15 Exercises for CrossFit Beginners to Learn to Build a Strong Base

Master these 15 CrossFit beginner exercises to lay the groundwork for WODs to come.

Starting CrossFit can be scary. From the outside in, it can look like CrossFit is only for people who are already fit and in shape. But enter a CrossFit box — or gym — and you’ll find that the majority of everyday CrossFitters are average people who learn to do extraordinary things over years of training and practice. 

Don’t make the classic mistake of thinking you need to get in shape before starting CrossFit. The only difference between elite-level CrossFitters and beginners is the degree to which the workouts are modified, or scaled. Can’t do what Tia-Clair Toomey does? Scale it to your level and build up from there. A huge part of that journey is learning the most common CrossFit exercises.

A person wearing a blue t-shirt lifts a bar overhead with a snatch grip in a partial squat.
Credit: Mix Tape / Shutterstock

We’re going to dive into fifteen CrossFit exercises for beginners to learn, practice, and master. Each of these movements has a starting and finishing position that can become embedded into your muscle memory. Once you get more comfortable with these movements, the wide world of CrossFit will be a lot more open to you.

Best Beginner CrossFit Exercises

Since CrossFit is a sport of functional fitness, there are a wide range of movements for beginners to learn. For simplicity, we’ve broken them down into three categories.

Bodyweight Basics for CrossFit Beginners

Barbell Basics for CrossFit Beginners

Introduction to Olympic Lifting for CrossFit Beginners

Bodyweight Basics for CrossFit Beginners

Bodyweight movements (called gymnastics in CrossFit) should often be learned first, as it’s important to have control over your body in space before adding external load. 

Air Squat 

The air squat will lay the foundation for so many movements as you progress through your CrossFit journey. People looking to progress too quickly may be unable to perform more complex lifting movements if they haven’t taken the time to master the air squat

Focus on perfecting this movement and it will set you up for success in the long term.

Benefits of the Air Squat

  • The air squat develops functional flexibility in your hips, groin, ankles, and upper back.
  • You’ll strengthen your lower body and core. 
  • This move lays the foundation for other movements like the front squat, overhead squat, back squat, thruster, clean, snatch, and wall ball

How to Do the Air Squat

Stand tall with your feet approximately shoulder-width apart. Sink your hips back and down simultaneously. Continue until your hips are below your knees. Once your hips get below parallel, stand tall, extending your knees and hips completely.

Attempt to keep your chest tall and back neutral throughout the duration of the movement. Try to keep your knees over your toes and your heels down throughout the exercise. 

Push-Up

The push-up is the most basic upper body pressing exercise. You’ll need it for building strength, as well as several actual workouts.

It is tested in some of the most popular CrossFit benchmark and hero workouts, such as Cindy, Chelsea, Angie, Barbara, and Murph

Benefits of the Push-Up 

How to Do the Push-Up

Set your hands on the ground, approximately at a shoulder-width distance. Set your legs and feet together, with only the balls of your feet on the ground. Start with your arms fully extended, then lower your chest and thighs to the ground. 

Press up to the fully extended starting position to finish the movement. Keep your elbows close to your body throughout the duration of the movement. Maintain a rigid, straight body position throughout the duration of the movement. 

Hollow and Arch

CrossFit utilizes gymnastics (bodyweight) training as one of its major modalities. The foundation of all dynamic bar exercises are the hollow and arch positions

This takes the body from global flexion to global extension, maintaining connection and control from your toes to your fingertips

Benefits of the Hollow and Arch 

  • The hollow and arch teaches full body awareness.
  • You’ll strengthen your core in a holistic way. 
  • This move lays the foundation for other movements like kipping pull-ups, toes-to-bar, and bar or ring muscle-ups.

How to Do the Hollow and Arch 

To perform the hollow position, start in the supine position (lying on your back). Extend your arms overhead. Extend your legs, pressing your legs and feet together. Crunch your chest up towards the sky, removing space between the lumbar spine and ground. As you crunch upwards, squeeze your butt and tuck your pelvis under, bringing your feet six to 12 inches off the ground. 

For the arch, transition to lying on your belly. Extend your arms overhead, then extend your legs. Press your legs and feet together. Keep your head in a neutral position. Lift your chest and knees off the floor simultaneously, squeezing your glutes to prevent over extension of your lower back.

