As a personal trainer, I often field questions from my clients about kooky fitness trends, nutrition myths, and fad diets.
Every once in a while, though, they will grace me with a great one, like, “What’s the difference between circuit training and CrossFit ?
So while they’re both solid programs that can help with fat loss, muscle growth, fitness, and cardiovascular health, there are critical differences.
Let’s dive deep and understand the similarities, differences, and important considerations for each.
Circuit Training Overview
Circuit training has been around for a long time and is a favorite of personal trainers and athletic coaches alike. A circuit is a series of exercises strung together with minimal rest between exercise stations.
Exercise adaptability is key because it’s vital for staying fit for a lifetime. Throughout our lives, we may experience injuries, illnesses, and other challenges that can derail our fitness if we cannot adapt to these changes.
Circuit training typically involves strength training exercises, body weight, and cardio moves. Many endurance athletes also utilize circuit training principles for running, swimming, and cycling workouts.
There are different types of circuit training, such as repetition, timed, and AMRAP (as many reps as possible), but each is endlessly customizable because you can adjust your repetitions, time, or rest period to suit your current goals. It is an exercise framework you use to build a workout that is perfectly suited to you.
Intensity is another variable you can modify in your circuit. You can perform a circuit with any intensity to suit your current fitness level. Just make sure you adjust your rest period accordingly. If you are new to working out or circuit training, give yourself longer rest periods. You can gradually decrease them as your endurance increases.
As a personal trainer, I can tell you that many people overdo it in the gym, especially if they’re trying to get back in the swing of things after time away. However, you do not need to go 100% to see results. While high-intensity training is popular and has benefits, it is essential to find an intensity you enjoy and can maintain long-term.
You should try circuit training if:
- You know strength training is essential, but you don't want to spend hours in the gym
- You want to work your heart and muscles at the same time
- You are short on time
- You’re bored of the same free weight routine
- You enjoy the challenge of competing against yourself
- You want to work out at home or with minimal equipment
CrossFit™ is a worldwide fitness sensation that gained popularity in the early 2000s as a high-octane group class.
CrossFit is unique as it incorporates movements from different sports and athletic principles into one strength and conditioning program geared toward functional fitness.
One workout can include Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, kettlebells, calisthenics, gymnastics, bodyweight moves, running, swimming, or rowing.
These workouts can also be scaled to different ability levels—to an extent.
According to the CrossFit organization, “[CrossFit] works for everyone. People who have never worked out and those who have trained for years share equally in the benefits of CrossFit.”
However, as a personal trainer who did CrossFit for years, I humbly disagree.
CrossFit is a fantastic challenge, and I admire those participating in The CrossFit™ Games. But CrossFit is demanding and requires excellent instruction and serious dedication to learn the movements and work out safely.
Most CrossFit gyms (sometimes referred to as boxes) require new members to take classes with trained coaches before they can take a class. Learning the workout style requires a commitment of time and money, as monthly memberships usually range from $75 to $225.
Olympic weightlifting is considered a strength sport where competitors lift maximum weights for the snatch and the clean and jerk. Both exercises use almost every muscle in the body to throw hundreds of pounds deftly overhead.
It is a sport that requires speed, strength, explosive power—and significant joint stability and mobility.
While gymnastics includes acrobatics, turns, jumps, flips, and holds, it also requires feats of strength and dexterity that require tremendous joint stability and flexibility.
Both Olympic weightlifting and gymnastics necessitate exhaustive coaching and years of training to gain mastery, and each workout style puts intense demands on the body. As a result, gymnasts often retire in their early 20s.
Because of this, CrossFit is only as safe as your coach is experienced. And surprisingly, coaches are only required to complete two 8-hour classes with no prerequisite education or other credentials.
For context, most personal training certifications require at least a high school diploma, a CPR and AED certification, and months of study to pass an exam. Some personal training certifications also require a college degree in a health-related field.
Get our fitness newsletter
Stay on track with your fitness goals and get inspired! Sign up for the GymBird newsletter for twice-monthly expert fitness and nutrition tips.
Risks of CrossFit
While the most common injuries incurred tend to be minor—like strains, sprains, and twists—there is a precedent for potentially life-threatening conditions, like exertional rhabdomyolysis.
Extreme negative outcomes can be partially attributed to the highly competitive training environment encouraged in the box. After all, it is widely enjoyed by firefighters, cops, and military members—groups that require a more rigorous training program.
CrossFit became so popular with service members, in fact, that the United States military published a report on CrossFit and other extreme conditioning programs (ECPs) to evaluate whether they wanted their service members to participate.
Most notably, the report pointed out that the unusual programming CrossFit incorporates violates most exercise coaching wisdom. The report states, “…repeatedly performing maximal timed exercise repetitions without adequate rest intervals between sets fails to adhere to appropriate and safe training guidelines.”
It is important to note that the report also details the many benefits of ECPs, including CrossFit. Still, it set out specific criteria for which service members could participate, which included:
- Safety audits of boxes and gym equipment
- A gradual, controlled, stepwise introduction to the workouts
- Limiting full ECP participation to service members who were already very fit and healthy
- The continued study of ECP efficacy
Interestingly, most participants surveyed that were injured during CrossFit attributed their injuries to “training beyond capacity.” That means they knew they were exceeding their capabilities, and they kept going anyway.
But intensity is also partly what members love about CrossFit. Nothing brings a group of people together faster than a shared struggle.
