When you are trying to decide where CrossFit would fit in an exercise program, you have to consider it an endurance based training system.  Not marathon running endurance training, but strength endurance training.  It lies too far outside the physiological parameters needed to be called “strength training”, even though it incorporates olympic lifting movements and other resistance exercises.  Fitness has coined the term resistance training to incorporate pretty much anything that involves moving a weight.  Do not confuse resistance training with strength training.

I have long discussed the advantages of strength training over aerobic training, but CrossFit lies somewhere in between so how does it compare?

CrossFit Strength Training Aerobic Training
Hard Work This is perhaps one of the best things about CrossFit.  It promotes people to work hard through competition and expectation.  They have developed a mantra through motivational posters and crazy workouts so that you don’t go to a CrossFit box without expecting to lay on the floor afterwards. A good strength coach knows exactly how hard to push, and for how long.  This allows for the optimal end results of increased performance or body composition.  Unfortunately for most personal trainers, the difficulty is determined by how hard the client wants to work, because they are too afraid to push the client and scare them off. Aerobic training is by nature designed to be easy enough to do for a long duration of time.  It may get hard towards the end, but a good strength training workout will be hard starting from the first set.  If you can do any activity for more than 2-4 minutes, it’s not that hard as far as intensity is concerned.  The last 2 minutes do not negate the easier 18 minutes prior.
Strength Improvements CrossFit does incorporate weight lifting and olympic lifting exercises, but most WODs (workout of the day) are based more on strength endurance.  Will someone get stronger with this type of exercise?  Yes.  It’s way more effective than the step class at the local spa gym, but you will not gain strength at the rate of a proper strength program.  Plateaus in strength will come after 6-12 weeks for most. Obviously, the king of getting stronger is scientific methods of strength training.  The proper reps, rest, speed, etc. all are what builds freakish strength.  For the everyday person, you should always have some strength training in your program.  A good strength program will help keep your body not just strong, but balanced.  This is the key to avoiding injuries and pain. The only people that will see any improvement in strength from aerobic training are people that were previously doing nothing.  Improvement will usually stop after 6 weeks, and be minimal at best.  Aerobic training does not provide any structural balance to the strength gained and is therefore not as beneficial pound for pound as what you would gain from strength training.
Muscle Building Because CrossFit uses resistance training, there will be some muscle gain, but again, not at the rate of strength training, and plateaus will come sooner than later.  The people that stand to put on the most muscle, are those that have good genetic potential, but have not been exercising.  You will not be building a bodybuilder physique with CrossFit, but you should no longer resemble an anatomy skeleton if your diet is in check. As proven by bodybuilders around the globe, lifting weights is the key to building muscle.  Because there are several ways to make muscles grow, it’s important to have a training system that can vary to take advantage of different physiological responses.  This is where strength training has the real advantage.  It is so customizable, you can get the exact response from the body you are looking for. Aerobic Training tends to be more muscle wasting than muscle building over time.  Like gains in strength, the only people that will see muscle gain from aerobic training, are those who were previously sedentary.  After-all, any exercise is better than no exercise at all.
Fat Loss A good portion of the CrossFit could be described as EST (energy system training).  EST is one of the most effective ways to shred fat off fast.  The only draw back is that for consistent results, EST should be cycled with more traditional strength training.  Some CrossFit gyms have taken this into account and use a more periodized approach.  They are the elite few boxes though, that have gone above and beyond CrossFit. Strength training can also be performed in a EST type manner with the same effectiveness as CrossFit.  Doing EST on your own is hard though, so if you are not in a group and being coached, it’s hard to push yourself when no one is looking.  On the plus side, strength training can easily be adjusted to a more strength type training between EST workouts for optimal long term results. Aerobic training is more known for its “weight” loss than fat loss.  Weight loss from aerobic training tends to be a combination of fat and lean muscle loss.  This makes long term results impossible and provides the same health concerns of starvation diets.  EST and strength training create a hormonal environment where you body favors lean tissue over fat tissue.  Aerobic training does the opposite and should only be used for fat loss in those who are severely overweight, and still in moderation.
Compliance Another advantage of working in a group environment is that members tend to hold each other accountable.  It’s easier to skip a workout when no one will notice. With strength training, for those on their own, there will always be those who take their training seriously, and those who don’t.  If you want to make sure you’re compliant, a coach or trainer is the solution. Fewer people have coaches in the aerobic training world, but runners clubs do exist.  It seems to be that, like strength training, there are those who never miss and those who always miss.  Overall the year round compliance is much higher with those who lift weights though.
Fun Factor Many CrossFit coaches will say CrossFit is the sport of exercise.  No one will argue that playing a sport or competing is more fun than working and training. If you like pushing yourself to your limits, strength training can be very rewarding.  However, unless you are competing in a physique or strength sport, you’re always competing against yourself, which can be a good or bad thing depending on what motivates you. For those that love aerobic training, they live off the runner’s high.  That feel good surge of cortisol may be energizing as your body goes into flight or fight mode.  The more aerobic training you do though, the harder it is to get that surge and the more damaging it becomes to your body.
Longevity of results Because CrossFit lacks in periodization by nature, and does not vary intensity, the results most participants will  achieve will almost all come in the first 90 days.  If you cycled CrossFit with Strength training, the results would keep coming longer. Because there are so many ways to use strength training, you can continue to see results for years on end as long as you program and periodize your training properly.  This is why having a good coach or trainer can really make the difference. Most results in aerobic training come in the first 6 weeks.  After that, results are very slow and rare.  If you added strength training to your aerobic training, your results would be much better.  This has been proven in university studies for years.
Health Benefits While CrossFit does work the energy systems quite well, it is not as friendly to the joints and adrenal glands.  Operating at high intensity only works for so long, and there is a lack of remedial exercises to support the joints and supporting muscles.  There are once again some Box’s that utilize these exercises and periodize their programs. A common misconception of strength training is that you do not get any cardiovascular benefits.  This is far from true.  Performing energy system training with weights actually has more cardiovascular benefits than aerobic training.  With the ability to customize and vary your training, strength training is the healthiest way to train and take care of your body. The more endurance based an activity, the faster it ages your brain.  Add onto that, elevated cortisol, repeated movements, and lack of supporting exercises, and your body is going to be tired and creaky.  Because endurance athletes tend to be thin, they are perceived as healthy, but they are almost always less healthy than those who are doing a strength training with some EST.

So to some it up when choosing a program for endurance training CrossFit is better than it’s aerobic counterpart.

  • You get more done is less time
  • You create more positive and less negative hormones
  • It incorporates higher intensity resistance training
  • CrossFit tends to be more motivating for those that follow it
  • A good CrossFit program will prioritize nutrition (paleo style)

At the end of the day though CrossFit is CrossFit.  It’s not a strength program or fat loss program.  It is a sport of exercise, designed to be challenging and motivating with limited space, equipment and time.  This is why CrossFit attacks the retired athlete, and the competitive personalities that it does.  But for pure strength training, traditional weight lifting has more advantages.  CrossFit doesn’t make really strong people, really strong people make CrossFit.  The athletes you see competing at the high level is no different than looking at any other elite athlete.  These are gifted individuals, not desk jockeys turned pro athlete.

Designed originally by navy seals, you could call this the swiss army training style of workouts.  It packs a whole lot in a small package, but if you need a chainsaw (fat loss program) or a hammer (strength program),  it’s not quite the right tool for the job.  That being said, a swiss army knife will get you a lot farther than a toothpick (aerobic training).