Strict Pull-Up 

The strict pull-up requires incredible upper body strength and is a milestone that deserves celebration upon accomplishment. It may take people years to build the strength for just a single rep.

The pull-up is something that should be trained, tested, and developed in and of itself alongside the other bar skills CrossFit often utilizes. 

Benefits of the Strict Pull-Up 

  • The strict pull-up develops functional flexibility in your shoulders, lats, and upper back.
  • This move strengthens your grip, shoulders, back, arms, and core.
  • You’l lay the foundation for other movements like rope climbs, kipping pull-ups, toes-to-bar, and bar or ring muscle-ups. 

How to Do the Strict Pull-Up 

Hang from a pull-up bar with a full overhand grip, with your hands just outside shoulder width. Pull until your chin is higher than the bar, keeping your chest up and the eyes forward. Lower yourself back down to the starting position, with your arms fully extended at the completion of every rep. 

Kip Swing

Now that you’ve learned the hollow and arch positions on the floor, you’re going to build on them by hanging from the pull-up bar and adding speed to the movement. 

It’s important to build your hanging pull-up strength with strict pull-ups while simultaneously building your kipping skill and flexibility by practicing kip swings. You don’t have to wait until you have strict pull-ups to learn the basic swing — you can develop them at the same time. 

Benefits of the Kip Swing 

  • The kip swing develops functional flexibility in your shoulders, mid-back, pecs, and core.
  • This move strengthens your chest, shoulders, and core.
  • You’ll build the foundation for other movements like kipping pull-ups, toes-to-bar, and bar or ring muscle-ups. 

How to Do the Kip Swing 

Hang from a pull-up bar like you’re about to do a strict pull-up. Initiate the movement by pressing the bar down while keeping your arms straight. As you press the bar down, tuck your pelvis under and crunch into the hollow position. Be sure to keep your legs extended, pressing your legs and feet together. 

Once you’ve pressed down and crunched into the hollow position, allow momentum to swing your chest forward. As your chest swings forward, actively pull your legs and feet back into the arch position. Be sure to keep your legs and arms straight, squeezing your glutes in the arch to prevent overextension of your lower back.

Once you reach the apex of the swing forward (arch), actively press down on the bar again and crunch back into the arch. Repeat this cycle of an active press into the hollow, with a passive swing into the arch. 

Handstand

Handstands are often one of the most intimidating things for people to learn when starting CrossFit. Complex barbell work can seem much more attainable than flipping upside down and holding.

Rest assured that you will not be asked — or expected — to kick upside down on your first day. If you have patience and focus, you can take this movement from a simple plank to a full handstand. It will take time, but persistence will pay off.

Benefits of the Handstand 

  • The handstand develops functional flexibility, balance, and stability in your wrists, shoulders, and core.
  • You’ll increase circulation and lymph flow for better health and recovery
  • This move lays the foundation for other movements like wall walks, handstand push-ups, and handstand walking. 

How to Do the Handstand 

Place your hands on the floor, approximately shoulder-width apart. Keeping your arms extended, kick your feet up bringing your body into an inverted position. Spread your fingers to grip the floor and assist with inverted balance.

Keep your midline braced and maintain a neutral spine. Maintain your feet in a stacked position over your hips and keep your hips stacked over your wrists

Barbell Basics for CrossFit Beginners

The barbell basics will teach the foundational positions for lifting that build the strength and control needed to safely execute more dynamic lifts in the future. 

Shoulder Press

The shoulder press (also known as the overhead press) is the foundation of all barbell pressing exercises. If a workout ever calls for a shoulder-to-overhead, it’s referring to any lift that will successfully bring the bar into a stable position overhead. You can use the shoulder press to do this.

The bench press might get mainstream attention outside of the CrossFit world, but it’s the shoulder press that will set you up for success in functional fitness sports. 

Benefits of the Shoulder Press 

  • The shoulder press develops functional flexibility in your wrists, shoulders, and mid-back
  • You’ll build strength in your shoulders, traps, triceps, and core.
  • This move lays the foundation for other barbell movements like the push press, push jerk, and split jerk

How to Do the Shoulder Press

Stand with a barbell resting across your shoulders, just above your collarbone. Set your hands in a full grip just outside of your shoulders. Keep your elbows slightly in front of the barbell in the set-up of the movement. Set your feet in a hip-width stance, keeping your heels down for the duration of the movement.

