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Bodybuilding vs. CrossFit: Everything you need to know

A woman practices crossfit
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At first glance, bodybuilding and CrossFit may conjure up similar images, which may or may not include sweaty, veiny dudes grunting their way through quasi-medieval workouts.

These two brands of fitness have several things in common — demanding routines, a heavy emphasis on weight training, building muscle, feeling and looking better — but make no mistake: Each one has its own identity. The right one for you depends on your fitness goals and your wallet.

So, what are the differences between them? Which one is right for you? Remember that you are a unique individual with unique needs. Below, we’ve compared these two head to head to help you make the decision that’s right for you — based on your budget as well as your fitness goals.

Check with your health care professional before starting any new exercise program, and then snoop around your town to find the best individual gyms and programs in your area.

CrossFit: Functional strength

Both approaches will make you stronger, and if practiced correctly over time, both will give you bigger muscles. The key difference between CrossFit and bodybuilding is how you make those gains.

CrossFit is known for its intense, highly-variable, full-body workouts. The high-octane action of your typical CrossFit session can bring cardiovascular benefits, which aren’t as often associated with bodybuilding. CrossFit adherents love to tout the “functional strength” their workouts are designed to cultivate — with bodybuilding considered a practice more connected to aesthetics than functionality. (Although that’s an overly binary comparison.)

Some of the more common CrossFit components include:

  • Box jumps
  • Burpees
  • Kettlebell weights
  • Medicine balls
  • Rope climbing
  • Pushups

If you’re new to CrossFit, you may appreciate the fact that each class is led by a qualified instructor. It is also typical for CrossFit gyms to require initial one-on-one or small-group sessions to evaluate fitness levels and better assess your needs and capabilities.

Personal training can be a big part of bodybuilding as well, but classes and specific program instruction (even among the at-home options that are currently exploding in popularity) tend to be a more standard model for CrossFit.

man lifting weights
Jirattawut Domrong/Shutterstock

At the base level, CrossFit and bodybuilding can both occur at very little or no cost. Fill up some jugs with water, and you’re ready for deadlifts. Technically speaking, any type of strength training can be considered bodybuilding.

But if you’re looking for a brick-and-mortar facility complete with expert in-person instruction, CrossFit can be a good fit — but can also mean higher costs compared with basic gym memberships. Specific figures vary by geographic location and other factors, but CrossFit memberships tend to average around $150 to $200 per month. A typical gym membership, by comparison, is around $50. The private or semi-private lessons CrossFit requires upfront also can add to the expense.

That said, in CrossFit, you need only attend the class; the rest is up to the instructor and your dedication. This model also builds accountability, which is a famously effective motivator. If this sounds appealing, CrossFit may well be worth the investment.

man body builder
Arsenii Palivoda

Bodybuilding: For those elusive beach muscles

Don’t worry about those behemoths at the squat rack. If you’re ready to build muscle, the gym is the right place to be.

There is a difference between weight machines and free weights. Machines work well to isolate muscles and are relatively simple to use, and because they’re rigid machines, they essentially force you to follow the right form. For these reasons, weight machines are often preferred by those who are less experienced in weight training.

More serious bodybuilders, however, tend to prefer free weights because they help provide a more well-rounded workout, including by strengthening stabilizer muscles that weight machines are too narrowly focused to reach. At the same time, they offer the chance for more targeted muscle training, leading to that sculpted look that so many bodybuilders and would-be bodybuilders seek to achieve.

And perhaps contrary to popular belief in some quarters, bodybuilding also increases the “functional strength” more often associated with CrossFit. How could it not? Some of the more popular weight exercises for bodybuilders include:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench presses
  • Pull-ups
  • Dips
  • Leg presses

While CrossFit instructors dictate the details of any given daily workout, bodybuilders have more leeway over their plans. This can be a good thing or not, depending on your frame of mind. Would you rather plan it yourself or have an expert do that for you? There’s no right answer here, but it’s an important question to ask when deciding between the two approaches.

More bang for the buck?

Free weights and weight machines will be readily available at virtually any gym — and at a fraction of the cost of a CrossFit membership. That said, if you want personalized instruction on bodybuilding, that will likely cost extra. One-time fitness consultations, personalized training plans, and ongoing private sessions are all commonly-available options.

With all this in mind, and again, speaking broadly, gym memberships (and the bodybuilding they can help facilitate) tend to be less expensive on average than memberships to CrossFit facilities.

If you’re ready for the challenge, there’s really no wrong answer between these two if you’re looking to get stronger or look better. Questions of expense and your own individual goals are huge parts of the decision-making process. If done properly and knowledgeably, both bodybuilding and CrossFit can offer outstanding workouts, regardless of your fitness background.

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