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October 25, 2022 9 min read

21-15-9 is a fitness regimen that involves constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.

Greg Glassman, the fitness trainer who founded the CrossFit movement in 2000 came up with the 21-15-9 endurance workout that is now incorporated in training routines across all spectrums from fitness workouts to strength training and even bodybuilders.

21-15-9 is often regarded as HIIT (high-intensity interval training).

However, it is HICT exercises, which stands for high-intensity circuit training and involves the combination of both cardiovascular and resistance training exercises.

While it sounds similar to HIIT, there's one big difference. Unlike HIIT which is based on extreme intensity followed by periods of rest, HICT is more continuous.

Some routines focus more on strength training, making them HIPT — High-Intensity Power Training.

According to Glassman, 21-15-9 was designed to help people improve their strength endurance, which is the ability to move a weight with higher reps in a shorter amount of time. This regime has even given rise to competitions called CrossFit Games in which CrossFit athletes compete to complete the given rep sets in the shortest time.

What is a 21-15-9 workout?

It is a workout that involves selecting one or several exercises and performing them for three rounds, in specific rep schemes, in the shortest time. In the first round, you’ll do 21 repetitions of each exercise, the second requires you to do 15 reps each of the same exercises, and the third and final round involves 9 repetitions of each.

Typically, you must finish all the rounds in the fastest time possible. The CrossFit program has a range of WODs —workout of the day—of which 21-15-9 is a classic, named by Greg Glassman as Fran.

Fran

A CrossFit classic benchmark workout, Fran is a great workout, and even if you’ve mastered it in record time, it’s worth periodic revisiting to test your fitness and time against your previous effort.

Fran WOD – Images from Shutterstock

Fran consists of just two exercises – barbell or dumbbell thrusters, which are similar to power cleans but not as heavy (Recommended weight 95lb/40-45kg), and pull-ups. You do 21 reps of each in the first round, then 15 reps of each in the second round, and nine repetitions in the third round — as fast as you can.

The idea behind the 21, 15, and 9 reps is that 21 reps of two or three different exercises are already grueling, and when you tackle the 15 reps of the second round, they will be as tough to do because you are already tired.

At the end of that set, knowing that there are only 9 more to go will make it easier for you to push yourself to persevere and get them done. Make no mistake, Crossfitters will tell you, those third-round repetitions will be as grueling as the first 21 reps.

Tips to get the 21-15-9 done in the shortest time

Here we’ll give you tips about how to maximize your efficiency and reach your goals of getting the Fran workout done in the shortest time.

Important note:  Always warm-up before starting any workout.

According to CrossFit, the average time for completion of Fran is 5 min and 32 seconds, but anything up to nine minutes is regarded as a good time. However, most recorded unbroken Fran times by participants in competitions for best times range from 1:50 to 4:00 minutes. Fran completed in under 3 minutes is the goal of serious athletes.

There are many things that you can do to improve your performance:

  • Fast transitions: Fran is an all-out sprint and people seem to forget that in between stations. So,eliminating wasted transition time will help you accumulate reps faster. 

  • Positioning of equipment: Get your equipment close together. If possible, you should be able to drop the barbell upon completing the set of thrusters, turn around, and jump for the bar to do the set of pull-ups.

  • Proper breathing:  If you inhale deeply at the top of each thruster, pull-up, or any other exercise in your 21-15-9 you’ll boost blood flow and oxygen provision to your muscles to enhance your stamina.

  • What if you need a breather?  This is a grueling routine, and it won't be uncommon if you need an extra breather, even before the end of a set. However, don’t make it a water break. Drop the dumbbells or barbell, or drop from the pull-up, take one or two deep breaths and get back into the reps. 

The Fran routine is hugely effective, but only because of its high intensity and uninterrupted execution of the reps.

You should be able to complete the entire routine in less than 10 minutes. If not, you might have wasted transition or breather seconds, or you’re not ready for such a grueling routine.

Fortunately, 21-15-9 rep routine sets are not set in stone.

You can reach out to a personal trainer for guidance on designing one or more WODs to suit your unique needs. Maybe you just need fewer reps. You can then build up strength and fitness to tackle more intense rep sets as you progress.

This video shows how you can design your own 21-15-9 WOD.

What are the Benefits of the 21-15-9 Routine?

