Crossfit vs Gym: Which One Is Better For YOU?

This topic sparks controversy and, occasionally, anger among fit people the world over. Internet forums burst with flame wars over the benefits of CrossFit vs the benefits of a traditional gym. Which is best? What are the differences? Why should you WOD instead of Workout? Why is there even a CrossFit vs Gym debate?

Well, some people are very interested in knowing which temple to worship in. And it's always fun to compare things, right? We compare people, things, experiences every day of our lives. If you're going to choose one place to go every day to get some exercise, you might as well choose the best. For you. And that's a very important point. Fitness enthusiasts are not all created equal. The “best” of the two depends on your goals. Would you like to increase muscle mass? Is body composition the thing that you obsess over. Do you enjoy weights or cardio (or both)? Does the gym body or the CrossFit body appeal to you most?

So many questions. So many answers. Let's see if we can answer a few.

No One-Size-Fits-All Answer

First of all, let’s be clear. Like diet, there’s no one-size-fits-all for fitness. One training method does not beat another simply because more people shout about it on social media. I got into the sport of CrossFit at the age of 40. I hold a fitness instructor certificate and I worked for several years as a personal trainer. I’ve competed in triathlon, cross-country mountain biking, athletics, and CrossFit. The sport of CrossFit changed my life for the better but I believe I’m qualified to offer balanced pros and cons of both exercise methods.

There's no doubt that CrossFit works. And millions of people have used the gym to create incredible bodies, improve their health, increase their fitness, and feel good about themselves.

Rowing In A Crossfit Gym
Getting cardio fit in a CrossFit gym

I spent half my life in gyms and the other half training for endurance events. Here’s my take on the gym vs box debate.

Broadly speaking:

  • A “Gym” is a place to lift weights, do cardio work and take exercise classes. The word “gym” is loosely used to refer to any physical exercise done within the walls of a fitness center.
  • “CrossFit” is a sport and a training method based on gymnastics, weight training, and cardio. It’s possible to do CrossFit in a gym (as long as we’re not talking about Planet Fitness).

Stereotypes

Let’s look at the stereotype gym and CrossFit people

Don't take offence if you fall into one of these categories or you think you are being categorized. This is just a bit of fun.

Gym: 

  • After-work office managers
  • bodybuilders 
  • fitness bros
  • Instagram bunnies.

CrossFit: 

  • Ex-pro footballers
  • Type-A personalities
  • Fireman
  • military recruits
  • over-achievers

People that go to regular gyms come from all walks of life. The CrossFit demographic is no doubt skewed towards middle-class, university-educated people. The reasons for this are multiple but the monthly fees have something to do with it. Is CrossFit worth it? A CrossFit membership costs a lot more than most gyms. But that hasn't prevented CrossFit Inc becoming the world's biggest fitness franchise. They must be doing something right. Right?

CrossFit is “one of the fastest-growing high-intensity functional training modes in the world” and its popularity is certainly growing. That’s a muddy explanation of the sport. It’s like classifying soccer as “the fastest-growing field-based, team sport in the world”. CrossFit it’s actually the fastest growing sport in the world. Period.

In “CrossFit Overview: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis” published in the Sports Medicine – Open journal, the authors found that “there is the existence of initial evidence of higher levels of sense of community, satisfaction, and motivation among CrossFit participants.”

Handstands Muscle Strength Training Crossfit Box
Something you won't see in a regular gym. Testing muscle strength with handstands

Most people are average in everything. That’s life. 

Most people enjoy being part of a group. It's a natural human urge to join a tribe and identify with that tribe. Nobody identifies with their gym tribe. Of course, tribalism can be a bad thing but that's a debate for another time. In the end, if you're looking for a community to join where your average fitness skills are welcomed, CrossFit is a good choice.

There is evidence of higher levels of sense of community, satisfaction, and motivation among CrossFit participants.

What’s better than CrossFit?

Anything that improves your fitness level, motivates you and makes a positive impact on your life in ways that CrossFit cannot, is better than CrossFit. It might be that going to the gym and performing some of the big lifts followed by cardio is just what you need. In that case, forget about CrossFit.

