What is CrossFit?

CrossFit Logo

CrossFit is a training system, a workout style, and a “lifestyle”. I’ve started doing CrossFit and have really fallen in love with it. I want to share CrossFit with you and give you a better idea of what it is.

Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little start and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.

Practice and train major lifts: deadlift, clean, squat, presses, clean-and-jerk, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climbs, push-ups, situps, presses to handstands, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc. hard and fast.

Five or six days per week, mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense.

Regularly learn and play new sports.

Greg Glassman, CrossFit: The Journal, Oct. 1, 2002.

What is a CrossFit Workout?

CrossFit workouts are HARD. Typically a CrossFit workout involves a brief warm-up, a strength/weightlifting session, and a Metcon. This structure is probably not followed at all CrossFit gyms, but most CrossFit workouts will fit into either strength training or metabolic conditioning (metcon).

Warm up

CrossFit puts a lot of emphasis on being “functional fitness” and so warm-ups aren’t really emphasized. Because the movements that CrossFit uses are replicated in everyday life, the idea is that you shouldn’t need to warm up for them. You wouldn’t warm up to unload groceries out of your car or pick up a child.

Strength Training

The weightlifting movements in CrossFit are a mixture of Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting. The strength portion of the class is typically dedicated to a single lift on a given day.

Which Lifts are Included in CrossFit?

  • Front Squat
  • Back Squat
  • Overhead Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Press
  • Snatch
  • Clean
  • Clean and Jerk

There are plenty of other weightlifting movements, but they are variations or accessory lifts to these main movements.

The weightlifting movements included in CrossFit are mostly compound lifts that work large groups of muscles rather than targeting specific muscles. For example, you’ll probably never do bicep curls or tricep extensions as part of CrossFit programming. The idea is that by doing other compound lifts and workouts you will work the smaller muscles.

Metcon

Metabolic conditioning, or metcon, workouts are basically HIIT workouts. Metcon workouts stress your system to increase metabolic demand and increase your energy usage.

These workouts are typically structured with short periods of very high intensity work mixed with a small recovery period.

Sample WOD #1

10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 reps for time of:

  • Body-weight power cleans
  • Strict handstand push-ups

Sample WOD #2

AMRAP 7 Min x 2*

  • 8 DB Hang Clusters (35/25lb.)
  • 8 Power Cleans (135/95lb.)
  • 16/12 Calorie Row

*Rest :90 between AMRAPs

Facets of CrossFit Training

One of the reasons I love CrossFit is that every day is different. I was so burnt out on just “going to the gym”. I was stuck in the rut of doing Chest & Triceps, Back & Biceps, and Legs. I’d mix in some cardio on the elliptical every once in a while but beyond that, I was just doing more of the same thing over and over again.

CrossFit mixes up the workouts by changing rep schemes, work/rest interval timing, and movements from day to day. One day the metcon may be 6 minutes long and the next day it may be 30 minutes. One day we may do heavy sets of 3 squats and the next day we’ll do power cleans for sets of 8-10.

One thing that makes CrossFit so interesting is that it really does focus on “fitness”. Unlike many other training styles, CrossFit isn’t focused on performance in a given sport or on a single aspect of fitness. Each aspect contributes to your performance in other parts of CrossFit. Snatching makes you stronger for that lift, but it also improves your explosiveness and proprioception for gymnastic movements like muscle-ups or handstand walks.

Weightlifting

Weightlifting’s role in CrossFit is pretty much the same as weightlifting’s role in any sport or training regimen: Gain strength. The inclusion of Olympic lifts like snatches and cleans also builds power and explosiveness, but generally, it’s all about strength.

Being stronger is beneficial in more than just fitness. For example, as you build muscle and strength you become more resilient and injury-resistant in everyday movements.

Something that is unique to lifting in CrossFit is the high-intensity. The intensity doesn’t just come from the weight, it also comes from high reps or short recovery times. One-rep maxes are great if your goal is to lift more, but if you want to become more fit using other ways to increase the intensity of your lifting is important.

Gymnastics

Gymnastics movements like muscle-ups, handstand push-ups, pull-ups, and ring dips are great ways to gain strength while also improving your coordination. If you want to be able to move your body more efficiently and smoothly, developing your gymnastics skills will pay off in a big way.

The gymnastics modality comprises of bodyweight elements or calisthenics, and its primary purpose is to improve body control by improving neurological components like coordination, balance, agility, and accuracy, and to improve functional upper body capacity and trunk strength.”

