This is an F45 review by a middling CrossFit guy of a few years after having done F45 for three months at two gyms, both in Australia.
I was curious about F45 for years. After doing CrossFit for years at three gyms in Hong Kong, the US, and Australia (plus many drop-ins of a few visits each), I was intrigued by what other programs promising “functional movement training” could be effective for my mixed bag of goals.
I’ve tried poking around for F45 reviews on the internet. But I only find reviews comparing it unfavourably to CrossFit in terms of absolute fitness either can produce (a few people on Reddit saying that a middling regionals athlete is “better” than the best F45 can produce… but I don’t care), reviews by bloggers who did F45 for a few days, or reviews by cult-like fans.
I’ll try to produce a more unbiased description of the differences. Of course there’s my qualitative element (what I like), but hopefully you can make up your own mind, based on my near 4,000 words of detailed description of the similarities and differences between CrossFit and F45.
As you are no doubt aware, the quality of any gym (CrossFit or otherwise) depends largely on the owners and trainers — how engaged they are, how knowledgeable they are, how active they are in helping people perform better, and their general demeanour. This is my experience after having trained at over a dozen CrossFit gyms. So bear in mind that this is a review of F45 at just two gyms.
Another post you might like: Lessons I learned from “You Can’t Screw This Up” by Adam Bornstein, an approach to diet and health that’s based in common sense and science, and which is designed to be difficult to fail.
F45 vs CrossFit Overview — In a Nutshell
This article is so long I have to have a TL;DR for people who don’t want to get through it.
My overall review of F45 is positive. I really enjoy my time there, and I will continue to train at F45 gyms in different places that I go to.
I’ll break this review of F45 down into 5 sections — click on them for more info.
- Programming: F45 is programmed centrally — it’s very well organised. Every gym around the world does the same thing, using (mostly) the same equipment, with the same explainer animations on the wall. CrossFit is almost entirely individual — gyms might do their own programming, or follow another established gym’s programming.
- Movements: CrossFit programs in powerlifts, Olympic lifts, gymnastics, and cardio, pulling from a discrete set of movements that rarely changes. A workout typically involves one-two lifts and/or a cardio session of 10-30 minutes involving 2-4 stations. F45 workouts focus much less on heavy weights — never a “one rep max” — have lighter weights, and have many more stations — up to 30! Days alternate between strength, cardio, and mixed.
- Coaching: I’ve loved my coaches at F45 and CrossFit gyms alike. In terms of style, CrossFit coaches tend in general to push you further to perform better as a person — going harder, getting that one-rep max, etc. That’s why they call their members “athletes”. Coaches in F45 do encourage you, but only as much as you want/need. They are more focused on keeping you healthy, active and injury free, and coming back for more, rather than getting scared and quitting.
- Training focus: CrossFit training is a little more intense. Members get coaching on good form, mobility, and developing new skills. Getting ripped is incidental, and not even guaranteed! Training at F45 is much more general — about getting stronger and fitter, yes, but much less about building new athletic skills. Coaches teach and correct form, but it’s nowhere near as prescriptive as in CrossFit.
- Community: Both F45 and CrossFit gyms have supportive, friendly communities, who do things like get together after hours. In general, CrossFit tends to be competitive and more aggressive. The membership of most CrossFit gyms skews towards male, often around 80% male, 20% female. F45 is much more friendly and unintimidating, and the membership is much more skewed towards women — around 70% women and 30% men (more or less depending on time of day or specific gym).
In each section I’ll compare F45 to CrossFit to try to give you an overview. (Skip ahead to those sections if you want!)
But first, a bit about myself as background.
A bit about myself as a CrossFitter
I will try to give a frank description of my own fitness level just for context. This is a review by one person, so you need to decide how it applies to you!
I’m 40. I started doing CrossFit when I was 34. At that point I was a bit doughy without being “fat”. I was an office worker who ran a few kilometres on a treadmill most mornings, did P90X in my living room sometimes, and faffed about randomly with weights in hotel gyms. I found barbells scary, but after doing a couple of sessions at my local gym in Hong Kong that left me breathless but exhilarated, I was hooked on the feeling.
