15 Health and Fitness Benefits of CrossFit
Since Greg Glassman and his then-wife Lauren Jenai founded the sport in 2000, CrossFit has shown that glitz and gadgets aren't necessary to reap some serious health and fitness benefits. (With some 250,000 women who competed in the CrossFit Open last year, plus the everyday badasses at boxes across the globe, it's fair to say many of you already know that.) The sport's goal: To return fitness to the basics, using a variety of low-tech, functional movements that combine gymnastics, weight training, Olympic weight training, and metabolic conditioning with an emphasis on intensity.
Read on to learn 15 science- and expert-backed benefits of CrossFit that just may convince you to sign up for a box.
1. You'll get stronger.
Spoiler alert: Lifting weights, Olympic weightlifting, and resistance training all make you stronger (among these other benefits of strength training). And CrossFit uses all of these fitness modalities in its programming. There are actually 10 skills at the foundation of everything you do in CrossFit, according to Rich Froning ("The Fittest Man In History"): cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, accuracy, agility, and balance.
"Most of the movements you do in CrossFit are compound movements, meaning they recruit muscles from all over your body," says physical therapist and certified strength coach Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S. For instance, when you're doing a lift like the snatch, squat, or deadlift, you're activating and therefore strengthening all of your muscles from head to toe. (Related: 9 Reasons More Women Should Be Olympic Weightlifting)
In fact, one 2017 study found that compound movements (also called multi-joint exercises) are more effective for improving strength and general fitness compared to single-joint exercises like the biceps curl, calf raise, or leg curl.
2. You'll torch serious calories during the workout.
When researchers from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse looked at women who do CrossFit, they found that they burned 12 or more calories per minute. Their conclusion: "CrossFit works... Based on the high intensity of the workouts tested, [we] conclude that CrossFit does a really good job of helping exercisers improve their aerobic fitness while burning a fair number of calories in the process."
The reason why comes back to the fact that CrossFit uses compound exercises, says Tony Carvajal, certified CrossFit trainer with RSP Nutrition. "The more muscles being used, the more calories you're going to burn," he says. FYI, you don't necessarily have to pick up weights to score the benefits of compound moves; bodyweight CrossFit staples like burpees, muscle-ups, and handstands will light up your whole body too.
3. That calorie burn will continue post-WOD.
Most CrossFit workouts (aka workout of the day or WOD) will include some weightlifting, and lifting weights doesn't just torch calories mid-workout, but after it too. That's because your muscle mass is one of the main determining factors of your metabolic rate-how many calories you burn just by living, explains Wickham.
"In CrossFit, you're going to gain muscle. More muscle mass means a faster metabolism," he says. "Faster metabolism means burning more calories all day long." (Here's everything you need to know about metabolism, muscle, and fat.)
There's also the "afterburn effect" (also known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC) which says that the more intense the exercise is, the more oxygen your body consumes afterward, and therefore the more calories you burn even after you've left the gym. (You only need to watch two-time champion of the CrossFit Games Annie Thorisdottir work out to know that CrossFit is intense). That post-workout calorie burn is usually 6 to 15 percent of the total calories you burned while exercising. Not too shabby, CrossFit.
4. You could lose weight.
Losing weight isn't everyone's goal going into CrossFit, but if it's yours, "CrossFit is one of the most effective workouts for weight loss," says Carvajal. That's because all of the health and fitness benefits of CrossFit listed thus far-especially the increased lean muscle mass and the revved-up metabolism-contribute to reducing body fat and burning more calories overall.
In fact, one study found CrossFit participants had significant improvements in body composition (and aerobic capacity) after 10 weeks regardless of their fitness level at the start of the program.
There's a psychological component of CrossFit that makes it effective as a weight-loss program too, says physical therapist D.R. Ebner, P.T., C.S.C.S., at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "The community will keep you coming back. It'll keep you on track and make you 10 times more likely to show up," he says. (More on that here: Why Consistency Is the Single Most Important Thing for Reaching Your Health and Weight-Loss Goals)
5. It's good for your heart.
Most CrossFit workouts don't look like traditional cardio training methods. Rather, some CrossFit WODs are only three minutes long. (Ashley Graham is also not about that traditional cardio life either. Evidence: Watch Ashley Graham Prove That Cardio Doesn't Have to Suck)
However, it's totally possible to get a cardiovascularly challenging workout in a short amount of time-even just three to five minutes, says CrossFit Games commentator and CrossFit Level 2 certified trainer Tanya Wagner of CrossFit Apex in Bucks County, PA. In fact, a study published in PLoS ONE found that just three minutes of all-out exercise per week significantly improved cardiometabolic health markers (including VO2 max and blood pressure) in overweight/obese adults.
6. You'll improve your mobility.
CrossFit may not look like traditional mobility-building practices like yoga and Pilates but, "CrossFit is actually one of the best exercise programs for enhancing mobility," according to Wickham, who is also the founder of Movement Vault, an online mobility program.
