Good CrossFit cardio helps you thrive during sprint workouts, power your way through AMRAPs, and survive the challenge of long and grueling Hero workouts.
But unlike some endurance sports, simply running or rowing is not going to help you develop killer cardio. CrossFit requires it’s athletes to be able to perform a wide variety of movements while under stress—meaning your cardio training should utilize a variety of different movements.
Fortunately, you can build up your cardio whether you work out at a CrossFit gym or train at home. Even with minimal equipment, you can make fitness gains that translate over.
Here are some tips to develop your CrossFit cardio, plus 10 killer workouts you can use to build your base.
How can you build your CrossFit conditioning?
Program CrossFit workouts that utilize cardio exercises, like running, rowing, biking, swimming, and double unders. Also do plenty of high-rep calisthenics exercises like burpees, mountain climbers, and lunges are also good for improving CrossFit conditioning.
To keep your training aligned with CrossFit’s goal—to develop GPP, or general physical preparedness—you’ll also want to perform these movements in a variety of different ways. Examples include:
- AMRAPs- As many round as possible in X number of minutes
- EMOMs- Timed interval workouts where you do exercises every minute on the minute
- RFT- Rounds for time workouts
- Chipper/Hero WODs– grueling, often long-duration challenge workouts meant to test cardio, strength, and mental toughness
- Ladder/Death By Workouts – Ascending and descending ladder workouts as well as “death bys” where you go until you fail to complete the allotted number of reps
- HIIT Workouts– Tabata training, circuit workouts, etc.
Occasional intense weightlifting exercises with movements like thrusters, deadlifts, and squats also have their place. Just don’t overdo it, because high-rep resistance training really taxes your system.
How to Improve your Cardio
Improving any skill in CrossFit is about repetition. Drilling the basic cardio movements over and over—two, three times a week, at least—at various levels of intensity will yield the best results.
If you’re writing your own CrossFit workouts, you have two options to boost your cardio:
- Design your training days with a cardio bias- i.e. make 2 workouts per week (out of 5 or 6) solely focused on cardio at the expense of weightlifting, gymnastics training, etc.
- Do additional cardio training on top of your standard CrossFit program.*
Neither is preferable, so long as you consistently train and make progress. Limit additional HIIT workouts to only 1 or 2 a week, as these can be very taxing on your system.
*Word of warning on option #2: Also be sure to ease into doing two workouts in one day. Your body needs time to adjust, especially if you just started CrossFit recently. Add one day of light cardio in per week and scale up over 4 to 6 weeks to prevent injury and overtraining.
How to Get Better at the Assault Bike or the Rower
These implements are used frequently at all levels of the sport. Every CrossFit Games competition has utilized at least one, if not both pieces of equipment.
They’re tricky, because getting good at one is not how you get good at the other. Here are some tips to help you make the most fitness gains with both cardio machines.
Improving Air Bike Performance
Even experienced CrossFitters don’t “love” this piece of equipment. That’s because it can be a killer no matter how fit you are.
The Air bike (like the Rogue Echo bike) rewards force—meaning that explosive bouts of effort will be exponentially more effective for churning out calories.
So, to improve your Assault bike performance in CrossFit, try mini-workouts like these:
- Doing 1 minute sprints with long recoveries (minimum 3 to 5 minutes)
- Doing 20 to 30 second sprints from a dead stop, then recovering (90 to 120 seconds)
Get a feel for generating insane amounts of power on the bike, then coasting and recovering to catch your breath.
In a CrossFit cardio workout, your best bet is to cycle between high effort and recovery in this way. If you get the fan moving fast enough, you’ll continue churning out calories even when you take your foot off the gas.
Improving Rowing Performance
Improving rowing performance is more about developing good technique and efficient pulls, especially when you’re pulling for calories.
Learn the Technique
Good technique on the rower can be broken down into two phases: the drive and recovery. Master both aspects for the most efficient strokes.
Learn the Timing
The other way to improve is to master timing on your strokes. Understanding how much force you can generate on the erg then keeping it there during cardio workouts is key.
- Set your rowing machine to count calories; make sure you can see the number of strokes per minute as well as the output.
- Row 50 calories
- Aim to pull one calorie per pull.
For stronger males, a pace of between 22 and 28 strokes per minute at 1400 watts is pretty close to 1 calorie per stroke.
If you think this slower pace will dampen your performance, look at any recent CrossFit Games or CrossFit Open athlete on the rower. They stay calm, cool, and collected as they pull.
Generating force more efficiently helps keep your heart rate under control and allows you to catch your breath before going to the next movement.
CrossFit Conditioning WODs
Here are 10 of our favorite CrossFit cardio workouts to try. They vary in terms of difficulty, length, and which pieces of equipment you’ll need.
