With its slew of insider-only lingo, intriguingly bare-boned training spaces, and celeb backing (Jessica Biel, Channing Tatum, and Vanessa Hudgens, to name a few), CrossFit has inspired an almost fanatical devotion from its followers.
In addition to being the ultimate (and 4-million-strong) #fitfam, this is likely because the workout program works. Research by the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s exercise physiology program found that women who performed two different WODs (that’s “workout of the day” in CrossFit speak) burned over 12 calories per minute and maintained an elevated heart rate throughout the entire workout. Translation: These women were torching calories, building muscle, and improving their cardiovascular endurance in as little as five to eight minutes.
Trouble is, walk into a CrossFit box (or simply scroll through a CrossFitter’s Instagram) and you’ll see someone attempting and banging out reps of brag-worthy, tough-looking moves, which can feel pretty exclusive. “A lot of CrossFit moves look super-intimidating,” says level two certified CrossFit trainer Emmy Simpkins, owner of CrossFit Speakeasy and a CrossFit Regionals athlete. “But once you have the strength and skill to complete them, they’re not as tough as they look.”
Whether you’re a WOD-loving CrossFitter or not, you’ll realize that the below five exercises from CrossFit only look tough, after Simpkins and doctor of physical therapy Grayson Wickham, CSCS and founder of Movement Vault, break them down step-by-step.
Equipment: Kettlebell or barbell
How to do it: Hold one kettlebell in both hands at chest level and stand with your feet hip-width to shoulder-width apart. Stand tall and brace your core, then drop your butt back and down as you keep your chest up, sitting back onto your heels. Driving through your heels, come back up to standing and give your glutes a squeeze. That’s one rep. Aim for four sets of eight to 12 reps.
Once you can comfortably complete the above with a 44-pound kettlebell, transition to a barbell front squat. Here, you’ll hold the barbell in a front rack position. “Start out with just an empty barbell, and rock out reps with the barbell. Then, slowly add weight as you feel comfortable,” Wickham suggests.
Why it works: “Any squat variation is going to work the lower body, but because the weight is front-loaded for the front squat, your torso has to be more upright. This front-loaded position makes the movement quad-, glute-, and abdominal-dominant,” Wickham says. Because the rest of your body has to work to stabilize the load of the barbell, this is actually a full-body move, he adds.
How to do it: Pick a weight that you can easily hold overhead for 20 seconds, like a 15- or 20-pound dumbbell to start. To begin, stand with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, hips shifted back. Using an overhead position (palm facing down), grab the dumbbell with your left hand. Bring the weight in between your legs, pointing your right arm straight in front of you for balance. Explosively drive your hips forward as you raise your left elbow up and back, bringing the weight overhead with a straight arm. Stabilize the weight overhead, then release the weight back between your legs to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Do four sets of 10 reps per side.
Why it works: “The snatch is an Olympic weightlifting move that CrossFit ‘borrowed,’ but the great thing about the single-arm dumbbell snatch is that anyone can do this powerful, hip-driven, lower-body-focused movement,” Simpkins says. “Single-arm dumbbell snatches are a fantastic exercise for developing core strength and stability,” Wickham adds. “But they also work your lower back, hips, shoulders, traps, glutes, and even calves. They’re deceptively full-body.”
Equipment: Pull-up bar
How to do it: Grip the pull-up bar so that your hands are slightly wider than shoulder-distance apart. Hang from the bar with a straight back and engaged core. Keep your legs together as you bring your knees to your elbows. Then, kick your toes and feet to the bar. (Depending on your skill level, this can be done with the help of a kipping motion for momentum.) Keep your arms straight as you bring your toes to the bar. Drop your legs back down slowly so that you are in control of the descent. That’s one rep. Repeat for three to four sets of six to 10 reps with as much rest as needed between.
Why it works: “To lift your legs up while hanging from a pull-up bar, your core muscles have to be fully engaged,” Simpkins says. While the movement primarily engages the abdominal and back muscles and taxes your grip, it also targets the hamstrings, hips flexors, lats, and groin, she says.
Toes to bar is a relatively advanced exercise, explains Wickham, so those who can’t yet do them should focus on knees to elbows. “For knees to elbows, the athlete should try to get their knees as high as possible while keeping their legs together,” he says.
How to do it: Start standing with feet hip-width apart about one to two feet from the box. Next, reach forward and drop your hands to the floor. As your hands reach for the floor, jump your feet back into a plank, and immediately lower your entire body to the floor. Release your hands and allow your body to drop to the ground. Replace your palms on the floor, push up into a plank, and hop your feet forward to your hands. That’s one burpee.
Then, as you stand, without pausing, swing your arms back and jump explosively onto the box. Land as softly as possible with both feet on the box in a semi-squat. Then, jump or step off the box and back to the ground. That’s one burpee box jump.
Try doing 30 at the end of your workout as fast as you can while maintaining good form. Or work up to doing 10 to 15 per minute every minute for 10 minutes for a real cardiovascular burn.
Why it works: What’s so great about burpee box jumps is that they translate into strength, explosiveness, and cardiovascular endurance, Simpkins says. “Burpee box jumps are challenging because they get your heart rate up quickly and are full body, so your cardiovascular system will feel it after only a few reps,” she says.
“Box jumps use all the major muscle groups of the legs, while burpees literally work almost every muscle in your body, including your chest, triceps, and abs,” Wickham says.
If you’re not quite ready for a box jump, step up onto the box instead, Simpkins suggests.
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Equipment: Wall and mat (optional)
How to do it: Kick or walk your feet up the wall into a handstand, so that your back is against the wall and your stomach is facing out. Keeping your legs straight, rest your heels against the wall, and brace your core, glutes, and thighs so that your body is in a relatively straight line.
Then, bending at the elbows, look between your hands and slowly lower your body until your head touches the floor or a mat. (As with the toes to bar, depending on your skill level, this can also be done with the help of a kipping motion for momentum.) Without pausing at the bottom, reverse the movement and return to the starting position by straightening your arms. That’s one rep. Aim for four sets of three to four reps to start.
Why it works: This exercise is all upper-body–triceps, lats, shoulders, delts–but it’s also a core movement, because in order to keep your back from arching, you need to brace your middle, Simpkins says.
Note: This is an advanced movement. The handstand push-up requires the muscles in your upper body to work much harder than standard push-ups because you’re pushing a larger percentage of your bodyweight (a.k.a. all of it). It’s best reserved for people who can do at least 10 standard push-ups and who can hold themselves in a handstand for 30 seconds.