CrossFit vs Cross Training – A Definitive Guide For New Trainees

If there’s one training system that’s burned its name into the collective imagination of fitness enthusiasts everywhere, it’s CrossFit.

Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that, over the last two decades, it’s had an absolutely ENORMOUS impact on the fitness landscape.

But while it may have the name recognition locked down, a lot of people still aren’t quite sure what it actually is, and many still confuse it its cousin, cross training.

Today we’re going to clear up some of the confusion. We’re going to be describing (in detail) what CrossFit is, how it works, and why, despite the confusion, it’s fundamentally different than cross training. We’ll also be comparing CrossFit to other popular training styles to see how it stacks up when it comes to getting fit and healthy.

CrossFit Vs Cross Training

CrossFit and cross training don’t just have a similar sounding name, they also serve a somewhat similar goal.

But with that said, they really are two fundamentally different things, and there are key distinctions you need to be aware of.

Let’s start with CrossFit. The system was pioneered in the the early 2000’s by Greg Glassman, a multi-sport athlete who believed that, for the average person, generalization was better than specialization. As a teenager, Glassman noticed that a lot of his friends and peers who had developed a highly specialized skill set (football, sprinting, etc.) paid a big price for it when it came to being able to handle other physical tasks.

With the goal of creating a more well-rounded athlete, he set out to perfect a training style that would reflect this ideal. Specifically, he wanted to create a training systems that optimized the following 10 key physical skills -

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

How Does CrossFit Training Work?

Generally speaking, CrossFit training is a combination of movements taken from a variety of disciplines, including weightlifting, sprinting and gymnastics. Typically characterized by short, intense workouts that are functional in nature, these training sessions are meant to stimulate the experience of an actual competition.

In keeping with its multi-disciplinary approach, CrossFit puts a lot of emphasis on variety, with trainees being encourages to switch up their workouts on a regular basis, and the idea of the WOD (workout of the day) being a staple concept.

Here’s an example of a short WOD an intermediate trainee might engage in:

Running - 1200 meters
4 Rounds of 12 Pull-ups, 9 Strict Dips, 6 Handstand Pushups
Running - 1200 meters

One of the other things that makes CrossFit unique is its emphasis on measuring progress.

One way it does this is by measuring the amount of work done and measuring it against the amount of time it takes a trainee to complete it - and then pushing that same trainee to do more work in less time the next time they go to train.

The fact that they put so much focus on measuring progress is what makes CrossFit successful when it comes to getting results for those who participate in it.

What Is Cross Training?

Here’s where a lot of the confusion lies - while CrossFit is a specific system, cross training is simply a term to describe a style of training that incorporates a number of various techniques.

Let’s say you’re a runner - you’ve been pounding the pavement seven days a week. Maybe your knees are starting to get sore…or maybe you’re just tired of running everyday. Either way, you want to mix things up.

An example of a cross training approach would be to reduce your actual running to three or four days per week. On your days off, you would participate in other activities, such as weight lifting or playing soccer.

Why is this an effective strategy? For one thing, it reduces the risk of injury, since performing the same activity on a daily basis puts you at risk of overusing certain muscles.

But it also improves your overall performance in your chosen sport by developing a number of secondary skills.Soccer builds both cardiovascular conditioning and coordination skills. Weight lifting, on the other hand, builds up your strength and allows you to generate more power (especially in your legs).

All of these skills carry over and directly improve your ability as a runner.

How Are Cross Training And CrossFit Different?

Both CrossFit and cross training have a similar overall goal - to develop trainees that are well-rounded and able to perform a number of different athletic tasks.

Both place a lot of emphasis on variety and stress the importance of functionality.

However, there are some key differences. While CrossFit is a very structured way of training, cross training is more of a philosophy than an organized activity.

To put it simply - someone who engages in CrossFit (typically) goes to a CrossFit gym and engages in CrossFit workouts with other CrossFitters. Someone who engages in cross training simply chooses aspects of various training styles, and works them into their routine.

There’s also more of a separation in cross training. A short, 20 minute CrossFit workout can feature movements from multiple different sports. But when it comes to cross training, while some people do like to mix and match different exercises into one workouts, a lot of them prefer to keep the training styles separate (soccer one day, weight lifting another, for example).

So, which one should you go with? Here’s a quick list of the pros and cons of each.

CrossFit Pro #1 - Community

This is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons for the success of the CrossFit brand over the last two decades - the sense of camaraderie that it brings. If you’re someone who hates working out by yourself and is motivated by being part a “team”, then this is definitely something you may want to look into.

CrossFit Pro #2 - Structure

One of the other great things about CrossFit is the fact that, for all the different movements being worked into it, they’ve managed to create a strong sense of structure. Trainees should find it easy to move from basic workouts to progressively more difficult ones.

