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High-intensity workouts are popular for a reason: They work. CrossFit-based high-intensity power training improves maximal aerobic fitness and body composition. Smith, M.M., Sommer, A.J., Starkoff, B.E., et al. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2013; Nov 27 (11): 3159-72. So it's not surprising that more and more CrossFit gyms—packed with shirtless men and kick-butt women tearing through intense workouts—are popping up every day. But what is it about this training style that makes it so effective? Or perhaps a better first question: How specifically is CrossFit different from other popular, challenging workouts? The answer's not immediately obvious.

“It’s easy to confuse CrossFit-style workouts with traditional bootcamp classes,” says Erica Giovinazzo, Greatist Expert and CrossFit coach at Brick New York. “But while both incorporate some similar elements like Tabatas and bodyweight exercises, CrossFit also includes gymnastics moves and Olympic lifting. In fact, many WODs begin with a straight strength training portion where athletes work on back squats or clean and jerks before moving on to the conditioning part.” Another point of difference: In CrossFit every workout is tracked, making it easy to see if that front squat weight is a new personal best or if a specific WOD was completed faster than ever.

To understand those amazing results even better (and get them yourself), here's a closer look at three key characteristics of CrossFit-style workouts:

1. They use functional moves.
Think of movements done in normal life—carrying heavy bags of groceries, bending down and lifting up a piece of furniture, hoisting a heavy suitcase into an overhead bin. Those are the exact same motions done in CrossFit (Lifting up a sofa? That’s just a deadlift. And toting your groceries is the same thing as a farmer’s carry).

“Instead of a move that targets one muscle, these make the entire body work together,” Giovinazzo says. “So the core is constantly engaged and multiple muscles get worked at once.”

2. They constantly vary from day to day.
It's called “workout of the day” for a reason: A CrossFit box never repeats a WOD from one day to the next. “Doing the same moves all the time will at some point stop producing results,” Giovinazzo says. Changing the routine keeps your muscles guessing and the improvements coming.

3. They incorporate high-intensity intervals.
The entire workout may last an hour, but that includes a warm-up and the strength portion. The conditioning segment can be as short as 12 minutes. Why so quick?Because doing short bursts of high-intensity exercise is more effective at boosting V02 max (a measure of cardiovascular fitness) than doing the same amount of work at a lower intensity. Aerobic high-intensity intervals improve VO2max more than moderate training. Helgerud, J., Hoydal, K., Wang, E., et al. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2007; Apr; 39(4): 665-71.

Now for the best part: You don't have to join a CrossFit box to reap the benefits of these killer conditioning workouts! Here's how to build your own WOD-worthy plan in just three simple steps.

Greatist High-Intensity Training Circuit

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