CrossFit vs a Regular Gym Workout

CrossFit vs a Regular Gym Workout

CrossFit And Regular Gym

CrossFit took the fitness scene by storm around 2010, with thousands of affiliated gyms (or “boxes”) popping up around the world in the following years. Advertised as “the sport of fitness,” CrossFit centers around three core principles: constant variation, functional movement, and high intensity of effort.

Differences Between CrossFit vs a Regular Gym Workout

You might be asking yourself, “what sets CrossFit apart from a more traditional style of weight training?” There are plenty of differences to consider when trying to figure out which one is more suited to you.

Key Differences

CrossFit’s principles create a much different framework for training. CrossFit was created in part to help first responders (i.e. police officers, firefighters, etc.) be more generally prepared for the physical elements of their jobs.

Accordingly, CrossFit includes many other modalities of training in addition to lifting weights, including running, climbing, throwing, and more. These various modes of exercise are then grouped together in what’s known as a WOD, or the Workout of the Day.

Another hallmark of CrossFit is to give each WOD a name; some of the most popular WODs are named “Fran” and “Murph.”

While the goal of traditional strength training involves lifting heavier weights for more reps over time, the goal of WODs can vary. Fran calls for three rounds of thrusters and pull-ups to be done as quickly as possible for a total of 45 reps each.

Murph is a mile-long run, 100 pull-ups, 200 pushups, 300 bodyweight squats, and another mile run to the finish.

Instead of tracking the weight used, WODs are usually timed and the weights used are preselected; you’re generally more concerned with finishing the prescribed exercises faster than before.

Another difference lies in the atmosphere of the gym. Strength training is largely solitary, with most people opting to train alone. However, CrossFit incorporates a team-like atmosphere, where members of your box are completing the WOD with you.

This can offer a boost in motivation, and also creates a sense of relatedness that can make a big difference in your consistency over time.

CrossFit might be sounding more appealing than traditional strength training, given its novelty, inclusivity of other types of exercises, and camaraderie. It’s true that you can increase many parameters of fitness with CrossFit, such as your work capacity and generalized strength while also losing weight.

This certainly appealed to the masses, as CrossFit is regarded as the largest fitness chain in the world, complete with certification courses for people interested in becoming a CrossFit coach. But the core tenants of CrossFit begin to fall apart under scientific scrutiny.

Principle: Constant Variation

There is some support for the idea that a varied selection of exercises can lead to greater adherence over time. However, by constantly varying the work you do, you never truly master any exercise at a neurological level.

After all, the intention of CrossFit was to make you “generally prepared” for fitness-related activities. But there are certain scenarios in CrossFit that can leave specific exercises and muscle groups untrained for days or even weeks at a time.

This extended period without practicing the exercise will lead to a detraining effect, on both the physiological (muscle) and neurological levels.

This means any progress you’ve been seeing on an exercise will eventually disappear if you go many days without doing that exercise. And remember: weights for WODs are often pre-selected. There’s no real emphasis on increasing weight (a.k.a. Progressive Overload), which is a key driver of muscle growth.

If you’re doing exercises with a fixed weight on an arbitrary schedule, then you’re never going to advance in strength or size beyond an intermediate level. To gain appreciable amounts of strength and size, you have to have dedicated blocks of training where specific exercises and muscles are trained very consistently.

Principle: Functional Movement

This principle is a misguided label. People generally relate exercises to things in everyday life, like relating squatting to getting up out of a chair. Since you get up out of a chair many times a day, squatting is, therefore “functional.”

However, “functional” movements don’t automatically improve or predict sports or fitness performance. In fact, the two biggest components of performance are your muscular size and your nervous system’s ability to execute a specific movement.

Squatting every so often in a WOD with a fixed weight is going to burn calories, but it’s not going to create meaningful gains in size in your legs or allow you to master the pattern of the squat.

Additionally, there’s nothing magical about doing squats that then automatically make you better at everyday things like sprinting or jumping. There is, however, a direct correlation between quad size and both jump height and sprint speed.

So you can easily see there’s much more to the puzzle than simply deeming certain movements as “functional.”

Principle: High Intensity

In traditional strength training, high intensity is defined as a high percentage of your 1-Rep Max, a.k.a. the heaviest weight you can lift. Therefore, high intensity traditionally means heavyweight.

In CrossFit, high intensity defines your effort level. Many WODs are completed in circuits with very little rest, creating large amounts of both local and systemic fatigue.

Since your progress is often measured in the total time of a WOD, you’re incentivized to do as much work as possible, oftentimes to the absolute failure of your muscles.

When done too often, training to failure creates immense amounts of muscle damage, leading to massive soreness. Several case reports exist of instances where WODs have led to exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis, which in extreme cases can be a life-threatening downstream effect of excessive muscle damage.

While most CrossFit athletes won’t experience this, there’s still a chance that the predetermined parameters of a WOD are far too intense for you, and completing the WOD to “keep up with the group” may put you in harm’s way.

The Verdict

CrossFit is certainly an option to stay in shape for many people, especially if you’re the type who appreciates novelty and enjoys the camaraderie. However, CrossFit alone likely won’t allow you to gain much muscular strength or size.

Muscle size isn’t purely cosmetic, either: carrying around more muscle mass directly increases your metabolism, which makes fat loss much easier.

If your primary goals are gaining strength/muscle and losing fat, then traditional strength training is a better option. But if you’re looking for something different, a CrossFit WOD every now and again is worth a try.

Photo by Leon Ardho
Photo by Zakaria Boumliha