Your torso and lower body should remain rigid and not move throughout the move. Press the bar vertically, keeping it over the middle of your foot for the duration of the movement. To accomplish this, tuck your head back for the first half of the press. As the bar clears, your head should come back to a neutral head/neck position. 

Finish the movement by fully extending your arms overhead. Return the barbell back to your shoulders, moving your head out of the way to keep the bar path straight. Be sure to lower the barbell with your elbows slightly in front of the bar. 

Front Squat

When compared to its big sibling the back squat, the front squat is less popular outside of the CrossFit and weightlifting spaces. 

Because it’s so directly transferable to learning everything from Olympic lifts to thrusters, the front squat is a solid move for CrossFit beginners to master. You’ll need to recruit a lot of extra core strength for this one, since the bar position will keep your torso pretty upright.

Benefits of the Front Squat 

  • You’ll develop functional flexibility in your wrists, shoulders, lats, hips, groin, and ankles. 
  • The front squat will build strength in your legs, core, and upper back
  • This move lays the foundation for other barbell movements like the thruster and clean. 

How to Do the Front Squat

Set the barbell across your delts, just above your collarbones. Put your hands in a loose, fingertip grip just outside of your shoulders. Bring your elbows high, so that they are parallel with the floor. Set your feet in a shoulder-width stance. 

Sit your hips back and down simultaneously until your hip descends below your knees. Once your hips get below parallel, stand tall, extending your knees and hips completely.

Back Squat

The back squat is the king of lower body strength exercises. In CrossFit, the back squat is mainly an assistance exercise that helps to build incredible lower body strength to make all other squatting movements feel easier. 

In competition, the back squat does appear in the popular strength test “The CrossFit Total,” where a one-rep max is tested for the back squat, shoulder press, and deadlift. It’s also important to note that back squats can be performed with the barbell in a high-bar or low-bar position on the traps. We’re going to focus mainly on high-bar squatting, as the positioning mimics the other squatting movements utilized in CrossFit. 

Benefits of the Back Squat 

  • The back squat develops functional flexibility in your upper back, hips, groin, and ankles. 
  • You’ll build strength in your legs, core, and upper back. 
  • This move helps you to add lean muscle mass across your full body. 

How to Do the Back Squat

Stand with a barbell resting on your upper back with your elbows pointed back. Set your hands in a full grip just outside of your shoulders. Put your feet into a shoulder-width stance. Squat down while maintaining the bar in a straight line over your midfoot.

Break parallel such that your hips are lower than your thighs. Push through your feet to stand tall. Extend your knees and hips completely when you stand back up.

Overhead Squat

The overhead squat is the ultimate test of how well you’ve mastered the squat. It’s unique in its ability to expose any faults that you may have been hiding in your other squatting movements. The overhead squat is also an incredible core exercise, and is the basis for which the snatch is built

This movement is similar to the strict pull-up in that it often takes years — not months — to develop. While it may be a frustrating process, the return you will receive in full-body flexibility, stability, core strength, and balance will definitely be worth the price of admission. 

Benefits of the Overhead Squat 

  • You’ll develop functional flexibility in your wrists, shoulders, upper back, hips, groin, and ankles. 
  • This move builds strength in your core, legs, shoulders, and upper back. 
  • The overhead squat lays the foundation for the most technical barbell movement — the snatch.

How to Do the Overhead Squat

Stand with a barbell overhead, with your hands in a wide grip. This grip should be the same width you can do a PVC passthrough with. Face your armpits forward to ensure proper shoulder positioning. 

Set your feet in a shoulder-width stance. Squat down while maintaining the bar’s position overhead. Stand tall after your hips break parallel. Actively push up into the bar throughout the duration of the movement to ensure an active shoulder position. 

Deadlift

The deadlift is a movement that will allow you to build incredible amounts of strength. Since there is a ton of squatting in CrossFit, utilizing a major hip hinge exercise like the deadlift is essential for developing a strong (and healthy) posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and back).

You’ll test your strength in this move during The CrossFit Total benchmarks, but it’s a powerhouse move all its own. You’ll develop an incredible amount of full-body strength through deadlifting, all of which will translate nicely into overall strength and athleticism. 

Benefits of the Deadlift

  • You’ll develop functional flexibility in your hamstrings, hips, and back. 
  • The deadlift builds tremendous strength in your entire posterior chain, core, and legs. 
  • This will lay the foundation for other hinging movements in CrossFit such as clean variations, snatch variations, and kettlebell swings.

