CrossFit vs Weightlifting – The Matchup the World has been Waiting for!

Reviewed by: Luis Rodríguez Brito

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While not the age-old debate that “Coke vs. Pepsi” or “Nike vs. Adidas” are, “CrossFit vs weightlifting” feuds are intense between each sport’s athletes.

CrossFitters can hang their hats on their sport’s diversity of movements and “interesting” workouts. Meanwhile, the technical precision of Olympic weightlifting results in incredible feats of power.

Both disciplines are excellent in their own ways. Instead of looking at CrossFit vs weightlifting in a combative sense, we can explore the pros and cons of both disciplines.

What is CrossFit?

If you’re reading this, you probably already have a pretty good idea of what CrossFit is and how workouts are structured.

If you don’t, in a nutshell, CrossFit mixes a diverse group of fitness exercises in very intense and physically demanding workouts.

@crossfit

Some of the most common movements in CrossFit are barbell cleans and snatches, the two lifts Olympic weightlifters perform in competition.

The presence of these lifts in CrossFit is the main reason why CrossFit vs weightlifting comparisons are so apt (they are present in both disciplines).

Pros of CrossFit

The wide variety of exercises and stimuli CrossFit offers makes the sport attractive to many of its adherents. Some of the other reasons people prefer CrossFit are:

Interesting Programming

If you look at the CrossFit.com main page, you’ll come across daily programming snippets. These pieces are not intended to be full workouts in themselves, but they do provide a glimpse at the multitude of movements and volume.

The last 5 days of 2022 (December 27-31) saw the following workouts posted on Crossfit.com:

Dec 27

Dec 28

Dec 29

Dec 30

Dec 31

As you can see from this small collection of workouts, no two days are the same with CrossFit! In the CrossFit vs weightlifting feud, CrossFit wins this one hands down!

Fast Gains

With so much variety in CrossFit, there is bound to be exercises that even the most experienced lifters have limited experience with. While the prospect of having to master so many different movements can be daunting, it also provides the opportunity for quick “wins”.

It isn’t uncommon for new CrossFit athletes to set PRs in one exercise or another every week, if not during every session.

@emmalouiserosengren

CrossFit progress is more than just strength gains. A quick search of something like “CrossFit Before and After” will yield thousands of pictures of incredible body transformations. Many of these include a caption stating something like “12 Weeks into My CrossFit Journey!

In CrossFit, gains can come fast!

Popularity

Today, it is probably more difficult to find someone who hasn’t heard of CrossFit than someone who has. There are more CrossFit gyms in operation now than at any other time.

Map of World CrossFit Gyms

The CrossFit Games (the “Super Bowl” of the sport) is streamed live throughout the world and in a number of different foreign languages.

Chances are good that you have a friend (or ten) who would love nothing more than to tell you all about their last CrossFit workout.

Community

CrossFit gyms (or “boxes”) are famous for promoting community and fellowship between members. I can attest to this as I have made far more friends in CrossFit gyms than I have in typical Globo gyms.

CrossFit as a sport also promotes extremely friendly rivalry. At any CrossFit competition you’re more likely to see competitors laughing together before a workout than they are to be talking trash (although, don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a bit of sh*t talking, too…at least when/where I do it!)

If you’re devoted to your garage gym, don’t worry about missing out, though. Sign yourself up for a competition and throw down with and against your local CrossFit crew!

Reputation

This will end up in both camps, but for now, it can be viewed as a pro. The people who love CrossFit, love CrossFit. Even people who don’t participate are generally drawn to the athleticism of the athletes and colorful personalities.

Cons of CrossFit

Reputation

The love that CrossFit adherents have for the sport is mirrored in a spectacularly polarizing manner by its detractors. A number of critics liken CrossFitters to cult members and have grown tired of the unbridled enthusiasm for the sport.

Sport “purists” criticize CrossFit’s inclusion of movements that are sometimes poorly performed. This generally occurs when athletes are fatigued or are inexperienced.

Don’t even get them started on kipping movements or butterfly pull-ups!

Potential for Injury?

The poor form mentioned above does not guarantee that injury will occur. The vast majority of CrossFit athletes make it through each workout injury free.

