helen WOD?

helen wod
Although the Helen WOD is usually considered an explosive sprint, it brings more benefits than a simple cardiovascular exercise. Among its benefits are both endurance and increased strength.

As you rush through the exercises, you develop greater speed over time. But CrossFit is also about the quality, not only PRs. Both the swing and pull-up are strenuous exercises that require great upper and lower body strength. And they have to increase it as well.

Thus, such a combination of speed, moderate weights, and strength leads to a WOD that requires a great deal of endurance. The swift transitions and three rounds will test your overall fitness aptness. Only a well-rounded athlete can master Helen WOD and beat their records with flying colors.

In Conclusion

Helen is a wolf in disguise. She seems like a piece of cake on paper and like a vicious circle of pain in reality. It requires a well-rounded preparation, full-body strength, and cardiovascular endurance of your body to fit into the standard timeframes.

Helen is one of the initial benchmark girls that CrossFit athletes use to measure their progress once in several months or half a year. The trick to a successful Helen lies in pacing. You’ll need to find the right balance between fast runs and exhausting swing and pull-up to complete all three rounds of the WOD. Do not neglect the scaling options in favor of slow and long execution. Helen needs to be light, explosive, and swift. Even if it means taking lighter weights or an assisted pull-up.

Sources:

  1. Workout of the Day – (April 2007, Crossfit.com)
  2. WOD Time Calculator, Helen – (April 2018, wodtimecalculator.com)
  3. Meier, Nicole & Rabel, Stefan & Schmidt, Annette. (2021). Determination of a CrossFit® Benchmark Performance Profile. Sports. 9. 80. 10.3390/sports9060080.

About

Irene’s fitness journey began in 2017 with attending classes to improve her health and researching the anatomy of working out. After years of investigating trendy and “up and coming” fitness regimes, she is ready to share the tips and advice she’s learned from athletes and expert trainers of the field.