By Jody Braverman, CPT
With more than 15,000 affiliated gyms worldwide, CrossFit is no longer a cult workout program reserved for the super fit. These days, no matter where you live, you're likely to have a CrossFit gym — or "box" — nearby, where you'll find everyone from elite athletes to fitness newbies engaging in the high-intensity exercise program that continues to gain popularity.
CrossFit training combines many different fitness styles. In a single session you may be performing Olympic lifts, climbing ropes, flipping tires or doing classic push-ups, pull-ups and body-weight squats. If tire flipping and rope climbing sound intimidating, don't worry. CrossFit workouts are adaptable to almost any fitness level. All you need is the desire to be challenged.
Each day is different, with a new WOD, or "workout of the day," that includes movements to build strength, endurance, agility and mobility. Along with the workouts, you'll be encouraged to adopt other healthy habits, including clean eating to aid weight loss, sports performance and overall health.
While there are some concerns regarding the safety of CrossFit workouts, if you find a quality gym with knowledgeable trainers, you can achieve more of your health and fitness goals in less time than you would with your old tired workout. Keep reading to learn about all the benefits of CrossFit.
1. You'll Meet New, Like-Minded People
One of the first things you may notice when you walk into a box is that it's a social environment. People often talk before and after class, offer encouragement during workouts, stay after to stretch together and participate in social events outside of class.
If you've ever been a member at a standard gym, where people mostly work out independently and may never talk to other gym members, this is a big change and a major benefit of CrossFit. "I think [the community] really is the biggest attraction for people to continue to come and continue to be engaged," says Yuri Feito, assistant professor of exercise science at Kennesaw State University.
2. CrossFit Boosts Cardiovascular Fitness
While you could spend hours running at a steady pace in the hopes of improving your cardiovascular endurance, CrossFit statistics show that may not be the most effective way to improve overall aerobic fitness.
A small November 2013 study led by American Council on Exercise researchers examined the effects of two different CrossFit workouts on a group of men and women. After collecting and analyzing data on heart rate, VO2 max, max heart rate, calories burned and other variables, the researchers concluded that CrossFit works better than traditional workouts due to the higher demands on the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.
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3. The Workouts Keep Your Body and Brain Guessing
Doing the same exercises every time you go to the gym without ever changing your routine won't provide the necessary stimulus to keep getting faster, stronger and better. Over time, your body adapts to exercise, so you can do the same amount and type of work more efficiently.
But this is also why your fitness gains may plateau after doing the same routine for several weeks or months and why you need progressive overload — continually upping the ante for your muscles. And that's what CrossFit attempts to provide for all its athletes.
Although there are a number of benchmark workouts used to measure progress that remain consistent, almost every time you visit a CrossFit class, you'll be doing different exercises at different speeds and different intensities. This stimulates your body to keep adapting and growing, and it keeps your brain engaged so you don't get bored with your workout.
4. Classes Are Short But Effective
High-intensity training, which forms the foundation of the CrossFit program, is more effective than low- or moderate-intensity exercise at improving cardiovascular fitness and body composition. This means you can spend less time at the gym and still get the same — or better — results than you would have gotten during your previous workout regimen.
According to a study published in August 2014 in the journal BMC Public Health, you're more likely to enjoy a high-intensity workout and stick with it. In the study, participants who engaged in group-based, high-intensity functional training like CrossFit reported higher enjoyment, and more of them said they planned to continue the program compared with participants who engaged in a moderate-intensity training program. In addition, high-intensity exercisers spent significantly less time exercising while seeing the same results in body composition.
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5. CrossFit Builds Physical and Mental Confidence
Challenging yourself day after day at the gym and continuing to surpass your previous personal records gives you a great sense of accomplishment that can improve the way you feel about yourself. Experienced CrossFit athletes often recall with great pride the first time they were able to execute certain challenging movements.
"For people who have never been able to do a pull-up, doing their first pull-up is exciting. It's a big moment for people," says Jonathan Ross, ACE-certified personal trainer and CrossFit Level 1 coach. This kind of positive reinforcement of your skills and strength naturally makes you feel more self-confident — a feeling you can take with you into other areas of your life.
6. CrossFit Improves Muscular Endurance
Muscular endurance is the ability of your muscles to perform over an extended period of time without becoming fatigued. This is crucial for participants in endurance sports like running and cycling, but it's an important part of performing well in any activity in your daily life.
A January 2014 study published in the Journal of Sport and Human Performance looked at the effects of two different exercise modalities — CrossFit and a traditional training program — on muscular endurance. The researchers found that CrossFit participants increased muscular endurance by 22 percent and their aerobic capacity by six percent.
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7. CrossFit Provides Measurable Results
Using benchmark CrossFit workouts — called "the girls" because they all have traditionally female names like Fran, Barbara and Angie — you can easily measure your progress from day one to day 101.
Take the benchmark workout Cindy, for example, which involves doing as many rounds as possible of five pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 squats in 20 minutes. How many rounds were you able to do when you started CrossFit? How many rounds can you do three months later? If you've been going regularly, the answer is most likely considerably more.
You can also clearly see your gains in strength by testing your one-rep max (the heaviest weight you're able to lift with proper form for one rep of a particular exercise). These tests are built into CrossFit sessions, so you're periodically able to see your gains in fitness and feel good about them.