However, when form is compromised by the desire for a better score or faster time, the risk is always heightened.

Interestingly enough, powerlifters and weightlifters experience injuries at a similar rate as CrossFit athletes.

You have a small risk of getting hurt doing CrossFit…but not any greater of a risk than you would have in other, popular fitness sports.

This is one of the clear “draws” in the CrossFit vs weightlifting battle.

What is Weightlifting?

Olympic weightlifting (or just “weightlifting”) is a sport that focuses on two specific movements: the snatch and the clean and jerk.

Known as an Olympic Games sport (it has been featured in every Olympics since 1920), weightlifting is exclusively an amateur sport. There are a number of different federations around the world that sanction meets and promote the sport.

@jamieogilvy

Weightlifters don’t only work the two competition lifts. Weightlifting programs include a number of sport-specific (ex. Tall Snatch) and general (ex. Front Squat) exercises.

A typical weightlifting training week might look something like this (from Oleksiy Torokhtiy’s 13-week program):

Monday:

Back Extension: 3-4 sets of 10

Muscle Snatch: 2 sets of 6, 5 sets of 2 (higher weight), 4 sets of 2-3 (highest weight)

Clean: 2 sets of 3, 3 sets of 3 (higher weight), 4 sets of 3 (highest weight)

Clean Pull: 2 sets of 3, 2 sets of 3 (higher weight), 3 sets of 3 (higher weight), 3 sets of 3 (highest weight)

Front Squat: 2 sets of 3, 2 sets of 3 (higher weight), 2 sets of 3 (highest weight)

@trainwithandy

Wednesday:

Back Extension: 3 sets of 6-8

Snatch: 2 sets of 2, 2 sets of 2 (higher weight), 2 sets of 2 (higher weight), 3 sets of 2 (highest weight)

Rack Jerk: 2 sets of 3, 2 sets of 3 (higher weight), 3 sets of 3 (highest weight)

Snatch Pull: 1 set of 3, 2 sets of 3 (higher weight), 1 set of 3 (higher weight), 3 sets of 3 (highest weight)

Back Squat: 1 set of 3, 1 set of 3 (higher weight), 2 sets of 3 (higher weight), 1 set of 3 (higher weight), 2-3 sets of 2 (highest weight)

Friday:

Back Extension: 3 sets of 8

Power Snatch: 2 sets of 3, 3 sets of 3 (higher weight)

Clean and Jerk: 2 sets of 2, 2 sets of 2 (higher weight), 2 sets of 2 (higher weight), 1 set of 2 (highest weight)

Clean Pull: 2 sets of 3, 3-4 sets of 3 (higher weight)

If you’re keeping tabs in the CrossFit vs weightlifting tally, the weekly workouts from these disciplines look very different.

You’re pretty much never going to see a workout involving cardio elements or high volumes of exercises in weightlifting. The emphasis on only the two main lifts ensures that training exercises are highly specialized.

Cons of Weightlifting

You’ll notice that I didn’t list any “pros” for weightlifting in this section. This is a personal preference, but to be fair, some of these will be apparent when discussing the “cons” below.

Slow Progress

As someone who needs a bit of work on my weightlifting technique (although, in recent months, I’ve made great gains with this programming!) I would experience some decent gains in my lifts with more dedicated training.

My progress would slow down considerably once technique and form improved, though.

After initial degrees of improvement and, for those who do not already have good strength bases, weightlifting gains are hard To come by.

Look at super-heavyweight great, Lasha Talakhadze. The giant weighs over 400 pounds, suggesting that he has a bit more growth potential than someone competing in the lightweight class.

During the 2016 Olympic games, he snatched 215 kilograms (~473 pounds) and clean and jerked 258 (~569). In 2021, he snatched 223 (~492) and clean and jerked (~584).

Each year, he added about 4 pounds to his snatch max and about 3 pounds to his clean and jerk max.

Being that patient with such slow progress in the only two lifts that matter in the sport takes a special kind of focus and dedication!

Not Very Popular

Weightlifting has it tough, particularly in the United States for a few reasons.

First, most people immediately confuse “weightlifting” with the general practice of lifting weights. Try to talk to most people about the sport of weightlifting and they’ll give you weird looks.