I responded well to the training. After a few years I wasn’t a regional competitor, but in the “community” part of the CrossFit Open (in which not everyone participated) I’d place roughly in the top 20% (I counted the participants and worked it out), doing everything with the full “as prescribed” weights. People ask me if I was a coach because I seemed/looked like one. I could
- Deadlift 184 kg (415 lb)
- Back squat 135 kg (295 lb)
- Bench press 120kg (260 lb)
- Clean 102.5 kg (225 lb)
- Snatch 72.5kg (160 lb)
My secret weapon was a weighted pull-up — I could strap 45 kg to myself (100 lb) and do one pull-up.
Since leaving CrossFit and focusing on powerlifting, I’ve pushed those numbers a little further (and got to a 1000-lb total, and even a 50 kg weighted pull-up).
In the gymnastics arena, I could do repeated strict muscle ups, handstand push ups, V-ups, and climb ropes with my hands only in a seated position. I could do a lot of push-ups, maybe 50 before needing a break. I had a standing box jump of… can’t remember, but it was pretty good! (I think 48 inches).
I became a bit of a form and mobility nerd, always trying to squat deeper, move more efficiently, and keep better posture. This was good for me, but it worked against me in the competitive nature of some CrossFit gyms (more on that below in community).
That said… I was rarely the fittest person in class unless a couple of people didn’t show up. I had a small layer of fat on my lower abdominal muscles that will forever haunt me, reminding me to choose between ice cream and being shredded (ice cream 4eva!).
I was a bit of a jack of all trades — a moderate runner, pretty good weightlifter, and decent gymnast, without being a legend at anything. Well, maybe pull-ups and muscle-ups.
OK, that’s enough about me. On to my discussion of F45!
By the way, if you’re from the CrossFit world, ignore the marketing hype about F45. They like to mention stars who do it and a whole bunch of irrelevant things. I’ll try to cut to the chase.
Programming in F45 vs CrossFit
Far and away, the programming is the part that impressed me the most about F45 gyms. It’s so organised, and it’s an operational masterpiece (I’m a bit of an operations nerd).
CrossFit gyms have different methods of programming, but it always is very “custom” (even if using another gym’s programming). Sometimes a gym will take their community through cycles of training, with squats on certain days, back squats on certain days, deadlifts on certain days, cardio on certain days… they might be going through cycles of training double unders, pull-ups, or whatever.
Some CrossFit gyms defer to external authorities and rely on established gym programs for their programming. For example, I heard a lot about Misfit Athletics and their programming, as I did about Crossfit Invictus. There are some other brand names I’ve come across in my time too.
Some gyms have very experienced or well-qualified coaches who work at the gym and they just like to do all their own programming. But I know that that’s very difficult and time-consuming.
I imagine there’s a small selection of gyms that just follow CrossFit Central programming, but I’ve literally never come across that in a commercial gym (one friend does it in his home gym, and I know from online banter that other home gyms follow suit).
CrossFit gym programming tends to either combine strength plus cardio into one one-hour session, or alternates strength and cardio on different days. I saw more of the former (all in one hour) than the latter. A typical day’s schedule will be something like
- Back squat 5-5-5-5-5, then do this 20 minute workout involving plated lunges, burpees, and running, or
- Deadlift 5-4-3-2-1, then a 10-minute workout of a ladder thrusters and burpees, or
- A 40-minute workout alternating between four movements
And so on — with many variations of movements, timing, and focus.
CrossFit workouts definitely have a dedicated strength session (powerlifting) or skill + strength (like the snatch, which needs agility, skill, mobility, and strength).
And because gyms tend to do their own programming or rely on another gym’s programming, the workouts tend to involve 2-4 different stations or movements. I’d rarely see fewer (a workout with just one movement would get groans, especially if it’s burpees), and rarely more than four movements because operationally, it gets challenging moving people around a room, having the right number of people, etc.
The programming at F45 is very different.
Firstly it’s centralised — globally. Everyone in every one of the affiliates does the same workout. Pretty amazing.
Secondly, there is definitely less of an emphasis on all-out strength. Never do you do one-rep or even five-rep maxes. There aren’t enough plates, even, for everyone to be squatting 100kg. There are no weight racks, and very few Olympic barbells.
Thirdly, there are typically many more stations. A typical F45 workout will have 20-30 people in one class doing anywhere from five to 20 or maybe 30 (it is possible…) stations. Thirty! It seems ridiculous. Sometimes it’s something like 15 stations, but two different movements at each one. You watch the demo and think… wait, how am I supposed to remember this?
