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CrossFit Exercises That Build Superior Strength

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

A woman performing crossfit exercises.

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If you master these 12 CrossFit exercises you will reap the rewards. In addition to building awesome strength and fierce muscular endurance, they can also help enhance whole-body functional fitness.


Due to the dynamic nature of the exercises, they can be included in a diverse range of workouts. For example, if your old gym routine needs spicing up, you could pop in a few sets of dumbbell snatches and power cleans. These two compound lifts complement most workouts because they activate such a wide range of muscle groups.


Or let’s say that you want to include a resistance dimension to your morning run. If you finish off at your local park, you’ll be able to complete a few rounds of pull-ups into toes-to-bar.


Alternatively, you could just bundle the exercises together into a CrossFit workout. Apply either the AMRAP (as many reps as possible) or EMOM (every minute on the minute) training methods to the exercises and prepare for the training session of your life!


Before we get into the tutorials, I’ve outlined three frequently asked CrossFit exercise questions. The FAQ explains the health and fitness benefits of CrossFit exercises and why many of them are superior to standard gym-based exercises.


But if you’re eager to get cracking with the tutorials, use the quick finder below and start mastering these awesome CrossFit exercises.


Related: Never be without a workout
Put the CrossFit exercises into practice with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Workouts.

What are the benefits of CrossFit exercises?

Compared to your typical gym-based exercises – isolation movements and those performed on a machine – CrossFit exercises engage an army of muscle groups. Contrast the muscle up, which is a classic CrossFit exercise, to a gym equivalent, lat pulldowns.


The lat pulldown is performed in a seated position; it should feel as though you are locked into the machine. To execute the movement, you merely pull the bar to your chin. Other than the lats and a bit of biceps, only a scattering of minor muscles are involved. Now let’s consider the muscle-up.


This is a challenging exercise that requires practice before it can be performed. But the effort is worth it. As well as working the lats and biceps, muscle-ups also require core activation, grip, and triceps strength. Also, heaving your body weight above the bar is a test of explosive power – not to mention coordination and balance. (See table below.)


A similar comparison could be conducted with a score of CrossFit exercises and their gym equivalents.


CrossFit exercises forge functional strength

In his book Advances In Functional Fitness, Mark Boyle warns against selecting machine movements over functional strength exercises. The example he makes is similar to the one we’ve just been considering.


Boyle remarks that in most ‘programs, pulling movements such as chin-ups’ are ‘still given little emphasis.’ He goes on to say that trainers select inferior exercises such as lat pull-downs under the ‘mistaken assumption’ that they work the body in the same way.


But, from the above analysis, we know that functional movements, such as pull-ups and muscle-ups, engage the body on multiple dimensions.


CrossFit exercises improve multiple components of fitness

On reviewing the above table, we can see that a CrossFit exercise works more muscle groups than a conventional gym-based equivalent. Muscle ups engage twice the number of muscles than lat pulldowns.


But another noteworthy difference has to do with the components of fitness. Referring back to the table again, we can see that muscle ups promote a broad range of fitness components. And this is consistent across the spectrum of CrossFit exercises. Take the wall-ball throw as a prime example.


Related: Best rated Medicine Balls
Best medicine ball for crossfit exercises.

In the rostrum of CrossFit exercises, wall ball throws are probably the least demanding. Most people will be able to perform this exercise without prior training or a week of consistent practice. The same can’t be said of kip pull-ups, muscle ups, and power cleans.


Yet, the wall ball throw is a dynamic multi-functional exercise that involves the whole body. In addition, the action of throwing a weighted medicine ball two to three metres in the air, catching and controlling it as you sink into a squat, requires a score of physical competencies.


