What Is CrossFit, Exactly? Certified Coaches Share What to Know

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Woman pressing barbell overhead during crossfit training workout in gym

Much like Dungeons and Dragons, Renaissance faires, and sex parties, CrossFit is something that everyone has heard of — but few have an accurate understanding of what it entails and who it’s for.

“There are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation out there about CrossFit,” says CrossFit Games athlete and coach Christian Harris, founder of MFLH (Move Fast Lift Heavy) Training Gym. “But at its most distilled, it’s a fun, safe, and effective way to improve fitness and health.”

In an effort to replace confusion with clarity and fiction with fact, we put together this explainer on CrossFit. Ahead, professional CrossFit athletes and coaches explain what CrossFit training is, how it differs from the CrossFit you see on TV, the benefits of doing CrossFit consistently, and how to know whether or not the methodology is for you.

What Is CrossFit?

At its most basic, CrossFit is a method of high-intensity functional fitness training. It’s often done in organized group classes at a gym, which is often called a “box.” The original definition of CrossFit, which comes from its founder Greg Glassman, helps elaborate from there: “CrossFit is constantly varied, functional movements executed at high intensity.”

“Essentially, that means that CrossFit incorporates different exercises that translate to movements you do in everyday life — and that you’re doing them at high intensity,” explains Alex Gazan, a 2022 CrossFit Games rookie and Underdogs athlete. Or at least, doing them at high intensity most of the time.

What Are Common CrossFit Exercises?

Much as Netflix’s “Perfect Match” takes all the best influencers and personalities from the network’s various dating shows and plops them into one, CrossFit combines some of the best functional movements from other sports and brings them together.

Indeed, during CrossFit brings together movements from a wide variety of other exercise modalities such as powerlifting, Olympic lifting, running, gymnastics, calisthenics, body-building, and more, says Khan Porter, seven-time CrossFit Games Athlete with TYR, a swimming brand that recently started carrying functional fitness footwear.

To help imagine that, here are just a few of the exercises you’ll see in CrossFit:

“If you’re feeling intimidated by [this list of] CrossFit exercises, it can be helpful to know that CrossFit is infinitely scalable,” Harris says. That means that the movement can be modified to meet the individual at their current fitness level, needs, and abilities. If you can’t run, for example, you could bike. While if you can’t yet do a pull-up, you could do a bodyweight row, he explains.

CrossFit Training vs. CrossFit Sport

Turn on ESPN at the end of August to watch the CrossFit Games, and you’ll be met with professional athletes who look like ancient marble statues in motion. Chiseled and stronger than bulls, the image of these athletes can both inspire and scare off people who have never before stepped foot in a box. No doubt, these professional athletes showcase what CrossFit can create when taken to a professional level. But you actually don’t have to be a professional athlete, aspire to be one, or have a history with exercise at all to try CrossFit.

What you see on a screen is CrossFit the sport, explains Porter. “CrossFit the sport is designed to test the limits of performance across the various fitness disciplines,” he says. This isn’t what you’re going to get when you walk into your local CrossFit gym — known as a CrossFit affiliate — and take class. There, you’ll get CrossFit training, says Khan. CrossFit the training program is designed to boost your overall health, function, and longevity.

What Is a CrossFit Class Like?

CrossFit is different from most global or national fitness studios. Walk into an Orangetheory Class or Pure Barre class on your town, and you’ll get a very similar workout to one that you’d get at another location, thousands of miles away. That’s because the class structure, workouts, and playlists are often created and managed by a central headquarters. This is not the case with CrossFit, says Porter. “The thing about CrossFit is that each gym (or affiliate) manages their own programming, which means classes can vary in structure (and quality) depending where you go,” he says.

While there are a handful of monumental workouts that are designed to be done again and again, such as Fran, Murph, and Diane, most CrossFit workouts you’ll only ever do once in your life. “This keeps the training methodology from seeming boring or repetitive the way other training programs might,” says Gazan.

All that said, CrossFit classes tend to follow a similar structure, as outlined below.

Workout planning and warm-up. Typically, you’ll start around a whiteboard that lays out the work you’ll be doing during the forthcoming 60-minute class. Then, your coach will lead you through a warm-up designed to prep the muscles that will be targeted in the workout ahead.

Strength or skill session. Next, there will be either a strength session or a skill session. “Most reputable gyms follow a structured strength program, which has progressions built into it via functional lifts such as squatting or deadlifting and Olympic weightlifting,” explains Porter. So, depending on the focus of your gym’s current strength program, the strength session could require you to build to a one-rep max back squat, do three sets of a barbell snatch complex, or do a classic five-by-five deadlift, building across sets.

If you have a skill session, it will entail learning how to do higher-skill gymnastics movements like a pull-up, toes-to-bar, bar muscle-up, or handstand push-up or developing the prerequisite strength to do these movements.

