Research Says: CrossFit vs. Bodybuilding, Apples to oranges or two sides to the same coin?

Recently workout fads have been popping up all over mainstream media and in different fitness centers. Everyone seems to have the ultimate plan to burn fat and build muscle, these routines have become more intricate and choreographed, often requiring a coach or instructor to oversee the work out. Older workout conventions have had to adapt to meet the changing needs and desires from society. We are here to figure out, is CrossFit the ‘glow up’ of Body building or are these two style of exercise completely unique?

First, what are CrossFit and bodybuilding?

Example of a typical CrossFit exercise

CrossFit is recognized as one of the fastest growing high intensity functional training regimens to date, popping up in 142 countries worldwide. But what is this mysterious new fad and does it actually work?  The purpose of CrossFit training is to get as ‘fit as personally possible’, but is not specifically focused on just one fitness area. CrossFit aims to optimize physical ability not only in strength, but in cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy as well [1]. This lead trainers to develop a plan that incorporates multiple training theories into one ‘Workout Of the Day’ to keep a variety of fitness elements working.These workouts involve elements from gymnastics, weightlifting, and cardiovascular exercises which are performed quickly with little rest between sets.

The goal of Bodybuilding (muscle specific) training is so lose as much fat content as possible while maximizing your bodies muscle mass. This kind of training is where terms like ‘leg day’ and ‘back day’ came from, it is devoting an entire workout to a few muscle groups and working them to exhaustion. When you undergo this type of training your body experiences hypertrophy of all muscle fiber types.[2] A bodybuilding workout focuses on keeping the heart rate steady and high weight low rep exercises to slowly break down and rebuild one’s muscle fiber. This is proven to be an effective method if one is only worried about shear size and growth of muscles [3].

Expected muscle growth of Bodybuilders

After hearing this do you believe they are the same? Here’s what science said.

The approaches of these two exercise styles are most definitely unique, but are the fitness results actually all that different? In one research study called “Functional vs. Strength Training in Adults” 101 subjects, averaging an age of about 55, were separated into two groups that each performed 24 sessions of (functional or strength) training protocol twice per week. Each subject was assessed before and after the study using a quantitative Y-balance test and a qualitative Functional Movement Screen test. The changes between pretest and post test were analyzed and results showed that there were no significant differences in improvement between the training protocols as a whole. However, functional training was less effective for women compared to men in the same group [4]. The variability in prior athletic training must be taken into consideration when interpreting these results. Some participants may have needed additional training to better their basic skills before partaking in these specific training protocols. 

Another study looked at ‘The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise(HIIE) training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women”[5] comparing the effects of CrossFit(HIIE) training to steady state weight lifting over the course of 15 weeks(exercising three times a week). While this study focused on insulin levels they reported a variety of information on lean body mass, fat content, and weight loss that can be used to draw conclusions about the exercise types as well, see that diet was not changed between the groups. This study showed that women who underwent the CrossFit style training showed a significant decrease in total body mass(they lost more weight) 3.5kg weight loss, compared to  the steady state weight lifters who showed a 0.5kg increase in body mass. Demonstrating that while CrossFit participants and bodybuilders may both be used for strenuous high demand exercise, CrossFit is a more effective method of losing weight whereas bodybuilding promotes the act of ‘bulking up.’ While this study was full of information, it does not completely validate the idea that Crossfit and Bodybuilding are the same results with a different method it does help share some information that can point future studies in the right direction.

Based on what we have found we can draw a similar conclusion to previous posts about these training styles. We concur with the groups from previous years that current studies show that while the methods of achieving a lower fat content are different, the overall outcomes of the training types are very similar. In order to better compare these two very different approaches to fitness, there needs to be more extensive research done. The current scientific literature related to CrossFit specifically is lacking. Few studies with high level of evidence at low risk of bias have been widely recognized [1]. As of now we cannot truly compare this new workout fad to the traditional bodybuilding without more extensive studies with conclusive evidence.

By; Ellen Dudzinski and Destiny Neumann

Questions to consider:

  1. Are CrossFit and bodybuilding the only ways to build muscle quickly and effectively?
  2. Is CrossFit or bodybuilding for everyone, why or why not?
  3. What athletes should attempt at least one of these training types?
  4. After reading this, how would you further evaluate the similarities and differences between CrossFit and bodybuilding?
  5. Would supplementation increase the results from either training style?

Suggested Readings:

Karavirta, L., M. P. Tulppo, D. E. Laaksonen, K. Nyman, R. T. Laukkanen, H. Kinnunen, A. Häkkinen, and K. Häkkinen. “Heart rate dynamics after combined endurance and strength training in older men.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise. July 2009. Accessed March 06, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19516157

Aagaard, P., and J. L. Andersen. “Effects of strength training on endurance capacity in top-level endurance athletes.” Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports. October 2010. Accessed March 06, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20840561.

Fitts, R. H., and J. J. Widrick. “Muscle mechanics: adaptations with exercise-training.” Exercise and sport sciences reviews. Accessed March 06, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8744258.

Fitts, R. H., D. R. Riley, and J. J. Widrick. “Functional and structural adaptations of skeletal muscle to microgravity.” The Journal of experimental biology. September 2001. Accessed March 06, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11581335.