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?
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 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
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.
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.
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?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.