Off the tip of my head, I count six components of fitness. They include:


  • Power – during the initial drive phase and explosive throw

  • Muscle endurance – to sustain output

  • Coordination – for controlling multiple body parts through the four distinct phases of the exercise

  • Balance – to stabilise the body when propelling and catching the ball

  • Agility – when quickly shifting your position to catch the ball after a botched throw

  • Reaction time – throwing and receiving


CrossFit exercises athletic performance

In the introduction, I claimed that CrossFit exercises enhance functional fitness and ‘real-world’ strength. The previous discussion aimed to justify those claims. But now I’m going to make another one. The exercises in this article can also improve athletic performance in a range of unrelated disciplines.


The fact that CrossFit exercises can improve athletic performance should not come as a surprise. The majority of them are either multi-functional (think of the muscle up and wall ball throw) or big compound movements such as snatches, sumo squats, and power cleans.


These exercises help forge a powerful posterior chain – a group of muscles that extend up from the hamstrings to the traps.


Many sports and exercises involve in some capacity the posterior chain muscles. Take rowing, wrestling, and rugby as examples. Though these are three very different disciplines, they all share one thing in common – that is, they are overwhelmingly posterior chain-dominant.


CrossFit exercises quick finder

CrossFit exercises #1: Wall ball throws

CrossFit exercises #2: Kip pull-ups

CrossFit exercises #3: Muscle ups

CrossFit exercises #4: Toes to bar

CrossFit exercises #5: Handstand push-ups

CrossFit exercises #6: Double unders

CrossFit exercises #7: Dumbbell snatch

CrossFit exercises #8: Hang clean

CrossFit exercises #9: Barbell thruster

CrossFit exercises #10: Power clean

CrossFit exercises #11: Sumo deadlift to high pull

CrossFit exercises #12: Clean and press


 

CrossFit exercises #1: Wall ball throws

A woman performing crossfit exercises.

Purpose of exercise: To develop muscle endurance and fitness conditioning.

Muscles targeted: The quads, glutes, core, upper chest, triceps and cardiac muscle.

Components of fitness engaged: Muscle endurance, cardiovascular fitness, coordination, reaction time, and agility.


Few exercises are as functional and involve as many muscle groups as wall ball throws. At a glance they look quite easy – you’re simply throwing a medicine ball a few feet above your head. What can be hard about that? However, anyone who’s performed this exercise will readily attest to how challenging they are. If you’re sceptical, master the technique then try and complete as many wall ball throws as possible in five minutes. I give you a minute before you gas.


Wall ball throws key teaching points

  • Stand about a metre back from a wall with a medicine ball between your feet.

  • Squat down and hoist the ball off the floor level to your chest.

  • The palms of your hands are placed on the underside of the ball in preparation for the throw.

  • Using the upward momentum of the squat, utilise that energy to assist the explosive throw.

  • Power the ball two to three metres above your head. Of course, the ball should hit the wall. Accuracy is improved if you have something to aim at.

  • As the ball rebounds be prepared to receive it. This is not a good point to check your social media updates.

  • When you catch the ball, sink straight back down into a squat and repeat the exercise.


 

CrossFit exercises #2: Kip pull up

A woman performing crossfit exercises.

Purpose of exercise: To develop upper body muscle endurance and functional strength.

Muscles targeted: The lats, traps, rhomboids, infraspinatus, teres minor and major, biceps, forearm muscles.

Components of fitness engaged: Muscle endurance, strength, and agility.


The kip pull-up is a modification of the strict military version. When performing pull-ups during the military selection process and the annual fitness tests, soldiers are forbidden from generating momentum: the pull-up must be executed from the so-called ‘dead hang.’ Kipping or kicking of any kind results in a failed rep. However, CrossFit allows competitors to kip to their heart’s content. In addition to enabling athletes to complete the exorbitant rep numbers assigned to exercises in competitions (the event Murph features 100 pull-ups), kipping makes the exercise accessible to a wider audience.


Related: Can you take on Mighty Murph?

Kip pull ups key teaching points

  • Hang from a pull-up bar – preferably one that is high enough so that your feet comfortably clear the floor.

