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CrossFit Workouts: Benefits, Risks & How to Do Your Own


CrossFit workouts - Dr. Axe

CrossFit is a high-intensity, constantly varied, functional movement exercise program that has seen a huge growth in popularity around the world since it first started in the early 2000s. What originally began as an exercise program to help train military forces, police and firemen is now taking the fitness world by storm.

CrossFit workouts promise to keep members in the top shape of their lives, building muscle faster, promoting better recovery and usually meeting a whole support network of like-minded people in the process, too! With a growing number of CrossFit certified trainers, gyms, and programs now being offered across the world, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about.

What Is CrossFit?

CrossFit is a type of strength and conditioning workout that uses your own bodyweight for resistance in order to build power all over. Consistent with the benefits of high-intensity interval training, this means no standard cardio workouts and hours spent at the gym. CrossFit workouts might even be done entirely without any equipment or added weights, although some people will choose to use weights for certain movements.

According to the founders of CrossFit.com, several simple observations taken from top-performing athletes training over the past 30 years have formed the basic principles behind CrossFit workouts. Here are some of the key reasons CrossFit workouts were first introduced, and why they’ve been growing in popularity ever since:

  • Heavy lifters are able to apply more power to activities than endurance athletes. Powerlifters − those who attempt to lift maximum weights within three attempts − are especially strong.
  • Sprinters and people conditioned to do Burst Training are usually able to match the cardiovascular benefits and abilities of endurance athletes, but with less time spent training.
  • Endurance athletes and bodybuilders are usually very specialized in their sport — for example, being aerobically fit or very muscular — but can be lacking in versatility (like having allover strength, power or stamina).
  • Doing HIIT workouts and training at high intensities (meaning workouts that would be unsustainable for long periods of time) leads to numerous health benefits, including faster weight loss along with more fat-burning and muscle-building.
  • HIIT workouts can be done quickly (under an hour and sometimes much less) and don’t require someone to work out every single day to maintain strength.

CrossFit brings together knowledge from a diverse background of the world’s most physically fit people to form one full-body workout full of mind-body benefits. Specifically, CrossFit workouts cover “10 Fitness Domains” including:

  • Cardiovascular and Respiratory
  • Stamina
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Power
  • Speed
  • Coordination
  • Agility
  • Balance
  • Accuracy

6 Benefits of CrossFit Workouts

1. Better Conditioning and Versatility

CrossFit programs are designed to increase physical performance in a diverse way, whether it means being able to simply perform everyday tasks better (like mowing the lawn) or preparing your body for tough competitions.

CrossFit athletes train their muscles, joints and ligaments using functional movements, which means they’re useful for more than just looking good in a bathing suit. Well-rounded workouts that use large muscle groups and various ranges of motion lead to better overall health, posture, flexibility, strength and balance.

2. The Ability to Break Through Plateaus

CrossFit is widely varied and based on compound, or functional, movements done in a high-intensity way. This type of training is considered most effective at achieving fitness results in the fastest amount of time, while also helping you break through plateaus and boredom.

CrossFit isn’t just one type of workout repeated day after day — in fact, it’s basically the opposite. By continuously switching up the types of exercises performed, muscles used and intensity, CrossFit workouts keep you from plateauing since your muscles constantly have to work in new ways.

Each program itself can be adjusted to accommodate all types of people, simply by switching up the weight load, duration and intensity of the workouts based on someone’s level of physical fitness.

3.  Help Losing Weight Fast

While many people dread doing steady-state cardio exercises, yet force themselves to do them anyway hoping to lose weight, they’re not aware that high-intensity burst training exercises can actually burn more fat and in less time.

A 2013 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that improvements in body composition, including weight loss and muscle gain, were significant for those following a CrossFit program, regardless of their level of initial fitness. (1) The purpose of the study was to examine the effects of a CrossFit-based high-intensity power training (HIPT) program on aerobic fitness and body composition.

A total of 23 healthy, adult men and 20 healthy, adult women spanning all levels of aerobic fitness and body composition completed 10 weeks of HIPT. Their workouts consisted of lifts such as the squat, deadlift, clean, snatch and overhead press, performed as quickly as possible in a circuit fashion.

Body fat percentages were estimated before and after the training program along with maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) to track endurance improvements. After 10 weeks of training, the results showed significant improvements of VO2max and decreased body fat percentage in both the men and women. The significant correlations between absolute oxygen consumption and oxygen consumption relative to bodyweight also indicate that CrossFit workouts help improve VO2max regardless of someone’s starting body composition, changes in their fat and muscle percentages, gender, or fitness level.


The guide to CrossFit workouts - Dr. Axe


4. Less Time Spent Working Out, But More Results

Many people feel that they don’t have time to regularly exercise — try these exercise hacks if you’re always time-crunched — and if they do manage to squeeze in a workout, they might not be using that time to their best advantage. Group–based high-intensity functional training (HIFT) provides time-efficient aerobic and resistance exercise at self-selected intensity levels. Studies show that these types of shorter and more intense workouts, coupled with control over the intensity, can increase adherence.

A 2013 study done by the Department of Kinesiology at Kansas State University examined effects of HIFT as compared to moderate-intensity aerobic and resistance training (ART) on rates of exercise initiation, enjoyment, adherence and intentions. They found that HIFT participants spent significantly less time exercising per week than ART participants, yet were able to maintain exercise enjoyment and were more likely to continue. (2)

Considering that many people choose not to exercise due to a lack of time or boredom, high-intensity exercise options like CrossFit workouts should, therefore, be included in public health interventions to increase activity.

