What is CrossFit?

No one tells us better than Robb and Nicki from Norcal Strength and Conditioning in Chico, CA.

CrossFit is a program designed to elicit as broad an adaptational response as possible. It is not a specialized fitness program, but a deliberate attempt to optimize physical competence in each of ten recognized fitness domains:

1. Endurance – The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen (cardiovascular/respiratory endurance).

2. Stamina – The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy. (capacity to maintain repetitive muscular movements)

3. Strength – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.

4. Flexibility – the ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.

5. Power – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.

6. Speed – The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.

7. Coordination – The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a single distinct movement.

8. Agility – The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.

9. Balance – The ability to control the placement of the body’s center of gravity in relation to its support base.

10. Accuracy – The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.

The CrossFit Program was developed to enhance an individual’s competency at all physical tasks. Our athletes are trained to perform successfully at multiple, diverse, and randomized physical challenges.

Aside from the breadth or totality of fitness the CrossFit Program seeks, our program is distinctive, if not unique, in its focus on maximizing neuroendocrine response, developing power, cross-training with multiple training modalities, constant training and practice with functional movements, and the development of successful nutritional strategies.

Our athletes are trained at short, middle, and long distances, guaranteeing exposure and competency in each of the three main metabolic pathways. We train our athletes in gymnastics, from rudimentary to advanced movements, garnering great capacity at controlling the body both dynamically and statically while maximizing strength to weight ratio and flexibility. We also place a heavy emphasis on Olympic Weightlifting having seen this sport’s unique ability to develop athletes’ explosive power, control of external objects, and mastery of critical motor recruitment patterns. And finally, we encourage and assist our athletes to explore a variety of sports as a vehicle to express and apply their fitness.

In gyms and health clubs throughout the world, the typical workout consists of isolation movements and extended aerobic sessions. The fitness community, from trainers to popular magazines, has the exercising public mistakenly believing that lateral raises, curls, leg extensions, sit-ups and the like, combined with 20-40 minute stints on the stationary bike or treadmill, are going to lead to some kind of great fitness.

We work exclusively with compound movements and shorter, high intensity cardiovascular sessions. We’ve replaced the lateral raise with push-press, the curl with pull-ups, and the leg extension with squats. For every long distance effort, our athletes will do five or six at short distance. Why? Because compound or functional movements and high intensity or anaerobic cardio is radically more effective at eliciting nearly any desired fitness result. This is not a matter of opinion, but irrefutable scientific fact. Our approach is consistent with what is practiced in elite training programs associated with major university athletic teams and professional sports. CrossFit endeavors to bring state-of-the-art coaching techniques to the general public and athletes who don’t have access to current technologies, research, and coaching methods.

Is this for me?

Absolutely! Your needs and the Olympic athlete’s differ by degree, not kind. Increased power, strength, cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, flexibility, stamina, coordination, agility, balance, and coordination are all important to the world’s best athletes as well as our grandparents. The amazing truth is that the very same methods that elicit optimal response in the Olympic or professional athlete will optimize the same response in everyone. Of course, we can’t load your grandmother with the same squatting weight that we’d assign an Olympic skier, but they both need to squat.

Squatting is just one example of a movement that is universally valuable—essential to maintaining functional independence and improving fitness—yet rarely taught to any but the most advanced of athletes. This is a tragedy. Through painstakingly thorough coaching and incremental load assignment, CrossFit has been able to teach anyone who can care for themselves to perform safely and with maximum efficacy the same movements typically utilized by professional coaches in elite and certainly exclusive environments.

Just what is a “core strength and conditioning” program?

CrossFit is a core strength and conditioning program in two distinct senses. First, the fitness we develop is foundational to all other athletic needs. This is the same sense in which the university courses required of a particular major are called the “core curriculum.” Second, much of our work focuses on the major functional axis of the human body, the extension, flexion and rotation of the hips and torso—the core of the body.

Running, jumping, punching and throwing all originate at the core. CrossFit endeavors to develop our athletes from the inside out, from core to extremity, which is how proper functional movements recruit muscle: from the core to the extremities.

Can I enjoy optimal health without being an athlete?

No! Athletes experience a protection from the ravages of aging and disease that non-athletes never find. For instance, 80-year-old athletes are stronger than non-athletes in their prime at 25 years old. If you think that strength isn’t important, consider that strength loss is what puts people in nursing homes. Athletes have greater bone density, stronger immune systems, less coronary heart disease, reduced cancer risk, fewer strokes, and lower incidence of depression than non-athletes.

What is an athlete?

According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, an athlete is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring strength, agility, or stamina.”