That’s the secret with F45 — you don’t have to remember. Because every gym has televisions on the wall, making it blindingly obvious what station has what movement (just copy what the handsome man is doing!), and where you’re going next. You’re never lost. It’s always clear.
At F45, there’s a lot more emphasis on heart rate and cardiovascular fitness. A lot of people opt to buy a branded heart-rate monitor that plugs into the system. Your heart rate gets displayed on the wall and you get points depending on how much time you spend in each zone. (Ironically you earn fewer points the fitter you are, but the coaches know that.)
The gyms I went to gently encouraged participants to try to get 45 points, or 60 points on the longer 1-hour sessions. There’s no “failure”, but some people do get mildly obsessive about it.
One very active person in one class, who I know was pushing REALLY hard, was a bit annoyed she only got 34 points when people not working as hard got 60+. I sympathised — I have had that feeling before. But that’s why it’s always unproductive to look at anyone else. Also, aside from encouraging you to keep going and to push as hard as you can, those points are meaningless.
The F45 catalogue of movements (is massive)
In time, at CrossFit, you get familiar with all the movements. There are only certain things you do, with small variations: wall balls, air squats, lunges, burpees, push-ups… the catalogue is fairly limited.
By contrast, in F45 the catalogue of movements is not only massive, it’s always expanding. The amount of variation in movements is staggering.
For example, in CrossFit I was exposed to three kinds of push-ups in a few years:
- Standard push-ups
- Hands-free push-ups
- Weighted push-ups, once or twice
Every time we did them, we’d improve. I’d improve in form, breathing technique, and ability to pump out a lot.
In F45, in the brief period I’ve been there, we’ve had
- Standard push-ups
- Bosu-ball push-ups
- Push-ups on a medicine ball
- Incline or reverse-incline push-ups
- Push-ups with feet in TRX stirrups
- Push-ups with a pause at the bottom
- Alternating full-then-half push-up
- Low pulses
- One hand on a medicine ball, going side to side
- Push-ups where you pause and slide one hand out to the side
There are pros and cons to this (which I’ll deal with in the section on training). But there was definitely diversity. I didn’t get bored!
There are also no “prescribed weights” in F45. In CrossFit, a workout would often be prescribed as “Rx” (as prescribed), or some inferior form. So the aggressive types would try to do Rx and then often fail, whereas the more moderates would scale their weights.
Only in the very best gyms with the best coaches have I seen coaches say things like “pick the appropriate weight that will be challenging to do xyz. I don’t care what weight it says on the board.” They’d expect people to know themselves and their bodies well enough to do the right thing. Or to get advice as needed.
In F45, the weight you choose is entirely up to you. There’s a whole range. It’s up to you to go light or heavy. The coaches will call you out on form, but not give you too much pro-active advice (or hold you to training log).
The final thing I want to mention is that F45 has no:
- Kipping, or
- Olympic lifts.
No more kipping pull-ups, handstand push-ups, or V-ups. I always thought kipping was weird. It makes a pull-up into more of a core/ab movement. That’s fine, but a lot of gyms let people do kipping pull-ups without ever learning a strict one, which means a lot of people never learn how to do a strict pull-up. (Again, not every gym. Some nerdy form-obsessive gyms insist you must do strict before you kip.)
No Olympic lifts means no snatches and no cleans/clean-and-jerks. Well, sometimes there’s a lightweight version involving a barbell or a kettlebell. But I don’t really miss pursuing one-rep-maxes of heavy Olympic lifts. I fought for a 72.5kg snatch for ages, got it, and thought “well… am I fitter now?” Maybe in many ways, but for me, the number lost significance.
Many people I know actually grow to love powerlifting or Olympic lifting after being first introduced to them in CrossFit. They live for the deadlift or the snatch. If you’re one of those people who loves the heavy lifting more than anything else, you’ll really miss it at F45 and it’s likely not for you.
Coaching comparison between F45 and CrossFit
As I mentioned at the top, every coach in every gym is different. I’ve had bad coaches in CrossFit (in gyms I only dropped into, never my “home” gym), and excellent coaches at random fitness gyms I did through ClassPass.
I like the coaches at F45. They’re nice. I met them on day one and told them “I’m recovering from a sprained ankle”. Every day, they’d ask me about my ankle. They knew my name from day one, and seemed to know everyone’s names — impressive with 100+ members!
The F45 coaches push you hard if you want, and don’t push you if you don’t want.