Remember, you can add them to your training or do some of these WODs on top of your normal programming. Unless you’re a seasoned athlete, any CrossFit cardio workouts with weights shouldn’t be done on the same day as another workout.
WOD 1: CrossFit Engine Builder WOD
- 400m Run
- 50 Double Unders
- 21 Calories, Assault Bike
*Make this one harder by putting a burpee penalty in place for missed double unders.
WOD 2: The Helen WOD
This is a benchmark CrossFit WOD that most gyms test and retest at least once a year. It’s relatively short, but a burner nonetheless!
3 Rounds For Time:
- 400m Run
- 21 Kettlebell swings, 53/35lbs
- 12 Pull-ups
WOD 3: No Equipment Cardio WOD
EMOM 2:30 (every 2.5 minutes on the minute):
- 10 Push-ups
- 10 Jump squats (full extension)
- Add 2 repetitions to each round- 12/12, 14/14, 16/16, etc. until failure.
WOD 4: The Murph WOD
A perennial cardio workout in the CrossFit community, Murph comes up every year on Memorial Day to test your cardio and mental toughness. Good luck!
- Run 1 mile
- 100 Pull-ups
- 200 Push-ups
- 300 Squats
- Run 1 mile
*If you have a 20lb weight vest, wear it.
WOD 5: CrossFit EMOM Cardio Workout
- 1 minute Assault Bike
- 1 Minute Row
- 1 Minute Run (200m out and back)
- 1 Minute Rest
WOD 6: CrossFit Interval Workout
20 seconds on, 10 seconds off x 8 rounds of each exercise:
- 95lb Thrusters
- Double Unders
- Ab-Mat Sit-Ups
This Mat Fraser Tabata workout uses different movements, but it’s a good video to see how Tabata works if it’s your first time.
WOD 7: “Death By” Burpees
On the minute, perform 1 burpee
At the top of each minute, add one burpee to your total. Go until you can’t complete the RX’d number of burpees in a minute.
RX+ Option: Jump 12 inches off the ground at the end of each burpee.
WOD 8: For Time Triplet
5 Rounds For Time:
- Row 500m
- 25 Box Jumps, 24/20in
- 25 Wall Ball Shots, 20/14lbs
WOD 9: Sprint Cardio CrossFit Workout
10 Rounds For Time:
- 5 135lb Hang Clean and Jerks
- 10 Bar over Burpees
WOD 10: The Filthy 50 Workout
This chipper WOD is a great introduction to CrossFit cardio development. It’s one of the oldest workouts from the original days of the sport. It uses some modified exercises, which makes it perfect for beginners.
- 50 Box Jumps (24/20 inches)
- 50 Jumping Pull-Ups
- 50 Kettlebell Swings (16/12 kg or 35/26 pounds)
- 50 Walking Lunges (bodyweight)
- 50 Knees-to-Elbows
- 50 Push Press (45/35 pounds)
- 50 Back Extensions
- 50 Wall Ball Shots (20/14 pounds)
- 50 Burpees
- 50 Double-Unders
CrossFit Cardio FAQ
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about CrossFit cardio and conditioning workouts.
What Is the Best CrossFit Cardio Programming?
There are a few popular add-ons to standard CrossFit programming people use to develop good cardio:
If you train at a CrossFit gym, ask your coaches about their cardio offerings. Some gyms do bootcamps (cardio-focused) while others offer specific cardio programming. It’s best to mix two programs crafted by the same group of people so you don’t overtrain.
What Are The Best CrossFit Cardio Workouts for Beginners?
This might not be the answer you want to hear—but as a beginner, just doing CrossFit is honestly your best bet.
Even if you’re coming in with an endurance base from previous training (running, cycling, playing other sports, etc.) you will find that the demands of CrossFit are different.
Not only will you develop your cardio on the rower or Assault bike; you’ll also develop it with a barbell or kettlebell in your hands, a box at your feet, and with a pull-up bar in front of you.
Can You Do CrossFit Cardio workouts With No Equipment?
Definitely. You can easily make a Crossfit cardio workout out of running and calisthenic exercises.
If you have minimal equipment, like a jump rope and some steps, you can up the ante. Try combining running, jump ropes and box jumps/step ups into a 20 or 30-minute AMRAP.
What are the best CrossFit Cardio Machines and Equipment?
The Assault bike and rower definitely win in a CrossFit box setting.
More recently, cardio machines such as the curved treadmill and ski erg have also entered the mix.
If you’re at a regular fitness facility, your best bet is probably the treadmill or rower. Look for a C2 rower, as these are the standard used by CrossFit. Other rowers might not accurately count calories and mess with your workout stimulus.