  • Initiate the exercise by raising your feet and leaning your body back.

  • Explosively kick the feet back down as though you are trying to push off a stable object.

  • As you do so simultaneously heave your chin to the bar.

  • Allow the body to drop to the start position. Avoid using muscle contraction as it will hasten fatigue.


 

CrossFit exercises #3: Muscle up

A man performing a crossfit muscle up.

Purpose of exercise: To develop upper body muscle endurance and functional strength.

Muscles targeted: The lats, traps, rhomboids, infraspinatus, teres minor and major, pectorals, anterior deltoid, triceps, biceps, triceps, and forearm muscles.

Components of fitness engaged: Power, strength, muscle endurance, and agility.


The muscle up is a tough exercise and to perform it requires a panoply of physical attributes. Muscle ups aren’t just a matter of explosive strength. Granted, that makes up the largest slice of the pie. But to get the body over the bar and into position for the second phase of the movement involves agility, coordination and balance. With practice and perseverance, you may one day master the muscle up. A wise way to develop the requisite strength is to work on kip pull-ups and triceps dips.


Muscle up key teaching points

  • Hang from a pull-up bar – preferably one that is high enough so that your feet comfortably clear the floor.

  • Initiate the exercise by raising your feet and leaning your body back.

  • Explosively kick the feet back down as though you are trying to push off a stable object.

  • As you do so simultaneously heave your body over the bar.

  • This transition phase is by far the hardest point in the exercise. Failure to clear the bar will prevent you from repositioning the arms in preparation for the triceps dip.

  • Once you manage to get the bulk of your upper body over that bar, it’s just a matter of extending the arms, which is the easy bit.


 

CrossFit exercises #4: Toes to bar

A woman performing crossfit exercises.

Purpose of exercise: To develop physical dexterity and core and grip strength.

Muscles targeted: The hip flexors, core, and forearms.

Components of fitness engaged: Muscle endurance, coordination, and agility.


Toes to bar is a tough exercise – especially if you’re tall. They help forge a robust core while developing muscular endurance in many upper-body muscles. Also, it could be argued that toes to bar build functional physicality in addition to enhancing body control.


Toes to bar key teaching points

  • It helps if you can use a pull-up bar that’s high enough so that your feet don’t scrape along the floor between reps.

  • Take a firm grip on the bar.

  • Initiate the movement by first swinging the legs back. This generates momentum and makes the next phase of the exercise a bit easier.

  • Beat your feet down and fire your legs up.

  • As you do so pull on the bar and lean back. This action assists the rotation of the body which in turn facilitates the upward flight of your legs.

  • Touch your toes to the bar before allowing your legs to fall.

  • If you’re performing this exercise as part of a challenge (AMRAP) or competition, you should use as little physical strength as possible to lower the legs. Of course, doing so eats into your energy reserves while hastening the rising tide of lactic acid. But, if you’re doing toes to bar to sculpt and shape a lean torso, take your time through both concentric and eccentric contractions.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


 

CrossFit exercises #5: Handstand push up

A CrossFit athlete performing hand stand push ups.

Purpose of exercise: To develop upper body strength.

Muscles targeted: primarily the deltoids, triceps, and muscles of the upper back: traps, teres minor and major, rhomboids, and infraspinatus.

Components of fitness engaged: Strength, muscle endurance, balance, and agility.


As is the case with many CrossFit exercises, handstand push ups require more than just strength to perform. To maintain the position, even if you’re using a wall for balance, is as much a test of control as it is physical endurance. Because it’s such as challenging exercise, few people learn to execute a handstand push up. However, there are a few simple ways of modifying the exercise to make it more accessible. For example, there is the wall walkouts and partial handstand press-up.

Handstand push up key technique

  • For safety purposes, it’s prudent to place a cushioned mat underneath the section of the wall where you plan to practice your push ups.

  • Starting in a bear crawl position, walk backwards into the wall.