How to Do the Deadlift

With a loaded barbell resting on the floor, step up to the bar so that your shins and barbell make contact. Set your feet in a hip-width stance. Hinge down by pushing your hips back. Take a full grip on the barbell, with your hands just outside of your hips. 

Set your shoulders slightly in front of the barbell. Adjust your hips to be slightly higher than your knees, pushing your hips back and maintaining a relatively vertical shin angle. Keep a neutral spine position, not allowing your back to flex (round).

Push your feet down into the floor as you pull the barbell up. Your hips and shoulders should rise at the same rate until the barbell is slightly above your knees. Once the barbell passes your knees, fully extend your hips and knees until you are in a fully standing position. Squeeze your glutes and abs at the top of the movement to avoid overextending your lower back.

Introduction to Olympic Lifting for CrossFit Beginners

Mat Fraser got his start as an Olympic weightlifter, and Tia-Clair Toomey is a high-level, competitive Olympic lifter. It’s not a coincidence Toomey is the winningest athlete in all of CrossFit history and that Fraser is just one championship behind her.

The introduction to Olympic lifting movements will be the most difficult to learn, requiring you to break down the movements into segments before putting everything together. Master these moves and you’ll be well on your way to improving your CrossFit game.

Push Press

The push press builds on the shoulder press. This shoulder-to-overhead variation allows you to train with heavier weights because your legs help out in the initial portion of the movement. Many athletes can push press about thirty percent more weight than they can shoulder press

Learning the basics of the dip and drive with your legs will translate to higher skill movements down the road. Focus on mastering the positions and timing before worrying about how much weight you’re lifting. If you’ve built a solid foundation on the shoulder press, you will likely make very quick gains on the push press once you hone your technique

Benefits of the Push Press

  • The push press develops power, speed, coordination, and timing.
  • You’ll build strength in your shoulders, upper back, triceps, and core. 
  • This move lays the foundation for dynamic pressing movements such as the push jerk and split jerk. 

How to Do the Push Press

Set up as though you’re about to perform a shoulder press. You might want to place your feet in a wider stance to optimize your leg drive. Initiate the movement by dipping your torso straight down, followed by a rapid extension of your hips and legs. 

Finish the movement by fully extending your knees, hips, and arms with the barbell locked out overhead. The bar should move over the middle of the foot for the whole movement. 

Push Jerk

The push jerk (also known as the power jerk) is often confused with the push press. To the untrained eye, they might look identical. But there is one major difference between the two movements. 

In the push press, you are dipping and driving up with your legs until the barbell is locked out overhead. With the push jerk, you will be dipping then driving up with your legs to get the barbell moving vertically, while simultaneously pressing yourself down under the barbell into a partial squat

You will receive the barbell overhead in a partial squat and then stand to a fully extended position, completing the movement. This small difference will allow you to theoretically handle thirty percent more weight than the push press. 

Benefits of the Push Jerk 

  • You’ll develop power, speed, coordination, and timing.
  • With the push jerk, you’ll build strength in your core, shoulders, upper back, and triceps. 
  • The push jerk lays the foundation for the split jerk and also typically allows you to lift more weight than the push press.

How to Do the Push Jerk 

Set up as you would for a push press, including the dip down. As the barbell is thrusted upwards by your legs and hips, press yourself under the barbell. Receive the bar in a partial overhead squat with your arms fully extended. Stand with the barbell overhead. Complete the movement with your knees, hips, and arms fully extended. 

Power Clean

The power clean is a great place to start when learning the basics of the clean. The difference between a power clean and full clean (also known as a squat clean in CrossFit) is that the power clean only requires you to receive the barbell in a partial squat. 

This move requires less flexibility and technique than the squat squat, making it easier to learn at first. As you build your front squat, simultaneously training your power clean will ensure you have a balanced development for both the pull and squat portion of the clean. 

Benefits of the Power Clean 

  • The power clean develops power, speed, and coordination. 
  • You’ll build full-body strength with this move, as well as get some conditioning benefits when you perform a greater number of reps.
  • The power clean lays the foundation for the full clean while building your barbell confidence.

How to Do the Power Clean 

Set up as though you’re about to perform a deadlift. Take a hook grip on the barbell, with your hands just outside of your hips. Set your hips slightly lower than for your deadlift. Your chest should be up, distributing the weight more evenly between your quads and posterior chain.

