CrossFit vs HIIT – When Bicep Curls Just Aren’t Enough…

When we get bored, we start exploring and experimenting. 

Shortly after college when my traditional “bro, full-body split” regimen was starting get stale, I began looking into different types of exercises if, for nothing else, to stay motivated and interested in going to the gym!

What started with weekly sessions of the classic “300 Workout” evolved into the situation I’m in now where my fitness goals are a bit more ambitious than simply “blasting my biceps“.

crossfit vs hiit

Enter CrossFit and HIIT

Today, we’re going to discuss both of these training methods and will hopefully provide you with a little bit more focused direction in your own fitness journey than I had when I started to explore them. Regardless of whether HIIT or CrossFit ends up being the approach for you, you’ll never find yourself curling in the squat rack again! 

CrossFit vs HIIT: Two Training Protocols with High Workout Intensity

CrossFit and HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) have emerged as two top contenders for the coveted title or “Best Intense ‘Functional’ Training Discipline'”. Both disciplines are designed to raise the intensity of traditional gym workouts and, if you haven’t given either a try, you’re likely to find yourself out of breath and possibly addicted to the rush in a short period of time.

Many CrossFit workouts can actually be considered to be HIIT-style workouts as they contain periods of very intense physical activity combined with periods of rest or lower levels of intensity. However, for the purposes of this article, when we refer to CrossFit, we are discussing its entire “system” as opposed to individual workouts with HIIT components.

Thoroughly confused at the distinctions between the two? Let’s fix that now!

What Is CrossFit?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 years or so, you’ve probably come across CrossFit in some context or another. For those under-rock dwellers…Crossfit is a high-intensity fitness program that combines weightlifting, gymnastics, and metabolic conditioning to improve overall fitness. 

At the core of most CrossFit workouts is the metabolic conditioning (“METCON”) component (also sometimes incorrectly referred to as the the “Workout of the Day,” or “WOD”). Each metcon is comprised of functional movements, such as squats, deadlifts, power cleans, and pull-ups, that are performed with intensity and with some type of time component involved.

One of the key principles of CrossFit is the concept of “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.” This means that each metcon is different, and athletes are constantly challenged to adapt to new exercises and movement patterns. The challenge extends to athletes needing to perform familiar exercises under fatigue or with more challenging weights.

CrossFit workouts are typically performed in a group setting, with athletes yelling encouragement at each other (in some cases with some…less than “PG language” involved!) This sense of community is a key aspect of CrossFit, and many participants find this to be the major appeal to CrossFit.

What Is HIIT?

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is an umbrella term for a style of training that involves short bursts of intense exercise followed by periods of rest or low-intensity exercise. This type of training is designed to increase cardiovascular fitness, burn fat, and build muscle in a short amount of time.

The typical HIIT workout lasts anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes and can be done with or without equipment. Common HIIT exercises can include sprints, burpees, and kettlebell swings, but the options are essentially endless.

One of the main benefits of HIIT is that it allows us to burn more calories in a shorter amount of time than traditional steady-state cardio. According to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity (what a name!), HIIT can burn up to 25-30% more calories than many other forms of exercise. 

Another benefit of HIIT is that it can improve metabolic rate. This leads to a more continuous caloric expenditure, even during non-workout periods/hours. A study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that HIIT can increase our resting metabolic rate for up to 24 hours after exercise.

CrossFit Workout Components

As hard as it may be to believe, there is some “method to the madness” when it comes to CrossFit workouts. We’ll look at some common components now.

Exercises

CrossFit workouts incorporate a wide variety of exercises, including power lifts, Olympic weightlifting lifts, gymnastics, and cardio (…lots of cardio). Powerlifts like the squat and deadlift build overall strength. Olympic weightlifting exercises such as the snatch and the clean and jerk are incorporated to build power with a heavy focus on intricate technique. Gymnastics exercises such as pull-ups, dips, and handstand push-ups are incorporated to build bodyweight strength and coordination. Cardio exercises such as rowing, running, and ski-erg…ing are incorporated to build endurance.