–The CrossFit Training Guide, 2006

As you develop your gymnastics skills and you’re able to understand where your body is and how it moves, you’ll be able to hone other athletic skills as well.

Many people struggle with gymnastics movements because they aren’t emphasized in traditional fitness. The learning curve for gymnastics is much steeper than for something like squatting or rowing. It’s harder to measure progress in your muscle up than it is to watch your one-rep max for squatting increase. As such, if you devote some of your training to gymnastics skills you can make some big leaps in progress pretty quickly.

Cardio

Long, slow cardio is pretty rare in CrossFit. You may do a little bit of easy running or rowing as part of your warmup, but generally cardio in CrossFit is fast and intense.

Cardio in CrossFit is mainly running, rowing on a Concept 2 Rower, or biking on an Assault Bike. If you’re doing these movements, it’s typically part of a Metcon. You’ll probably do one or two other movements, mixed with a short period of running, rowing or biking.

10 Domains of Fitness

I think every fitness program or training style aims to improve many of these, but most fall short in a few of these domains of fitness:

  • Cardio and Respiratory Endurance
  • Stamina
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Power
  • Speed
  • Coordination
  • Agility
  • Balance
  • Accuracy

CrossFit does a good job of targeting all of these domains. You’ll likely see an improvement in many of these domains with just a few weeks of CrossFit training.

Benefits of CrossFit

I’m biased about whether CrossFit is good or bad. I go to CrossFit five or six days per week. I started going back in February and have really fallen in love with it. Here are the main benefits of CrossFit style training.

Improve Physical Strength

CrossFit workouts are designed to improve your physical strength. Even if CrossFit isn’t a dedicated “weightlifting” workout, many of the workouts will help you build muscle and get stronger. You’ll probably notice after doing CrossFit for a few weeks that you’re starting to feel stronger in your lifts and other movements.

Improve Aerobic Fitness

One of the coolest parts about CrossFit is that you can see noticeable changes in your aerobic fitness early on in your training. After you’ve done a few hard metcon workouts, you’ll see an increased ability to do longer, slower cardio workouts.

CrossFit actually works really well for making you feel “in shape” for just everyday activity. If you want to go for a 3 mile jog, CrossFit will do a good job of getting you in shape for that, without hours of monotonous cardio.

Improve Agility and Flexibility

CrossFit doesn’t directly focus on flexibility in the way that Yoga does, however, it certainly will make you more agile. CrossFit focuses on range-of-motion a lot, so if your squat is lacking depth or your shoulder mobility is poor, you’ll work on these issues as part of your training.

One of the most beneficial aspects of CrossFit for me was the constant challenge to try new movements and workouts. For example, I’d hardly ever done any handstand work at all and in my first week of CrossFit I think we did handstand push-ups twice. This helped me get comfortable with being upside down and standing on my hands.

Improve Your Fitness Level and Body Composition

I appreciate that CrossFit focuses on improving fitness and improving your body composition over just weight loss and aesthetics. CrossFit focuses on improving your fitness level and measures that with “benchmark workouts”. Every so often in your programming you will test your fitness through these specific benchmark workouts. You can easily track your improvement as your times improve.

Unlike running, in CrossFit you are not just training a single modality. So instead of improving a single workout, you are improving your overall fitness to complete a number of different exercises and movements.

Improve Your Weightlifting and Gymnastics Technique

If your goal is lifting the highest possible weight in Snatch or to be the best at gymnastic movements, you’d be better off doing training dedicated to olympic lifting or gymnastics. However, CrossFit is still a great way to get introduced to movements that personal trainers would probably never have you do.

In the few months since I’ve started CrossFit I’ve been able to improve my technique in olympic lifts and in gymnastics movements like pull-ups, ring dips and handstands. The learning aspect of CrossFit makes it fun if you’re feeling that your training is stuck in a rut. There is always room to improve your technique in lifting and gymnastics, regardless of your experience level.

Reduce Injury Risk

There are a couple ways that CrossFit actually reduces your risk for injury, the more you do it. CrossFit focuses on building strength through a full range of motion. This allows you to build muscle around your joints so you’ll be more resilient and balanced.

Because CrossFit constantly mixes up the stimulus you go through, you will address muscle imbalances and weak points in your strength. By focusing on compound lifting rather than isolating certain muscles, you will develop a stronger and more stable core.