8. You'll Build Healthy Habits That Last
You may start out thinking you're just trying out a new workout, but you'll soon realize it's not just your workout that's getting an overhaul. Many CrossFitters notice they're eating healthier, sleeping better, improving their focus at work and feeling happier.
Once you've caught the CrossFit bug, you'll likely start making healthier choices in your daily life. Instead of skipping your workout to go to happy hour, you'll probably make sure to fit in your workout beforehand. You might even skip happy hour altogether!
9. CrossFit Improves Body Composition
According to authors of a January 2017 study published in the Journal of Diabetes Research, high-intensity exercise has a greater impact on belly fat than traditional aerobic exercise. "Most people just don't work out intensely enough to make progress, and then they wonder why they're not making progress," says Ross.
But in a CrossFit program, the emphasis is on intensity. In each workout, you push yourself to your maximum capacity, either going all out for the entire workout or working hard for a period of time and then resting for a period of time. This type of high-intensity exercise has the ability to reduce body fat more effectively and in less time than steady-state low- or moderate-intensity exercises, the authors of the review concluded.
10. It Can Help Improves Performance in Other Sports
Well-rounded cross-training programs, like CrossFit, can help build your body's overall work capacity in a way that sports-specific training alone may not be able to. For a real-world example, take FINA World Masters record holder Hannah Caldas, who told CrossFit.com that CrossFit helped make her a better swimmer, both physically and mentally.
The same is true for other sports. "A general increase in your endurance would help you on the tennis court if you get into a longer rally," says Ross. "If you live in a body that is fit in general, almost anything you're going to do will get better."
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11. CrossFit Builds Flexibility and Mobility
CrossFit isn't just about pushing your limits in high-intensity workouts and heavy lifts. Every class also includes exercises and drills to increase flexibility and mobility — the ability of your joints to move through their full range of motion — and students are encouraged to work on both outside of class.
This focused work helps CrossFitters and athletes in other sports move better and more efficiently, both during training and in their everyday lives, and maintain balance in their bodies. It also helps prevent injury.
12. You'll Get Personalized Training
At many CrossFit boxes, the coach-to-student ratio is often less than one to 10. Typical group exercise classes may have 20 or more students per instructor, and when you're working out at the gym on your own, well — you're on your own.
"I think one of the inherent benefits of going to a CrossFit gym is you have a coach with you every time you go in," says Feito. Such small class sizes mean your CrossFit coach is able to give you individualized feedback on your form and technique and potentially prevent you from making mistakes that could cause injury.
13. CrossFit Forces You Out of Your Comfort Zone
When you're working out at the gym on your own, you can pick and choose the exercises you want to do. This means you can easily avoid the exercises you like the least. But avoiding the exercises that are most challenging for you is not helping; it's keeping you in your comfort zone.
CrossFit will not let you stay there. It will push you to your limits and make you do things you've never done nor ever thought you could do. You'll work harder than you've ever worked in your life. You will be sore in places you didn't know you had muscles. You may even shed some tears. But you will get stronger, faster and better.
14. CrossFit Encourages Clean Eating
Very few exercise programs come with a diet plan, which doesn't make sense considering the role diet plays in weight loss, sports performance and overall health and longevity.
Many CrossFit boxes offer nutritional guidance, recommending a dietary plan involving eating whole, unprocessed foods consisting of lean protein, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. The diet limits sugar and high-glycemic carbohydrates, which can spike your blood sugar.
Nutrition competitions in which members compete to see who can stick to their diet most consistently, potluck events, seminars and recipe sharing give you the push you need to limit highly processed food and feel better.
15. CrossFit Workouts Are Scalable
Just because you can't deadlift 300 pounds doesn't mean you can't do CrossFit. In fact, even if you can't do a single push-up, you can start CrossFit. For any exercise in a CrossFit workout, there is at least one modification (but often many) to scale the exercise to your level of fitness.
If you can't do a pull-up, you can use a band for support or do ring rows; if you can't do a full snatch with a loaded bar, you can do just the first part of the movement with an empty bar or even a PVC pipe until you're ready to move on to the next part of the movement or add weight.
16. It Can Help You Reach Your Fitness Goals
Getting the results you want from CrossFit depends on how motivated you are to attend classes regularly as well as on the quality of the box you choose and the coaching you receive. Do your homework before signing up to make sure the trainers are at least CrossFit Level 1 certified. Ask for referrals from friends and family, and don't be afraid to ask lots of questions when you first visit a box.
Make sure the box you choose provides an introductory (or on-ramp) program for beginners that teaches you how to perform the movements correctly before you are asked to perform them with intensity, says Ross. A CrossFit box that emphasizes intensity over quality of movement doesn't have their members' best interests in mind, Ross says.
17. It's Just Plain Fun!
CrossFit isn't your "same old, same old" gym routine. When was the last time you did a handstand or climbed a rope to the ceiling? If you're like most adults, probably not since grade school. In each session, you'll find yourself jumping rope, doing box jumps, throwing medicine balls, running and climbing — it's a bit like recess for grown-ups.
This is a large part of what makes the program so popular and keeps people coming back over and over again, says Ross. "You can do things that just make you lose yourself in the experience," he says. That's not something most people can claim about their treadmill workout.
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