What Is CrossFit?

What exactly is CrossFit? In this post Coach Brendan discusses the 3 main components that make CrossFit unique from other workouts.
Brendan Ziegler
May 11, 2023
What Is CrossFit?

What Is CrossFit?

As the owner and head coach of Big Shoulders CrossFit in Elmhurst, IL, I get asked this question quite often. You’ve likely seen social media posts of people doing seemingly inhuman feats of strength, complex gymnastics movements, or clips of grueling workouts leaving them drenched in sweat.

But by themselves, those are not actually CrossFit. In fact, many people who think they do CrossFit might actually be missing core tenants of the methodology, and therefore not doing it at all! 

CrossFit in a nutshell is Constantly Varied, Functional Movements, executed at High Intensity (CVFMHI). Each of those components is equally important and intertwined with the other to collectively create, CrossFit.

Let’s break each of these down.

Constantly Varied

CrossFit Near Me, Gym near me
Variety Keeps Fitness Fun!

This is one of the most well known elements of CrossFit, but also one of the most frequently misunderstood. When people hear about workouts being constantly varied, they simply think of doing different movements or changing the workouts slightly each day, but that’s only a small fraction of what it’s supposed to be. Most gyms and studios vary their workouts and movements used to keep things interesting, what sets CrossFit apart is that a true CrossFit program varies the duration, reps, loads, modalities, and stimulus of each days workout.

Monday you might do a pairing of pull ups and squats. Starting with 21 of each, then 15 of each, then 9 of each, performed as fast as you can. This workout would take anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes depending on the ability level of the individual. Your next workout could then be 5 rounds of 1000m of rowing with a 2 minute rest between rounds. This workout would take upwards of 30-35 minutes including rest. A much different stimulus from the prior day. Next a good CrossFit program would put in something between those two, say a workout consisting of 10 burpees, 10 deadlifts, and 20 sit ups, performed as a circuit as many times as possible on a 15 minute clock. Finally, to round things out your next workout would have nothing to do with speed or time, and simply be a day where you did 8 sets of 3 shoulder presses, increasing in weight each set, resting 2-3 minutes between efforts to allow for maximal weight lifted.

This is a microcosm of the variety that is implemented into a CrossFit training program. As you can see, what varies is so much more than just the order of movements or the movements themselves. CrossFit varies the duration of effort, the intensity of the workouts, the number of movements, the movement patters used, the energy systems required, all of which will help produce exceptional results and fitness.

Functional movements

The Deadlift

Functional fitness has become a buzzword in the fitness industry. Almost anything now can be described as “functional” when looked at from a certain point of view. CrossFit however focuses on a few key elements that make movements as functional. First, is the movements are natural in occurrence. An example of this is the squat. Whether it is to take a seat in a chair and stand back up, or to drop into a full squat to rest as they do in other parts of the world, the motion of squatting is not something contrived by those looking to build muscle or train something specific, it is natural to humans. Movements like deadlifting, pressing, running, even pull ups, have real life application and movement patterns. We don’t need to think about doing these. They are in our DNA. We simply do them.

What’s primarily unique to these functional movements, and what separates them from the so called functional movements touted by instagram influencers, is their unique ability to produce high power output. Power is defined as (force x distance / time). Put another way, functional movements allow you to move a large load, a long distance, quickly. Compared to a seated hamstring curl, a deadlift is far more effective at producing power because not only are you likely able to move more weight, you will be doing so over a longer range of motion, and can do so quicker. This is true for most all common movements done in CrossFit programming. Vanity is not the foundation of our training, instead form, function and applicability are. 

This is also part of what makes CrossFit so effective and efficient. By utilizing functional movements, we train more muscles, in less time, and the intensity produced from these high power output movements elicits exceptional results. Improved strength, speed, power, agility, coordination, and balance are just some of the benefits of CrossFit’s training. You won’t get those sitting in a chair isolating one joint as done with the hamstring curl, which certainly won’t help you pick up your child or grandchildren one day. It is this intensity, that comes only from high power output movements, that truly separates CrossFit from other programs. 