Community of Health-minded Individuals

People who do CrossFit are definitely healthier than the general population. I’ve noticed that the people at my CrossFit box have a wealth of knowledge on topics related to fitness and nutrition. If you’re looking to improve your health and your lifestyle, CrossFit people are probably a good group of people to hang out with.

CrossFit is Scalable for All Fitness Levels

The cool thing about CrossFit is that it offers challenges for all fitness levels. Whether you’re working out for the first time or you’re a physical specimen, CrossFit workouts will have you flat on your back gasping for air.

Criticism of CrossFit

Even before getting into CrossFit, I’d heard people criticizing it. I think many people just hear snippets about CrossFit without getting a true understanding of what “CrossFit” actually means. Some of these criticisms may be baseless, but I think many of these criticisms are warranted.

CrossFit Promotes Overtraining

CrossFit is an intense training style, there’s no question about that. If you aren’t already pretty fit, doing CrossFit every day can easily lead to overtraining. But if you were getting into any new exercise program, this would likely be the case.

Rhabdo

I’ve heard people say that some CrossFit person they knew was laughing and saying that Rhabdo (Rhabdomyolysis) was just part of CrossFit. Rhabdo occurs when your muscles break down so much that they start releasing toxins into your bloodstream.

Rhabdomyolysis doesn’t just come out of nowhere. You can prevent it by drinking plenty of fluids before and after working out. If you’re only drinking coffee and Mountain Dew, then I see how you could get really dehydrated by doing a CrossFit workout. However, I’d think you would be much more likely to get rhabdo from doing a repetitive exercise, like running, for a long time in hot weather.

Read More: How To Protect Yourself From Rhabdomyolysis

CrossFit Includes Max Effort Intervals

If you’re doing CrossFit every day, even if you’re sleeping enough, eating perfectly and focusing on recovery, you’re probably going to be overtraining. Traditionally CrossFit programming includes three consecutive training days followed by one day off. If you aren’t accustomed to high-intensity interval training, this may not give your body enough time to recover.

Doing high-intensity interval training too much is not going to be beneficial. As your body fatigues, you won’t be able to elevate your heart rate and your body won’t ever be able to adapt to the stress you’re putting it under.


If CrossFit is your first time working out, you should definitely slowly ramp up the intensity and duration of your training. This advice really applies to any workout or fitness routine though, so it’s not unique to CrossFit.

CrossFit is Dangerous

CrossFit’s founder Greg Glassman gave a great counter to this critique of the training style he developed. He explained how people have shifted towards the idea that exercise needs to be 100% safe.

However, we’ve made a mistake by adopting the idea that working out needs to be safe and comfortable. The elliptical trainer became the most popular piece of workout equipment, because people could “workout” with minimal effort.

CrossFit Doesn’t Promote Good Form and Technique

One of the first things that comes to mind when people think of CrossFit is butterfly pull-ups. These are the pull-ups where you flop around on the bar and use the momentum to pull your chin above the bar. Unlike strict pull-ups, which most people are familiar with, butterfly or kipping pull-ups are basically “cheating”.

Many of the breaks from perfect form in crossfit are done through kipping. These movements use momentum to help you complete the movement when the strict movement is too difficult. This compromise isn’t an issue, because most of this kipping is done for bodyweight movements and doesn’t increase injury risk.

Lifting Fast

One of the most understandable criticisms that CrossFit receives is that because weightlifting movements are included in AMRAPs (as many reps as possible) and other high-intensity workouts. Because of this, people are often rushing through their workouts. This can lead to people compromising form on lifts like snatch and clean and jerk.

This is an issue especially for beginner lifters or CrossFitters. There is definitely a risk of injury whenever you do any weightlifting. When rushed or fatigued it’s very easy to compromise on form.

The History of CrossFit Training

CrossFit began as “Cross-Fit” in 1996. It was founded by husband and wife duo of Greg Glassman and Lauren Jenai. The original CrossFit gym, or box, opened in 2000 in Santa Cruz, California. The first CrossFit affiliate, CrossFit North, opened in Seattle, Washington. By 2005 there were 13 CrossFit affiliates and now there are more than 15,000 CrossFit affiliates in over 150 countries.

What to Expect from Your First CrossFit Class

Typically, classes at CrossFit gyms include a warm-up, a skill development or weightlifting segment, and a high-intensity WOD (workout of the day).

If you’re first starting out, the gym’s coaches will typically walk you through each movement and make sure you’re doing it correctly. For your first few classes you will likely use lighter weights and scaled versions of workouts.


