CrossFit hit the fitness scene like a tossed tractor tire in 2000 with its patented blend of high-intensity interval training, weightlifting, and plyometrics, distilled into short but strenuous workouts.
“People see tires and ropes and say that’s CrossFit. It’s one of the biggest misconceptions,” says Judah Boulet, a level 3 CrossFit trainer and owner of No Risk CrossFit in Smithfield, RI.
Here’s everything to know about CrossFit’s benefits, risks, and how to determine whether it’s right for you.
There’s a reason CrossFit has earned something of a cult following — it yields results. Depending on what your personal goals are, here are some of the benefits a CrossFit program can offer.
1. Get strong
CrossFit won’t give you the biggest muscles on the beach. But bodyweight exercises like air squats and workouts that utilize weights like kettlebells and barbells will build muscle mass and improve muscle definition for both men and women, Boulet explains
CrossFit is a full-body workout so muscles from your triceps to your quads will see increased strength.
2. Improve your endurance
A workout that lasts as little as 15 minutes might not seem to be long enough to get your heart rate up into the working zone. But Boulet says the intensity of CrossFit provides a cardiovascular workout, similar to running sprints.
For example, “If you run four 400-meter repeats with 2-minute rest periods, that 16 minutes [of active exercise] will give you the ability to run much further,” he explains. Likewise, with CrossFit, “Working out shorter but with more intensity will give you the ability to run slower but far longer,” said Boulet.
In more sciencey terms, HIPT workouts can increase VO₂ max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can absorb and use during exercise. Simply put: more oxygen = more endurance.
3. Get agile and flexible
“If you learn to do strength movements properly they can build flexibility,” Boulet says. Squats performed with proper technique can make your hips more flexible, for example. Cool-down exercises built into some CrossFit routines, such as yoga stretches, also can improve flexibility.
4. Help with weight loss
Diet and nutrition have been part of the CrossFit philosophy since the program’s founding. “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar,” the CrossFit Journal advises. “Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”
CrossFit endorses the anti-inflammatory Zone Diet, which apportions meals to include 40 percent carbs, 30 percent proteins, and 30 percent fats, to support CrossFit workouts.
While not the primary goal of CrossFit, weight loss — or at least replacing fat with muscle — is almost inevitable when you combine intensive exercise with a moderate, healthy diet. On the other hand, says Boulet, “without proper sleep and diet you can ruin a great exercise program.”
5. Torch calories during your workout
CrossFit is highly efficient at burning calories. Researchers at Kennesaw State University who studied a popular CrossFit workout nicknamed “Cindy” — which consists of completing as many rounds as possible of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats — found that the routine burned 261 calories in just 20 minutes.
The American College of Exercise estimated that men burned an average of 20 calories per minute doing CrossFit, while women averaged 12 calories per minute.
Like other high-intensity exercise routines, the health benefits of CrossFit can persist even after your workout is done. Your overall metabolic rate will increase for a period of time after exercising, which can add substantially to the overall benefit from your workout, researchers say.
“More muscle mass means you burn more calories all day long,” says Boulet.
6. Train your brain
The intense, challenging workouts of CrossFit “build grit, perseverance, and determination,” says Boulet. Progressing through the program levels “makes life all that much easier,” he says.
“It makes you think, ‘What else can I push through?’ I push through my workouts because I see other people at my level pushing through their workouts.”
7. Exercise efficiently
Boulet has spent plenty of time in traditional gyms but was attracted to CrossFit because of its efficiency and the comprehensive nature of the program.
“It gives you the biggest bang for your buck,” he says. “You can get a full workout in 10 to 15 minutes. You get the full package in a short period of time.”
8. Community support
Along with workouts and lifestyle changes, community is one of the pillars of CrossFit. The culture of the program supports mutual encouragement and friendly competition, which can benefit performance in the gym as well as broader improvements in wellness.
“Our members don’t like to be yelled at in their face,” says Boulet. Rather, both trainers and other members offer positive encouragement to “work through to your highest capacity.”
“It’s a group of like-minded people with similar goals to make themselves a little better,” according to Boulet, who says the “shared suffering” of performing intense exercise helps CrossFit community members bond and support each other.
Headphones are banned in CrossFit boxes like No Risk, which promotes interaction between members, and membership plans allowing for unlimited visits mean members frequently cross paths and become familiar and friendly.
9. Friendly competition
The annual CrossFit Games, held every year since 2007, feature competitors seeking the title of “Fittest on Earth.” There are also a variety of national, regional, and local competitions that CrossFit members can sign up for, either as individuals or as part of teams.
At boxes like No Risk CrossFit, there can also be friendly competition among members as “people push other people to be better,” says Boulet, while stressing: “Every day is not a competition.”
“To me, the competition is within yourself,” Boulet says.
The risk of injuries is an unavoidable reality with any type of exercise, including CrossFit.
A 4-year study by researchers at Kennesaw State University found that 30 percent of CrossFit participants had suffered some type of injury over the previous 12 months, but also concluded, “CrossFit training is relatively safe compared with more traditional training modalities.”
Shoulder, back, knee, elbow, and wrist injuries were most common, the study found. People who did CrossFit between 3 and 5 days per week were the most likely to suffer injuries, leading researchers to caution against working out too frequently.
Another study found that CrossFit workouts carried more risk than traditional weightlifting, likely because of the intensity of workouts where some participants may “push themselves beyond their own physical fatigue limit and may ultimately lead to technical form breakdown, loss of control, and injury.”
CrossFit’s reputation for intensity may be intimidating to some, but Boulet maintains that CrossFit is “open to every individual, relative to their fitness ability.”
“What’s intense to me might not be intense to you,” he says. “We have people work out to their own relative intensity, so because of that, anyone can do CrossFit.”
While CrossFit has throngs of fans — and produces some decidedly chiseled results — medical professionals have been less convinced of the long-term benefits.
At this point, more research is needed to understand how CrossFit really improves endurance, strength, and aerobic fitness.