If you’re looking for a simple system to get fit and strong, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better training regime than this:

  1. Squats
  2. Deadlift
  3. Cleans
  4. Jerks / Push Press
  5. Pull-Ups

These 5 exercises will make you strong, fast, lean, and fit. You won’t have to go to a class and you can train at your own pace. But if you plan on doing these exercises in a regular gym, know that dropping barbells and heavy weights is frowned upon. You’ll need to find a weight-lifting or powerlifting gym. And of course, you could even lift at a CrossFit Box that offers “open gym” hours during the week.

Personal Trainer With Client In Regular Gym
A Personal Trainer with a client in the gym

CrossFit Can Be Technically Challenging

Many beginners and even advanced athletes struggle with the snatch, one of the two movements in Olympic Weight Lifting. They also get frustrated with muscle-ups and handstand walks. For certain personality types, frustration leads to demotivation. And demotivated people don’t achieve anything in fitness. Working out requires commitment – time, physical energy, and mental energy. CrossFit’s challenging exercises and intensity can put a lot of people off the sport. Travelling to your local box and imagining all of the exercises you’re not going to be able to perform that day, is a motivation killer. 

Kipping pull ups and hand stand push ups are notorious for causing injuries. We'll admit it’s not the actual movement that's at fault, most of the time. The blame lies directly with both the coach and the athlete. Coaches should know when to reign in beginners and more advanced athletes should know when to stop. Injuries happen bit almost all are preventable. With that said, these movements play a big part in regular WODs. The temptation to give them a go is too much for some people

Sometimes we just need to go back to basics. The big lifts, like squats and deadlifts, are basics. These movements build strong bodies. In many ways, sticking with a handful of exercises is better than doing a half-assed version of CrossFit.

Gym Vs CrossFit for weight loss

If weight loss is your main goal, you are probably better off following a strict regime of weights, cardio and diet without visiting CrossFit gyms. The complications of attending classes where you might not get the desired calorific burn and where there's too much cardio or too little cardio, might derail your plans. CrossFit is not always compatible with weight loss goals.

Taking A Break In A Gym
This doesn't happen in CrossFit

CrossFit Costs

The $200 a month fee puts the sport out of reach of low-income earners. Okay, so there are cheaper places to train (and more expensive) but generally speaking, CrossFit is not a cheap option for getting fit. And that’s often one of the criticisms people throw at the sport. But it’s not a valid one.

Fitness and nutrition (just like healthcare) are not accessories that you’d like to have for Christmas. They are essential components of a healthy life. The difference between $100 and $200 might seem like a lot but in reality, it’s tiny when you take the cost and effect of a proper health and fitness regime on your life.

Conclusion

While there are more options for fitness than the two discussed here, many people prefer to stick to one training regime. But it's always worth mixing things up, especially if you want to keep things new and interesting. Try a HIIT class every now and again. Compliment your mobility work with some calming and restorative yoga. Go for long runs occasionally.

CrossFit or Gym: Which is better? It depends on your goals. I’ve tried to lay out the pros and cons of both to give a balanced view of the topic. But in the end, don’t let the cool kids (whoever they may be) sway your decision. Do what’s best for you.

CriteriaCrossFit Gym
Structure & ConvenienceFixed classes (with open gym options)Better for people with changeable schedules
Cost“Expensive”Varies but many options are very cheap
DifficultyScaled classes but will push you more than any self-managed gym workoutAs hard or as easy as you want. Requires determination & willpower to get results
FunctionalityGreat for all-round fitness, mobility, and strengthGreat for specific, tailored goals like weight loss or muscular hypertrophy
Risk of injuryHas a reputation for destroying shoulders. Olympic lifting can be taxing for newbies.Lots of people injure themselves on treadmills every year. Injuries in gyms often come from ego.
Body imageCrossFit is not about mirror muscles.If you want chiselled abs and big biceps, typical gym workouts will help you achieve your goal faster.
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Crossfit Vs Gym

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