CrossFit is an exercise program established in 2000 with an emphasis on body weight exercises and olympic-style lifts, designed to increase strength, stamina, agility, balance, and power. The program has been adopted by several military units, police academies, and elite athletes. The program encompasses several thousands CrossFit-specific gyms (or “boxes”) in the U.S.
CrossFit has established somewhat of a cult following in recent years. The program is often associated with larger lifestyle changes, such as adoption of the Paleo diet or similar nutritional programs. Many CrossFit boxes help sponsor participants in other athletic events such as marathons or triathlons, and may even offer programs specifically designed for such races.
This guide discusses the demonstrated benefits and basic exercises of the CrossFit program.
CrossFit is often described as “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.” This section discusses the background and benefits of these three components.
In a typical CrossFit program, the exercises, weights, repetitions, and duration vary on a daily basis. In most boxes, it’s rare to see the same workout more than once a month.
This approach helps participants fully develop each component of fitness (shown below). For example, a typical week will include a long cardiovascular workout (endurance), a short and intense workout (power), olympic lifts (strength), stretching (flexibility), and so on.
Such variety also reduces the risk of overtraining, as the regimen is typically structured to include 48 hour rest periods for each muscle group. This is crucial to developing strength and protecting against injury.
Lastly, variety has been linked to increased enjoyment and adherence. In a University of Florida study, participants that had constantly varied workouts expressed 45% higher enjoyment and had a 63% higher adherence rate compared to a control group.
Functional movements are those that mimic realistic motions such as throwing, lifting, pulling, etc. Most are multi-joint movements that involve several muscle groups. Examples include squats, dead lifts, overhead presses, and more (often called “compound exercises”) – all fundamental CrossFit exercises.
Functional movements are more time-efficient than lifting each muscle separately. They also train your body in better proportions than isolated exercises. For example, compound exercises generally train your core and lower back, whereas many isolation-based workouts tend to focus on only the “show” muscles (e.g. chest, biceps).
Most CrossFit workouts incorporate multiple sequences of peak activity followed by an active rest period. For example, a workout will include a set of pull ups (intense compound exercise) followed by a 400m run (active rest period).
Intensity is also generated through an atmosphere of friendly competition. For example, participants are encouraged to write their workout results on a community board and many CrossFit boxes keep a “Hall of Fame” of the best times.
Several studies suggest high-intensity workouts as the best method for achieving peak performance.
- 90 minutes of high intensity training is as effective as five hours of endurance exercise, according to researchers at LJMU and the University of Birmingham. High intensity training is more efficient at improving delivery of insulin and glucose to muscle, burning fat, and reducing the risk of vascular disease.
- High intensity interval training is the most effective method for improving performance of competitive rowers, according to a study by the University of Tasmania.
Although CrossFit is a relatively new program, there have been two major studies on its benefits. Results have been extremely positive, indicating CrossFit as an excellent option to achieve peak physical performance.
Ohio State University Study
In 2013, researchers at OSU conducted a study on 54 randomized subjects (male and female) to determine the effect of a 10-week CrossFit program on body composition and VO2 max.
Participants worked out 5 days per week at a CrossFit affiliate under the supervision of a certified clinical exercise physiologist.
The tables below illustrate the average improvements across four fitness indicators following a 10-week program. Based on these results, the researchers concluded that CrossFit “significantly improves VO2 max and body composition in subjects of both genders across all levels of fitness.”
It’s worth noting that 11 of the 54 participants did not complete the study, 9 of which cited overuse or injury. This is far from proving that CrossFit causes injuries (as some article have claimed), but nevertheless we suggest that beginners ease into a CrossFit program and take adequate rest periods.
U.S. Army Study
In 2010, the U.S. Army conducted a smaller-scale study on 14 participants who completed 4 sessions of CrossFit per week over a 6-week period. The goal of the study was to determine improvements in “an athlete’s work capacity across broad time periods and modal domains”. Improvements were measured based on push-up repetitions, sit-up repetitions, and other benchmark workouts.
There were two key conclusions from the study:
- The study found that “on average the athletes increased their level of physical fitness by 20%” following the 6-week training program
- The U.S. Army concluded that CrossFit programs present “unparalleled opportunities to improve Soldiers’ level of physical fitness.”
In other words, CrossFit works.
Scalability is the most resounding theme of CrossFit (and the main reason you shouldn’t be scared). This concept means that every exercise can be adapted to each participant’s ability.
Scalability translates into reduced weight or modified exercises within a workout. For example, if a participant is unable to complete a traditional push up, he or she may substitute this exercise with a knee-assisted pushup. Similarly, resistance bands are provided at each gym to assist with pull ups and other exercises.
As a result of this approach, most CrossFit boxes have a healthy mix of genders, ages, and abilities.
Class schedules at a typical CrossFit box differ from those you may see at a traditional gym. There is simply one class offered, called the Workout of the Day (“WOD”), and it’s available at several time slots on each day. Each WOD is typically 45-60 minutes in duration.
The national CrossFit organization posts a WOD every day on its website, although most CrossFit boxes develop their own workout schedules. Many boxes provide WODs 5 days per week and 1 day of open gym over the weekend.
CrossFit classes generally include 10-20 participants, led by 1-2 instructors, although these figures vary by location. Some CrossFit boxes require participants to sign up in advance for a particular time slot and some have an open entry policy.
Many CrossFit boxes have begun to offer On-Ramp courses, which are designed to walk beginners through typical movements and workouts. A typical course will last 3-4 weeks. In some cases, completion of this course is required to participate in regular WODs.
A CrossFit session will generally follow the same format each day, although exercises and duration will vary.
