Your Complete Guide to CrossFit Training

Coaches highlight the greatest benefits of the workout style and the CrossFit exercises you can expect in every class.

Guide-to-CrossFit
Getty Images.

Based on your social media feed alone, you might assume CrossFit is reserved solely for the folks who have superhero strength and can power through dozens of lightning-fast pull-ups and heavy barbell squats without breaking a sweat. Cue the intimidation.

But in reality, CrossFit is a workout style open to folks with any experience level and ability — and building muscle isn't the only perk that comes with adding it to your routine. Ahead, learn what CrossFit training actually entails, its benefits, and how to get started. Trust, it's not as daunting as it seems.

What Is CrossFit Training?

To put it simply, CrossFit training is a fitness program centered on functional movements that are constantly varied and executed at a high intensity, says Denise Thomas, a certified CrossFit Level 4 Coach and CrossFit Seminar Staff trainer. The workout method can be broken up into three elements: weightlifting, gymnastics (aka controlled bodyweight moves), and monostructural metabolic conditioning (aka cardio), she explains. 

To keep your body guessing and ensure you’re physically capable of tackling whatever life throws at you, the moves included in your workout and the prescribed reps, sets, and time for each will vary from one day to the next, says Thomas. And you might do a specific exercise just once every one to two weeks, she says. “One day, you might do a front squat, a run, and a pull-up, and tomorrow you might do a lunge, a press, and a row,” she adds. “The basis of the program is to be ready for the unknown, and the way we do that is by trying to be really good at a lot of different things.”

And while CrossFit workouts are high intensity, how you define "high intensity" is somewhat relative to you, individually — depending on factors such as your current fitness level, cardiovascular stamina, and more, says Thomas. “What makes it so inclusive is that you’re going to push your [own] limits,” she adds. “You can come from a completely different walk of life than the person next to you…and you’ll get [the intensity] you need.” Excluding the warm-up and cool-down portions of the training session, a CrossFit workout can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, though most will hover around 20 minutes, says Thomas.

The Main CrossFit Exercises

In most CrossFit workouts, you’ll push through elements pulled from one or a few of the three main movement categories. Here are the exercises you can expect to perform in a CrossFit class or training session. 

Gymnastics

Not to be confused with the gymnastics involving flips and cartwheels, gymnastics in the CrossFit world involves moving your body through space with control, says Thomas. “It’s part of CrossFit’s hierarchy for the development of an athlete,” she explains. “We believe if you want to put a weight in your hand, you need to have some strength and awareness of how you’re moving your body.” In the gym, these gymnastics-style exercises include sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, muscle-ups, and handstand walks, she says. 

Weightlifting

Weightlifting exercises are likely the first to come to mind when you think of CrossFit. In a training session, you’ll likely use barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine and slam balls, and sandbags to perform a mix of strength-building movements, says Thomas. You’ll often stick with the nine foundational movements, which are broken up into three squat variations (the air squat, front squat, and overhead squat), three pressing variations (the shoulder press, push press, and jerk), and three deadlift variations (the deadlift, sumo deadlift high pull, and medicine ball clean), according to the CrossFit Level 1 Training Guide. Aside from those key moves, you might also perform thrusters, snatches, clean and jerks, kettlebell swings, and medicine ball drills, according to the guide.

Monostructural Metabolic Conditioning

While thrusters and push presses will surely get your heart thumping, these moves aren’t technically considered cardio training in the CrossFit world. Instead, CrossFit emphasizes repetitive, cyclical movements that can be sustained for long periods of time, known as monostructural metabolic conditioning, or Metcon workout, says Thomas. Running, rowing, swimming, biking, and using the SkiErg all satisfy this cardio checkbox and help to improve cardiorespiratory capacity and stamina, she says. 

The Key CrossFit Training Benefits

The diehard athletes constantly singing CrossFit’s praises aren’t lying — the workout method comes with some noteworthy benefits. 

Builds Full-Body Strength

The most basic benefit of CrossFit workouts: They help you build strength from head to toe. Most of the exercises you’ll perform in CrossFit are compound movements, meaning they call on multiple muscle groups and joints. A basic deadlift, for example, will target your entire posterior chain, including your calves, hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, core, and lats. And even a bodyweight push-up will recruit the muscles in your arms, chest, shoulders, and core. Translation: You’ll get in a full-body workout by completing just a few fundamental CrossFit exercises.

Improves Everyday Functioning

By performing deadlifts, squats, and presses on the reg — movements you also do when you pick an object off the floor, sit down, or hold an item over your head — you’ll take strides to improve your functioning outside the gym, says Thomas. Even more complex movements such as the thruster, a combo of a squat and a press, are performed in your everyday life, adds Skyler Peebles, a certified CrossFit Level 1 coach and USA Weightlifting Level 1 coach. “It’s actually functional — say you’re a parent and you want to toss your kid up and down, it’s a very similar movement,” she says. 

Trains Cardiorespiratory System

All the rowing, running, and biking you do in a CrossFit workout can do your ticker some good. Remember, cardiorespiratory, or cardio, training involves exercises that help stimulate and strengthen the heart and lungs, Melissa Kendter, an ACE-certified trainer, functional training specialist, and EvolveYou coach, previously told Shape. Over time, cardio can help your lungs and heart work more efficiently to deliver oxygen to your muscles, so you’re able to tackle taxing activities without feeling as winded, she explained. Generally speaking, you should perform 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combo of both each week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And thankfully, CrossFit can help you hit those recommendations. 

Works for Any Fitness Level or Need

A major misconception is that CrossFit is only for Olympic-level athletes looking to grow serious muscles, according to the experts. But in actuality, the workout method can be scaled to meet any individual’s needs, abilities, fitness level, and age, says Peebles. Folks with balance issues, for instance, can do air squats down to a box, which provides additional stability and reduces the range of motion. And the intensity can be dialed down simply by slowing down the movements or reducing the number of reps, she adds. If the coach prescribes 50 squats, you can feel comfortable modifying to 20 reps, she says.

How to Get Started with CrossFit — Plus, the Best CrossFit Workouts to Try

Ready to dip your toes into CrossFit? Before you get started, know that the training style isn’t for everyone. If you prefer slow-flowing, chill workouts such as Pilates or yoga, the high-intensity, grunt-inducing nature of CrossFit may not be a good fit. 

That said, if you’re on the fence, simply go to a local affiliate CrossFit gym and watch how it operates to calm your nerves, suggests Thomas. “What you’ll notice first is the thing that scares you the most,” she says. “You’ll see the people doing muscle-ups and then you’ll be like, ‘Nope, not for me.’ What you’re not looking for is the elderly person or the mom that hasn’t exercised for a long time. [Once you see them,] you’ll think, ‘If they can do it, I can do it too.’”

Once you decide to give CrossFit a shot, Thomas recommends committing to three workouts a week for a month, which is the best way to determine if the workout method is truly what’s right for you. And if you fall in love with it, be careful not to overtrain, a common occurrence among CrossFit athletes, says Peebles. “Even if your body feels pretty okay, there’s no need to keep putting yourself under continuous stress, especially when you’re doing a lot of high-volume work every day.”

For a quick taste of CrossFit, though, you can incorporate one of these workouts into your routine. Who knows, you might sign up for an IRL class before your at-home workout even ends.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles