The 25 Most Important CrossFit Exercises

This article covers 25 of the most important exercises in CrossFit. We explore 9 Fundamental Movements – key exercises in CrossFit. We also provides an additional 16 Significant Exercises frequently done in CrossFit classes — providing you with a total of 25 Exercises.

CrossFit teaches and reinforces the 9 Fundamental exercises in it’s Level I and level II training courses — so they will definitely be in your CrossFit classes. We explore why you should do them, beginner scaling options, and our top cues so you can perform them correctly. The article also explains why one of these exercises probably should be replaced, and which exercise is the most underappreciated.

The 25 Most Important Exercises in CrossFit

CrossFit is a culture of teamwork and community.  CrossFit provides the standard of safe and effective movement. The Nine fundamental exercises of CrossFit introduces beginners to the fundamental patters of CrossFit exercises. The Sixteen Significant Exercises help you improve further. Below you’ll find videos and the most important cues and tips for safe exercise patterns.

Sand & Steel’s CrossFit Classes in Alexandria VA: We believe in the CrossFit’s method, because it works.  When safely scaled and expertly coached, it is one the fastest ways to get in shape.  With our extensive knowledge and experience in personal training, mobility, and fitness classes, we are able to provide a safe and consistent CrossFit class experience.

The Nine Fundamental Exercises:

  • Squats: Air Squat, Front Squat, Overhead Squat,
  • Pulls: Conventional Deadlift  Sumo Deadlift Highpull, Medball Clean
  • Presses: Strict Press, Push Press, Push Jerk

The Sixteen Significant Exercises:

  • Pushup & Burpee
  • Pullup, Chest to Bar, and Muscleup
  • Box Jump, Wall Ball, and Thruster
  • Barbell and Kettlebell Snatch
  • Barbell and Kettlebell Clean
  • Kettlebell American Swing
  • Ring Rows and Ring Muscle Up
  • Jump Rope and Double Unders
  • Lunge & Step Up

(1) The Air Squat – CrossFit for Beginners

The air squat teach the mechanics of squatting in general. 95% of people think they know how to squat, but less than 5% of people we train can squat properly. Squatting is a fundamental movement pattern, but your desk job has ruined your hip mechanics. Squat practice helps restore your functionality and builds strong legs. So mastering the fundamentals of hip external rotation, and maintaining lumbar extension will be time well spent for athletes looking to learn powerlifting techniques. If you think air squats are easy, try them sets of 50 when combined with activities like burpees, sprinting, and thrusters.  The air squat is done in all of CrossFit for Beginners lessons and our personal training.

The CrossFit Air Squat Technique:

Begin with your feet hip width apart, arms by your sit. Keeping your weight in your heels, sit back as if you are sitting in a chair. Raise your arms so they are in a straight line with your spine at the bottom of the squat. Your hip flexors will engage as you lower drawing your chest forward. Keep your core tight and your back straight. Make sure your knees track over your feet throughout the movement. Squeeze your glutes to straighten up, allowing your arms to travel back to your sides.

Alternatives to Consider – Beginner Versions:

  • Squat to Box
  • Band Assisted Squat
  • Plate Squat

Top Cues for the Air Squat:

  • Knees out
  • Chest up
  • Core tight
  • Arms up
  • Thumbs back
  • Weight in your heels

(2) The Front Squat – CrossFit for Beginners

The front squat is an extremely versatile movement. The front squat uses all the same same hip mechanics of the air squat in combination with the front rack position for holding the barbell. The front rack is the receiving position of the barbell clean from Olympic lifting. Consequentially, learning the front squat is a prerequisite for mastering the power clean. The front squat in many ways is a safer exercise, since it’s easier to control the bar. In an emergency, it’s much easier to dump the bar in the front squat than the back squat.  Because the front squat is a gateway exercise, we teach it in our CrossFit for Beginners programming.

The Front Squat Technique

The set up for the front squat is the hardest part. The barbell sits on your upper chest and shoulders. Your elbows are raise in front to shoulder level and your fingers hook under the bar just outside your shoulders. Tighten your core and follow through the movement with proper squat form, keeping your weight in your heels.

Alternatives to Consider – Beginner Versions:

  • Kettlebell Front squat
  • Dumbbell Front Squat
  • Safetybar Front squat

Top Cues for the Front Squat:

  • All of the air squat cues,
  • Elbows up,
  • Finger tips on the bar

(3) The Overhead Squat – CrossFit for Beginners (3)

Much like the front squat is the receiving position for the power clean, the overhead squat is the receiving position for the snatch.  One of the reasons CrossFit has been so successful in teaching its athletes how to safely perform the Olympic if by introducing functional elements of those movements early on. The overhead squat will challenge your mobility and control of your end range strength.  Most new members cannot safely execute overhead squats with much weight on the bar.  In our beginner CrossFit classes we use a PVC pipe to teach positioning.  The Functional Movement Screen utilizes the the Overhead Squat (OHS) as one of it’s primary tests for assessing mobility and stability.