  • As you do so raise one foot to connect with the wall. Use this as your initial anchor point.

  • Proceed to walk the hands back while simultaneously stepping the feet further up the wall.

  • The objective is to manoeuvre your body into a vertical handstand. This is the full range of movement. However, you don’t have to go so far. Instead, you can walk into a partial handstand.

  • Once you are in a handstand, lower your face as close to the floor as you dare.


 

CrossFit exercises #6: Double under

A woman skipping.

Purpose of exercise: To develop aerobic and anaerobic conditioning.

Muscles targeted: The calves, quads, core, deltoids, and forearms – but most of all the cardiorespiratory muscles (the heart, diaphragm, and the myriad smooth muscles that line the vascular system).

Components of fitness engaged: Speed, cardio, agility, coordination, balance.


Double unders is a high-intensity aerobic exercise that helps to develop complete fitness conditioning. They frequently appear in CrossFit games tournaments, and you often see them in the training videos of competitors. If you take the time to master the double under and begin introducing it into your workouts, you should see a noticeable improvement in aerobic stamina and muscular definition.


Essential kit: Skipping Rope

Double under key technique

  • Start by finding your rhythm with single skipping. Because double unders are essentially a series of rapid plyometric jumps, it’s important to ensure that the calves and Achilles tendons are well warmed up. I don’t start doing double unders until I’ve got a solid ten minutes of low-intensity skipping under my belt first.

  • To do a double under, you must powerfully propel yourself a foot or so above the floor. The additional clearance is necessary to provide the time to get the rope around twice before landing.

  • The action of the body is difficult to explain. You are not bending at the knees but, instead, folding the body at the hips a little.

  • As you perform the above two points, you must simultaneously turn the rope over at an accelerated rate. This is achieved by explosively whipping it around with wrist action.

  • Truly, no description, however accurate, will convey the necessary techniques required to perform double unders. The best way to learn this exercise – as with all exercises – is to practice, practice, practice!

  • Watch the video demonstration.


 

CrossFit exercises #7: Dumbbell snatch

A woman performing crossfit exercises.

Purpose of exercise: To develop explosive power in the upper links of the posterior chain.

Muscles targeted: The mid and upper section of the posterior chain – erector spinae, lats, and traps. Also, posterior deltoids and biceps.

Components of fitness engaged: Strength, power, muscle endurance.


Dumbbell snatches are a terrific exercise for building strength and explosive power in the muscles of the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, erector spina, lats, traps, and rear deltoids). In addition, this mighty exercise engages a broad range of synergist muscles – such as the quads, core, triceps, biceps, and those of the forearm.


Essential kit: Best Adjustable Dumbbells for the home gym

Due to the versatility of the dumbbell snatch, it can be incorporated into many different training methodologies. For example, as well as including the DB snatch into your standard gym workouts, they are excellent in CrossFit-style circuits, EMOMs, AMRAPs, or HIIT sessions.


Dumbbell snatch key technique

  • Beginners should select a light dumbbell.

  • Standing over the DB, adopt a wide stance.

  • Squat down and grasp the DB but, before snatching, flatten your back, tighten your core, and look forward.

  • In one smooth movement snatch the dumbbell off the floor and above your head.

  • As the DB passes your head take a shot sharp dip at the knee.

  • Return under control and repeat.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


 

CrossFit exercise #8: Hang clean

A woman performing crossfit exercises.

Purpose of exercise: To develop explosive power in the upper links of the posterior chain.

Muscles targeted: The mid and upper section of the posterior chain – erector spinae, lats, and traps. Also, posterior deltoids and biceps.

Components of fitness engaged: Strength, power, muscle endurance.


Hang cleans enhance strength, power, and endurance in the mid to upper posterior chain muscles – (a bit of) glutes, (but mainly) erector spinae, lats, and traps. Because the hang clean is a maximal stimulation exercise, it is excellent for developing whole-body fitness conditioning.


Hang clean technique

  • Standing with a barbell resting across the upper thigh, adopt a neutral stance: feet shoulder-width, knees soft, looking forward. Remember, if you're performing the exercise for the first time, practice with an unloaded bar.

  • Hands are spaced slightly wider than shoulder-width.

  • To initiate the exercise, take a short dip forward before exploding into the clean: you are physically propelling the bar up off your thighs.

  • As you do so engage the lats, traps, and rear deltoids and heave that bar up into the front rack position.

  • You can, during this phase of the exercise, take a shallow dip at the knee to drop under the bar.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


 

CrossFit exercises #9: Barbell thruster

A CrossFit athlete performing barbell thrusters.

Purpose of exercise: To develop muscle endurance in the quads, core, and deltoids.

Muscles targeted: (from top to bottom) forearms, triceps, deltoids, upper chest, traps, core, lats, lower back, glutes, and quads (and if you perform high reps of thrusters, they also engage the cardiac muscle) – basically the whole body.

Components of fitness engaged: Strength, power, muscle endurance, and coordination.


As the long list of muscles shows, the thruster is a formidable exercise. This single movement builds an abundance of strength and muscle endurance in all the major muscle groups.


Moreover, it can enhance fitness conditioning on account of its uncanny ability to engage the cardiovascular system. Just 10 reps are enough to send your heart rate through the roof.


Thrusters can be performed with a wide range of exercise equipment. So, if you want to shake things up a bit, try doing thrusters with dumbbells or kettlebells. (You can also use resistance bands, powerbags, and medicine balls.)


Thruster technique

  • Stand with a barbell level with your shoulders (also called the front rack position). Your hands are spaced a little over shoulder-width.

  • To initiate the exercise, sink into a squat – aim for 90 degrees at the knees. Depending on the flexibility of your calves and Achilles, you may find that the bar starts to slip forward. This can be counteracted by raising your elbows.

  • Power out of the squat while simultaneously pressing the barbell above your head. The transition between the two movements should be seamless.

  • Pause momentarily before lowering the bar to the start position.

  • When performing reps it helps to drop straight back into the squat.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


 

CrossFit exercise #10: Power clean

A woman performing crossfit exercises.

Purpose of exercise: To develop power and strength in the posterior chain muscles.

Muscles targeted: Quads, glutes, lower, mid, and upper back including the deltoids.

Components of fitness engaged: Strength, power, muscle endurance.


Power cleans build strength (and power) in all the muscles of the posterior chain – hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, lats, and traps. In addition, because the power clean is a maximal stimulation exercise, it is also excellent for developing whole-body fitness conditions.


Power clean technique

  • Adopt a neutral stance with a barbell touching your shins. If you're performing the exercise for the first time, practice with an unloaded bar.

  • Take a slightly wider than shoulder-width hand position.

  • Before attempting the lift, bend the knees and the hips a bit. Also, tighten your core and keep your eyes fixed forward.

  • The first phase of the power clean is a deadlift. But you're trying to pull the bar onto the upper thighs so that you can use hip extension to assist the lift.

  • On pulling the bar onto the upper thighs, thrust the hips forward and physically push the bar up into the next phase of the exercise.

  • The final phase is effectively a hang clean. Using lat, trap and rear deltoid strength, heave the bar into the front rack position. You can dip at the knee during this phase of the exercise.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


 

CrossFit exercise #11: Sumo deadlift to high pull

A man performing a powerlifting exercises.

Purpose of exercise: To develop power and strength in the posterior chain muscles.

Muscles targeted: Quadriceps, glutes, lower back, and all the muscles of the back including the deltoids (anterior, medial, and posterior heads).

Components of fitness engaged: Strength, power, muscle endurance.


On their own, the sumo deadlift and high pull are powerful exercises. Each builds strength in at least one major muscle group. But when combined they will improve whole-body functional strength. In addition, if performed in volume, they can engage the cardiovascular system.