The CrossFit definition of an athlete is a bit tighter. We define an athlete as “a person who is trained or skilled in strength, power, balance and agility, flexibility, and endurance.” The CrossFit model holds fitness, health, and athleticism as strongly overlapping constructs. For most purposes, they can be seen as equivalents.

What if I don’t want to be an athlete; I just want to be healthy?

You’re in luck. We hear this often, but the truth is that fitness, wellness, and pathology (sickness) are measures of the same entity: your health. There are a multitude of measurable parameters that can be ordered from sick (pathological) to well (normal) to fit (better than normal). These include, but are not limited to, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate, body fat, muscle mass, flexibility, and strength. It seems as though all of the body functions that can go awry have states that are pathological, normal, and exceptional, and that elite athletes typically show these parameters in the exceptional range. The CrossFit view is that fitness and health are the same thing.

What if I don’t have time for all of this?

It is a common sentiment to feel that, because of the obligations of career and family, you don’t have the time to become as fit as you might like. Here’s the good news: world class, age group strength and conditioning is obtainable through an hour a day, six days per week of training. It turns out that the intensity of training that optimizes physical conditioning is not sustainable past forty-five minutes to an hour. Athletes that train for hours a day are developing skill or training for sports that include adaptations inconsistent with elite strength and conditioning. Past one hour, more is not better! Said another way, you have the time.

Fringe Athletes

There is a near universal misconception that long distance athletes are fitter than their short distance counterparts. The triathlete, cyclist, and marathoner are often regarded as among the fittest athletes on earth. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

The endurance athlete has far exceeded any cardiovascular health benefit, and has sacrificed strength, speed, and power, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy, and flexibility. This is hardly the stuff of elite athleticism. No triathlete is in ideal shape to wrestle, box, pole-vault, sprint, play any ball sport, fight fires, or do police work. Each of these requires a fitness level far beyond the needs of the endurance athlete. None of this suggests that being a marathoner, triathlete or other endurance athlete is less than admirable; just don’t believe that training as a long distance athlete gives you the fitness that is prerequisite to many sports.

CrossFit considers the Sumo Wrestler, triathlete, marathoner, and power lifter to be “fringe athletes” in that their fitness demands are so specialized as to be inconsistent with the adaptations that give maximum competency at all physical challenges. Elite strength and conditioning is a compromise between each of the ten physical adaptations.

Aerobics and Anaerobics

There are three main energy systems that fuel all human activity. Almost all changes that occur in the body due to exercise are related to the demands placed on these energy systems. The efficacy of any given fitness regimen, therefore, may largely be tied to its ability to elicit an adequate stimulus for change within these three energy systems.

Energy is derived aerobically when oxygen is utilized to metabolize substrates derived from food and liberates energy. An activity is termed aerobic when the majority of energy needed is derived aerobically. These activities are usually greater than ninety seconds in duration and involve low to moderate power output or intensity. Examples of aerobic activity include running on the treadmill for twenty minutes, swimming a mile, and watching TV.

Energy is derived anaerobically when energy is liberated from substrates in the absence of oxygen. Activities are considered anaerobic when the majority of the energy needed is derived anaerobically. These activities are of less than two minutes in duration and involve moderate to high power output or intensity. There are two such anaerobic systems, the phosphagen system and the lactic acid system. Examples of anaerobic activity include running a 100-meter sprint, squatting, and doing pull-ups.

Our main purpose here is to discuss how anaerobic and aerobic training support performance variables like strength, power, speed, and endurance. We also support the contention that total conditioning and optimal health necessitates training each of the physiological systems in a systematic fashion.

It warrants mention that in any activity, all three energy systems are utilized, though one may dominate. The interplay of these systems can be complex, yet a simple examination of the characteristics of aerobic vs. anaerobic training can prove useful.

Aerobic conditioning allows us to engage in moderate/low power output for extended period of time, which is valuable for many sports. Athletes engaging in excessive aerobic training, however, witness decreases in muscle mass, strength, speed, and power. It is not uncommon to find marathoners with a vertical leap of only several inches and a bench press well below average for most athletes. Aerobic activity has a pronounced tendency to decrease anaerobic capacity. This does not bode well for athletes or the individual interested in total conditioning or optimal health.

Anaerobic conditioning allows us to exert tremendous forces over a very brief time. Anaerobic activity, like aerobic activity, benefits cardiovascular function and decreases body fat. Anaerobic activity is unique, however, in its capacity to dramatically improve power, speed, strength, and muscle mass, but will not adversely affect aerobic capacity! In fact, properly structured, anaerobic activity can be used to develop a very high level of aerobic fitness without the muscle wasting consistent with high volume aerobic exercise.

The CrossFit approach is to judiciously balance anaerobic and aerobic exercise in a manner that is consistent with athletes’ goals. Our exercise prescriptions adhere to proper specificity, progression, variation, and recovery to optimize adaptations.

