Reference Guide to Cross-Training

How would you like an exercise program that banishes boredom, improves your fitness, develops new skills and prevents injuries? Sounds like an infomercial, but it's not! It's cross-training, and you can do it whenever and wherever you are in your fitness journey. 

What Is Cross-Training?

Often written as "X-training", the term cross-training refers to a workout routine that involves several different forms of  exercise. So instead of always running or walking for your cardio, you mix things up regularly, swapping out a day of running for another activity such as swimming, dancing, using the elliptical, biking, or any other form of exercise. Cross-training isn't just about cardio, although that is what it typically refers to. This method can be used to improve strength as well, by mixing in a variety of strength training activities into your workout plan (Pilates, yoga, free weights, body sculpting classes, etc.).

Why Cross-Training Rocks

Cross-training has long been used by professional athletes. Although the pros have to train specifically for their sports, practicing the same movements over and over again can lead to overuse injuries and even burnout.  It can also result in muscular imbalances, by overdeveloping the muscles used for their sport and neglecting others. So a basketball player may focus on shooting free throws and running drills on the court, but also cross-train with yoga and other strength exercises. This prevents injury and boredom, and develops an all-around fit body.
Cross-training isn't just for the elite athletes—it's for the everyday exerciser, too (even if you're working out just a few times a week).

Here are some examples of the many benefits of cross-training.
  • It reduces exercise boredom. You're never doing the same thing day after day and week after week. This can keep you mentally stimulated during your workouts, increasing your motivation to stick with a program.
  • It promotes flexibility in your workout plan. Whenever your workout plans are thwarted, such as when the treadmills are completely full at the gym, you always have another workout you can do.
  • It improves fitness and reduces body fat. Training your body in a variety of ways prevents weight-loss and fitness plateaus by continuously challenging your muscles in new ways.
  • It conditions the whole body. When you do one form of exercise, such as biking, you'll become good at biking alone. It won't help you become a better runner, swimmer or basketball player. Cross-training helps you to work your full body in a multitude of ways so that you're strong, fit and able to handle almost anything.
  • It reduces the risk of injury. Because you're always switching it up, no one muscle is being overused or overdeveloped, which means you'll be less susceptible to injury. This also helps you develop a better muscular balance in the body, which also reduces injury risk.
  • It lets you stay active while recovering. This is the key to active recovery! When cross-training, you can rest one group of muscles while working other fresh muscles, allowing you to recover properly and continue your fitness program. Instead of completely resting after a long bike ride or an intense running race, you can stay active the next day by doing a new form of exercise, for example.
  • It keeps you fit when you're injured. Being injured is no fun at all, but with cross-training you can usually find some exercise that you are still able to do without aggravating your issue (as long as you have your health care provider's clearance, of course). Whether it's working on your core strength while sitting out with shin splints, or improving your leg power with squats when stuck with tennis elbow, cross-training allows you to keep moving even when recovering from an injury.
  • It improves your skill, agility and balance. Because cross-training challenges your body in new ways, you're constantly improving your coordination and skill—many of which have functional benefits that help you do activities in your everyday life and prevent falls.<pagebreak>

How to Add Cross-Training to Your Workouts

Incorporating cross-training into your workout routine is neither hard nor time consuming. Here are three ways to add cross-training to your routine:
  1. Swap out a new activity each workout. Cross-training can be as simple as adding a few new strength moves to your current strength routine or even swapping out your usual free-weight shoulder press for a shoulder raise with a resistance band. Or, when it comes to cardio, you can trade the first 10 minutes of your usual stair-stepper workout for the bike.
  2. Swap out an entire workout. This one is pretty self explanatory, but swap an entire workout for a new one. So instead of doing Pilates, try yoga. Or if you're used to power walking, try swimming. Swapping one activity for another one is ideal for those who are already working out four to six times a week.
  3. Add a new activity to your routine altogether. If you're only working out two to three times a week, consider adding an entirely new exercise to your regimen. If you're a cardio fan, add some strength training. And if you're a strength junkie, throw in some cardio intervals. If you regularly do strength and cardio, try a mind-body exercise like yoga or even a dance class. Both will challenge you in new ways.
At first, try adding one bout of cross-training to your routine using one of the options listed above. Try it for a few weeks and then consider adding two bouts of different activity to your exercise plan. Ideally, you should cross-train one to three times a week, depending on how often you work out (the more you work out, the more you need to cross-train). And don't be afraid to switch it up frequently—in fact, that's the whole point! If you develop a cross-training routine and follow it to a "T" for months, you're no longer cross-training because your body will adapt. So keep mixing up your workouts over time.

When planning your cross-training activities, you want to take a look at your main mode of exercise and see where you need to diversify. A balanced workout plan should include cardiovascular exercise, strength training and flexibility training. So make sure that these three areas are covered. If you need ideas to get started, use the chart below to start cross-training today! 
If you already do this.. Cross-train with this..
Cycling Rowing
Dancing Kickboxing
Elliptical Dancing
Free weights Power yoga
Resistance bands Suspension training
Running Swimming
Stairmaster Walking or running
Swimming Pilates
Walking Biking

This article has been reviewed and approved by certified personal trainers Jen Mueller and Nicole Nichols.