5. Ongoing Motivation and a Solid Support System 

Something that draws many people to CrossFit and makes it stand apart is its strong sense of community. Thanks to the ongoing support that stems from the group-based exercise setting, CrossFitters get the added benefit of having fellow athletes to help motivate, encourage and instruct the class inside the “CrossFit Box.”

Studies even suggest that working out in a group setting similar to CrossFit helps people to perceive the class more positively. A 2014 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning collected questionnaires from a total of 144 members (88 females and 56 males) to assess participants’ perceptions of CrossFit goal structures and the motivational climate encouraged by the trainer and fellow athletes. They found that although goals differed depending on gender, all members generally felt motivation to stick with the program and changes in their fitness-related goals as their membership time went on.

A support system is crucial for keeping you on track and helping you overcome obstacles that can keep you from exercising and eating right. Group motivation means lower dropout rates and more accountability, which often equates to better results!

6. A Community That Supports Eating Like an Athlete!

Many CrossFit athletes choose to start following the Paleo Diet to get stronger, leaner, faster and improve recovery time. Of course, you can do CrossFit workouts without needing to change your diet, but to see faster results and better health benefits,  changing certain eating habits can go a long way. CrossFit athletes are encouraged to eat the following foods most: Lean meats and proteins (like cage-free eggs, wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef), vegetables, some fruits in moderation, nuts and seeds, small servings of starchy vegetables (like sweet potatoes, yams, plantains), and plenty of healthy fats from coconut products, avocados or extra-virgin olive oil, for example.

While the Paleo diet isn’t necessarily a low-carbohydrate diet, since it puts all processed foods, sugars, grains, beans and legumes off the table, it naturally means your eating way less carbs. Your muscles receive the glucose they need to repair themselves in the form of plenty of veggies, fruits and some natural starches, but in the meantime, the lower-carb intake and higher protein/fat fills you up and helps with fat-burning.

How to Start Doing CrossFit Workouts

If you choose to visit a CrossFit center or follow a protocol you find online, you’ll find that CrossFit workouts are usually done by following the “Workout of the Day,” also called the WOD. WODs can seem a bit confusing if you’re new to CrossFit, so here’s how they work:

First, it helps to get the basic terminology down. A “rep” (or repetition) is one iteration of a movement, such as one bench press or one squat. A “set” is a group of reps, such as 10 reps or squats. Each WOD usually features a certain number of sets of various movements. The pattern is to complete the sets, rest, repeat, rest, repeat and so on.

The amount of time for resting between sets depends on a few different factors, like your ability to recover and the primary goal of the WOD. Sometimes you might want to try having your WOD be timed, so in this case your rest time between sets would likely be shorter so you can complete the entire CrossFit workout quicker.

If you attend a class at a CrossFit Box, a WOD description might be written in several different ways. For example, doing a WOD in “rounds” would translate to doing a set of several exercises, resting and then repeating the whole circuit again. As an example, this type of WOD could be written as “21-15-9” which would indicate you perform one exercise 21 times, followed by another exercise 21 times and so on. Then you start from the beginning and do the first exercise 15 times, second exercise 15 times, etc.

If you choose to do a CrossFit-style workout on your own, start by practicing moves you’re more familiar with without added weights. Begin gradually by doing lower reps, until you become more physically able to handle higher reps or adding additional weight. Some compound movements to include in your WODs that will train large groups of muscles at once and torch calories are:

  • Burpees
  • Snatches
  • Dips
  • Sit-ups
  • Push-ups
  • Hand stands
  • Squats
  • Cartwheels
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench press
  • Power cleans
  • Scales
  • Holds

Various pieces of exercise equipment might also be used during a CrossFit workout, since basically any high-intensity program can be done in a CrossFit style. This allows for even more versatility and for you to create an effective workout anywhere, whether it be outside, at a track, in your garage or in a basement. Some basic equipment to consider purchasing if you want to take your workouts to the next level include:

  • A stationary bike
  • Olympic weights
  • Rings
  • Parallel bars
  • Yoga or exercise mats
  • Horizontal bar
  • Plyometrics boxes
  • Medicine or stability balls
  • Jump ropes
  • Heavy ropes

Because CrossFit is challenging to your muscles, you need to make sure to schedule “rest days” so your muscles recover. Some common examples of a weekly schedule might be cycling three days on/one day off, or five days on/two days off. Your exact workout schedule will depend on your intensity, goals and ability to recover.

What Are the Potential Risks of CrossFit Workouts?

There’s recently been a lot of criticism as to the potential injuries associated with CrossFit training. According to a 2013 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning, risks being tied to CrossFit workouts include rhabdomyolysis and musculoskeletal injuries. However, the researchers point out that to date no evidence exists in medical journals to show that CrossFit injury rates are higher than those of other forms of high-intensity exercise. (3)

After a total of 132 online questionnaires were completed amongst international CrossFit forums, data showed that an injury rate of 3.1 per 1000 hours trained was calculated. Injury rates with CrossFit training seem to be similar to those reported for sports such as Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting and gymnastics, and lower-contact sports such as rugby. Among the reported injuries, shoulder and spine injuries predominate.

To keep yourself safe and prevent injuries or overtraining, make sure to properly warm up, stretch after a workout and give yourself enough time to recover.

Read Next: 5 Best Foods for Athletes & Performance

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