If you’re considering joining a CrossFit gym, ask yourself:
- How much time and effort are you willing to spend learning a new sport?
- What’s your exercise risk tolerance?
CrossFit can be a first-rate experience if you are fully informed and prepared.
You should try CrossFit if:
- You have a competitive side
- You’re looking for a challenge
- You miss playing sports
- You want to learn a new set of skills
- Gym class was the time of your life
Circuit Training vs. CrossFit
Both circuit training and CrossFit offer impressive physical and health benefits, varied workouts, and efficiency. Both training styles can be highly challenging and modified to different ability levels.
A little-known fact is that there is no such thing as a CF workout per se - each box has unique programming written by its resident coach. So while the exercises are standard, how each coach will put them together in a workout is distinct.
While this variability can be exciting and keep things fresh for gym-goers, it can also contribute to injuries and overtraining if it is poorly planned.
Cross training is similar to CrossFit in that there are endless possibilities for creating enjoyable, varied workouts. However, because it does not utilize riskier technical moves like Olympic lifting and gymnastics, it is easier to learn and execute safely.
In fact, CrossFit utilizes circuits all the time in their workouts. But they also use a variety of other exercises for added complexity and difficulty.
Key Differences : Circuit Training vs CrossFit
Circuit training and CrossFit vary significantly in their coaching requirements, how difficult the exercises are to learn, their injury risk, and their intensity. Most significantly, beginners can circuit train unsupervised with minimal instruction, whereas CrossFit must be supervised from the very first session.
Facts About Circuit Training vs CrossFit
- You can perform circuit training using only exercise machines, body weight movements, or even items you have around the house.
- CrossFit requires you to work out in a specialized gym that offers numerous pieces of equipment like Olympic weight lifting bars, rowers, power racks, kettlebells, ropes, and more.
- CrossFit requires expert coaching to learn highly technical movements like Olympic weight lifting, powerlifting, and gymnastics. These movements often take many months to learn.
- While circuit training can be performed in a class, CrossFit has an unbeatable team sport environment filled with like-minded competitive people who will cheer you on.
- CrossFit has a significantly higher injury rate than other forms of strength training, like bodybuilding.
- This higher injury risk with CrossFit is likely attributed to the execution of challenging technical movements performed at high intensity with little rest.
- Circuit training can be performed along the continuum of intensity and is easily adjustable to any fitness level or physical ability.
- CrossFit workouts are adaptable to some degree but are meant to be performed at high intensity.
Circuit training is well-suited for a wide variety of goals and abilities, especially those looking to maximize the efficiency of their workouts. Circuits are highly effective for increasing fitness and strength and improving cardiovascular health and body composition. It truly is a workout for anyone.
CrossFit, on the other hand, is fantastic for competitive individuals, preferably without a significant injury history, who enjoy high-intensity exercise and are willing to work to learn a complex new sport. Many CrossFit enthusiasts I have met are previous team sport athletes who are looking for a way to challenge themselves in adulthood and get fitter at the same time.
Circuit Training vs CrossFit Comparison
|Definition||A series of exercises performed sequentially with minimal breaks in between stations||A high-intensity strength and conditioning program focused on functional fitness|
|Best For||Anyone looking for maximum efficiency in their workouts||Those who love to compete, love HIIT, those looking to learn a new sport|
|Equipment Needed||No equipment is necessary, but can be utilized if desired||Box gym with power rack, barbells, kettlebells, rower, assault bike, etc.|
|Pros||Efficient, effective, modifiable||Highly effective, competitive, fun team atmosphere|
|Cons||Not the best for maximum muscle growth||Increased injury risk, length of time it takes to learn exercises|
Circuit training and CrossFit both offer varied, exciting workouts to help you get fit, strong, and lean. Circuit training is the more accessible option offering a much broader array of workout formats and intensities that can help you reach almost any fitness goal, no matter where you are starting from.
CrossFit offers an intense, challenging, vigorous strength and conditioning program that will push you to your limits in a supportive team environment.
More Circuit Training Advice from GymBird Experts
- What is Circuit Training?
- Circuit Training for Beginners
- Circuit Training Workouts
- Best Circuit Training Workouts for Athletes
- Best Circuit Training for Runners
- Circuit Training Benefits
- Circuit Training vs. Cross Training
- Circuit Training vs. HIIT
- Circuit Training with Weights
- Is Circuit Training Aerobic or Anaerobic?
- Biology (Basel). Effects of Resistance Circuit-Based Training on Body Composition, Strength and Cardiorespiratory Fitness: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The nature and prevalence of injury during CrossFit training.
- Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine. Injury Rate and Patterns Among CrossFit Athletes.
- American Association of Occupational Health Nurses. The Benefits and Risks of CrossFit: A Systematic Review.
- Journal of Education, Health and Sport. Joint hypermobility in young gymnasts: Implications for injury and performance.
- BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. Exertional rhabdomyolysis: physiological response or manifestation of an underlying myopathy?
- Rehabilitation Process and Outcome. Identifying the Most Common CrossFit Injuries in a Variety of Athletes.
- Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine. Injury Incidence and Patterns Among Dutch CrossFit Athletes.
- Sports Medicine. The Epidemiology of Injuries Across the Weight-Training Sports.
- CrossFit. Inside the Level 1 Course.
- America College of Sports Medicine. Consortium for Health and Military Performance and American College of Sports Medicine Consensus Paper on Extreme Conditioning Programs in Military Personnel.