F45 is far less aggressive than CrossFit — something I’ll talk about in community. You won’t hear people being yelled at to hit another rep or get slightly more weight — unless they’re one of the super-keen folk (like me) — and we’re only about 5% of the class. The coaches usually say things like “as long as you’re moving, that’s great”.
When they see how I (or a couple of other inspiring folk in class) respond to coaching, they push us. They give us heavier weights, and ask us to do the more difficult moves, or take fewer breaks.
But for other people, the coaches will proactively tell them how to modify the movement or sets to make it less extreme. They really just want everyone to be consistent and happy enough to keep showing up. They don’t coddle people — but they take care of them. Otherwise, those people may get hurt or discouraged, stop showing up, and that’s bad for everyone.
Training focus in F45 vs CrossFit
At CrossFit, I was trained on how to perform better as a human — how to move efficiently and safely. They did this by not just making us do workouts, but by coaching us on mobility, form, and technique.
I did many, many instances of the same kind of movement in CrossFit. After doing push-ups all my life, I thought I knew how. But even after three years of doing push-ups, I still knew I could do them better. Coaches at CrossFit helped me improve — being more stable in my shoulders, more agile, stronger in my core, and so on.
Learning to perform better as a human is a distinct advantage of CrossFit over F45. At F45, you become fitter in the cardiovascular and muscular sense. But there’s very little attention given to mobility, form, and technique — other than correcting what people are doing that might hurt them, or giving people alternative movements that suit their physical condition.
CrossFit focuses on its philosophy of constantly varied functional movement. In this sense, it’s totally aligned with F45.
In a paper called “What is Fitness?“, the founder and former owner of CrossFit, Greg Glassman, talked about a combination of aspects of fitness, including strength, agility, mobility, being skilled in various movements, and paying attention to diet. He laid down a manifesto of sorts, and that became the constitution on which CrossFit was founded.
Nothing in the CrossFit manifesto tells you “You’ll look shredded” or whatever. They try not to focus on aesthetics. I appreciated that. It was more of a side-effect, and didn’t even have to happen.
F45 is somewhat like that, but much less intense and cult-like. F45 is mostly “get fit through functional movement”. It omits the parts of skill, mobility, and form.
F45 trains you to be fit. Maybe even to be shredded. It has a lot more focus on cardiovascular movement — after all, you can buy their gadget and get your heart rate displayed on the wall.
There are little sprints in which they weigh you and maybe even measure your body fat percentage. Then you show up for a while, focus on your diet, and then check how things have gone again.
In the process, they do want to help you get shredded. It’s a reasonable thing to aspire to, in F45. In CrossFit it was an almost apologetic thing… I once told my coach “I want bigger arms!” and he did help me, but he also explained that the things he was giving me were going to improve my muscle-ups, and so on. It wasn’t a really OK thing to aspire to “look good naked”.
At F45, it’s OK to aspire to “look good naked”. Whew! For a lot of us, that’s what we want!
F45 has a definitely less emphasis on mobility, skill, and form.
At CrossFit, I was learning about form until the day I left. Good coaches always found little ways to improve my deadlift, burpee, pull-up, or whatever. Great coaches could get me to perform a lot better with just small tips.
At F45 — there’s not so much emphasis on great form. The coaches will watch for bad form and prevent injury. But I don’t see all coaches religiously coaching people to do things better.
So I see a lot of sloppy push-ups, squats, burpees… just lazy movement that’s definitely going to lead to soreness.
There’s also limited emphasis on mobility in F45 (that I’ve seen, anyway).
At CrossFit, my coaches would regularly give us large bands and ask us to do certain exercises to increase our range of motion. Or ask us to stick a yoga ball in our back, or to lie on a kettlebell, or something. They were aware that good mobility and form can make us perform better and more safely.
I see the effect of focusing on form/technique most starkly in common movements like ball slams. A ball slam starts with a snatch. You snatch it into the air, and then in one movement slam it down and snatch it back up. It is actually a lot like doing burpees while standing up.
But people at F45 gyms who don’t know that a ball slam is a snatch that will try to squat the ball up, and then press it up, then slam it down. It becomes three exhausting movements and a lot harder to do with a heavy weight.
In one way, it doesn’t really matter that people at the F45 gyms do a movement with inefficient form. If you’re doing the movement safely (e.g. with a lighter ball) then you’re getting a workout. Your heart rate is going up, you’re using your muscles, and getting fitter.
