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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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July 17 2018

CrossFit vs. Bodybuilding

By Mark Sisson
35 Comments

Both CrossFit and bodybuilding involve lifting weights and putting them back down, repeatedly, several times each week. Both are forms of exercise.  The similarities stop there. The real meat lies in the differences.

What’s different about CrossFit and bodybuilding? What can we learn from those differences? What can they learn from each other?

CrossFit Explained

First of all, defining CrossFit by real world examples is difficult; there are tons. There’s so-called “homepage CrossFit,” where you go to CrossFit.com and do the Workout of the Day (WOD) as prescribed. That’s become less and less popular as more CF boxes open up and employ their own programming. These days, those doing main page CF are mostly individuals following along at home or at regular gyms.

It’s better to look at the overarching intent of the CrossFit philosophy.

CrossFit is all about function. Rather than emphasizing aesthetics, it focuses on increasing work capacity. It’s trying to make people better at producing a given amount of work in less time than before. If you can go from doing 10 pullups in two minutes to doing 20 pullups in two minutes, you’ve just increased your work capacity. CrossFit wants its athletes to not only lift heavy things, but lift heavy things repeatedly with less rest.

It also wants to increase your work capacity across “broad modal domains.” What does that mean? Rather than increase only pullup work capacity, it wants you to improve your work capacity across every mode of movement humans engage in: running, rowing, jumping, squatting, deadlifting, throwing, climbing, carrying, pushing, pressing, clean-and-jerking. CrossFitters are training for “the sport of fitness”—for overall adaptive fitness.

And actually, what most people imagine when they think of CrossFit isn’t too far off from the reality:

  • High-intensity full-body movements performed for time.
  • “As many reps as possible” (AMRAP) workouts.
  • Olympic lifts for reps.
  • Endless pullups and ring dips.
  • Rowing, sprinting, climbing.
  • Varied modes of movement.

Bodybuilding Explained

Bodybuilding is all about form. At its highest levels, bodybuilders are trying to cultivate aesthetic perfection in the human physique. In other words, bodybuilding is about getting jacked. Bodybuilding is primarily concerned with looks, big muscles, low body fat. It aims to realize the potential of every single muscle in the human body to grow while maintaining balance and cohesion. No big quads and small glutes, or big biceps and small triceps. Bodybuilders want everything to grow not for extra functionality, but because they look better that way.

People use all sorts of different methods to bodybuild. What makes bodybuilding bodybuilding isn’t so much the methods—although there are definite trends. There are keto bodybuilders doing medium rep sets and basic “balanced diet” bodybuilders doing high rep sets. It’s the intent.

Bodybuilders want to look strong and impressive. They’re judged based on how they look, not what they can lift. CrossFitters want to be strong and impressive. They’re judged based on what they can do.

The top bodybuilders are usually quite strong, and the top CrossFitters tend to be fairly aesthetic. Check out CF athletes Samantha Briggs and Rich Froning.

Benefits Of Each

What can bodybuilders expect to get from bodybuilding?

  • Better body composition—more lean mass, less body fat
  • Strength—big muscles usually increase strength, though not necessarily functional strength
  • Better insulin sensitivity—bigger muscles mean bigger glycogen sinks, and strength training increases insulin sensitivity
  • Increased bone density and all the wonderful adaptive benefits of lifting heavy things

What can CrossFitters expect to get out of CrossFit?

  • Improvements in both strength, anaerobic, and aerobic capacity
  • Better functional movement patterns
  • Better insulin sensitivity
  • Increased bone density
  • Better cardio vascular health

Pervasive Myths About Both

“Bodybuilders are dumb meatheads.”

For one thing, successful bodybuilding requires planning, careful attention to technique, and a strong mind-body awareness and presence of mind to “feel” the muscle working. Research confirms that rather than use “extreme, non-evidence-based regimens,” bodybuilders use “evidence-based” nutrition strategies to achieve their desired physiques. Brain and brawn are the opposite of mutually exclusive. In addition, strength training (and exercise in general) supports brain health and triggers brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes neuronal growth and protects against neurodegenerative disease. The idea of the “dumb bodybuilder” is total nonsense. Every piece of evidence we have contradicts it.

“Bodybuilders never do compound exercises.”

The notion that bodybuilders are only using machines and doing isolation exercises is simply wrong. Arnold started with squats. Ronnie Coleman squatted and deadlifted. Tom Platz definitely squatted. A bodybuilder might do a lot of curls, but never in the squat rack.

“CrossFitters get injured all the time.”

Contrary to popular belief, CrossFit has never been shown to be more dangerous than other types of training. Recent studies show that CrossFitters experience no more shoulder injuries than other athletes, for example. If anything, CrossFitters get fewer injuries than athletes on other programs. Of course, any time you push yourself hard enough to elicit a training adaptation, you risk injury. It comes with the territory.

“The CrossFit Games are representative of how CFers train every day.”

The Games are a big event, a competition, a way to test the mettle and competence of the best of the best. Three days of almost non-stop lifting, running, pulling, throwing, flipping, climbing, and pushing is an aberration; it’d be like an endurance athlete training by doing Ironman Triathlons three times a week.

What Can CrossFitters and Bodybuilders Learn From Each Other?

CrossFitters can learn:

The importance of discipline. To be a successful bodybuilder, you can’t “just eat whatever” and “train here and there.” You don’t just bang out a quick 20-minute session. You’re in the gym for 1-2 hours, spending half your time on the triceps. You’re meal planning a week in advance. It requires dedication and extreme discipline to really influence body composition to the degree body builders do, develop a balanced physique, and maintain low-enough body fat that you can see all your hard work. There’s a constant dance between eating enough to gain muscle and keeping body fat low. The cut and bulk. That isn’t easy.

The importance of quality of movement. Since a big concern is work performed across time, CrossFitters will often look for short cuts to improve performance without building the appropriate foundation. A good example of this is launching into kipping pullups (which use explosive momentum and demand a lot of shoulder mobility and strength) before you can do more than one strict pull up on your own.

The benefits of isolation exercises. Many folks in the online fitness/health community—not just CrossFitters—neglect the benefits of isolation exercises, often gleefully. “Those are for the beach,” they’ll say, or “pullups are enough, no need for curls.” Yet, sometimes isolation exercises can actually translate to real life capability by strengthening a weak link. If you’re doing nothing but pullups and rows without any direct bicep work, consider doing some. Another example is the pistol squat; it’s not hard because of inadequate quad or hamstring strength, but because the hip flexors and ankles are weak and lack mobility. An isolated focus on those relatively “minor” muscles can make a huge difference.

Bodybuilders can learn:

The benefits of overall fitness rather than just weight training. Looking big and strong is great. No arguments there. But it’s fun to be able to move through time and space with fluidity and grace—and explosiveness. There’s no reason to avoid improving your cardiovascular and anaerobic fitness, or put those big muscles to work. If anything, doing so will improve your physique and make your bodybuilding more effective.

The importance of compound barbell movements. While I know the big names pay their dues with squats, deadlifts, and other compound lifts, many of the beginners stumbling around the globo-gym neglect the big lifts in favor of exclusively doing isolation exercises.

Final Takeaways…

The two approaches and philosophies are about as different as you can get… and yet, the differences are far from irreconcilable.

Every human wants to look good, to appear strong and competent and aesthetic.

Every human wants to be strong and competent, with the ability to impose his or her will on the world.

Every CrossFitter has a little bodybuilder in them (or else there wouldn’t be so many CF Instagrams accounts full of black and white photos of chalked up hands attached to glistening bodies in the midst of cleans and thrusters and muscle-ups). Every bodybuilder has a little CrossFitter in them (because when they get down to it, every bodybuilder gets intrinsic joy from lifting some heavy ass weight).

I say it’s time they reconciled. What about you?

Any CrossFitters or bodybuilders out there who want to give their thoughts and suggestions on bridging the divide?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

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35 thoughts on “CrossFit vs. Bodybuilding”

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  1. Great article. Favorite takeaways:

    “Bigger muscles mean bigger glycogen sinks” – easily digestible way of phrasing this.

    “Every CrossFitter has a little bodybuilder in them… Every bodybuilder has a little CrossFitter in them.”

    Can be applied to so many things – definitely useful to focus on our similarities rather than our differences!

  2. Agree with everything said here! Recently moved to the UK where I can’t afford to do Crossfit, so have switched to a more ‘bodybuilding’ style of training. Compound lifts with isolation and some skills (handstands etc) thrown in. There are definitely benefits to both, and as they say…’too much of a good thing’ probably means it’s healthy to switch it up a bit 🙂

  3. Comfort is not good for the organism. Our early ancestors were regularly subjected to back breaking hard work (hunting and gathering, protecting, tool making, shelter building, etc). In the modern world though, we are rarely subjected to hard work (voluntary physical resistance) for any real duration or intensity… Let’s face it, who likes that uncomfortable feeling that comes with real exhaustive effort… blood burning, can’t breath, heart racing, I’m-gonna-die, effort; especially when we have access to copious comfort controls 24/7. In modern times, we simply outsource the effort that once made our species strong… that once made our species the greatest mammalian predators that ever lived.

    CrossFit vs. Bodybuilding? I say who cares… if you’re putting in real effort, whether it’s from CrossFit, Bodybuilding or digging ditches, you’re developing the kind of strength that our barbaric forefathers would be proud of. It is strength that makes all other values possible… nothing survives in nature without strength… not even in the modern world!

    I will shamelessly say that I’m the proud owner of this body… I’m fit (sub 3 minute Fran)… I’m strong… I look pretty good; maybe even jacked… why not have it all… ask me how!

  4. I like Mark’s advice to walk frequently, lift heavy things once or twice a week and sprint once or twice a week, and to engage in outdoor activities you enjoy. It took me a while to realize that sometimes “less is more”. Back in the day I spent hours and hours working out multiple times a week, and in the long run turned out to be counter productive. Each person has to hit that “sweet spot” that works for them. I have a very low opinion of CrossFit, but to each their own. Their management team is known to aggressively sue anyone who speaks out against their approach, they are almost a fitness cartel in my view.

    1. Totally agree with Healthy Hombre…Mark’s advice is great. I walk a ton, both with my dog and at work (some days over 30,000 steps) and lift heavy things a few times a week, in varying forms. Still working on incorporating the sprinting. Totally have respect for cross fitters and body builders, but I’m happy with my own routine. I’m pleased with my energy level and how my body looks at the age of 51, and never have to worry about injury.

      1. Same here! I gave up years of almost daily high intensity workouts when I adopted the primal lifestyle. Now I love hiking, PEMs, walking, yoga and the occasional kettlebell workout or sprint session. It’s so fun to only engage in movement that I absolutely love!

        1. Totally agree! Once I gave up chronic cardio (ultrarunning) and subscribed to Mark’s philosophy, I started to look better and more importantly, FEEL better! My body is much more symmetrical and now I can lift and pull my own body over obstacles. No more chronic inflammation. I see so many people doing crazy workouts and then eating junk food. I feel bad for them because at 45 years old, I have never looked or felt better! It’s amazing how little intense work needs to be done to accomplish real fitness. Absolutely love the Primal lifestyle!

  5. Lifelong exerciser here, age 62 male.

    I never got injured in normal gyms, but I have two permanent injuries (lower back and right arm) from doing crossfit for 2 years, even with age appropriate scaling. Both injuries were the result of utterly ridiculous workouts, casually named “death by pullups” and “death by deadlifts”.

    Permanent injuries…

    1. That’s been my experience, too. I was never injured until I tried Crossfit.

      Within 2 months I had injuries that prevented me from fully exercising for 6 weeks. Part of it was my fault…I let the pressure to perform override my common sense when it came to banging out heavy lifts. I was in my late 50’s and had lifted all my life, something the trainers recognized and pushed. But form was secondary to reps for time, and there was that ridiculous Pukey thing mixed in for good measure. Bah!

      AND there was also a slew of 20-somethings there seeing chiros 3 times a week for injuries and complaints that you would expect in 45-year-olds, and still showing up for more of the same. When they said that they didn’t want to do the WO’s that injured them, I was the only one who said, “Then don’t.”

      I won’t go back. NowI lift at home, compound and isolation, and do just fine.

      1. What Nannsi and Jeff said. I’ve always been active, playing softball, soccer and tennis since I was a kid. At the age of 48, 5’2″ and 110 lbs., I was working out to my own routine at Ladies of America and in the best shape of my life when I was recruited to CrossFit. 18 months later, on my 50th birthday and 7 lbs of muscle heavier, I had injured both of my rotator cuffs and my left knee, had developed asthma on exercise, and was suffering from depression. My trainers pushed for more and more until I felt like a complete failure for not meeting their expectations. I had drunk the kool-aid and it was insane. I quit cold turkey when I couldn’t make myself walk into the box anymore, sitting in my car in the parking lot, crying. I tried CrossFit at two more boxes over the next five years, couldn’t deal with it for more than a few weeks each time.

        I was eventually diagnosed with adrenal fatigue and believe the emotional and physical stress of CrossFit played a huge part in jacking up my hormonal system.

        Now at 57, I have the adrenal fatigue on the run and I am able to mentally face working out again. I joined Texas Fit Chicks, which is challenging but in a supportive atmosphere that doesn’t push me past where I think I need to go. I’m not out to win any awards or impress anyone else, I just want to be strong and capable as I age, and I’ve learned that no coach can know my body as well as I can. My dream is to get back to the level of fitness I had before I started CrossFit, but I have to baby my shoulders now and only surgery will fix my knee.

        I wish I had never heard of CrossFit.

  6. I mainly started with bodybuilding as I want to look good, then I also tried Starting Strength type stuff, and some different things adding box jumps and exercises like that. I haven’t specifically done crossfit so can’t comment on that similarity.

    But now I prefer a mix between bodybuilding and other stuff so i’m also functional, and recently I realized how much my body felt beat up so I wanted to change the way I train a bit.

    That is one downfall I found to more classic bodybuilding stuff, it beat up my body alot more. I learnt I had to find ways to balance it out like mobility work and foam rolling. Seems like alot of guys don’t bother with that stuff, and it’s to their detriment.

  7. I’m an oldschool gym rat and perform bodybuilder splits. But I don’t do it for aesthetics; I do it for strength and function.

  8. Crossfitter here. I love picking up heavy things. Love it. I love getting outside my head in a heavy metcon. I’ve never had better exercise highs in my life than I’ve had in crossfit. As someone who used to be a boozehound, this matters.

    But I know myself. I am a nearly 49 year old woman. I am not going to beat myself silly for crossfit! I am not going to wod five days a week. I am not going to complete or even attempt some workouts. Yes I am getting better every day and that makes me happy. I’m stronger than I ever realized and stronger than many women at the box. But I know my limits. and I have no interest in permanent injuries. Still gonna crossfit. NOT gonna get injured. 🙂

  9. My CrossFit does both, everyday. The first part is bodybuilding/Olympic weightlifting movement and practice and building. The second is the WOD portion, like AMRAPs, which often do incorporate the latter lifts and movements, but not always. The key is to find a box that gives you what you want or figure out how to take what you can from your outside training and then embellish with what you still desire. I’m so fortunate–mine does both.

  10. So a few books back u had said in terms of cardio that keeping your HR up for an extensive amount of time created an environment for inflammation and free radicals. How is CrossFit safe then? You’re essentially doing that with CrossFit. I know all crossfits aren’t the same but I see them running around their building then snatching, burpees, box jumps ECT for amrap. That seems excessive to me but does that theory not apply anymore? Sorry I’m confused.

  11. Awesome article. Something that I’ve been pondering about for sometime now.

    Haven’t been quite a fan of crossfitting and have been into body building for most of the time now.

    But definitely will look into trying out crossfitting. It’s good to change routines and get things done up differently some time.

  12. I’ll give crossfit credit for getting a lot of people off their couches, but it’s silly to think it’s more than just marketing. I don’t know any bodybuilders who cannot hang with cross fitters. I’ve seen evidence that CF walked back some of its early propaganda to actually start teaching strict form. Why the late change? I guess the lesson they learned was that if one can do an exercise with said form that they can easily do it with crossfit form. It seems those fresh of the couch started exercising and bought hook, line, and sinker into the idea that CF was then end all be all. It’s a joke. Anyone seriously think Arnold couldn’t flip a tire, do some pull-ups, do barefoot sprints on the beach? Didn’t think so. Bodybuilding leads to great fitness, but crossfit doesn’t lead to outsized gains. Think outside the box.

    1. Well said as well! Besides, do you know how difficult posing is, holding a muscle at peak contraction during a competition and being able to do the splits at the same time all to music! Ha, a lot of practice and hard work!

  13. CrossFit is marketing, plain and simple. They toss in some O lifts with their circuits and, well, CrossFit! Does that make it bad? Nope. But stop acting like it’s some revolutionary form of exercise, already.
    You get better results if you don’t mix everything up so much. There’s no way you can lift as heavy if you’re gassed from sprinting, and visa versa. Do each thing, hard, and then move on to the next. Think long term, and train appropriately. That said, it’s still about goals. You won’t squat 500 by doing WODS, and you won’t get into athletic shape by just powerlifting.
    Work hard, stay healthy, have fun.

  14. I’ve never been a fan of either. I like playing sports, hockey mainly, and use the gym to maintain a body that allows that and to be injury free.

  15. Mark, any books on strength/fitness you recommend besides your endurance book? (I’m done running)

  16. Crossfit puts it all together – strength, speed, and balance. But I see too many people jumping into it without having a high enough level of basic fitness, and then they get injured. Of course, I could say the same of bodybuilding…

    1. People can jump into it with a high level of fitness and still get injured. CrossFit injuries aren’t just for athletic newbies.

  17. Well done article, easily explain and pretty straight forward 🙂 Thank you Mark!

  18. Crossfit is play. Bodybuilding is work. I’ll take Crossfit.

    1. It’s attitude. I’ve seen people in crossfit beat themselves up, just as I have seen with people in the weight room. For me, lifting has always been fun.

  19. As a female bodybuilder of 38 years, a woman that has squatted 405lbs, 225 for 50 reps, no belt nor wraps, a certified personal trainer since the eighties, a judge with the NPC and still going strong at almost 63 years of age, if I had to choose either weight lifting or crossfit, my vote goes to weightlifting with proper bio-mechanics and compound movements.