Rep Schemes

CrossFit workouts often use HIIT and circuit training rep schemes.  The HIIT components often show up in the form of “EMOM” (Every Minute on the Minute) workouts where a movement is performed at a high intensity for part of the minute while the athlete rests in the remaining portion. Circuit training involves performing a series of exercises back-to-back with little to no rest between each exercise. 

General Components

In addition to these components of the metcon portions of workouts, CrossFit also incorporate other general components such as warm-ups, strength-building pieces, skill-building pieces, cool-downs, and mobility work.

Warm-ups are designed to prepare the body for the workout ahead and typically include a more “general warmup” as well as a “specific warmup” (designed to mimic the coming movements).

Strength and skill pieces involve performing heavy lifts or in perfecting common CrossFit “skills” (ex. double-unders, handstand walking, or ring muscle-ups).

Cool-downs are designed to help the body recover from the workout and typically include static stretching and light cardio.

Mobility work is designed to improve joint range of motion and flexibility and typically includes exercises such as foam rolling and stretching.

HIIT Workout Components

When it comes to HIIT workouts, things are in some ways more straightforward and, in other ways, are more complex. 

Exercises

HIIT workouts typically involve a combination of cardio and strength exercises. Some common exercises include:

  • High knees
  • Jumping jacks
  • Burpees
  • Mountain climbers
  • Squat jumps
  • Push-ups
  • Lunges

These exercises are usually performed in short bursts of high intensity, followed by a brief rest period. While most HIIT exercises involve bodyweight or light weights, they can actually involve just abut any exercise.

Rep Schemes

The rep schemes in a HIIT workout can vary, but the general idea is to perform multiple reps as in a short period of time. Some common rep schemes include:

  • Tabata: 20 seconds of work, 10 seconds of rest, repeated for 8 rounds
  • EMOM: As mentioned above, perform a set number of reps and rest for the remainder of the minute
  • “Death By…”: A type of EMOM where the reps performed each round increase until they cannot be completed within the minute.

General Components

Unlike CrossFit, HIIT workouts are a bit less “developed” and structured. In most cases, what would be classified as the CrossFit metcon is the entire HIIT workout. Of course, strength, skill, mobility, and warmup pieces can supplement this activity, but these aren’t “standard” components of HIIT training. 

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Downsides of CrossFit

While CrossFitt has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, it certainly does have its haters. Here are some of their main gripes!

  • Risk of Injury

CrossFit workouts are known for their intensity and complexity, which can increase the risk of injury. According to a study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, the injury rate for CrossFit participants is approximately 20%. With that being said, this rate isn’t significantly higher than it is in other forms of training…so…take this one with a grain of salt.

  • Emphasis on Competition

CrossFit workouts often involve competition, which can be motivating for some people but can be a bit intimidating for those who aren’t overly competitive or who are more intrinsically focused.

  • Lack of Personalization (in Some Settings)

CrossFit workouts are designed to be scalable, meaning that they can be adjusted for different fitness levels. However, many workouts are not personalized to an individual’s specific needs and goals (this is often the case in class settings where more “general” programming is featured). This can lead to a lack of progress, particularly for intermediate or advanced athletes.

Downsides of HIIT

Like CrossFit, HIIT has some upsides and downsides. Here, we’ll focus on the latter. 

  • Risk of Injury

Like CrossFit, HIIT workouts are intense and require a lot of effort and energy. This can increase the risk of injury, especially for those unaccustomed to high-intensity exercise. However, also like CrossFit, this injury risk isn’t significantly higher than other forms of training.

  • Can Be Exhausting

HIIT workouts can be exhausting, both physically and mentally. They require a lot of effort and energy, and it can be difficult to engage in other core workout components (ex. strength training, mobility work) after a tough session.

  • Plateau Effect

While HIIT can be effective for improving fitness and burning fat, it’s important to remember that the body can adapt to exercise over time. This means that you may experience a plateau effect, where you stop seeing progress despite continuing with the same workout routine. This is especially true when HIIT routines do not involve any resistance training or opportunities for progressive overload (increasing the weight/resistance used over time).

CrossFit vs HIIT – The Showdown!