Overhead Squat Technique

In our CrossFit for Beginners class we teach a wide grip on the bar.  It’s wide that your benchpress and narrower than your snatch.  It’s the same as your pullup width.  To get into the overhead position, begin with bar in a front rack and jerk or press it to overhead.  Once your arms are overhead, you need internally rotate your shoulders, push your shoulders up, and keep your elbows locked out.  The barbell should remain centered over the middle of your feet (balanced in the frontal plane).   At the bottom of the squat, your biceps may be behind your ears. As you rise, continue to keep your core tight and head up.

Top Cues for the Overhead Squat:

  • All of the air squat cues,
  • Stack arms over your shoulders,
  • Internally rotate your shoulders,
  • Push the bar upwards,
  • Pull your ribs down.

(4) The Deadlift – CrossFit for Beginners

The deadlift is the only powerlifting exercise in the CrossFit foundational movements (the bench press and back squat are not in the 9 fundamental movements.)  The deadlift is an essential exercise as teaches and strengthens one’s ability to lift objects off the ground.  It will strengthen your entire body, posterior chain, core, all the way through to your upper body.

Deadlift Technique

The deadlift is so important, we test all new members on this exercise in our fitness assessment.  It’s the second exercise we teach in our CrossFit for Beginners programming.   Different from a squat where hips sink low, in a deadlift your hips stay above parallel as you fold at the hips until your entire torso is nearly parallel to the ground. Allow a slight bend in your knees and press your hips back as your chest lowers, keeping a very straight spine. Maintain a flat back as you lift the weight, keeping it close to the front of your legs. Rise in a swift single motion, straightening the hips and the knees at the same time. Squeeze your glues intentionally at the top of the movement.

Alternatives to Consider – Beginner Versions:

  • Kettlebell Deadlift
  • Offset Deadlift
  • Rack Pull
  • Dumbbell Deadlift

Top Cues for the Deadlift

  • Neutral spine and tight core (push down into your pelvis bone),
  • Pull the bar into your shins and hips (tighten lats),
  • Shins perpendicular to the floor,
  • Leg press the floor the aggressively drive the body upwards,
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together, and
  • Shoulders and hips rise together.

(5) The Sumo Deadlift High Pull

The Sumo Deadlift High Pull (often written as SDHP) is an explosive total body exercise.  The SDHP is a CrossFit for beginners exercise because it teaches the strong hip drive needed in cleans and snatches.  Unlike the deadlift which builds strength, the Sumo Deadlift High Pull builds speed.

SDHP Technique:

The set up is very similar to the deadlift, hips high and back and your back is nice and flat. In the SDHP however, your feet need to be wide and toes pointed out. Grip the bar on the smooth section, about 6 inches apart.  When you begin the movement, your hips and shoulders should rise at the same time. A powerful hip drive will help raise the bar from your knees to your chest as your elbows go out and high.

Alternatives to Consider – Beginner Versions:

  • Clubbell Clean
  • Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift High Pull

Top Cues for the SDHP

  • Neutral spine and tight core,
  • Press into the floor,
  • Extend your hips quickly,
  • Squeeze your glutes
  • Pull your elbows back (squeeze your shoulders back)

(6) The Medball Clean – CrossFit for Beginners

The medball clean is an easy looking exercise is anything but easy.  With a soft Dynamax medball, the medball clean is often overlooked.  The medball clean requires the complete hip mechanics of the Olympic lift clean.  It’s typically done in sets of 20-50 and is very challenging from a metabolic standpoint.  The medball clean works the squat and the deadlift pattern all in one.  Major muscles include: back, hamstrings, glutes, and quads.  Core strength is needed to maintain a neutral spine.  The medball clean build speed and endurance.  Moreover, it’s low equipment requirement and unparalleled safety makes it an ideal CrossFit for beginners exercise.

Medball Clean Technique

Beginning with feet shoulder width apart, place the ball between your feet.  Lower yourself down to the ball, bringing your hips lower than the deadlift position.  Hold the ball on the sides and extend your spine so that your back is flat.  Quickly extend your hips driving through your hips (hip flexion).  At the top the hip extension, you then have to pull yourself back down into a squat catching the ball.  The ball itself only raises about two feet, you catch the medicine ball at your chest height, by pulling yourself under the ball.

Top Cues for the Medball Clean

  • Begin with deadlift cues, but make the following changes:
    • Legs are shoulder width instead of hip width;
    • Hips are lower than the deadlift
  • Shrug with elbows straight;
  • Keep the medicine ball close to the body at all times;
  • Do not curl the medicine ball;
  • Keep the laces of the ball up all the time — don’t spill the gold fish — the ball should not rotate;
  • Heels stay on the ground;
  • Explode out of the starting position.

(7) The Strict Press  / Shoulder Press- CrossFit for Beginners

The shoulder press is the barbell version of the dumbbell press.  The strict press builds strength like the deadlift.  The similar looking jerk builds speed (see below).  The shoulder press requires some significant shoulder and elbow mobility to do efficiently.  The primary muscle groups are shoulders, chest, back and arms.  It is a great exercise to gain upper body strength while still training the core and lower body.

