Devotees of the “sport of functional fitness” (as CrossFit is known) claim it’s the best and fastest route to health, while skeptics point toward the risk of injury. As with most polarized subjects, that’s in part due to the fact that many people are a little bit fuzzy on the details of what CrossFit actually entails.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions around what CrossFit is,” says Dave Lipson, CrossFit Level Four Trainer and founder of Thundr Bro, an educational fitness platform. “People think it’s all what you see on TV, that it’s just the professional CrossFit Games athletes you see on ESPN, but it’s not.”
With that in mind, Health spoke to CrossFit experts to find out exactly what CrossFit training is, the benefits of CrossFit, and how to know whether or not CrossFit is for you.
What is CrossFit training?
Chances are you’ve heard the generic yet succinct CrossFit definition: “constantly varied, functional movements, executed at high intensity.”
But what does that actually mean? “From an exercise perspective, CrossFit takes all aspects of fitness and sports, cherry picks the best, most effective, and most applicable to everyday life, and combines them together," says four-time CrossFit Games champion Rich Froning, founder of CrossFit Mayhem, a box—CrossFit speak for gym—in Cookeville, Tennessee.
In short, functional movements are those that mimic the things you do outside the gym: carry groceries from the car to the kitchen, pick up a baby or chair off the ground, climb stairs, get out of bed. “These functional movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, and monostructural [or cardio] exercise,” says Tony Carvajal, a CrossFit Level One Trainer and RSP Nutrition athlete.
Cardio? Check. Heavy lifts? Check. Mobility work, flexibility training, and body control? Check, check, and check. “It’s a workout program that integrates multiple sports and training regimens all in one,” Carvajal says.
What a CrossFit class is like
CrossFit isn't a franchise (like your local Pizza Hut); instead, it’s an affiliate, explains CrossFit Games commentator Tanya Wagner, a CrossFit Level Two Trainer at CrossFit Apex in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “That means every box has its own individual programming and style. It’s not one-size-fits-all.” There are over 15,000 CrossFit boxes worldwide.
That said, generally, CrossFit classes last an hour, broken down into four different components: a warm-up, strength or skill, workout of the day or WOD, and cooldown or mobility session.
The warm-up is basically foreplay to the WOD. It’s meant to prepare your joints for the movements ahead. The strength component has one goal—you guessed it—to make you stronger, but it can take different forms. For example, you might be tasked with sets of one repitition of the maximum you can deadlift or six sets of three power snatches. A skill workout is intended to help you improve your ability to do a specific exercise, like double unders, toes to bars, or handstand walking. Typically, the skill that you work on will make an appearance in the WOD.
The WOD, which is also sometimes called a metcon (short for metabolic conditioning), is the meat and potatoes of CrossFit training. You'll perform a certain combination of exercises either for a set amount of time or until you've completed a specific number of reps. If you’re accustomed to 60 minutes of nonstop movement in your favorite bootcamp, you might be surprised to learn that most CrossFit workouts only last five to 15 minutes (and that anything longer is considered an endurance WOD).
There are so many possibilities for a WOD that you won't see many CrossFit workouts more than once at a gym. But there are a few benchmark workouts (which are usually named after women: Fran, Grace, Diane) and hero workouts (which are done in honor of fallen servicemen—the most famous is Murph), which can be used to track your progress over time and qualitatively show you that you’re improving, says Anthony Gustin, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of Perfect Keto.
CrossFit training usually wraps up with a stretching and mobility session—or athletes will stretch on their own after a workout. For instance, after a “grippy” workout (think: pull-ups or jump rope), you might do a series of forearm stretches.
The benefits of CrossFit
“Whether your fitness goal is to help you maintain your current fitness level, get just 1% fitter, lose weight, do a pull-up, or be able to lift a certain weight, CrossFit can help you reach it,” says Kyra Williams, a certified personal trainer and CrossFit Level One Trainer.
In fact, research backs up just how effective it really is. For example, a team of exercise physiologists out of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse found that women who performed two different CrossFit workouts burned over 12 calories per minute and maintained an elevated heart rate throughout the entire session.
CrossFit can also have positive mental and emotional effects, Gustin says. “It teaches people that they are capable of more than they think. Gaining mental toughness and pushing yourself to new heights in a CrossFit class can trickle down to other parts of your life and give you confidence to tackle the unknown.”
There's also the community aspect of CrossFit. Sure, you could do a CrossFit workout by yourself, but part of the magic happens in the box, says Clint Fisher, CrossFit Level One Trainer and co-owner of CrossFit Charleston. “There is just something that happens when you get like-minded people in the same room. You lift each other up. You become a family.”
Will I get injured if I try CrossFit?
Despite gruesome stories you may have heard, probably not. A 2018 study deemed CrossFit training "relatively safe compared with more traditional training modalities." The researchers wrote: “Over the past several years, CrossFit training has been scrutinized in the mainstream media because of the supposed high incidence of injuries; however, these statements seem not to be supported by empirical evidence.”
What about rhabdo? While rhabdomyolysis—a condition where the muscle tissue breaks down so severely that it can mess up the kidneys—is a real risk of any high-intensity workouts, it's no more common in CrossFit than any other workout, Lipson says. Plus, it's avoidable with smart coaching and thoughtful programming, he adds, not to mention listening to your body and building up workout intensity gradually.
How do I know if CrossFit is for me?
Maybe you’ve heard CrossFit addicts swear the sport's for anyone. Or maybe you’ve noticed the age diversity on the official CrossFit Instagram. But CrossFit really is for anyone. “We have former football players working out with people in their 70s and 80s and new moms,” Lipson says.
How is that possible? While every workout will have suggested weights and movements, the majority of people at most CrossFit boxes do something called scaling. “Scaling allows anyone to complete the same workout simply by altering the weights and movements based on the athlete's ability in order to produce the same level of intensity,” explains Carvajal.
For example, if a workout calls for 50 reps of toes to bar, the coach might have one person scale it down to just 25 or another person just touch their knees to their elbows.
How to get started with CrossFit training
First, check the official CrossFit affiliate map to find box locations near you. Then do some research.
“The longer the gym has been around, the better," Carvajal says. "If a gym has been around at least five to six years, that’s always a good sign.” He also recommends looking up how educated the trainers are. “Most gyms will have the coaches' credentials on their website. The more certifications and accolades the better.”
But credentials aren’t everything. A coach's actual leadership style, communication skills, and emphasis on form and safety in class are what Wagner says matter most. “You should find a place that you personally feel comfortable getting all your questions answered.”
Don’t be afraid to box shop either. “Every box has a different community and vibe,” says Lipson. “Some are younger, some are older. Some are more competitive, while others have a more community vibe.” If you’re not vibing with one particular CrossFit space, try another.
Once you find a box, the only real way to know if you like CrossFit is to try it. Like we said: Just like period sex.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter