Love it or hate it, you can’t deny the popularity of CrossFit these days. There are more than 10,000 CrossFit affiliates worldwide. There’s an unaffiliated “functional fitness league” (the National Professional Grid League). And later this week, open registration begins for Reebok CrossFit Games, which is televised every year on ESPN.
But what is it, exactly? CrossFit is defined as constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity, and if you’ve ever run into an avid CrossFitter, the results are pretty undeniable. But the idea of entering this world can also be downright intimidating. As a long-time CrossFitter and a CrossFit Level 1 trainer, however, I can honestly say that the people you might be scared of are the very same folks who will be there for you at the end of a workout of the day (WOD), encouraging you to finish.
Thinking of dipping your toe into this world? Check out the following CrossFit-inspired exercises, which will serve you well no matter what your workout program is.
1. Air Squats
Functional movements are those you use in everyday life, and the squat is king. We squat all the time to pick up our kids, get something out of a lower cabinet or change a tire. That combined with the large number of muscles it involves make the squat a great base for a strength-training program. There are many variations—including the air squat, back squat and front squat—and depending on your ability level and goals, you can and should incorporate all of them. Air squats are a bodyweight movement that is staple for beginners looking to increase lower body strength and learn technique. The air squat is your most basic squatting movement, and the form should be mastered before moving on to higher level squats. But no matter your level, you can continue to use the air squat to maintain your mechanics.
Pull-ups are to the upper body what squats are to the lower body. Another functional exercise, the pull-up may be the most important upper body movement—and a great indicator of your fitness level, because it takes real strength and balance to do them. There is no substitute to pull-ups. Lat pull-downs and seated rows work the same muscles but can easily be manipulated to move the weights. While pull-ups may take some time to do unassisted, through persistence and practice, you will develop the strength to pump them out, and you’ll get a huge jolt of accomplishment and confidence when you do.
3. Hollow Holds
When executing a pull-up, the hollow position is critical efficient execution, and having a strong hollow body position will provide added benefits in loads of other exercises, too. Being strong in this position gives you more control over your body in daily life too. To do it—in a horizontal plane—your shoulders and feet should be off the ground while your lower back and glutes remain in contact with the ground. Early on, your feet and hands may be up high, but your goal should be to have your feet around six inches off the ground with your lower back still touching the ground. Holding this position may be difficult at first, and you may only be able to do so for a matter of seconds. The better you get, the stronger your core will be, and that serves you well in a range of activities.
One of the most demanding moves CrossFitters do is the burpee. Arguably the most hated CF exercise, the burpee’s rewards far exceed its admittedly harsh demands. Because they engage so many key muscle groups—including the lower back, chest, shoulders, triceps, legs and abs—burpees offer unbeatable benefits in strength, conditioning and body composition. They also help you shed fat (as long as you aren’t pounding Big Macs) and look great. Oh yeah, and you can pretty much do them anywhere. Add burpees to your workouts to increase intensity—they’re one of the best possible all-around exercises you can do.
5. Push Presses
A half-century ago, shoulder press variations were considered the ideal way to measure individual strength. Many athletes playing explosive sports like football and basketball used the push press to build strength and power, and Olympic lifters favored it as an accessory lift to the Jerk. Then the weight training world got away from these movements, seeing them as too risky. But overhead pressing, particularly the push press, has experienced a resurgence thanks to prevalent use in CrossFit, where it’s one of the nine foundational movements. A ground-based compound movement, the push press incorporates jumping mechanics, dip and drive, ankle, hip and knee extension, midline stability, shoulder mobility and much more. This one exercise can do more for your overall body than any lateral dumbbell raise ever could. It takes some work to perfect, but the upper body strength and overall benefits make it invaluable.