1. May boost strength

The high-intensity, multi-joint movements in this CrossFit workout may help you gain muscle strength and stamina. You can further increase muscle gain by adding resistance to the workout.

2. May help you improve aerobic fitness

CrossFit’s high-intensity power training (HIPT) may help to increase the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilize during exercise, aka VO2 max.

3. Improve agility, balance, and flexibility

CrossFit workouts often include functional exercises, which are exercises that mimic day-to-day movements you do outside the gym.

Functional movements, such as squats, kettlebell swings, or overhead presses, can help improve agility, balance, and flexibility.

They also can reduce your risk for injury and improve your quality of life as you age.

4. Burn calories and manage weight

CrossFit workouts may help you burn more calories than other workouts. If your goal is weight loss, try following a healthy diet in addition to following a CrossFit 21-15-9 exercise regimen.

5. Supports cardiovascular health

21-15-9 workouts are intense and help to improve your target heart rate and maximum oxygen consumption. Every completed 21-15-9 round could improve your heart health, breathing rate, and blood pressure.

6. Improves joint health

The lack of physical activity can result in the breakdown of connective tissue and muscles around your joints, increasing injury risks. Strength training such as CrossFit 21-15-9 workouts can help to improve joint health, provide back support, and possibly alleviate lower back pain.

7. Improves confidence

Studies show that improving your health and fitness levels has an impact on positive body image. You’ll feel better about how you look, helping to boost your confidence levels.

Is CrossFit safe?

CrossFit is a high-intensity form of exercise. Anytime you add more to be lifted or increase the intensity of your workouts, your injury risks will rise exponentially.

Some common CrossFit injuries include:

  • tennis elbow

  • Achilles tendonitis

  • lower back pain

  • rotator cuff tendonitis

  • knee injuries

If you’re a CrossFit newbie, it’s a smart idea to work with a professional fitness trainer who can make sure you’re doing the exercises properly. 21-15-9 reps happen rapidly, and there is nothing as dangerous as loading heavier weights than you are ready to handle and moving through reps at a racehorse pace in improper form.

If you are a beginner, start at a slower pace and increase weight gradually until your fitness level improves.

More CrossFit Workouts

In addition to 21-19-5, aka Fran, there are several other WODs that have escaped the CrossFit gyms and found their way to other fitness workers, strength builders, and bodybuilders in gyms and at homes worldwide. Below are six of the most popular types of CrossFit workouts you can use to break up the monotony of body-part splits and make you a more rounded athlete.

1. EMOM

EMOM stands for “every minute on the minute”.

Start a running clock and do a set number of reps at regular intervals, typically (but not necessarily, despite the name) at the start of each minute. The EMOM workout scrutinizes your recovery powers.

EMOM WOD - Image from Shutterstock

Example Workout: Three clean and jerks every minute for 10 minutes.

2. AMRAP

“As many rounds as possible”. Complete a given exercise combination as many times as you can within a given time. It certainly requires mental toughness over searing muscle.

AMRAP WOD – Images from Shutterstock

Example Workout: 12 minutes of eight front squats and eight push presses.

3. RFT

“Rounds for time” means completing a given number of rounds of a circuit as fast as possible. The short rest periods help develop long-lasting muscle endurance.

RFT WOD – Image from Shutterstock

Example Workout: Eight rounds of 15 kettlebell swings, 10 kettlebell clean and presses, and 5 kettlebell snatches.

4. Chipper

A one-round series of exercises, usually with high reps, to be completed in the fastest time possible. A high-volume, muscle-building routine.

CHIPPER WOD – Images from Shutterstock

Example Workout: 100 press-ups, 75 bodyweight squats, 50 burpees, 25 pull-ups.

NINE POPULAR CROSSFIT WODs

Like the Fran workout, CrossFit’s toolbox contains several more benchmark WODs, some of which are listed below.

A CrossFit Benchmark WOD or run is a training program completed as a timed trial, with the distance or reps and the speed recorded, to which future attempts are compared to keep track of progress.

Mary

With this workout, you’re aiming to complete as many rounds of three exercises as possible in 20 minutes.

 Workout:5 handstand push-ups, 10 alternating pistols (single-leg squats, alternating legs), and finish with 15 pull-ups.