Second, most gyms are built for people looking to work the “beach muscles” or some light cardio on the elliptical. Few are equipped with chalk, yet alone bumper plates, and the mere thought of someone dropping weights sends most gym goers into a frenzy.

With so much working against it, it isn’t too surprising that Weightlifting has not enjoyed much popularity. The inclusion of the snatch and clean and jerk in CrossFit has actually helped to raise the profile of the sport, adding to its popularity. Maybe this is an instance where CrossFit helps weightlifting is more appropriate than CrossFit vs weightlifting!

Community?

For many weightlifters, training is a solitary endeavor or one that involves only a coach and a few close training partners. This, combined with the relative infrequent nature of meets, does not lend itself to creating a community-based sport.

@thecrossfitmayhem

There are plenty of friendships between weightlifters, but the 100-plus person gym Christmas party is a rarity.

For better or worse…

Tarnished Reputation

The category that neither side wants to win in the CrossFit vs weightlifting debate!

Weightlifting has largely avoided the main criticisms related to “cultism” or poor form that has plagued CrossFit.

Instead, the sport has a long history of the improper use of banned, performance-enhancing drugs and supplements.

In 2022, the long-standing president of the International Weightlifting Federation, Tamás Aján, was banned from weightlifting for life due to alleged doping coverups.

Currently, there is serious talk of removing weightlifting from the Olympic Games due to a myriad of never-ending doping scandals.

The sport should not be judged by its executives or by the actions of a “few” high-profile athletes, but its reputation has been tarnished, nonetheless.

Potential for Injury?

As reported in the CrossFit section, weightlifters experience a comparable number of injuries as CrossFit athletes and powerlifters. We can safely call this a “draw” in the CrossFit vs weightlifting war!

Weightlifting in CrossFit

The main movements in weightlifting, the snatch and the clean and jerk, are staples in CrossFit workouts. It is not uncommon for CrossFit athletes to do workouts that involve barbell cycling or for a max lift to be tested in a competition.

Then you have something like “Randy”

“Randy” is a CrossFit “Hero Workout” (like DT!) that involves completing 75 power snatch repetitions as quickly as possible. The weights used for men (75 pounds) and for women (55 pounds) are relatively light and top athletes can complete the workout in 4 minutes!

Most competitive weightlifters won’t complete 75 snatches in 2 weeks of training, yet alone in a 4-minute workout!

Needless to say, weightlifting takes a lot of forms in CrossFit.

CrossFit and Weightlifting Crossover

There are a number of athletes who have made a name for themselves in CrossFit or weightlifting only to find further success in the other sport. They were more interested in CrossFit + weightlifting as opposed to CrossFit vs weightlifting!

Mat Fraser

It should come as no surprise that Mat Fraser, widely considered to be the greatest CrossFit athlete of all time, was an accomplished junior weightlifter.

Fraser’s weightlifting prowess was always one of his main strengths during the CrossFit Games.

Sara Sigmundsdóttir

An Icelandic crowd favorite, Sara Sigmundsdóttir pulled “double duty” early in her career. In 2015 she competed in the CrossFit Games as well as in the Weightlifting World Championships.

Tia Clare Toomey

The greatest female CrossFitter, Tia Clare Toomey, is also the sport’s most accomplished weightlifter.

Toomey has represented her native Australia in a number of international weightlifting competitions, culminating in an appearance in the 2016 Olympic Games.

CrossFit vs Weightlifting “Winner”?

CrossFit and weightlifting are both excellent sports for competitive athletes and more casual gym goers, alike.

CrossFit is likely easier to “get into”. With over 15,000 gyms worldwide, it isn’t difficult to find a “box” to get started at.

In contrast, Weightlifting workouts are generally comprised of a few barbell exercises. These exercises can be performed in small spaces making Weightlifting a bit more “doable” in a garage or home gym. Just make sure you have a sturdy floor and some crash pads!

If you can’t decide which sport to pursue, look at the athletes mentioned above once again. They all started with one sport and found success in the other. Just get started with something!

If you do decide to start with weightlifting, check out our review of Coach Leo Isaac’s Beginner Olympic Weightlifting Program. There is not better place to start with the sport!

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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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