Before you start thinking that CrossFit isn’t for you because of this, it’s important to remind you that CrossFit is intended to be done under the watchful eye of a trained coach. While CrossFit itself is a methodology, the implementation of this training is usually done in a CrossFit affiliate, and led by a coach. At Big Shoulders CrossFit, we include a warm up, movement instruction, scaling options, and progression work in each class to ensure each individual is doing the proper form and using the proper variation for them. 

One of the most common myths about CrossFit is that it is not safe. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While there is always a risk of injury, the chances of getting hurt doing a CrossFit class are much lower than being a runner, or playing intramural sports. If anything, CrossFit will help REDUCE your chance of injury outside of the gym. Furthermore, the negative health effects of NOT doing CrossFit can be far worse.

High Intensity

This element is likely the most important, but also the most misunderstood. CrossFit believes that intensity is what produces results. Without intensity, there is no adaptation or change. The body and it’s systems will remain the same and you will be no better off months from now if you train without intensity. This does not mean everyday should be 30 minutes long, include lots of reps, and utilize heavy loads.

CrossFit in Elmhurst
Intensity Is Relative To The Individual

Within a good CrossFit program, intensity varies day to day, and shouldn’t run you ragged. If constant variance is applied appropriately, the intensity of workouts throughout the week will vary. A long cardio based workout, while intense, should not be maximal effort. Using the 5 round rowing interval workout described earlier as an example, if you want to do your best, you should pace each round to allow you to have a consistent time on each effort. Performing the first row at maximal intensity, and attempting to repeat that effort each time, would be disastrous for the athletes score in that workout. Again, this is where having a coach to help guide you through the workout, and help you establish a consistent pace from the beginning is helpful. By the end of the workout, the intensity you feel will be near maximal, but it will only be for a short period, and it will only be an attempt to maintain the original pace set. Most importantly, it will be specific to the individual.

What high intensity is to you, will be different to what it is for others, but you will both be experiencing the same thing. CrossFit feels the needs of an individual vary by degree, not kind. In other words, we all will greatly benefit from performing constantly varied, functional movements, at high intensity, but the DEGREE of each of those will be depending on the individual. One person may do the pull up and squat workout with full pull ups, doing each set without stopping and 135-lbs on for the squats, while another, say someone older and newer to CrossFit, may do the same reps, but perform ring rows with their feet on the ground the whole time, lowering and pulling their body into and away from the rings, and squats with no added weight. Both of these individuals will be benefiting from the workout, and both will be equally challenged, because the workout will have been tailored to them.

CrossFit is NOT 1-hr solid of pedal to the metal, go-go-go, heart pumping, lung burning intensity. We strategize, we optimize, we touch intensity in spurts but understand it is not something to abuse and respect it as such. Part of the CrossFit prescription is rest days even! As are low intensity skill days, where lungs, muscles and heart are given a break and we practice skills and technique so as to improve in our form, and mental cababilities as well.


Hopefully after reading this you have a better understanding of what CrossFit is (and perhaps what it is not as well). CrossFit is constantly varied in movements, workout duration, reps, and intensities. It utlizes functional movements that are natural, safe, and have a high power output. This high power output produces intensity, which leads to results. While this describes the methodology, it doesn’t begin to touch on the community, and environment found in a CrossFit affiliate. The atmosphere at places like Big Shoulders CrossFit are truly what make CrossFit unique. Most people join a gym because they want to lose weight, or look better naked. If CVFMHI is the recipe for success, then the community is the secret ingredient that brings it all tougher. You see, the best program is the one that you stick with and do over a long period of time. When you join a CrossFit affiliate, you make friends, improve your lifestyle and habits, get daily inspiration from peers, and see that you can do more than you ever thought possible. This motivates you to keep coming, and the more you come, the better your results will be.

If you live in the Elmhurst area want to find a “CrossFit near me”, schedule a free no sweat intro at Big Shoulders CrossFit today!

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