Olympic Weightlifting

There are two Olympic lifts: the clean and jerk, and the snatch. Mastery of these lifts develops the squat, deadlift, power clean, and split jerk while integrating them into a single movement of unequaled value in all of strength and conditioning. The Olympic lifters are without a doubt the world’s strongest athletes.

These lifts train athletes to effectively activate more muscle fibers more rapidly than through any other modality of training. The explosiveness that results from this training is of vital necessity to every sport.

Practicing the Olympic lifts teaches one to apply force to muscle groups in proper sequence, i.e., from the center of the body to its extremities. Learning this vital technical lesson benefits all athletes who need to impart force to another person or object as is commonly required in nearly all sports. In addition to learning to impart explosive forces, the clean and jerk and snatch condition the body to receive such forces from another moving body both safely and effectively.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the Olympic lifts’ unique capacity to develop strength, power, speed, coordination, vertical leap, muscular endurance, bone strength, and the physical capacity to withstand stress. It is also worth mentioning that the Olympic lifts are the only lifts shown to increase maximum oxygen uptake, the most important marker for cardiovascular fitness.

Sadly, the Olympic lifts are seldom seen in the commercial fitness community because of their inherently complex and technical nature. CrossFit makes them available to anyone with the patience and persistence to learn.


The extraordinary value of gymnastics as a training modality lies in its reliance on the body’s own weight as the sole source of resistance. This places a unique premium on the improvement of strength to weight ratio. Unlike other strength training modalities, gymnastics and calisthenics allow for increases in strength only while increasing strength to weight ratio!

Gymnastics develops pull-ups, squats, lunges, jumping, push-ups, and numerous presses to handstand, scales, and holds. These skills are unrivaled in their benefit to not only athletic performance, but also physique, as evident in any competitive gymnast.

As important as the capacity of this modality is for strength development, it is without a doubt the ultimate approach to improving coordination, balance, agility, accuracy, and flexibility. Through the use of numerous presses, handstands, scales, and other floor work, the gymnast’s training greatly enhances kinesthetic sense.

The variety of movements available for inclusion in this modality probably exceeds the number of exercises known to all non-gymnastic sport! The rich variety here contributes substantially to the CrossFit program’s ability to inspire great athletic confidence and prowess.

For a combination of strength, flexibility, well-developed physique, coordination, balance, accuracy, and agility, the gymnast has no equal in the sports world. The inclusion of this training modality is absurdly absent from nearly all training programs.


There is no ideal routine! The CrossFit ideal is to train for any contingency. The obvious implication is that this is possible only if there is a tremendously varied, if not randomized, system of stimulus. Any routine, no matter how complete, contains within its omissions the parameters for which there will be no adaptation. In other words, what is absent will never be developed.

For this reason, the CrossFit program embraces short, middle, and long distance metabolic conditioning, and low, moderate, and heavy load assignment. We encourage creative and continuously varied compositions that tax physiological functions against every realistically conceivable combination of stressors. Developing a fitness that is varied yet complete defines the very art of strength and conditioning coaching.

The CrossFit Program’s success in elevating the performance of world-class athletes lies clearly in demanding of our athletes total and complete physical competence. No single routine is capable of delivering this.

Neuroendocrine Adaptation

Neuroendocrine adaptation refers to either hormonal or neurological change in the body. Most important adaptations to exercise are in part or completely a result of a hormonal or neurological shift. Earlier we faulted isolation movements as being ineffectual; one of the reasons is that they invoke essentially no neuroendocrine response.

Among the hormonal responses vital to athletic development are substantial increases in testosterone, insulin-like growth factor, and human growth hormone. Exercising with protocols known to elevate these hormones eerily mimics the hormonal changes sought in exogenous hormonal therapy (steroid use) with none of the deleterious effects. Exercise regimens that induce a high neuroendocrine response produce champions! Increased muscle mass and bone density are just two of many responses to exercises capable of producing a significant neuroendocrine response.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the neuroendocrine response to exercise protocols. This is why it is one of the four defining themes of the CrossFit Program. Heavy load weight training, short rest between sets, high heart rates, high intensity training, and short rest intervals, though not entirely distinct components, are all associated with a high neuroendocrine response.


Power is defined as the “time rate of doing work.” It has often been said that in sport, speed is king. According to CrossFit, “power” is the undisputed king of performance. Jumping, punching, throwing, and sprinting are all measures of power. Increasing your ability to produce power is necessary to elite athleticism. Additionally, power is the definition of intensity, which in turn has been linked to nearly every positive aspect of fitness. Increases in strength, performance, muscle mass, and bone density all arise in proportion to the intensity of exercise. And again, intensity is defined as power. For these reasons, power development is an ever-present aspect of the CrossFit training.