Maintaining a neutral spine, push your feet down as you pull the barbell up. Bring your hips and shoulders up at the same rate until the barbell is slightly above your knees. Once the barbell reaches the middle of your thighs, rapidly extend your knees and hips. 

Shrug your shoulders and pull yourself under the barbell with your arms. Receive the barbell in a partial front squat. Stand tall, finishing the movement with full knee and hip extension. 

Power Snatch

The power snatch and power clean have similar techniques, but there are some major differences. Your hand position and the position in which you receive the barbell will be very different. You’ll also get the bar there in a unique way.

In the power clean, you’ll have your hands just outside shoulder width, bringing the barbell from the ground to your shoulders in one smooth motion. The power snatch will have your hands in a wide grip (overhead squat grip), bringing the barbell from the ground to overhead in one fluid motion. As you build your overhead squat foundation, simultaneously training your power snatch will ensure balanced development for both the pull and squat portion of the full snatch. 

Benefits of the Power Snatch 

  • The power snatch develops your power, speed, and coordination. 
  • With this move, you’ll build full-body strength, as well as overhead stability and mobility.
  • You’ll lay the foundation for the full snatch, which is a hugely important CrossFit move.

How to Do the Power Snatch 

Approach the barbell as you would with a power clean, except you’ll take a snatch grip — a wide grip. This grip should be the same position you overhead squat with. 

Begin an explosive pull upward by driving your feet into the ground. Once the barbell reaches the middle of your thighs, rapidly extend your knees and hips. Once the barbell reaches your hip crease, drive with your legs vertically. Shrug your shoulders and pull yourself under the barbell with your arms. 

Receive the barbell in a partial overhead squat, with the barbell overhead and armpits facing forward. Stand tall. 

Training Tips for CrossFit Beginners

Too many beginners start CrossFit and want the fast track to the sexy lifts. They want to RX workouts and perform the high skill movements they see at the Games. Instead of rushing yourself, meet yourself where you’re at during each training session.

The timeline to achieving your goals will be dictated by your consistency, hard work, nutrition, recovery, and athletic background. Focus on the factors you can control and remember the following four tips as you start your journey. 

Start Small

During your first few months doing CrossFit, focus on learning the movements, doing them well, and being consistent each week with training. Strive to feel good everytime you leave the gym. If every workout is the hardest thing you’ve ever done, you’re not going to be able to sustain that intensity for long. Strive for daily wins and play the long game. 

Modify for the Goal of the Workout

Too many athletes don’t make progress because they don’t properly adjust the training to match the goals of the workout. Though it might be difficult to advocate for yourself, try to get to class early to check in with your coach about your skills and experience level. 

Work with your class’ coach on a modification strategy to be able to accomplish the goals of the day’s workout. This will ensure you’re getting the stimulus of the workout while also respecting where you are and what you can do right now.

Track Your Performance

Modifying your WODs (workouts of the day) to make sure they’re user-friendly is crucial. But make sure you know what you’re doing so you can keep your future self accountable — and celebrate your progress and successes.

Keep careful track of whatever modifications you’re making so that you can monitor your progress. It’s going to be very difficult to improve if you have no idea what your personal modifications and weight ranges have been for given workouts. Tracking weights, movements, and workouts will allow you to see trends and plan your improvements over time. 

Increase Slowly Over Time

It’s easy to stick with the movement options and weights you’re comfortable using. Since CrossFit workouts are constantly varied, you may only see a movement every two to three weeks in training. 

If you performed a movement two weeks ago and things went well, trying adding five pounds to what you used in your previous workout. This is referred to as progressive overload — gradually increasing your volume or intensity (one factor at a time) according to your ability to complete past workouts.

Small increases won’t feel like much at the moment, but they will have an unbelievable impact on your fitness and strength in the context of a year of training. Be intentional about your progress and set small goals for each time you repeat a movement. 

Get Started in CrossFit

You don’t have to wait until you move perfectly to start. Still, you’ll want to make sure you’re mastering the basics before piling into complicated movements. If a workout is calling for full snatches but you’re only ready to perform power snatches, stick there as long as you need to.

A pyramid can only grow as tall as the width of its base. Learn these CrossFit beginner exercises, do them right, take your time, and enjoy the journey. You’ll only get stronger from here. 

Featured Image: Mix Tape / Shutterstock