Quick refresher: Mobility is your ability to move a muscle or muscle group through a range of motion (ROM) in the joint socket with strength and control. (Here are more mobility basics you need to know.) Many movements in CrossFit simultaneously enhance ROM and strength. For example, try improving your mobility the CrossFit-approved way with this squat therapy drill.
7. It's safer than you probably think.
CrossFit gets a bad rap for being unsafe, but a 2018 review concluded that, while the sport has been scrutinized because of the supposed high incidence of injuries, none of these claims were supported by empirical evidence.
Another study found that people who work with hands-on coaches who help them through the movements have fewer injuries-and that's exactly what most CrossFit boxes offer. As for rhabdo, it's not any more common in CrossFit than in any other type of high-intensity exercise. (Related: 12 CrossFit Myths, Debunked)
8. It might even help reduce injury risk.
The best exercises to perform inside the gym are ones that mimic the movements you do outside the gym, says Wickham. (Think: Lifting an Amazon Prime package, sitting down and getting up from your desk, or schlepping a heavy duffle bag.) These are called functional movements-and they're the foundation of many CrossFit WODs.
"The whole point of doing functional movements as exercise is to keep your body in physical readiness for the demands of everyday life," explains Wagner. If people learn to properly move their bodies as an entire unit or machine, they'll be much more successful and safe during more demanding everyday tasks like shoveling snow or moving furniture, she says.
9. You'll become a better runner.
CrossFit improves your strength from head to toe, and that means improved performance whether you're an endurance athlete or sprinter. Research shows that running efficiency is improved when runners add two or three days of strength training to their workout routine every week.
Not to mention "CrossFit helps you strengthen your core," says Ebner. "A strong core helps transfer strength and utilize the strength throughout the rest of your body-including your arms and legs." Translation: more power per stride. Plus, a stronger core could improve your running form-which means a reduced risk of injury. (Boom: Why Runners Should Do CrossFit)
10. You could sleep better.
"There are a lot of lifestyle factors that come into play with how well you sleep," says Kevin Turcio, a CrossFit Level 2 certified trainer and owner of CrossFit Affinity in Stamford, CT. "In personal experience, CrossFit has helped me fall asleep." This could be simply due to the intensity involved in this kind of training, as upping the intensity of exercise has been shown to aid deep sleep.
Carvajal suggests that this effect is especially noticeable in folks who weren't regular exercisers previously. "Any type of exercise is likely to improve sleep quality; however, high-intensity training like CrossFit seems to be the most effective." (Related: How Sleep and Exercise Are Connected)
11. There are mental gains.
CrossFit doesn't only train your muscles-it trains your brain too. "CrossFit creates mental toughness," says Wagner. That's because CrossFit workouts give you the opportunity to use positive self-talk and push yourself through challenging moments.
"It allows you to self-evaluate and reflect once you've made it through whatever barrier you accomplished," says Wagner. "We see incredible changes in self-talk and mental positivity levels specifically in women and adolescent girls." (See: 25 Things All Women Who Lift Will Understand)
12. It's time-efficient.
Most classes are only one hour long and the WODs themselves are usually only three to 20 minutes long. Seriously! (The rest of the class includes a warm-up, a cool-down, and sometimes an additional weightlifting portion.) "People are always surprised how wiped they are after such a short workout," says Turcio. (Try one of these 12 CrossFit WODs that coaches love to see what she means.)
Plus, a review of 13 studies published in Obesity Reviews found that both continuous moderate-intensity training and HIIT training resulted in similar reductions in waist circumference and fat loss-but HIIT required about 40 percent less training time to do so. Another study even found that short bouts of HIIT is superior to moderate-intensity "slow and go" training for improving cardiovascular fitness.
13. You'll look jacked.
Toned. Lean. Jacked. Built. Defined. Muscular. Whatever word you use to indicate "looks fit AF," CrossFit will get you there. (BTW, here's why lifting heavy won't make you bulk up.)
Combine those muscle-building, fat-burning benefits with sound nutritional choices, stress management, and proper sleep, and you'll earn a defined look, says Wickham. (Need more proof? Follow some of these badass professional CrossFit athletes on Instagram.)
14. You get a built-in cheer squad.
Friendly PSA: If you're in the ~no new friends~ club, CrossFit isn't for you. That's because throwing around weights and learning new gymnastics skills together has the amazing ability to create lasting friendships and a sound support system. There's even science to prove it! A recent research review concluded that CrossFit is associated with a sense of community, satisfaction, and motivation. (And it's not exactly breaking news that having a #fitfam helps people reach their fitness goals: Why having a fitness buddy is literally the best thing ever.)
"The community will support you and encourage you and keep you accountable to your goals," says Carvajal. "Being in an environment like this can only lead to bettering yourself in and out of the gym."
15. You'll have fun.
Yes. F-U-N. Research shows that, for many people, hard workouts are actually more fun. So, sure, CrossFit may be hard, but you'll be reaping a whole lot of benefits-like the 14 above-and having a good time doing it.