Cross training is typically defined as participating in multiple sports. At CrossFit, we instead define cross training as exceeding the parameters of the regular demands of your sport or training. The CrossFit Program recognizes functional, metabolic, and modal cross training. That is, we regularly train past the normal motions, metabolic pathways, and modes or sports common to the athlete’s sport or exercise regimen.

The CrossFit coaching staff long ago noticed that athletes are weakest at the margins of their exposure for almost every measurable parameter. For instance, if you only cycle between five to seven miles at each training effort, you will test weak at less than five and greater than seven miles. This is true for range of motion, load, rest, intensity, and power, etc. CrossFit training is engineered to expand the margins of exposure to be as broad as function and capacity will allow.

Functional Movements

There are movements that mimic motor recruitment patterns that are found in everyday life. Others are somewhat unique to the gym. Squatting is standing from a seated position; deadlifting is picking any object off the ground. These are both functional movements.

The bulk of isolation movements are non-functional. Natural movement typically involves the movement of multiple joints for every activity. Leg extensions and leg curls, for example, do not have equivalents in nature.

The importance of functional movements is primarily two-fold. First, the functional movements are mechanically sound and therefore safe, and second, they are the movements that elicit a high neuroendocrine response.

CrossFit has managed a stable of elite athletes and dramatically enhanced their performance exclusively with functional movements. The superiority of training with functional movements is clearly apparent with any athlete within weeks of their incorporation.

The above is adapted from CrossFit Foundations. This special edition of the CrossFit Journal is available for free at www.crossfit.com.

What is Fitness?

To understand our approach to fitness training, it’s critical to understand first our definition of fitness. It is our contention that fitness can be described in four pieces.

The first component of fitness involves 10 elements of performance. A fit individual, we believe, should be competent in all 10 areas. In other words, if an athlete has tremendous cardiovascular capacity but very limited strength and power, he or she may excel in a single sport like cycling, but could not be considered fit.

Developed Through Training
• Endurance
• Stamina
• Strength
• Flexibility

Developed Through Training & Practice
• Power
• Speed

Developed Through Practice
• Coordination
• Agility
• Balance
• Accuracy


The second component of fitness is competence across all metabolic pathways. The human body produces power to fuel movement in 3 ways: the Phosphagen pathway, the Glycolytic pathway, and the Oxidative pathway. The first two fall into the Anaerobic category and the last into the Aerobic category.

The Phosphagen pathway is responsible for generating maximum power outputs that are necessarily very brief, e.g. a single explosive movement like a max Olympic lift. The Glycolytic pathway is also responsible for high power output, but not as high as the Phosphagen pathway. The Glycolytic pathway fuels high power movement up to about 2 minutes, e.g. an 800 meter sprint. Finally, the Oxidative pathway is what fuels our movement throughout the day: low power, long duration. Slow, long distance efforts such as jogging are primarily fueled by the Oxidative pathway.

According to our definition, genuine fitness includes equal performance across all three metabolic pathways.


The third component of fitness is what we call the statistical method: it is our contention that a fit individual will be able, on average, to perform better than an unfit individual any randomly chosen physical task.

Examples of these tasks are:

• Shoveling 1000 lbs of gravel from the back of a truck
• Cycling 100 miles
• Carrying several bags of cement upstairs
• Playing a long game of tag with young children

To paraphrase Greg Glassman, the developer of CrossFit, our theoretical Fit person will not be able to out-cycle an Olympic cyclist, out-lift an Olympic weightlifter, or out-sprint an Olympic sprinter. BUT, that same fit person will, in total, be able to out-cycle, out-lift, and out-sprint the Olympic cyclist, lifter and sprinter. In other words, a fit person will likely never beat a specialist at his or her specialty, but is capable of excellent performance in any imaginable endeavor and beating those specialists at events outside their respective realms.

The fourth and final component of fitness is health. We contend that a genuinely fit person will also register as extraordinarily healthy in terms of all the common measures of health, such as blood pressure, cholesterol and body fat.

In other words, many athletic specialists have developed a single area of athletic ability far beyond the boundaries of health and have therefore sacrificed health for their sports.

The graph below is based on measurements of the common indicators of health. Sickness, wellness, and fitness can be considered points on a single continuum. Fitness, in short, is the furthest state from sickness; a fit individual must first become “well” before he or she can ever reach sickness.

[Based on measurements of blood pressure, bone density, body fat, triglycerides, cholesterol, flexibility, muscle mass, etc.]

Read more about the CrossFit definition of fitness by downloading your free issue of the CrossFit Journal