Who is CrossFit for?

CrossFit really is for anyone. If you are interested in going to a CrossFit gym for the first time, most gyms will give first time visitors a free class. CrossFit really doesn’t require any prior knowledge, as anything you don’t know how to do can be replaced by an easier exercise or taught by the class’ coach.

I will warn you that if you’re looking for an easy workout, CrossFit is probably not for you. You have to push yourself, and many of the workouts are incredibly intense. This shouldn’t scare you away, but CrossFit is no leisurely walk in the park.

According to a research report by Rally Fitness, CrossFit participants were split evenly between males and females. I’ve noticed this at my local box, which may even have more female members than males.

Is CrossFit for Beginners?

If you’re new to working out, you can absolutely do CrossFit. Every workout has progressions for people who can’t do the full movement. You don’t have to lift heavy weight or do complicated movements if you’re uncomfortable with them or want to focus on form.

CrossFit is also good for beginners because it allows you to try out many different movements and styles of workouts. You’ll get exposed to more workouts than if you get a personal trainer at a 24-Hour Fitness or other “globo-gym”.

What is Scaling?

In CrossFit, scaling is adjusting the movements in a workout to fit your fitness level. You don’t necessarily scale your workouts based on your ability to do a certain movement. You may also scale a workout to keep the intensity high, if you’re unable to do the full movement for the entire workout.

For example, if you’re doing an AMRAP workout with handstand pushups it can be difficult to sustain that movement for long periods of time. You’d get more benefit from doing wall walks or dumbbell shoulder press consistently than doing one rep every minute.

Read More: What is Scaling in CrossFit?


How Much Does CrossFit Cost?

The average CrossFit gym membership is around $120 per month. Depending on where you are on the country, you can expect to pay between $100 and $250 per month. Compared to a typical gym, this is much more expensive. However, most gyms you are really just paying for access to the equipment.

With CrossFit, you basically getting small group fitness classes every time you train. Most CrossFit classes are pretty small, typically less than 10 or 15 people. This means you get many of the benefits of a person trainer at a fraction of the price.

Can You Do CrossFit at Home?

During the stay-at-home period of the Coronavirus pandemic, a lot of people got more comfortable training at home. CrossFit is a great way to workout at home if you don’t want to join a gym. Although you’ll miss out on certain movements because of lack of equipment or lack of space, you can still get a super intense workout using CrossFit programming.

Examples of Home CrossFit Workouts

Mini Murph

  • 1-mile Run
  • 100 Push-ups
  • 200 Air Squats
  • 1-Mile Run

Bodyweight WOD

8 Rounds for Time:

  • 10 Push-ups
  • 10 Air Squats
  • 10 Burpees
  • 10 Air Squats

Read More: 20 CrossFit Workouts You Can Do at Home

Downsides of Training at Home

  1. No Coach: If you’re new to CrossFit, a coach can be super helpful for improving your form or fixing any issues. Luckily, if you’re working out at home you probably aren’t using heavy weights so you won’t injure yourself with a heavy load.
  2. No Competition: One of my favorite parts of CrossFit is the competitive aspect. When you’re at the gym you are trying to get one more rep than the person next to you. At home it’s too easy to quit a few reps early or skip your last set.
  3. No Community: CrossFit boxes are social places. Unlike a normal gym where everyone has headphones in, people talk to each other at CrossFit. The community aspect of a gym will keep you coming back and keep you working out consistently.

Glossary of CrossFit Terms

  • Affiliate: A CrossFit gym. Every CrossFit gym pays an “affiliate” fee to use the CrossFit name.
  • AMRAP: As many reps as possible.
  • Box: A CrossFit gym.
  • Bumper Plates: Rubber weight plates used on barbells so that you can safely drop the barbell without damaging the plates or the floor.
  • Burpees: A movement that involves doing a push-up and then jumping before repeating the movement, like this.
  • Girls: The CrossFit “Girls” are benchmark workouts used to track your fitness over time. See the workouts here.
  • HSPU: Handstand push-ups
  • Metcon: Metabolic conditioning. The term describes short bouts of higher-intensity training designed to increase metabolic demand and increase energy usage.
  • RX: RX is short for “prescription”. CrossFit workouts include prescribed weights for males and females. If you complete the workout at this weight you are doing the RX level of the workout.
  • WOD: Workout of the day.

Published by stewofkc

I write stuff in Kansas City.

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