Now that we’ve looked at some pros and cons of each discipline, let’s take a look at how each performs in a quasi head-to-head matchup.

CrossFit vs HIIT for Cardio

Yeah, I know; you’re deciding between these two because you hate “normal” cardio. Let’s see which is more…tolerable.

CrossFit For Cardio

As previously mentioned, CrossFit workouts are designed to be intense and varied, which can help improve cardiovascular endurance. CrossFit workouts often include high-intensity intervals, such as sprinting, rowing, and jumping, which can help to increase heart rate and oxygen uptake. 

CrossFit workouts can also be customized, modified, or scaled to fit individual objectives and fitness levels. This makes it a great option for people who are looking to improve their cardiovascular health, regardless of their current fitness level. 

HIIT For Cardio

HIIT workouts are designed to be short and intense, which can help to improve cardiovascular endurance and can also be customized to fit individual needs and fitness levels. Depending on how long each workout goes, there may be more of an emphasis on anaerobic as opposed to aerobic cardio development.

In most cases, CrossFit is going to win this match-up, as well. Many CrossFit pieces include longer cardio components which complement the shorter, higher-intensity bursts. HIIT simply doesn’t incorporate this type of work.

CrossFit vs HIIT For Strength

You may not think you want to get big and strong now…but you’ll almost certainly end up wanting to get really strong. One of these will help you accomplish this much more efficiently than the other one will!

CrossFit For Strength

CrossFit incorporates a variety of disciplines, such as barbell work, gymnastics, and supplemental resistance training, to help develop strength in all areas of the body.

One of the benefits of CrossFit for strength development is the use of compound exercises. Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups and joints, helping to increase overall strength and muscle mass. 

Another benefit of CrossFit for strength development is the focus on functional movements. Functional movements mimic real-life activities and can help to improve the type of strength that will actually translate into “real world” strength.

HIIT For Strength

One of the benefits of HIIT for strength development is the use of bodyweight exercises. Bodyweight exercises, such as push-ups, squats, and lunges, can help to improve overall strength and muscle tone. HIIT workouts also incorporate plyometric exercises, which involve explosive movements and can help to improve power and strength.

Overall, unless your HIIT regimen includes some type of weighted work, CrossFit wins hands down in the strength development category. Without some dedicated strength pieces to the workout, HIIT really gets left in the dust here.

Crossfit vs HIIT For Beginners

A lot of the exercises in CrossFit and HIIT are “simple” enough to perform…until you consider that you generally have to keep performing them for an excessively long period of time. Nevertheless, both are beginner-friendly disciplines.

CrossFit for Beginners

For beginners, CrossFit can be pretty intimidating. There are a lot of movements to learn and it is important to start with the basics and focus on proper form and technique. Learning this form is vital to performing “better” in the future and to preventing injuries. Additionally, beginners need to focus on building their strength and endurance gradually.

Thankfully, CrossFit gyms have a strong sense of community and provide a supportive environment for those brand new to the discipline.

HIIT For Beginners

For beginners, HIIT workouts are a great option as they can be modified to suit individual fitness levels. Beginners can start with low-intensity exercises and gradually increase the intensity as they build their strength and endurance.

HIIT workouts are also great for beginners who have limited access to equipment and who are not familiar with more technical exercises and movements. Even “simple” exercises can be very challenging when performed in the confines of a HIIT workout. 

Overall, both Crossfit and HIIT are great options for beginners who are looking to get fit and healthy. However, for rank beginners, a properly modified HIIT workout is probably more accessible than most CrossFit workouts.

CrossFit vs HIIT Safety

You know what the least safe form of exercise is? NOT exercising at all! You know what the second most unsafe form of exercise is? Exercising with bad form. Avoid both of these, and neither CrossFit nor HIIT inherently unsafe.

CrossFit Safety

The intensity and complexity of many core CrossFit exercises, as well as the competitive nature of the workouts, can lead to injuries. However, if performed with appropriate care and attention, these risks can be greatly minimized.

CrossFit coaches are required to undergo training and certification to ensure that they have the knowledge and skills to safely guide athletes through workouts. The deliberate and somewhat complex process of CrossFit workouts ensures that they are designed to be challenging but not overtly dangerous when properly performed. 

