Part of the appeal of CrossFit is the camaraderie that’s forged in the furnace of doing a brutally hard workout together. You may not get that from a unaccompanied run-through of a CrossFit WOD (workout of the day) – but the good news is you will still get the physical benefits of the workout when flying solo.
CrossFit WODs are incredibly varied but there are themes that run through most of them. The most obvious is that you’ll be doing high amounts of reps of a handful of exercises at speed, but to help you get to grips with the lingo we’ve detailed six types below.
CrossFit WODs are also often named after women, like storms – apparently because they will leave your body feeling like a storm has hit it. This doesn’t make sense, but let’s live and let live… the workouts are hard, that’s all you need to know. So hard, in fact, they demand a specific type of shoe, so we asked CrossFit coaches to recommend the best CrossFit shoes.
As well as types of CrossFit workouts, get to know nine of the most popular WODs and fundamental CrossFit exercises further down this page. But first…
McQuaid’s Mash-up CrossFit Workout
If you’re looking for just about the hardest 12-minute workout you can think of, give this session from Emma McQuaid – pro CrossFitter and ambassador for Reign Total Body Fuel – a go. It’s a ladder workout, so you do two reps of the three exercises, then four reps, then six, and so on until your 12 minutes is up. See how many rounds you can get through in the time, then try to beat that score next time.
From standing, drop your hands to the floor, then jump your feet back to land into a press-up position. Lower your chest to the floor, push back up, jump your feet forwards to your hands then jump straight up. Make sure you stand tall when you land, then move on to the next rep.
Lower into a deep squat, with your thighs at least parallel to the ground, then drive back up and leap into the air. Land softly and go straight into another squat.
3 Rotating sit-up
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Use your abs to lift your shoulders off the ground and reach your right hand over to your left ankle. Lower back to the start. On the next rep, reach with your left arm to your right ankle.
Six Types Of CrossFit Workouts
Here are six of the most popular types of CrossFit workouts you can use to break up the monotony of body-part splits and make you a more rounded athlete.
Stands for “every minute on the minute”. Start a running clock and do a set number of reps at regular intervals, typically (but not necessarily, despite the name) at the start of each minute. The EMOM workout scrutinises your powers of recovery.
Workout: Three clean and jerks every minute for 10 minutes
- This EMOM workout makes for a great lunch break session
“As many rounds as possible”. Complete a given exercise combination as many times as you can within a given time. It’s a battle of mind over searing muscle.
“Rounds for time” means completing a given number of rounds of a circuit as fast as possible. The short rest periods help develop long-lasting muscle endurance.
A one-round series of exercises, usually with high reps, to be completed in the fastest time possible. A high-volume, muscle-building grind.
One or more movements, increasing or decreasing the workload over time.
- The 10-minute ladder workout that burns a boatload of calories
Do eight rounds of high-intensity intervals, alternating 20 seconds effort with 10 seconds rest. A fat-eviscerating finisher. If you’d like to find out who’s responsible for such a punishing protocol, our guide to Tabata training reveals all.
Workout: 8x Tabata rows for max distance
Nine Popular CrossFit WODs
We’ve included recommended weights, but it’s wise to do a trial run with a much lighter weight so you don’t do yourself a mischief. It’ll still be hard.
With this workout you’re aiming to complete as many rounds of the three exercises as possible in 20 minutes. The reps per exercise are relatively low compared with some of the monster sets tackled in CrossFit, but it won’t feel that way when you’re getting ready to tackle your fifth or sixth round of handstand press-ups. And just a note on those handstand press-ups: do them with your feet against a wall – you don’t have to master a free-standing handstand first. Start with five handstand press-ups, then do ten single-leg squats, alternating legs, and finish with 15 pull-ups.
Doing 100 reps of anything is tough – so doing 100 reps of four different exercises in a row, trying to complete the whole lot as quickly as possible, is absolute murder. Those four exercises are pull-ups, press-ups, sit-ups and squats. So you’ll be doing 100 pull-ups, 100 press-ups, 100 sit-ups and 100 squats. Or, if you’re anything like us, eight pull-ups then call it a day.
The beauty of a descending ladder workout is that it gets easier over time. Unfortunately, CrossFit doesn’t have the word “easy” in its vocabulary, so with this descending ladder workout you start with 100 reps of the first exercise, and then it’s 90 for the second, so you’re 190 reps deep with EIGHT exercises still to go. Anyway, here are those exercises, all of which can be done without any equipment.
- 100 squats
- 90 sit-ups
- 80 alternating lunges
- 70 burpees
- 60-second plank
- 50 mountain climbers
- 40 press-ups
- 30 hollow rocks
- 20 jump squats
- 10 hand-release press-ups (chest to floor, raise your hands briefly off the floor, then push back up)
A CrossFit classic, Fran is a great workout to revisit periodically in the hope that you will improve your time as you get fitter. Fran consists of just two exercises – thrusters (recommended weight 95lb/40-45kg) and pull-ups. You do 21 reps of each, then 15 reps, then nine, as fast as you can. Finishing in under six minutes deserves a pat on the back – don’t attempt this yourself because you may start to panic when you realise you can’t raise your arms.
Even simpler than Fran, there’s only one exercise in the Karen WOD. Unfortunately that exercise is wall balls, and you’ll be doing 150 of them as fast as you can. Grab a 20lb/9kg medicine ball and face your wall. Aim to throw it above the 10ft mark (which you’ll find in most CrossFit gyms) with each rep. Anything under ten minutes would be a great effort first time out. As with all CrossFit workouts, take as many breaks as you need – just remember that they count towards your overall time.
The Helen WOD is a combination of cardio and strength work. Start with a 400m run, then do 21 kettlebell swings (weight 53lb/24kg) and finish with 12 pull-ups. Then do it again, and then again. Three rounds in total. Finishing all three rounds in under 12 minutes is a solid effort.
If you thought the Helen workout sounded hard, you might as well skip even reading this one. Eva takes the same exercises as Helen but ramps up the distance, weight and reps to create an absolutely brutal circuit. For starters you’re doing five rounds, instead of three. Those rounds involve an 800m run, 30 kettlebell swings (weight 70lb/31-32kg) and 30 pull-ups. In theory you’re doing this all as fast as possible but it’s fair to say if you complete this one at all, you’ve done yourself proud.
Clear your schedule, this one will take some time. The five steps in the Murph WOD are as follows: one-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 press-ups, 300 air squats, one-mile run. This one is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. Murph is what’s known as a Hero WOD, named in honour of Lt Michael P Murphy, a Navy SEAL killed in action in 2005.
Rather than aiming to complete the required reps as quickly as possible, the Cindy WOD always lasts exactly 20 minutes. In those 20 minutes you do repeated circuits of five pull-ups, ten press-ups and 15 air squats. Over and over again. Hit 15 rounds and we’ll give you a round of applause – 20 gets you a standing O.
Common CrossFit Exercises
If you’re considering visiting a CrossFit gym, but are put off by the insanely demanding-looking workouts above, let us put your mind at ease. CrossFit workouts can easily be scaled to match your ability, and you can also prepare for your visit by familiarising yourself with and practising some fundamental movements.
We asked Scott Britton, CrossFit and powerlifting athlete as well as the co-founder of charitable fitness competition Battle Cancer, to provide his advice on what kind of exercises you can expect to come across frequently in CrossFit gyms – and the common mistakes you should try to avoid with them.
The squat requires you to sink down, keeping your chest up, and drop your thighs below parallel to the ground – not easy at first. Not dropping your thighs below parallel is the number one sin seen across thousands of gyms, and not learning a full-depth squat can cause more problems for your muscle groups in the long term. Some more common mistakes people make with the squat include:
- Trying to add a barbell or other weights too early. The best athletes in the world all begin by mastering a beautiful bodyweight-only squat before progressing.
- Allowing your knees to fold inwards as you stand up from the squat. This is a common sign that areas of the hips, legs and the lower back require strengthening.
- Falling onto your toes as you stand up from the squat. This shows your stance and balance are not right.
It’s called the king of lifts for a reason. Deadlifting is often seen as the ultimate sign of strength – how much can one person lift up from the floor?
There are many variations of the deadlift but in CrossFit classes you will begin with the conventional deadlift.
Deadlifts are not just about picking up – it’s about imagining pushing the floor away. The deadlift should begin with the barbell on the floor. From a stable position you will grab the bar, bend at the knees and back, and stand up with the bar.
Some common mistakes in the deadlift include:
- Rounding the back. Every time I see a rounded back I see herniated discs, long physio sessions and pain. Spending time concentrating on keeping your back straight when lifting will save you years in the therapy room. Imagine someone has put a broom across your back and, when bending over to lift, your back has to stay as straight as that broom.
- Incorrect breathing. Learning the right breathing pattern for the exercise can take a long time, but when deadlifting it’s essential to hold a big breath before you try to lift off the ground, and then let that breath out only when you have the lift completed.
- Dropping the bar after you lift it! If you can pick it up, you can put it down. A lot of injuries occur when people drop the barbell from the waist. You have put your leg, back and stomach muscles under serious stress then let it go suddenly. Your muscles can act like a coiled spring and snap! Hold on and put the bar back down. What I do is imagine glass is under the bar so I pop it down nice and gently.
Shoulder press (aka overhead press)
The shoulder press is the place to start. This can be done seated or standing, with a barbell, dumbbells or kettlebells.
Start with the barbell under your chin, then push it overhead until you lock your arms out. Then return the bar safely to under your chin.
Some common mistakes with the shoulder press include:
- Flaring your elbows. It sounds odd when the lift is called the shoulder press but where you place your elbows when lifting makes all the difference. Try to keep your elbows in front of you when lifting. When your elbows flare out to the sides during an overhead pressing move, this can lead to injury in your triceps and increase the risk of tendonitis.
- Incorrect breathing. Make sure you take and hold a strong breath just before you press the weight. Timing your breathing to each repetition will not only keep your body more stable but also help force more oxygen into your muscles to last longer.
Cardio such as running, or using rowing machines and resistance bikes is common in CrossFit.
Some common mistakes on the rowing machine include:
- Leaning back too far when pulling the chain back. This actually loses power and more importantly you lose a strong body position. Stay upright and end the row pulling with a straight back, bringing the handle to your sternum.
- Rowing too fast. It’s not a race to see how fast you can get your legs back and forth on the machine. Think of rowers in boat races – they make strong controlled pulls. When you need to increase the pace, pull harder and pick up the pull on the handles – don’t just move your legs faster.
- Not choosing the correct foot strap position. This can have a huge effect especially when spending a considerable period of time rowing. You want the strap holding your foot to be placed over the ball of your foot. Before you begin, spend some time ensuring your feet are in the right position.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.