CrossFit vs Powerlifting: “Elite Fitness” and HEAVY Lifts

Last update:

After a certain period of time, running through the same gym machine circuit starts to get a bit…old (reading: “boring”). It’s during these periods that any serious lifter starts to consider other, better options…

Like CrossFit (since they’ve seen it on TV before, the workouts look cool, and the girls look good) or Powerlifting (because they want to get really strong and want to hang around the squat rack all day).

To be honest, you can’t really go “wrong” with either, although each sport/discipline is definitely suited to a certain kind of person more than the other (I mean, seriously. Just look at this dude vs. the other guy…they ain’t living in the same gym world!)

crossfit vs powerlifting

Whether you want to build muscle, increase your cardiovascular health and capacity, or find a “supportive” fitness community, both CrossFit and Powerlifting have their merits. Today, we’re going to provide a clear picture of each, broken into important sub-category areas of consideration, to help you decide what you want your next obsession to be.

What Is Crossfit?

When we talk about Crossfit, we’re talking about the real deal, “constantly varied functional movements” getting you ready for the “unknown and unknowable”. From endurance to strength, balance to flexibility, CrossFit really covers it all. CrossFit differs from the usual boring gym approach mainly because of:

  • Multidisciplinary Approach: At its core, CrossFit encompasses a blend of exercises ranging from weightlifting to gymnastics and high-intensity cardio.
  • Variety in Workouts: Every day there is something different (well…not totally different). CrossFit incorporates a core group of core exercises that are regularly programmed into ever-changing (and evolving) workouts.

How is it structured?

  • Functional Movements: Exercises mimic everyday actions, advocating for natural, compound movements that actually prepare participants for “real world” challenges.
  • High Intensity: Workouts are generally performed at high intensity to achieve maximum results in a short period.

How long are the workouts?

There is a bit of a misnomer here around CrossFit workouts being all about “WODs” or the main metabolic conditioning (“metcon”). While each workout session usually includes an intense ~10-20 minute, boundary-pushing workout, the warm-up, strength pieces, and skill pieces usually push overall workout times to around an hour.

Why is it popular with everybody?

  • Scalability: Whether a participant is a fitness newb or has been training for years, the workouts can be scaled to fit any fitness level.
  • Measurable Progress: As varied as the workouts are, it is actually pretty easy to measure progress over time, particularly via the regular repeating of CrossFit benchmark workouts.

How safe is CrossFit?

Like any sport, CrossFit poses an injury risk. That being said injury rates in Crossfit are cited to be between 0.74 to 3.3 per 1000 participation hours. For those who are mindful of emptying proper form and not going too crazy beyond their limits, their injury rates will definitely fall on that lower end.

What Is Powerlifting?

Powerlifting is a fitness sport that prides itself on developing, and testing raw strength. In competition, it is comprised of three main lifts: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. Each lift has its own nuances, but, when done right, the Powerlifting meet champion is the strongest man (or woman) in the house.

The Core Lifts

  • Squat: “The king of all exercise”, engages our entire body, with a particular focus on the lower body and core strength.
  • Bench Press: The upper body strength Powerlifting movement, the bench press targets the pecs, triceps, and shoulders.
  • Deadlift: The deadlift works our posterior chain, which includes the hamstrings, back muscles, and glutes (but like the squat, the deadlift works a lot of muscles!)

When powerlifters step onto the platform, they perform each lift according to strict guidelines to ensure fair competition and safety. The sum of their heaviest lifts contributes to their overall total, which is then used to rank them against other competitors (both in their respective weight classes and overall). 

Training and Preparation

Powerlifting training involves cycles that prepare lifters to peak at the right time, usually for competitions, focused on the “big 3” lifts. Training is mainly focused on building overall strength, but technique, which is crucial to lifting the heaviest weights possible, is also a constant focus.

Community and Competition

Powerlifting has a large (ha!) and welcoming community. The old cliche of a bunch of big dudes throwing down in some old beat up garage or basement definitely holds up. Although these guys usually look pretty intimidating, they are, without fail, the nicest and most accommodating guys in the fitness world.

Main Benefits Of CrossFit

CrossFit is a bit more than just “lifting weights”. Some of the main benefits of the discipline are:

  • Variety in Workouts: As previously mentioned, each day, there is a brand new workout to tackle, ensuring that the regimen never gets old. This variety also supports the overall development of different muscle groups and enhances overall fitness levels.
  • Community Support: The CrossFit community encourages and pushes each other to achieve new personal bests. The camaraderie is integral to our CrossFit experience (as much as I love training alone in the basement, I know I push myself more when I got a couple of guys to keep me honest!)
  • Increased Cardiovascular Fitness: The high-intensity nature of CrossFit workouts can improve cardio capabilities much more efficiently than most traditional workout regimens.
  • Flexibility and Mobility: Regularly performing varied movements and stretches can lead to improved flexibility and mobility.

Main Benefits Of Powerlifting

People get really strong from Powerlifting (as you might expect!) Let’s look at all of the benefits, though:

Develop Raw Strength: Maximum strength development…as expected.

Gain Muscle Mass: Heavy compound lifts release mad muscle-growth hormone into the body. These exercises engage multiple major muscle groups, leading to increased muscle hypertrophy over time.

Improve Bone Density: In addition to muscle mass increases, bone density increases as well. Lifting heavy weights consistently contributes to more robust bone health.

Enhance Joint Health: Despite some old wives’ tales, when done properly, Powerlifting can actually be quite good for joints. It strengthens tendons and ligaments, supporting healthy joint function.

Boosted Confidence and Mental Toughness: Powerlifting challenges lifters to push through tough training sessions, which builds mental resilience and boosts confidence.

CrossFit Vs Powerlifting – The Showdown

Now…we finally come to the “main event”!

When contemplating CrossFit vs Powerlifting, its important to weigh the versatile and comprehensive nature of CrossFit against the specialized strength building of Powerlifting. It all comes down to what you’re aiming for: overall fitness or elite strength in key lifts…

…or how you feel about each of these category areas below:

CrossFit vs Powerlifting – Muscle Building

For many, this might be the only thing that they care about. As such, we’ll jump right into it!


  • Focus: Maximizes strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
  • Training Regimen: Involves progressive overload aimed at increasing max efforts in core lifts.
  • Muscle Gains: Targets primarily Type II muscle fibers, which have the greatest potential for growth.

Powerlifting Workout Components

  • Squat
  • Bench Press
  • Deadlift
  • Accessories 


  • Focus: Enhances overall fitness through varied, high-intensity functional movements.
  • Training Regime: Incorporates a mix of aerobic exercise, bodyweight movements, and Olympic lifting in a competitive environment where athletes “suffer” through each rep together.
  • Muscle Gains: Promotes a more balanced physique by working a wider range of muscles, often including endurance.

CrossFit Workout Components:

  • Olympic Lifts
  • Gymnastics Movements
  • Aerobic Conditioning

Ultimately, the choice between CrossFit and Powerlifting for building muscle depends on individual goals. For pure size, Powerlifting might be the pick. However for those seeking a more “complete” physique, CrossFit might be the way to go. 

CrossFit vs Powerlifting – Strength Building

When we look at building strength, both CrossFit and Powerlifting have distinct approaches. You probably have an idea of where this match-up is going…


  • Variety of Movements: Dynamic and athletic workouts that mix weightlifting, gymnastics, and resistance training, helping to build strength in a number of different ways/modalities.
  • Functional Strength: A focus on strength training  that translates to real-world activities.
  • High Intensity Sessions: Short and intense workouts that don’t normally focus on a max-effort lift.


  • Maximal Strength: Developing PRs in “the Big 3”.
  • Technique: Strong (ha!) emphasis on technique in order to maximize lifting efforts.
  • Accessory Work: Strategic exercises that are incorporated to improve the main lifts and overall strength.

Ultimately, are you looking to improve strength across a range of activities or do you aim to lift maximum weights and excel in very specific movements? 

If you’re down with the former, CrossFit is for you; the latter, Powerlifting.

CrossFit vs Powerlifting – Cardio Building

When comparing CrossFit with Powerlifting, especially regarding cardio building, we’re looking at two completely different philosophies. Let’s break down how each discipline approaches cardiovascular work:


  • Dynamic Cardio: At its core, CrossFit focuses on high-intensity, varied movements that incorporate cardiovascular elements into almost every workout of the day (“WOD”).
  • Constant Variation: CrossFit includes a mix of sprinting, rowing, and gymnastics in workouts which aim to increase heart rate and build endurance alongside strength and agility.
  • Frequency: Since these elements are ingrained in just about every CrossFit workout, cardio tasks are programmed…a lot.


  • “Targeted” Cardio: Cardio isn’t the main focus in Powerlifting. Powerlifting is a strength sport, after all.
  • Complementary Cardio: That said, some powerlifters may integrate light cardio into their regimen for overall health benefits or for cutting weight (pushing the weight sled or prowler is generally the cardio approach of choice).
  • Controlled Usage: Too much emphasis on cardio work can hinder muscle and strength gains critical for Powerlifting success.

It’s clear cut here: CrossFit is going to do a lot for your cardio development than Powerlifting will.