Shoulder Press Technique

Some coaches think the barbell begins in the front rack position, but that’s neither safe nor is it efficient.  The movement begins with the barbell in a front rack position. Ensure your elbows are directly under your wrists and the barbell is comfortably in the palm of your hand. Your core is tight and your back is straight. Feet are at hip width. As you begin to move the bar up, tuck your chin so the bar can take a straight path upward.  Once the bar is past your forehead, move your chin back out so at the top of the movement, your face is between your biceps.

Alternatives to Consider – Beginner Versions:

  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • Kettlebell Shoulder Press

Top Cues for the Shoulder Press

  • Some people grab the bar at shoulder width, other use a slightly wider grip;
  • Wrists are straight on the bottom and top;
  • Elbows in front of the wrists;
  • Turn your elbows up on the lockout of the press;
  • Tuck the chin as your press upwards;
  • Look through the window on the press

(8) The Push Press – CrossFit for Beginners

The push press teaches part of the hip mechanics for the jerk.  The push press allows the athlete to lift substantially more weight that the strict through recruitment from the hips.  One of the big reasons for training the Push Press to teach the stretch reflex in the quads.  The stretch reflex is used in numerous Olympic lifts to improve lifting power.  Moreover, like the medball clean, it teach the core to extremity principles (move the bigger, slower muscles first.)  The push press strengthens the shoulders and arms.   For the legs, the Push Press provides conditioning and additional calorie burn.

The Push Press Technique

The push press begins with ‘the dip.’ This begins by keeping your weight in your heels and bending your knees just slightly. A couple inches. This is not a squat. Quickly explode out of this bend by activating your hip flexors and glutes. As your legs straighten, use the momentum generated in your hips to drive the barbell overhead. Make sure the barbell travels a straight line up: do not forget to tuck your chin! Stick your face back through the window created by your biceps after the barbell has passed.

Top Cues for Push Press

  • All the cues of the strict press;
  • Chest up;
  • Brace the core;
  • Knee bend quickly;
  • Quick bounce in the knees;
  • Drive your hips to extension and push through your heel quickly;
  • Do not come up on your toes;
  • Put your head through the window.

(9) The Push Jerk – CrossFit for Beginners

The push jerk is probably the most challenging movement of the nine to learn from a technical standpoint.  The jerk is one of the three Olympic lifts (along with the Clean and the Snatch).  We use the jerk (push jerk, squat jerk, or split jerk) to increase the amount of weight we can lift.  In the Olympics and weight lifting competitions, we use the jerk to lift more weight that we could with our arms alone.  It burns more calories per rep than the strict press as well.

The Push Jerk Technique

The beginning set up is similar to the push press with a couple adjustments. Feet should be wider (shoulder width) and grip should be wider as well (slightly outside shoulder width). Similar to the push press, the push jerk begins with the “dip” and “drive” movements. Now comes the jerk part. Once the bar clears your head, drop down into a modified squat (similar to the dip) and catch the bar with straight arms. It’s almost like you’re throwing the barbell into the air and getting under it before it starts coming down. When you catch the bar with straight arms (because you bent your knees to get under it), straighten your legs to come into the full extension.

Top Cues for the Push Jerk


  • Hip width stance;
  • Hand slightly outside the shoulder;
  • Elbow in front the hands;
  • Wrists Straight;
  • Bar rest on the shoulders;
  • Torso dips straight down
  • Keep your heel down on the DIP;
  • DRIVE your heels through the ground and extend your hips (bar is still on the torso/shoulders)
  • As your hips come to full extension, your heels momentarily come off the ground;
  • As you approach full hip extension, initiate the PRESS pushing bar press upwards;
  • Once your hips have fully extended, immediately pull them back landing in the a quart squat.  At this point the bar is directly overhead.
  • Complete the squat standing straight under the bar.

16 Significant Exercises not in the 9 Fundamental Exercises of CrossFit

  • Pushup & Burpee
  • Pullup, Chest to Bar, and Muscleup
  • Box Jump, Wall Ball, and Thruster
  • Barbell and Kettlebell Snatch
  • Barbell and Kettlebell Clean
  • Kettlebell American Swing
  • Ring Rows and Ring Muscle Up
  • Jump Rope and Double Unders
  • Lunge & Step Up

Final Thoughts on the Nine Fundamental Movements of CrossFit

Greg Glassman made these exercises probably ten years ago, and they have all withstood the test of time as CrossFit has adapted and changed. The least used movement is probably the Sumo Deadlift High Pull. While it’s a great teaching tool for the clean, it is awkward in its design. You can’t move any serious weight with this exercise. In most cases, the kettlebell sumo deadlift high pull is simpler and better than it’s barbell counterpart.  In contrast, the medball clean is fantastic and should be taught to new members and personal trainers earlier in their training.

3 thoughts on “The 25 Most Important CrossFit Exercises”

  1. Hi, I have never practiced CrossFit in my life but I want to give a try. Which one of those 9 exercises listed above would you recommend me to start with? I have a lot of previous experience in calisthenics and bodybuilding. Thanks.

    • I would learn the air squat first because it such a fundamental movement. If you practice and film yourself doing it, I can give you suggestions. Just, upload the video to youtube and post the link. I’ll tell what you are doing right and wrong. Thanks for reading our CrossFit article. -Paul

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