Metabolic conditioning (aka MetCon). Next, you’ll (usually) move onto the metabolic conditioning (MetCon) section. “The MetCon will vary from day to day, but often includes a combination of weightlifting, gymnastics, running, and jumping, etc,” says Harris. It’s usually configured into an AMRAP (as many reps/rounds as possible), interval, or EMOM (every minute on the minute) workout. “This is the part people usually think of when they hear CrossFit,” he says.

Cooldown stretch or accessory work. If time allows, the class will end with a cool-down, stretch session, or accessory work. Usually, accessory work entails doing bodybuilder-type movements (like dumbbell rows, strict pull-ups, bench press, single-leg deadlift, etc.) that target smaller or singular muscle groups.

CrossFit Benefits

The main draw of CrossFit, at the most basic level, is that it “works.” Whether your primary goal is to build muscle, lose weight, improve balance, run faster, or become more mobile, CrossFit can help you get there, says Porter.

Best, research backs up just how effective it really is. One study led by a team of exercise physiologists out of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse found that CrossFit elicits a greater increase in aerobic
capacity than what’s seen with traditional cardio training. And a systematic review of research found that CrossFit also helps increase endurance, strength, flexibility, power, and balance, as well as have a positive effect on body composition and mood.

On that note, perhaps the best part of CrossFit is the community that keeps people coming back. “The absolute most important thing when it comes to any training program’s efficacy is consistency,” says Porter. What sets CrossFit apart from other training methods is the strong community it helps cultivate. “Your coaches, as well as the friends you make in a class, hold you accountable and inspire you to stay committed to your training,” he says.

Is CrossFit Bad For You?

Despite the training methodology’s noble mission — and its ability to bring that to life — rumors abound about CrossFit being bad for you. To be clear: these are rumors, not truths. “CrossFit is not bad for you,” says eight-time individual CrossFit Games veteran Stacie Tovar, co-owner of CrossFit Omaha.

Are there risks to doing CrossFit? Sure. “There it can be risky to do anything incorrectly,” says Porter. “While there is inherent risk to any physical activity, the risk of CrossFit can be managed firstly by finding the right gym and coaching and secondly managing your own ego and choosing to focus on technique [rather than speed or weight],” he says. Indeed, because CrossFit incorporates advanced movements, people who don’t take their progression seriously and attempt to (or are allowed to, by a couch) do too much too soon have an increased risk for injury, reports the research from the American Council on Exercise.

What to Know About CrossFit Competitions

Remember the difference between CrossFit the sport and CrossFit the training program? Well, there is a little bit of overlap.

Just as there are casual runners who will never make it to the Olympic track-and-field team but enjoy signing up for races, there are casual CrossFit athletes who will never make it to the CrossFit Games but who enjoy competing. “There are various levels of competition for everyone, including beginners,” says Porter.

Many boxes host annual individual and team local competitions to raise money and give athletes an opportunity to show off their hard work, tap into their inner competitor, and make memories. “Competing in local competitions is a great way for people to get to show off how much stronger, faster, and skillful they are than mere weeks or months ago,” says Andrew Girard, MS, an assistant coach at Golden Goose CrossFit in Connecticut.

More than just an opportunity to work, these competitions are an opportunity to have fun and expand your fitness community. “The energy at these competitions is unmatched and being around people with the same work ethic creates this type of synergy that makes you feel like you are right at home,” Girard says. (You can find forthcoming local comps online on this local competitions page put together by CrossFit newsletter Morning Chalk Up).

There is also an annual global competition known as The CrossFit Open. Structurally, it’s a series of workouts spaced over the course of three weeks. The Open gives members a fun environment to take on the workouts with their friends, and afterward, athletes have the opportunity to log their score into a global leaderboard so they can compare themselves to other people, as well as to themselves from years past. Place high enough, and you earn the opportunity to move onto a segment of competition called QuaterFinals, which puts you one step closer toward progressing to The Games, should you want to go that far. (You can learn more about the competitive CrossFit season on the CrossFit website.)

All in all, “Signing up for the Open builds a stronger community, allows people to see that their hard work is paying off, and helps you level up,” says Girard.

Is CrossFit For You?

It would be unrealistic to say that everyone who tries CrossFit is going to love it. After all, we’re all unique beings with different preferences, opinions, likes, and dislikes. But the fact is that CrossFit is a training methodology that pretty much anyone can do and benefit from, Gazan says.

And remember: CrossFit is infinitely scalable. “No matter where you are . . . in your age, current abilities, or ailments, you can take a CrossFit class and get something out of it,” says Harris.

If any part of this article piqued your interest, Google “CrossFit near me” or check out this local affiliate map. Each box has its own unique community, vibe, and feel. Drop into a few within driving distance, people watch, and talk to the coach to see which gym feels most in-line with your personal tastes and preferences, suggests Porter. Then, join and commit to going consistently. “If you’re consistent, you will definitely see improvements in your cardiovascular health, musculature, and overall well-being,” says Gazan. Even better? You might have a lot of fun.

Image Source: Getty / Thomas Barwick

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