If you’ve found an exercise you love, chances are you do it at every training session—and that’s where cross-training comes in.
While this repetition will improve your skill with that particular exercise, it also places you at risk for injury and posture problems. If that sounds familiar, you should consider adding cross-training to your program.
What is Cross Training?
Cross-training—not to be confused with the high-intensity sport Crossfit–incorporates other exercises outside your primary sport. This practice helps you develop well-rounded fitness, prevent injuries, beat boredom, and improve your coordination and posture.
Runners often swim, cycle or bike to improve their cardiovascular capacity while cutting down on mileage, for example. Strength athletes use cardio and yoga to help them recover quicker and improve mobility.
You don't need to be a professional athlete to reap the benefits of cross-training, though. Cross-training is simply adding other exercises that serve a different purpose in your fitness plan.
The truth is that everyone should cross-train because it has so many benefits.
Top 7 Benefits of Cross Training
1. Injury Prevention
The most often cited reason for cross-training is injury prevention. This appeals to athletes from all sports and backgrounds because no one wants to be in pain or be sidelined from the sport they love. If you’re not an athlete, varying your workout routines can still help prevent injury.
If you’re performing repetitive motions over and over, such as running, swimming, biking, or powerlifting, you are at risk for injuries. Research shows that, of the people who play individual or team sports, about 30-40% experience an overuse injury each year.
These injuries can cause significant pain and can take months to years to recover from fully. That’s a lot of time missing out on the movement you love.
But research also shows that those who regularly cross-train have improved athletic performance and lower injury rates across the board.
In addition, strength training is essential for almost all non-strength athletes in particular because it strengthens your muscle and ligaments, addresses muscular imbalances, and improves balance.
2. Postural Correction and Coordination
Over time, poor posture is associated with pain and dysfunction, and cross-training allows you to address those issues with a structured strengthening program.
Adding targeted strength training to your program can strengthen the muscles that keep your posture upright. This can prevent postural deviations such as forward neck posture, lordosis, and rounded shoulder, which can cause problems down the road.
Improved coordination is also associated with enhanced athletic performance, so taking the time to develop muscular strength and endurance–especially in one limb at a time–is crucial.
If you have back pain or poor posture, try free weights and focus on building a strong back.
3. Bust Boredom
No matter how much you love your sport or go-to workout, it's bound to get monotonous at some point. Cross-training helps break up your programming boredom and build new skills, keeping you engaged and more likely to complete your workouts.
Switching up your training with cross-training is a great way to break up training monotony and keep you active in the long-term.
Learning new skills and gaining competence with novel exercises builds confidence and keeps you interested in your workouts. Try incorporating one new training style into your exercise routine at a time.
4. Increase Aerobic Capacity
Endurance athletes can cross-train in another endurance sport to reduce joint overuse while still getting aerobic benefits.
Another massive benefit to cross-training is the ability for endurance athletes to continue developing their aerobic capacity while minimizing their mileage (and risk of overuse) in their primary sport.
For example, a runner could easily incorporate another aerobic movement, such as swimming, to be challenged differently and continue improving their cardiovascular health.
This is vital, especially for sports that stress your joints, like distance running or plyometrics.
5. Rehabilitation after an Injury
Despite solid programming and adequate recovery, if you train long enough, you will likely experience an injury during your athletic career. Cross-training can help you stay fit and recover faster.
Lastly, you can cross-train after you have experienced an injury to help maintain your fitness levels safely. The last thing you want to do is go from fit and active to sedentary due to an unexpected issue.
Cross-training allows you to exercise to your current ability while respecting your injury limitations.
For example, a swimmer who experienced a shoulder strain could perform lower body strength training circuits to maintain muscle mass and some aerobic capacity while they recover.
Though easy to overlook, flexibility is a crucial aspect of fitness and a limiting factor for many athletes. Incorporating some kind of flexibility training into your program will prevent injuries and increase your performance.
All athletes, regardless of sport, will benefit from adding flexibility training. Flexibility work such as yoga, pilates, tai chi, or stretching can help you recover from your more grueling sessions. Relaxing practices like yoga also alleviate stress and help your mental game.
