Is CrossFit a Good Way to Build Muscle and Lose Fat?

  • CrossFit builds strength, endurance, and skill, and is a great way to workout, trainers and coaches told Insider.
  • To build muscle and lose fat, bodybuilding training is usually optimal, personal trainer and nutritionist Harry Smith said.
  • However, what you enjoy and will stick to consistently is what matters most.
  • Read more Working It Out here.

Dear Rachel,

I recently started doing CrossFit four times a week and really enjoy the focus on performance rather than aesthetics, as it seems like a healthier way to think about exercise than how I used to, which was all about burning calories. That said, I do have a goal of body recomposition. I’ve heard such mixed things about cardio, weights, HIIT etc when it comes to building muscle and losing fat, so I am confused. Is CrossFit a good way to get leaner and “toned”? I’m not counting calories strictly, but I am trying to eat in a slight deficit to lose fat while having enough fuel for my workouts. Thanks!

— Keen CrossFitter

Dear CrossFitter,

How fantastic to be developing a healthy approach to fitness. Switching your focus from burning as many calories as possible to performance is a great pivot — experts don’t recommend a calorie driven approach to workouts because formal exercise actually only makes up 5-10% of our overall daily calorie burn.

Working out with the incentive to get stronger, fitter, and happier is the way to go, and has been a game-changer for me too, keeping me consistently going back to the gym for years.

Body recomposition (losing fat while building muscle) is not easy, especially if you’re not new to lifting weights, but you can work your way to the “toned” physique you covet by eating just the right amount, strength training, and keeping your protein intake up.

CrossFit, combining strength and endurance, can certainly help you get there.

Calorie deficit through diet is key for fat loss

Losing weight requires a calorie deficit — consuming fewer calories than you’re burning — and that’s more important than your training style.

“CrossFit is a good way to get leaner and toned provided you’re in a calorie deficit,” personal trainer and nutritionist Harry Smith, who helps people improve their health through nutrition and workouts, told Insider. “Any exercise could be deemed effective if in conjunction with a calorie deficit.”

However, you need to ensure you’re fueling yourself adequately — CrossFit workouts are intense and require lots of energy, and eating enough is important for building or maintaining muscle, and recovery too.

“Many people starting CrossFit focus too heavily on getting lean, and this can hinder performance and building muscle,” CrossFit athlete and body positive influencer Beth Robinson told Insider.

Making fitness progress and gaining muscle is more difficult in a calorie deficit, Robinson said, so she recommends eating at maintenance calories (you can use an online calculator to work this out).

You don’t need to track and count though.

A post shared by Harry Smith, PT/Nutritionist (@trainerharry_s)

“If you have your nutrition dialed in by eating a balanced diet, and you are training three to four times a week, you will 100% see results,” CrossFit coach Jess Rosart, who instructs people at WIT Training in London, told Insider.

Don’t stress about the number on the scale as it can fluctuate based on many factors — monitor your progress with photos, measurements, performance gains, and how you feel.

CrossFit can help build strength and fitness

To achieve the “toned” look, you need muscle and low enough body fat to see it.

“CrossFit will definitely help you build muscle,” Robinson said. You could also improve your endurance, gymnastic skills, and mobility.

“For general health you can’t beat CrossFit, provided it’s programmed intelligently and sensibly,” Smith said.

Robinson recommends recording your personal bests and wins, like getting your first pull-up, as this can help the mindset shift towards performance.

Bodybuilding may be more efficient

If body recomposition is your top priority, and you want to achieve it ASAP, Smith recommends a bodybuilding muscle growth-focused program combined with a consistent calorie deficit.

While CrossFit will lead to muscle growth, it’s not as efficient as bodybuilding, Smith said. Bodybuilding training is entirely focused on building muscle, which can help you hold on to gains and lose fat while in a calorie deficit.

Smith also cautions that poorly programmed CrossFit workouts, combined with a calorie deficit, could put you at higher injury risk, but you can injure yourself with any training, he said.

Do your research and ensure your CrossFit program puts as much emphasis on recovery as training, Smith said.

Your training should be what you enjoy

While bodybuilding may be optimal for body recomposition, CrossFit may be best — and mentally healthiest — for you.

“CrossFit’s focus on performance over aesthetics is liberating for many as it instills a totally different relationship with exercise,” Smith said.

Robinson recommends reflecting on your goals and deciding what’s most important to you: Having fun, getting healthier and fitter, building strength, or losing fat? There’s no wrong answer, but don’t neglect your mental health.

“It’s really hard to shift our mindsets away from what diet culture has taught us, that we need to be lighter, leaner, or look different,” she said. “I have found that it was much more mentally healthy for me to focus on what my body can do rather than what it looks like.”

A post shared by 🏋🏼‍♀️Sporty Beth SASWDW⚔️ (@sportybethcf)

Group workouts create community and make training social, which is why many people stick with CrossFit.

“If you’re looking to get a lot of value in terms of competition, socializing, a new hobby, and you’re less fussed about the speed and quality of your physique recomposition then I wholeheartedly recommend CrossFit,” Smith said.

Ultimately, doing what you enjoy matters most.

“If you are enjoying your training, learning new skills, having fun, and meeting like-minded people, you are likely to stay consistent and keep showing up,” Rosart said. “Therefore yes, you will get toned and leaner [doing CrossFit], but more importantly you will get strong and push yourself beyond what you thought possible.”

Wishing you well,

Rachel

As a senior health reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition-certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.

Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.

Have a question? Ask Rachel at [email protected] or fill out this anonymous form. All questions will be published anonymously.

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