HIIT Safety

HIIT, is oftentimes considered to be a safer option than Crossfit. The workouts are typically shorter and involve less complex movements, which can reduce the risk of injury. However, poorly and randomly-designed workouts can be perilous, especially to those with less experience or familiarity with HIIT training. 

There are many factors that contribute to the overall “safety” of a workout, but with so many untechnical and “simple” bodyweight movements involved in HIIT, its safety level might be higher than CrossFit’s (all other factors being equal!)

CrossFit vs HIIT with Limited Equipment

You may think “I don’t have a ton of equipment or a gym to train in…so…I guess I don’t gotta work out…”

Both CrossFit and HIIT provide ample opportunity to train without equipment!

CrossFit With Limited Equipment

When it comes to CrossFit, the workouts are designed to be performed with a variety of equipment, including barbells, kettlebells, and gymnastics rings. However, what happens when you don’t have access to this equipment? 

If you were CrossFitting during Corona times, you know you can do CrossFit with very little equipment and a bit of imagination. The key is to focus on bodyweight exercises and to make modifications to the exercises you would normally do with “prescribed” equipment. I had to get pretty creative during my years of performing CrossFit workouts in the hotels I lived in!

HIIT with Limited Equipment

HIIT workouts are designed to be done with minimal equipment, making them a great option for those who don’t have access to a gym or a lot of equipment. With HIIT, you can use your bodyweight to perform exercises like burpees, squats, and walking lunges.

In addition to bodyweight exercises, you can also use easy-to-find (and inexpensive!) equipment like resistance bands and dumbbells to add some variety to your workouts. Resistance bands can be used for exercises like bicep curls and tricep extensions, while dumbbells can be used for exercises like squats, lunges, and shoulder presses.

Overall, both Crossfit and HIIT can be done with limited equipment. While CrossFit may require more modifications to the exercises, both allow for some pretty tough limited-equipment workouts…if you have at least some creative bones in your body!

Frequently Asked Questions

The key to weight loss is creating a calorie deficit, which can be achieved through a combination of exercise and diet. Both CrossFit and HIIT workouts can burn a significant amount of calories in a short amount of time, making them both effective for weight loss.

However, the number of calories burned during a workout can vary depending on the individual's fitness level, the intensity of the workout, and the duration of the workout. In general, CrossFit workouts tend to be longer and more intense than HIIT workouts, which can result in a more calories burned.

NOTE: CrossFit workouts are also generally better for building strength and muscle than HIIT workouts are so...don't be alarmed when your weight loss is "interrupted" by muscle gainz!

In terms of overall effectiveness, it really depends on the individual's goals and preferences. If you are looking to improve your overall fitness and strength, CrossFit may be a better option. If you are looking to get a "good sweat" in with your limited gym time, HIIT may be "it".

HIIT or CrossFit …or… HIIT and CrossFit…?

In case you haven’t already figured things out, there is a lot in common between CrossFit and HIIT. I would go so far as to say that if you’re currently practicing CrossFit that you’re already “doing” HIIT. If you do HIIT a lot…you’re just a few steps away from starting CrossFit.

However, don’t fool yourself; just because you do a CrossFit WOD every once in awhile, you’re not really doing “proper” CrossFit training. The distinction is kind of like the “exercise vs. training” definitions popularized by powerlifting guru Mark Rippetoe.

Ultimately, you’re going to make the most progress by following a dedicated program as opposed to randomly performing random HIIT workouts. If you have some Olympic lifting and gymnastic experience under your belt (and don’t mind spending ~1:45 minutes in the gym), take a look at our review of Mat Fraser’s HWPO program. Your HIIT sessions are about to upgrade…substantially.

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AUTHOR

Tom, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, ISSA-CPT, PN1-NC, DPA, CAPM has been CrossFitting for over 10 years. He has participated in a number of team and individual CrossFit competitions across Europe and the United States. He was the 2012 Chick-fil-A Race Series champion (North Georgia Circuit) and has put together a few gnarly garage and basement gyms in his time!

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