Sumo deadlift to high pull technique

  • Adopt a double-wide stance and manoeuvrer yourself so that your shins are touching the bar.

  • Squat down and take a narrow-hand position.

  • Keeping the back straight, explode out of the start position into the sumo squat. (The initial phase of the exercise needs to be explosive else you won’t generate the necessary momentum needed for the next phase of the exercise.)

  • So, after powering out of the sumo squat, use the momentum to pull the bar level with your chin.

  • You must be careful during the recovery phase. It’s easy to lose control of the bar and be pulled forward as it drops. This increases injury risk in the lower back. Thus, it’s best to drop it. But you’ll need bumper blates or crash mats to do this.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


 

CrossFit exercises #12: Clean and press

A woman performing crossfit exercises.

Purpose of exercise: To develop power and strength in the posterior chain muscles.

Muscles targeted: Quadriceps, glutes, lower back, and all the muscles of the back including the deltoids (anterior, medial, and posterior heads), triceps and forearms.

Components of fitness engaged: Strength, power, muscle endurance, coordination, balance, agility.


The clean and press is a whole-body ‘maximal stimulation’ exercise that engages a vast range of muscles. However, before it can be integrated into your workouts and performed safely, you first need to master the movement pattern.


Clean and press teaching points

  • Assuming that this is your first time, I recommend using an unloaded bar.

  • The start position is the same as a deadlift.

  • Before initiating the first phase of the exercise, take up the strain by applying force against the bar. Don’t ‘snatch’ it from the floor.

  • Perform a deadlift but focus on pulling the bar onto the upper quads.

  • Using hip extension, you are effectively trying to propel the bar up off the quads (or, better still, the hips). To assist, simultaneously perform a shrug.

  • The bar must remain close to the body.

  • As it becomes level with the upper abs/chest, you are dropping under the bar and catching it in the front rack position.

  • Now stand up. That’s phase one complete!

  • Before executing the second phase, readjust your position if you need to. There’s no rush here.

  • The press is comparatively simple.

  • Start by taking a short dip at the knees before firing through the quads. This gets the bar moving.

  • Once it passes your face, take a second dip at the knees dropping underneath the bar.

  • Lock out at the arms then, when the bar is secure, standing up.

  • From this position, it is dangerous to lower a loaded bar. Thus, if you’re performing the clean and press with weight, you should use bumper plates so that you can drop it.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


 

Conclusion

Now that you have the tools and teaching points necessary to start mastering the CrossFit exercises, it’s time to put theory into practice. But before rushing off to the gym, it might be worth reading over the list of tips below.


When developing any new skill, there are effective and not-so-effective ways of going about it. The tips aim to provide you with a range of effective ways.


Tips to mastering CrossFit exercises

  • Don’t try and learn more than one exercise at a time.

  • Whenever practising a new exercise, you should do so with a light resistance. But what if the resistance is your body weight? You can use cables and resistance bands to offset your weight which makes it easier to practice challenging exercises such as pull-ups and muscle-ups.

  • If possible, practice the exercises during quiet times. The presence of other trainers can be off-putting.

  • A recognised and time-honoured method of mastering complex movements, such as the clean and press, is to break the exercise down into its constituent components (the clean and press is comprised of three distinct phases: (1) deadlift, (2) hang clean (3) press). You would then focus on each part separately. Only once you can competently perform them would you begin piecing the exercise back together.

  • Get practicing the exercises with these CrossFit Circuits >


 

About Adam Priest –

A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and wellbeing practitioner. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites. Connect with Adam via LinkedIn or info@hungry4fitness.co.uk.


 

References

Definition for sarcopenia – National Institute of Health journal

Walston JD. Sarcopenia in older adults. Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2012 Nov;24(6):623-7. doi: 10.1097/BOR.0b013e328358d59b. PMID: 22955023; PMCID: PMC4066461.

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