Whether you’re a competitive athlete, weekend warrior, or an avid fitness enthusiast, implementing cross training into an overall program is a fantastic way to maintain cardiorespiratory fitness, enhance sports performance, reduce injuries, and add an element of fun to exercise.
Cross training focuses on using different types of activities and exercises to vary an athletic training program or fitness routine.
While cross training is a popular protocol used by runners, swimmers, triathletes, cyclists, and single and multi-sport athletes, it is not sports-specific.
Instead, the goal of cross training workouts is to support and supplement cardiovascular conditioning and muscular strength while giving your body a break from the repetitive nature of your regular activity.
Curious if cross training is right for you? Read on to discover the health and physical benefits, sample activities and workouts, and how to get started with cross training.
Related Cross Training Resources
- Top Cross Training Fitness Benefits
- Best Cross Training Workouts
- Best Cross Training Workouts for Runners
- Circuit Training vs Cross Training
What Is Cross Training?
A cross training workout combines several exercise modes primarily for aerobic endurance training, but it can also boost muscular strength and endurance.
In addition, varying activities within a training program allows you to pair workouts that support each other while helping to improve overall fitness levels and reduce overuse injuries, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).
Cross training is easily adaptable to several sports and fitness activities. For example, a runner might use cycling or swimming to build and maintain endurance while reducing the impact caused by a high-impact activity.
On the other hand, if you’re a swimmer and want to take your workout out of the pool, using a rowing machine can help target similar muscle groups and challenge the cardiovascular system.
Athletes participating in sports like basketball, football, soccer, and golf can benefit from cross training sessions focusing on flexibility and strength. This allows them to add yoga, stretching, plyometrics, strength training, or other activities that complement but do not compete with their sport.
That said, if the goal is to maintain or improve cardiorespiratory fitness, the duration and intensity of the cross training activity needs to be of sufficient quality with respect to your fitness level.
In other words, if you’re training for a marathon and want to swap out a mid-week run with a cross training workout, you’ll want to opt for an activity that focuses on endurance, such as a 60-minute indoor cycling class or 60-minute aqua jogging workout.
The biggest challenge with cross training is making sure you’re working within your training zone each workout, especially if the goal is to maintain or improve cardiorespiratory fitness.
You can accomplish this using cross training for aerobic endurance in two different ways. The first allows you to use other methods of exercise each training period, rotating through two or more modes within a week. This may look like training on a treadmill one day, high-intensity sprints on a rowing machine, and finishing the week with a bike ride outdoors.
The second way is using several different exercise modes within the same workout. This allows you to set up a series of exercise modes that can be completed back to back.
For example, instead of a 30-minute run on the treadmill, you can perform 10 minutes on the bike, 10 minutes on the stair climber, and 10 minutes on an elliptical.
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Benefits of Cross Training and Why Cross Training is Important
Adding cross training to your fitness program can offer several health and wellness benefits, as well as sports performance enhancement, fewer injuries, and improved overall fitness. However, it’s important to remember that cross training is meant to support your training, not increase the volume.
Therefore, the key to maximizing the benefits is using cross training in place of other sports-specific workouts, not in addition to them. With that in mind, here are some of the top benefits of cross training workouts.
Reduced Risk of Overuse Injuries
Cross training allows the body to rest and recover from repetitive activities. This is especially important when the main exercise mode is a high-impact sport like running.
Allowing your body to use different muscles means you won’t overload any one particular group, which can lead to overuse injuries. It also changes the impact and intensity, which can help reduce the risk of overuse injuries.
Enhanced Athletic Performance
One of the reasons cross-training workouts are so beneficial to athletes, and people training for endurance events, is that it distributes the physical stress of training to different muscle groups.
Not only can this reduce wear and tear, but it also allows you to target under-developed muscle groups not typically used in your main sport or activity. Plus, performing different activities increases adaptations of the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, which may lead to enhanced athletic performance.
Gets You Off Your Feet
Cross training allows you to get off your feet. For example, if you’re a runner, cross training will enable you to switch to a low-impact activity like swimming or biking, so you’re not putting the same amount of load and stress on the musculoskeletal system.
Improved Overall Fitness
Cross training encourages athletes and fitness enthusiasts to try new exercises and activities, helping to improve muscular fitness and aerobic conditioning. Combining several modes of exercise means you can introduce a new stimulus to a workout, which may allow for new adaptations beyond your regular sport or activity.
Gives Competitive Athletes an Opportunity to Try Something New
Cross training gives competitive athletes the chance to engage in a different form of physical activity. Varying workouts within a training program benefits not only your body but also the mind. Participating in a new sport, activity, or exercise may help reduce mental burnout and bring an element of fun to fitness training. This can play a positive role in promoting adherence, minimizing boredom, and keeping single-sport athletes mentally engaged.
May Help Bust Through Training Plateaus
Because cross training allows you to develop skills using your body in different ways, incorporating cross training workouts into a sports-specific program may allow you to overcome the limitations of specificity.
In other words, if you cannot meet a goal by using one exercise mode, cross training may help you obtain it by using different methods to challenge the cardiorespiratory and muscular systems.
Cross Training Exercises & Workouts
There are countless ways to design a cross training workout. That said, it’s important to choose exercises and routines that are most applicable to your sport or fitness activity. Here are some activities you can use to create a cross-training program, plus five ideal cross training workouts to help you get started.
Examples of Cross Training Activities
- Aqua jogging
- Water aerobics
- Road cycling
- Mountain biking
- Indoor cycling
- Elliptical machine
- Stair climber
- Cross country skiing
- Fast walking
- Rowing machine
- Rock climbing
- Circuit training
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
- Bodyweight training
- Weight training
- Bootcamp classes
Strength Training Cross Training Workout
- Warm up with light cardio or dynamic stretches for five minutes.
- Perform each exercise for the recommended time or repetitions.
- Move to the next exercise without resting.
- Rest for 45 to 60 seconds at the end of the round.
- Repeat four to six times.
- Forearm plank (30 to 60 seconds)
- