The Best CrossFit Workouts For Cardio & Strength

Two men and two women using kettlebells for a workout in a gym

Hunter Bennett

Over the last decade, we have seen CrossFit explode into the mainstream. It has quickly become one of the most popular ways of training on the planet. This unique form of high-intensity exercise is renowned for both its brutally intense workouts and a great sense of community.

Oh, and I the fact that it also gets great results.

However, given how relatively new CrossFit is, we don’t really know how a single CrossFit session impacts the body. We pulled together some key pieces of research in the area for your reading pleasure.

What is CrossFit?

First and foremost, what is CrossFit?

CrossFit is a unique style of training that really differentiates itself from many other traditional exercise modalities because it aims to improve nearly every aspect of physical fitness at the same time.

Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, this may sound impossible to some. That does not appear to be the case.

In fact, CrossFit was created with the intent to develop your individual capabilities across ten individual areas of fitness that include (Claudino, 2018):

  1. Cardiorespiratory fitness
  2. Stamina
  3. Strength
  4. Flexibilitymen and women lifting weights in a gym
  5. Power
  6. Speed
  7. Coordination
  8. Agility
  9. Balance
  10. Accuracy

With all this in mind, CrossFit aims to be one of the most bang for your buck exercise modalities on the planet.

What is a WOD?

If you have heard of CrossFit, then you have almost certainly heard of a WOD. WOD stands for workout of the day.

You see, when it comes to training, CrossFit goes about things a little differently. Rather than opting for a heavily periodized approach, they implement different workouts daily that focus on developing a combination of fitness components (hence the term ‘WOD’).

A single WOD is often comprised of several different exercises, which are performed for high repetitions, and at an extremely high intensity. Within this, these movements are performed back to back with almost zero rest between exercises.

In case you couldn’t guess, it’s tough.

Related Article: Perfecting Your CrossFit Pull-Up

What sports does CrossFit incorporate?

Some of the main CrossFit benefits come the fact that it incorporates several training modalities into one single training method.

With this in mind, CrossFit commonly uses the following types of exercises in its many WODs:

  • Gymnastics (e.g. handstand and ring-based exercises),
  • Weightlifting (e.g. barbell cleans and snatches),
  • Traditional strength training (e.g. barbell squats, deadlifts, and presses),
  • Cardiovascular activities (e.g. running, swimming, cycling skipping, and rowing)

Different CrossFit workouts

There are literally thousands of different CrossFit workouts. Some are ‘CrossFit official’, and are subsequently used sporadically within CrossFit gyms around the globe, while others may be designed by and used within a single gym.

Why are some workouts named after people?

You might have noticed that some of the more famous CrossFit workouts are named after certain people – and there appears to be two key reasons for this.

Firstly, there are a number of ‘benchmark workouts’ that are named after females. These workouts are commonly used in training and competition, and are notoriously challenging.

According to CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman, he chose to name these benchmark workouts after females in a similar way that the National Weather Service name storms. He felt that these workouts are so physically demanding that they have you ending up on your back gasping for air – as if you have been hit by a storm.

Secondly, there are also what is known as ‘hero workouts’.

This particular group of workouts are named after soldiers, law enforcement officers, and other emergency service personnel who have been killed in service. These workouts are typically incredibly challenging in nature.

How does the body respond to different CrossFit workouts?

CrossFit is infamously challenging – however, there are obviously a myriad of different CrossFit workouts that exist.

Which begs the question ‘are all CrossFit workouts created equal?

In a recent study, key researchers attempted to answer this question by investigating the effects that three different CrossFit workouts have on the human body. The three workouts they chose to look at where:

  • Cindy: is one of the benchmark workouts discussed above. It consists of 5 pull ups, 10 push ups, and 15 squats. Each are performed back to back for as many rounds as possible, for 20 minutes.
  • A common metabolic conditioning workout: is a workout that consists of nothing but double skip rope jumps performed for 20 seconds on with 10 seconds off. This should be done 8 times, for 4 minutes duration.
  • Power clean met-con: is a workout that has you perform as many power cleans as you can in 5 minutes, using a bar loaded with 40% of your one repetition maximum.

Each very different, each undeniably brutal.

The Results

So, what happened?

How did the CrossFit workouts differ, and were they the same in any manner?

The first thing of interest is that every single person in all three workouts came very close to reaching their maximal heart rate. This also coincided with some huge increases in blood lactate throughout the duration of each session.

This suggests that while some of the workouts (Cindy and the power clean met-con) involved more strength specific movements, they still caused huge stress on the anaerobic and cardiovascular systems. This means that they should increase cardiorespiratory fitness, as well as strength and stamina.

Additionally, each participant saw a substantial reduction in power output at the end of the sessions. This indicates that there was also some pretty severe muscular stress associated with each session.

As a collective, this really does suggest that while the sessions were undoubtedly different, due to their extremely intense nature, they did cause some substantial effects on all of the body’s physiological systems.

With this in mind, for those of you who wonder whether CrossFit is cardio or strength training, we can safely say that it is both.

However, there is one other piece of information that requires attention.

You see, the people who performed the workouts also rated how challenging they were on a scale that runs from 6 to 20 (6 being easy, and 20 being extremely hard).

Both the metabolic skipping workout and the power clean met-con were rated collectively as a 15 out of 20, while Cindy was rated a 17.

While this isn’t all that surprising given the fact that Cindy is one of the more challenging benchmark workouts that have made CrossFit famous, it may require a little bit more explanation – which leads us to our next point quite nicely.

Related Article: What Does CrossFit Do to Your Body?

Best CrossFit workout to achieve both cardio and muscular fatigue3 benefits of CrossFit

When looking at the workouts above, the skipping-based session is predominately cardiovascular in nature. The power clean met-con is much more strength focused. However, Cindy sits somewhere in between.

Using bodyweight strength exercises performed for higher repetitions, it offers a unique combination of aerobic, anaerobic, and muscular demand, that really cannot be obtained through any other means.

In this scenario, this makes it the best CrossFit workout for cardiovascular and muscular fatigue.

It is also highly likely that this is the reason it was rated more difficult by all the participants. This unique combination really does make for one brutal workout.

Take Home Message

CrossFit has fast become one of the most popular fitness regimes on the planet – and for very good reason too. By combining aspects of different training methods, it has developed a style of training that can improve nearly every aspect of fitness simultaneously.

Now, a bit of a disclaimer – CrossFit has a somewhat brutal reputation for a reason – but it certainly appears to work, and work very well at that!

References

Claudino, João Gustavo, et al. “CrossFit Overview: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” Sports medicine-open 4.1 (2018): 11.

Maté-Muñoz, José L., et al. “Cardiometabolic and Muscular Fatigue Responses to Different CrossFit® Workouts.” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine 17.4 (2018): 668.

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