CrossFit vs Powerlifting – Dedicated Facilities

We’ll take a bit of a different approach and look at these two in a chart(-ish) format. Also, keep in mind, that these comparisons are for the dedicated facilities (not in regards to doing these workouts at some random globe gym).

FeatureCrossFit “Box”Powerlifting Gym
EquipmentKettlebells, barbells, rowers, jump ropes…and onSpecialized barbells, heavy-duty racks
LayoutOpen space for varied workoutsDedicated areas for the “big 3” 
AtmosphereCommunity-centric, encouragingSlightly more subdued (besides the blasting death metal)

In both cases, you’ll likely find these facilities in industrial-style buildings on the outskirts of town (unless the owners are loaded). While some may be “brighter” than others (at least the CrossFit gyms), none of them will have that neon lights, Planet Fitness vibe (thankfully!)

CrossFit vs Powerlifting – Equipment

CrossFit and Powerlifting both employ some equipment that you’re probably familiar with…and a lot of stuff you’ve probably never seen before.

Here’s what you’d typically find in a Powerlifting gym:

Here’s a CrossFit equipment rundown:

  • Barbells and Bumper Plates
  • Kettlebells
  • Dumbbells
  • Pull-Up Bars and Gymnastics Rings
  • Plyo Boxes
  • Medicine/Wall Balls and Jump Ropes
  • Rowers and Fan Bikes

Each sport’s choice of equipment reflects its specific modalities. That being said, as fun as it is “collecting” a bunch of CrossFit equipment, getting geared up for Powerlifting is a bit more manageable.

CrossFit vs Powerlifting – Costs

Straight up, dedicated CrossFit and Powerlifting gyms are going to be more expensive than typical bro gyms. Of course, you can set up your own home or garage gym and equip it yourself…but..this is gonna cost you as well!

  • CrossFit: The cost to join a CrossFit gym varies greatly by location, but in the United States a membership can cost anywhere from $100 to $250 per month. This includes access to classes led by certified instructors and a coach or two.
  • Powerlifting: A gym membership that is conducive to Powerlifting may be less expensive, averaging around $30 to $60 per month. However, specialized Powerlifting gyms can also command higher fees similar to CrossFit boxes (if not higher as with Starting Strength gyms).

Remember, these figures can vary based on location and frequency of training.

Alternatives To Crossfit And Powerlifting

If for, whatever reason, you’re not interested in pursuing one of these two disciplines, let’s take a quick look at some alternatives:

  • Calisthenics: These use only body weight (and some accessories like gymnastics rings) to provide resistance  (think push-ups, muscle-ups, and pull-ups). Versatile and can be done almost anywhere
  • High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): HIIT involves short bursts of intense activity followed by rest. A lot of what’s done in CrossFit can be classified as HIIT.
  • Olympic Weightlifting: Ironically, even more focused on “power” than Powerlifting. Heavily focused on technique and improving the two main competition lifts (the clean and jerk and the snatch).

As great as CrossFit and Powerlifting are, you can’t really go wrong with either of these other options (especially Olympic lifting and calisthenics).

Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s look at a few more questions from the stragglers. 

Beginners might choose CrossFit if they're looking for a comprehensive and diverse fitness routine that incorporates cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility training. CrossFit is scalable to all fitness levels, making it accessible even for those just starting. Powerlifting, on the other hand, can be excellent for beginners interested in focusing on strength development. It can increase bone density and muscle mass and often requires learning fewer exercises/movements in the initial stages.

CrossFit promotes a lean and muscular physique due to the variety of high-intensity functional movements which can help burn fat and build muscle simultaneously. In contrast, a powerlifter focuses on increasing muscle size and strength in targeted areas, which can result in significant gains in muscle mass and overall density.

Ultimately, both CrossFit and Powerlifting have their unique benefits and potential drawbacks when it comes to altering our body composition. Both have the potential to do a lot for muscle size and composition, but a CrossFit athlete is more likely to be ripped while Powerlifting is more likely to get you jacked.

CrossFit vs Powerlifting – Post-Game

The one thing I hope you’ve taken from this clash of titans from these two sports is that…well…both consist of some very different components than bodybuilding does. 

To be honest, it take higher personal aspirations and motivation to succeed at CrossFit or Powerlifting.

Don’t let that personal trainer at the gym (the one whose clients never seem to get better or more fit) tell you any differently.

Sure, CrossFit may seem a bit odd (especially when viewed out of proper context) and powerlifters look…scary, but spend some time with people who have done either discipline for an extended period of time and it should be very easy to see legit results.

Whether you end up going with CrossFit or Powerlifting, you can’t really go wrong…and if you happen to be leaning towards Powerlifting, check out our article on how it compares to Olympic weightlifting (NOTE: you’ll get really strong with either of these options!)

Photo of 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!

Leave a Comment