If you’re a strength athlete, play team sports, or run, flexibility work is essential cross-training and should be in your program at least once per week.
We all want to stay active for life. However, over-specialization in athletics at a young age is linked to an increased risk of overuse injuries and athletic burnout. Cross-training can reduce that burnout by offering other outlets for movement.
More and more athletes specialize in just one sport from a young age. Unfortunately, this comes with significant risks, such as–you guessed it– overuse injuries, as well as increased anxiety, poor sleep, and burnout.
So much so that youth sports associations strongly recommend against kids only participating in one sport year-round and, instead, suggest trying multiple sports and activities.
If you've played one sport your whole life or just been obsessed with Peloton for the last three years, it's time to add in some cross-training. Not only will this keep you safe, but it will also keep you fit for a lifetime.
Get our fitness newsletter
Stay on track with your fitness goals and get inspired! Sign up for the GymBird newsletter for twice-monthly expert fitness and nutrition tips.
How to Get Started
If you’re new to cross-training, there are a few key things to consider before you begin.
- What is your main movement, and what aspect of fitness is this lacking? You'll want to do strength and flexibility training if you’re an endurance athlete. If you're a strength athlete, you'll want to incorporate consistent flexibility work and aerobic exercise for your cardiovascular health.
- What season of training are you in? Are you in the middle of your peak competition season, and therefore you need to prioritize recovery and injury prevention? Or is it your off-season, so you've got more time to experiment?
- What equipment do you have access to? Should you sign up for a gym membership in the off-season?
- If you're new to your sport and are unsure which training program would be best for your goals, hiring a coach specializing in your sport is best. Not all coaches are created equal. For example, you wouldn't want a powerlifting coach preparing you for your first half marathon or vice versa.
By first identifying which areas your fitness program lacks, you can decide what type of cross-training you want to start. Then you’ll evaluate your training load to determine how many sessions you wish to incorporate per week.
Lastly, you can decide what training environment you need to succeed. For example, many endurance athletes sign up for gym membership in the winter when they know they'll be more focused on weight training as the cold weather limits their time outdoors.
Please keep it simple initially; add one weekly session and see how you feel. Then, as your athletic season ebbs and flows, you can dial up or down your cross-training sessions as needed.
No matter what kind of cross-training you choose, you’ll want to wear comfortable and supportive athletic clothing, a good pair of sneakers, and keep water on hand. The space required will depend on which type of cross-training you choose and whether or not you opt for a gym session.
Here are a few sample workout programs for different kinds of athletes:
Make sure you adequately warm up before any workout!
Distance Runner: Peak Season
|Sunday||Easy 1 Mile|
Distance Runner: Off Season
Bodybuilder: Peak Season
|Monday||Free weights & 30 min cardio|
|Wednesday||Free weights & 30 min cardio|
|Friday||20 min HIIT|
|Sunday||30 min HIIT|
Bodybuilder: Off Season
|Thursday||30 minutes cycling|
The Bottom Line
Cross-training is a helpful tool that all athletes should use, regardless of their sport. It allows you to develop a more well-rounded fitness, prevent overuse injuries, fight boredom, correct poor posture, improve coordination, improve your aerobic capacity, and rehab from injuries.
Try incorporating one new activity at a time to avoid over-training, and have fun with it!
More Cross Training Advice from GymBird Experts
- What is Cross Training?
- Circuit Training vs Cross Training
- Cross Training Workouts for Runners
- Cross Training Workouts
- Functional Training vs Cross Training
- Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy, Prevalence of overuse injuries in athletes from individual and team sports: A systematic review with meta-analysis and GRADE recommendations.
- Journal of Orthopedic Surgery and Research, Overuse injuries in sport: a comprehensive overview.
- Journal of Orthopaedics, Traumatology, and Rehabilitation, Body posture and syndromes of back pain.
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Effects of a 10-Week Combined Coordination and Agility Training Program on Young Male Soccer Players.
- The Army Medical Department Journal, The Effects of Cross-Training on Fitness and Injury in Women.
- National Athletic Trainers Association, Journal of Athletic Training Releases Special Thematic Issue Focused on Youth Sports Specialization.