CrossFit Pro #3 -Intensity

While cross training can be intense, CrossFit is intense by default. The whole purpose of the workouts are to continually push trainees to improve and perform more intense sessions.

CrossFit Con #1 - Risk Of Injury

CrossFit is undoubtedly a great system to get yourself into very good shape - but it comes at a cost. As others have noted, the injury rate is one of the major factors that deters new trainees.

The good news is that by training smart and knowing your limits, you can dramatically reduce your odds of sustaining an injury. You should also familiarize yourself with the more common movements on their own before you start attempting to combine them in a workout (developing proper form is critical if you want to have a long, healthy training career).

CrossFit Con #2 - Lack Of Specialization

CrossFit is by definition a “jack of all trades” program. While this may be good for overall fitness, it’s not the best option for someone who’s already competitive in another sport, or who has specific fitness goals.

Now that we’ve broken down the pros and cons of CrossFit, let’s have a look at cross training to see how it stacks up.

Cross Training Pro #1 - Flexibility

The beauty of cross training is that that you have the freedom to do what you want, when you want, in whatever combination you want, making it a lot more versatile than CrossFit.

Cross Training Pro #2 - Injury Prevention

While CrossFit carries with it a higher risk of injury, cross training is great because it actually prevents injury (when done properly).

Cross Training Pro #3 - Fun Factor

While cross training can be intense, it doesn’t need to be - many trainees are drawn to it because they can bring together a lot of activities they love in an enjoyable way.

Cross Training Con #1 - Lack Of Structure

The big downside of cross training is, unlike CrossFit, it lacks a unified structure. While some people may like this, others may find it frustrating and difficult to make progress in their fitness.

Cross Training Con #2 - Lack Of Intensity

Again, it’s important to note that these workouts can be intense. However, many who engage in cross training struggle to find that perfect combination of activities that provides sufficient intensity for growth.

CrossFit Vs Bodybuilding

Let’s switch gears now and talk about how CrossFit stacks up against a few other styles of training.

We’ll start with something a little different - bodybuilding. Because unlike cross training, there’s not a lot of overlap between CrossFit and bodybuilding. While both will build significant strength and muscle, it’s important to understand that they have different overall goals.

As we previously discussed, the main purpose of CrossFit is functionality - CrossFit gyms strive to produce healthy, fit, well-rounded athletes who can do everything from running fast to lifting heavy objects over their heads.

Bodybuilding, on the other had, is all about aesthetics. In a nutshell, bodybuilders are athletes who strive to build bodies with as much muscle and as little fat as possible.

Not only that, they strive build muscle in specific places - things like shoulder to hip ratio and arm circumference are major factors in bodybuilding.

Make no mistake - CrossFit will definitely add some muscle to your frame. But it won’t add the same kind of muscle size you can expect from bodybuilding.

It will also add muscle in different places. Don’t get us wrong, most CrossFitters build very aesthetic, pleasing bodies, with plenty of muscle tone and low levels of body fat. But it won’t quite have the same affect as a program designed to make your body look as good as humanly possible.

While they may be very different, it is possible for the average person to combine aspects of both into their workouts (a few days of CrossFit combined with a few days of bodybuilding style weight lifting, for example).

CrossFit Vs Weight Lifting

Weight lifting is a major component of CrossFit, and one of the tools that its athletes use to build such tremendous strength.But how does it stack up against a purely weight-based approach?

In order to understand this, it’s important that we get our definitions right. Weight lifting is exactly what it sounds like - it’s a broad term that encompasses ANY activity that involves the lifting of weights.

Weightlifting, however, is typically a shorthand for olympic weightlifting. This is a sport that’s essentially based around two very specific movements - the snatch, and the clean and jerk. Participants spend their training sessions not only attempting to move more and more weight, but to hone their technique in these two lifts.

Both the snatch and the clean and jerk are phenomenal, functional, full body movements. It should come as no surprise then that they’ve become staples within the CrossFit world, and have become incorporated into countless workouts.

There’s also another sport based around lifting weights - power-lifting. Like weightlifting, power-lifting is a sport in which participants spend the majority of their energy trying to move around progressively more weight with each workout.

But while weightlifting focuses on the snatch and clean and jerk, power-lifting focuses exclusively on the bench press, dead-lift, and back squat - all functional movements that have also been incorporated into CrossFit.

The distinction should be fairly obvious. While power-lifting and weightlifting focus exclusively on strength, power and coordination (and to some extent flexibility), CrossFit focuses on all of this plus the other key physical attributes. Which you choose depends on what you prioritize.

With that said, it would definitely benefit new CrossFit trainees to gain some familiarity with these lifts alone before attempting to perform them in conjunction with other exercises. One of the reasons CrossFitters get injured tends to be due to incorrect lifting. By nailing down these movements beforehand, new trainees can dramatically minimize the risk that they will get injured.