- Warm-up. A few minutes of light cardio (e.g. running, rowing, jumping rope) to warm up your muscles and elevate your heart rate.
- Stretching. Most boxes utilize dynamic stretching, which are active movements that help extend a muscle’s range of motion. Examples include high knees and butt kickers.
- Skill or Strength Work. Some workouts incorporate a strength-training component (e.g. doing squats) or a skill development portion (e.g. practicing proper form).
- WOD. WOD stands for Workout of the Day, which is generally a 10-30 minute high-intensity conditioning workout featuring the exercises outlined in the next section.
- Stretch. Many workouts conclude with stretching or mobility exercises.
CrossFit incorporates over 25 different exercises, many of which can be completed with minimal equipment. The most popular movements are push ups, pull ups, sit ups, squats, burpees, box jumps, kettlebell swings, and others. A typical Workout of the Day (“WOD”) incorporates a few of these exercises in sequence, similar to circuit training.
Each CrossFit exercise has a prescribed weight (called “Rx”). With some exercises, the Rx is simply the participant’s body weight. For example, an Rx pull-up is one that is completed without using a resistance band (which makes it easier). In other exercises, such as kettlebell swings, the Rx may be 53 lbs. for males and 35 lbs. for females.
Consistent with the scalability principle, participants are asked to reduce the weight or modify the exercise depending on their fitness level. CrossFit instructors generally keep track of each participant’s ability and will modify the workout as appropriate.
WODs are generally designed with one of the following 4 objectives:
- Rounds. Complete a fixed number of rounds of the same exercise sequence.
- AFAP. Complete an exercise sequence As Fast As Possible.
- AMRAP. Complete As Many Reps as Possible of an exercise sequence.
- EMOM. Perform an exercise sequence Every Minute On the Minute.
Most CrossFit boxes incorporate occasional benchmark workouts that help participants measure their progress. CrossFit generally breaks these workouts into two categories: the “Girls” and “Heroes” (although some fall outside of these categories). These workouts consist of the same types of exercises as a regular WOD, but are often completed with greater intensity, as participants attempt to get a personal best.
For a good infographic of some of these workouts, go here.
The CrossFit Games were developed for those who perceive CrossFit as a competitive sport, rather than just a workout routine. It is a national amateur competition held in Carson, California that aims to find the Fittest on Earth™. It began in 2007 with 70 athletes and has since grown to nearly 138k participants.
As discussed below, the individual competition consists of three stages with separate male and female categories. CrossFit also runs a Masters tournament for participants over the age of 40, as well as a team-based tournament. For additional information please refer to the CrossFit Games site.
CrossFit Open (March-April)
This is the first stage and is open to everyone, even those who do not belong to a CrossFit box. Participants must complete five different workouts over a five-week period. The scores must be validated by a CrossFit affiliate or using home video. There is no limit to the number of attempts a participant can make, provide the score is submitted prior to the close of each of the five weeks.
The 48 fittest male and female participants from each of 17 regions are invited to the next stage of the tournament. The Regionals are live competitions performed in front of spectators and judged by Level I instructors. This stage involves multiple workouts over a 3-day period.
CrossFit Games (July)
The CrossFit Games are open to the top 3 athletes based on the 17 Regional competitions. Similar to the Regionals, the Games consist of multiple workouts over a 3-day period. Workouts are not announced in advance, which means the athletes basically train for a competition that is a mystery. The goal of the Games is to provide broad-ranging tests to determine overall physical capacity. In 2013, the total prize purse was $1 million.
CrossFit boxes are often described as sparse, sometimes coming as a shock to those who are accustomed to health clubs. Nevertheless, they are one of the more expensive fitness options, given the small class sizes and personal attention provided by the instructors.
Below we take a look at the typical CrossFit equipment and the facility certification process. We also provide our recommendations for facilities in Chicago.
The equipment required for CrossFit is minimal. Rowers are typically the only machines found in a box. The rest of the space is dedicated to pull up bars, squat racks, and other basic equipment, which we break down across 3 categories.
Given the minimal equipment requirements, a full CrossFit gym can be set up at home for about $1,000. Still, we think membership is an attractive option due to the personalized attention and supportive environment.
One of the top criticisms about CrossFit is the relatively low certification standards required to become a CrossFit box or instructor. Many critics have suggested a need for better quality control and more consistent standards among the 5,000+ CrossFit boxes.
We tend to agree with the critics. Given the intensity of workouts and complexity of some movements, we’d like to see higher certification standards set by the national organization, as well as continuing education and annual testing requirements. In light of this, consumers must be diligent in evaluating each CrossFit box and its coaches.
The application to become a CrossFit facility is very basic, consisting of basic background information and a short essay. It can be seen here. Applicants are required to be at least a Level 1 Certification holder (discussed below).
After acceptance, CrossFit affiliates are required to pay a $3,000 annual fee to the national organization in order to use the “CrossFit” brand for marketing purposes. Currently, there is no requirement for continuing education or ongoing testing.
Although most CrossFit boxes seem to follow a similar formula in terms of facility size and equipment, the national organization does not maintain any standards in this area.
Two forms of certification are currently offered by the national CrossFit organization:
- Level I. Requires the attendance of a 2-day seminar, completion of a 50-question multiple choice test (80% pass mark), and a $1,000 fee.
- Level II. Currently being restructured by CrossFit and not yet available.
The national CrossFit organization does not require any educational background in exercise science, CPR/AED certification, or other requirements that are otherwise typical to a professional personal trainer.
CrossFit boxes are typically more expensive than traditional gyms, given the small group setting and individualized attention provided by the instructors. Rates typically range from $150 to $250 per month.
Comparatively, the average traditional gym costs $50 per month, while personal training sessions (3x per week) would cost in excess of $600.