What We Can Learn from CrossFit

Whether you’re a fan of CrossFit or a critic, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t revolutionized the world of fitness.  While CrossFit has its share of drawbacks such as high rates of injury, lack of personalization, and cost of coaching, survivors of the program have gotten excellent results.  In this post, I’ll take a look at some lessons to be learned from CrossFit and how you can apply them to your personal fitness program.

#1 – You can build strength and conditioning simultaneously.  In commercial gyms, people tend to stick to either the weight side of the gym or the cardio side, depending on whether they want to build strength and muscle or work on cardio fitness and fat loss.  There’s a common fear that putting effort into one will prevent gains on the other.  Crossfitters have shown that it’s feasible to improve both areas at the same time.  Lesson: For better all-around fitness and a better body, don’t be afraid to work hard at both strength and conditioning.

#2 – Daily full-body routines work.  Conventional gym wisdom says that muscles need a minimum of 48-72 hours to recover. As a result, most lifting routines have us training each body part once or twice per week.  In contrast, Crossfitters do full body workouts up to 6 days per week.  They’re able to manage the training stress by varying their workouts, spacing out their heavy sessions, and gradually building up their work capacity over time.  Lesson: if bodybuilding “bro splits” aren’t your cup of tea, don’t be afraid to work your body more often.  Just don’t go heavy every time.

#3 –  Sets x Reps is not the only way. For decades, weightlifting routines were written out in terms of number of sets and reps of each exercise. CrossFit broke the mold and created workouts such as “Cindy”: 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 squats, for as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes. And “Grace”: 30 clean and jerks in minimum time, done in as many sets as it takes.  Performing more work in less time creates a greater training effect and a more efficient workout.  Lesson: for a change of pace, forget about doing a fixed number of sets, and instead focus on doing more work in less time.  For example, try doing 100 total reps of an exercise in as little time as possible.

#4 – Use High Intensity Intervals.  Let’s face it, 45 minutes on a treadmill or elliptical machine at a constant pace can be mind-numbingly boring.  It’s also an inefficient way to burn fat and improve cardiovascular fitness compared to high intensity interval training (HIIT).  HIIT involves alternating high intensity exercise that gets your heart rate up to 80-90% of max with low intensity exercise, back and forth without rest in between. Total workout time is anywhere from 5-45 minutes.  Most CrossFit workouts involve some type of HIIT, as do many group fitness classes such as Spin and Power Pump.  You can also do HIIT by performing circuits (aka giant sets) that include some hard exercises like rowing or squatting and easier ones like leg raises or calf raises. Lesson: for better results, try replacing your steady state cardio with a group fitness class or circuit training in the gym.

#5 – Effort is more important than equipment.  While commercial gyms come out with more high-tech and expensive machines each year, CrossFit gyms (aka boxes) get by with very basic equipment such as a barbell, rack, jump rope, medicine balls, and kettlebells.  Crossfitters thrive on the basic equipment because the focus of the workouts is where it should be, on effort and progression.  Your body doesn’t know or care how fancy the equipment is or whether it has a touchscreen. It only knows the stress that you ask it to endure.  Lesson: include a mixture of basic equipment and machines in your workout routine if you have access to them, but never forget that it’s your effort – not the equipment – that produces results.

Apply these lessons to your workouts using a schedule and exercises that you’ve found to be safe and effective for your body.  In doing so, you can develop a body on par with a Crossfitter without the injuries, expenses, and generic routines that are so common in CrossFit.