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The Complete Guide to Cross-Training

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

To a fitness novice, the exercise realm’s affinity for ambiguous terminology can be extremely bewildering. Even the instructions from a trainer on how to lie down on the floor can sometimes employ complex words like “prone” and “supine,” for instance, while terms like “Tabata” and “Pilates” provide no indication of their actual workout methods. Furthermore, what exactly is cross-training? Is it a style of shoe, a type of exercise routine, or something completely different?

To clarify the matter of cross-training, Shape has enlisted the help of professional trainers to explain precisely what cross-training entails (spoiler: it’s more than just a type of sneaker) and why it is crucial to incorporate it into your routine, regardless of your fitness goals. You will also discover simple suggestions on how to create a customized cross-training regimen that genuinely excites you to break a sweat.

Regularly engaging in cross-training can enhance your performance in your primary activity, whether it is running, HIIT, yoga, or cycling.

What Is Cross-Training?

Put simply, cross-training involves integrating several different fitness modalities that complement one another into a single workout or comprehensive fitness regimen, according to Melissa Kendter, an ACE-certified trainer, functional training specialist, and EvolveYou coach.

Instead of exclusively weight training for every workout, for instance, you might supplement your strength training with swimming or yoga a few times per week. The primary objective is to “help you improve your goals by focusing on or targeting muscles that you don’t typically use in your usual workouts,” adds Keri Harvey, a NASM-certified personal trainer in New York City. “It’s essentially about developing into a well-rounded and effective athlete.”

Moreover, there isn’t a single correct way to approach cross-training, and the workouts you incorporate into your schedule should be based on what brings you personal benefits and enjoyment. “The key to maximizing your cross-training is to consider your specific exercise goals or activities that you enjoy the most for long-term success, and then think about which supplementary sessions will complement each other,” suggests Kendter. You might pair HIIT with brisk walking, running with strength training, or triathlon training with yoga.

Alternatively, you could combine multiple training styles into a single cross-training session (such as going for a light jog after weightlifting or performing weighted arm exercises while cycling). However, if you are engaging in two different workout methods consecutively, the order does matter, states Harvey. “For instance, I would recommend doing strength training before going for a run,” she adds.

This will enable you to concentrate on correct form in order to hoist securely.

The Advantages of Cross-Training

No matter how you engage in cross-training, “I believe that for anyone – athletes, casual exercisers, whoever it may be – it simply makes you a more versatile and fit individual, and it enhances your performance in your primary sport or activity,” says Kendter.

In summary, consistently diversifying your fitness routine through cross-training provides both physical and mental health benefits, according to Kendter. “That mental and physical challenge keeps you eager for more and keeps you active,” she adds. Most importantly, regular cross-training can help enhance your performance in your main activity, be it running, HIIT, yoga, or cycling. Below, the trainers explain the major advantages of cross-training.

Reduces Risk of Injury

Persistently following the same workout day after day might seem like the optimal way to achieve your fitness goals – to become a better runner, you must run, right? However, the truth is not so clear-cut, as sticking to your fitness routine without variation can actually do more harm than good. When you continuously repeat one type of exercise or technique over a long period of time, your muscles, joints, and bones are subjected to constant stress, which can increase the risk of injury due to repetitive strain and/or overuse, as per information published by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).

Cross-training, on the other hand, can help prevent these injuries by allowing your body to engage different muscle groups and avoid excessive strain on one specific area, as stated by the Mayo Clinic. For example, if you’re a runner, incorporating strength-training workouts that focus on single-leg and core exercises into your routine can be beneficial, advises Harvey. “When you run, your movement is primarily in a forward and backward motion,” she explains. “You should start incorporating movements in different planes to work your entire body. This can help prevent muscle imbalances and reduce the risk of injury.” Additionally, integrating cycling workouts into your schedule can allow you to continue building and maintaining endurance without placing the same stress on your body, especially your joints, as running does, according to Kendter.

Enhances Performance

Regularly varying your workouts can also enhance your overall performance both inside and outside the gym, says Harvey. “Implementing cross-training can improve your overall fitness level and enhance your cardiovascular endurance,” adds Kendter. “[It ensures] that you’re strengthening your entire body as a whole because strength training, running, and yoga all engage the entire body.” In fact, a survey analysis of over 600 female soldiers found that those who participated in cross-training exhibited greater muscular endurance (measured by the number of push-ups and sit-ups completed within a specific time frame) compared to those who solely ran or focused solely on weightlifting.

If weightlifting is your preferred activity, incorporating yoga into your routine can assist you in enhancing flexibility, decreasing joint stiffness, ensuring multidirectional movement capability, reducing the risk of injury, and improving the efficiency of day-to-day motions, as stated by the International Sports Sciences Association. Adding cardiovascular exercises like swimming or cycling can also enhance your cardiovascular endurance, preventing excessive exhaustion after intense strength-focused HIIT sessions or while carrying heavy loads upstairs, states Harvey.

Keeps Your Workouts Engaging

Cross-training also prevents monotony in your routine, thus encouraging you to stay committed. “Even if you enjoy working out, repeating the same exercises will eventually tire your mind and your body will adapt to the routine,” explains Harvey. “Incorporating different forms of training keeps you motivated and prevents monotony.”

Prevents Fitness Plateaus

Apart from maintaining mental freshness, cross-training keeps your body challenged and ensures continuous progress towards your fitness objectives. In the initial weeks of performing a specific workout, your body reacts to the new stimulus, leading to physiological benefits like muscle growth and improved stamina. However, after a certain period, usually four to eight weeks, your body becomes accustomed to the workout’s stress and stops responding. To sustain progress, you need to introduce new challenges, as Harvey elaborates. In other words, your workouts should keep your body guessing, as it adjusts to repeated exercises, leading to a plateau in progress. Cross-training provides the variety necessary to overcome this plateau.

How to Develop Your Own Cross-Training Routine

Remember, your cross-training routine should be tailored to your preferences and goals, requiring introspection to create a regimen that suits you best. Generally, a well-rounded workout routine should include strength training (e.g., weightlifting, CrossFit), cardiovascular training (e.g., HIIT, running, swimming, cycling), and flexibility training (e.g., yoga, foam rolling, Pilates), according to the AAOS. Start by considering activities within these categories that you enjoy or wish to explore. Kendter suggests trying various fitness options first to find what you love, as it increases adherence and long-term success.

On your cross-training days, select activities with lower intensity compared to your primary workout to allow your body to recover from its main focus, advises Harvey.

Certainly, you have the option to have an extensive day of rest, instead of an energetic recuperation day, at any point during the week as necessary. If building strength is your main priority, you could engage in weightlifting on Monday, engage in a run on Tuesday, and either carry out a relaxed sequence of yoga or indulge in a total hiatus from exercise on Wednesday, according to her statement. Afterward, you can replicate the routine from the beginning once again.

Alternative Workouts to Experiment With

If you primarily engage in running…

If weightlifting is your main focus…

If yoga takes up most of your exercise routine…