Angie

Angie requires buckets of bravery and mental toughness. Complete all reps of each exercise in the order written before moving to the next, recording the time it takes to complete all 400 repetitions.

 Workout: 100 pull-ups, 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, and 100 bodyweight squats for time.

Home Chipper

Chippers include exercises testing your strength, technique, and aerobic and mental toughness through grueling workouts to be completed within a specific time. To increase the intensity further weights can be added for resistance.

Chipper WODs are descending ladder-like with a range of exercises starting at high reps that decrease as you progress. The set of exercise types and rep ranges can be designed based on your fitness level.

HOME CHIPPER WOD – Image from Shutterstock

 Example 1 for the not-so-brave:

  • 5 burpees, 5 sit-ups

  • 4 burpees, 4 sit-ups

  • 3 burpees, 3 sit-ups

  • 2 burpees, 2 sit-ups

  • 1 burpee, 1 sit-up

Example 2, for the very brave:

  • 100 squats

  • 90 sit-ups

  • 80 alternating lunges

  • 70 burpees

  • 60 plank

  • 50 mountain climbers

  • 40 press-ups

  • 30 hollow rocks

  • 20 jump squats

  • 10 hand-release press-ups (chest to floor, raise your hands briefly off the floor, then push back up)

Karen

Even simpler than Fran, Karen WOD involves only one exercise, but don’t be fooled, it will drain you long before you’re done with it.

You’ll need a 20lb/9kg wall ball, which you’ll have to throw above the 10ft mark on the wall — 150 times in the shortest possible time.

Helen

The Helen WOD is a combination of strength and cardio work. It starts with a 400m run, followed by 21 kettlebell swings (weight 53lb/24kg), and ends with 12 pull-ups. Then do it again, and then again, aiming to complete the three rounds in under 12 minutes.

EVA & HELEN – Images from Shutterstock

Eva

If you thought the Helen workout sounded hard, Eva is Helen on steroids, with distance, weight, and reps ramped up. You’ll do five rounds of an 800m run, 30 kettlebell swings (weight 70lb/31-32kg), and 30 pull-ups. Needless to say, as fast as possible.

Murph

Murph is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. Murph is what’s known as a Hero WOD, named in honor of Lt Michael P Murphy, a Navy SEAL killed in action in 2005.

You’ll need to clear your schedule for Murph because the 5 steps will keep you busy for a while. The 5-step Murph WOD includes a 1-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 press-ups, and 300 air squats, to be rounded off with another 1-mile run.

MURPH WOD – Images from Shutterstock

Cindy

Rather than aiming to complete the required reps as quickly as possible, the Cindy WOD always lasts exactly 20 minutes. In those 20 minutes, you do repeated circuits of five pull-ups, ten press-ups, and 15 air squats. Over and over again, aim for 15 to 20 sets completed before the ring of the 20-minute bell.

CINDY WOD – Images from Shutterstock

COMMON CROSSFIT EXERCISES

Below are the exercises that feature in most CrossFit WODs

Squat

Squats of many variations feature in CrossFit training routines, including air squats (unweighted), barbell front squats, back squats, and overhead squats.

Squat – Image from Shutterstock

Deadlift

There is a good reason for the deadlift to be called the King of Lifts. Deadlifting is often seen as the ultimate sign of strength – how much can one person lift up from the floor?

Deadlift – Image from Shutterstock

Shoulder press (aka overhead press)

Because there are a lot of technical Olympic lifting movements involved in CrossFit you will spend a lot of time learning the basics of shoulder presses, push presses and push jerks.

Rowing

Cardio such as running, or using rowing machines and resistance bikes is common in CrossFit.

Rowing – Image from Shutterstock

Conclusion

CrossFit 21-15-9 may be an effective workout for losing weight, building strength, agility, and flexibility, and improving your aerobic fitness. The results are not only amazing stamina and enduring strength, but an improved level of mental toughness that can make you feel superhuman – all in a 20-minute workout.

21-15-9 workouts are suitable for all, regardless of fitness level, strength, and weightlifting or gymnastic abilities. Exercises include basics like squats and muscle-ups and everything in between. The only limitations include existing health issues and injuries.

If you have a health condition or injury, talk to your doctor before trying CrossFit, and consider working with an instructor when you’re starting instead of relying on online videos or workouts. They can help you learn proper form which may reduce your risk for injury.