But it was gratifying at CrossFit to know that I could lift more and do it for longer and more safely because I was paying attention to the way my body worked.
Diet in F45
Finally, CrossFit gyms focus more on diet (it varies).
I do hear banter about diet at both gyms — the usual stuff about eating a protein-forward diet, watching your macros, and so on.
But diet is at the core of CrossFit’s philosophy. Many CrossFitters go paleo or try the Zone Diet, at least for a while. At CrossFit gyms I hear people talking about meal prep, macros, and so on.
At F45, people do talk about diet a bit, but it’s way more casual. Heck, sometimes people bring in cake to share! It’s amazingly nice and super life-loving. In my CrossFit gyms it would have been a not-sweet paleo slice or kangaroo jerky or something. A differently, slightly more obsessive form of community love.
I think the difference between the gyms with respect to diet is that in CrossFit, you eat to perform, whereas at F45 people are more talking about getting healthier and fitter, and maybe eating to build muscle or lose weight… it’s more general.
F45’s Community vs CrossFit
Finally, a few notes on how the crowd at F45 differs to CrossFit.
More than anything else, community is an area where F45 and CrossFit are very similar. They’re both great crews of supportive people who, over time, become your friends.
Overall, the F45 crew is a good group of nice people. There’s banter and you can make friends. In that sense, they’re identical, and different to a lot of other gyms I’ve been to where people just come and leave wordlessly.
The first thing I noticed when I showed up to my first F45 class was that most (over 80%) of the participants at my F45 class were women. It was about 20 women and 3 men, including me.
I thought it was because it was mom-o’clock (9:15 am), but I saw a similar pattern at other times of day — early morning and evening. It was always at least 70% women — usually more.
The high percentage of women in F45 is great. It’s a reflection of the fact that F45 is far less intimidating to women than CrossFit is.
CrossFit coaches often have to remind their clientele of things like “lifting weights won’t make you huge” (it’s very hard to become huge as a woman). The problem is, while explaining this, there’ll be some guy grunting as he ekes out a 1-rep-max back squat, and someone else throwing their weights down onto the ground from a snatch.
CrossFit is more macho than F45, and invites people who lean that way. The men and women are tougher, usually mentally and also physically. I’ve never seen a CrossFit gym that was dominated in numbers by women, not even in gyms that were owned exclusively by women (like United Barbell in San Francisco). I’ve met many women put off by the macho atmosphere of CrossFit gyms.
It’s nice to see that F45 is a gym that women feel more comfortable in. I’d love to see a CrossFit-style gym that actively markets itself as approachable for women — I know they exist, but are rare.
A corollary of F45’s gender balance is that F45 gyms have a much less competitive environment. I don’t like gender norms, but there is a lot of evidence to show that women tend to be less competitive than men.
Most workouts at F45 are in small teams of one or two people. But frankly, I’m usually too tired to even notice what’s going on with the other person. Maybe I haven’t been there long enough.
I really appreciate the less competitive nature of F45. While I enjoy being pushed, quite often the competitiveness of CrossFit athletes just bothered me. I would see them cheating reps or being sloppy, or lifting weights too heavy for them. Some people were just always trying to impress someone. It ruined a few workouts for me. This doesn’t happen at F45.
On the occasional workout I’ll notice that while I’m taking a quick break, my team-mate is still going. It’ll encourage me to do more. But it’s never competitive to the point where I’m trying to beat him/her, do more weight, more reps, etc.
Aside from that — people at F45 are nice. There’s banter, and a community around it. It’s a good place to make friends. Thought like any gym, that takes a while!
I’ll continue with F45 — because for me, right now, it’s the right thing.
I prefer the less competitive nature, the more relaxed clientele, and the diversity in the workouts.
I’m no longer relentlessly pursuing the 1-rep-max. I don’t care if I never see a barbell snatch again.
I really benefited already from years of great coaching so I’m confident in my mobility and my technique, and have enough YouTube resources to know how to continue improving.
What I’d still recommend for most people is a gym — of any kind (maybe even F45, but anything) — where the classes are small enough that the coach can give you special attention to form and mobility. This might even be a good personal trainer. It takes a while to find a great coach. But like the benefits of finding a teacher anywhere, it’s worth the hunt.
Once you’ve found that, F45 is as good a way as any to stay fit, stay motivated, and never get bored.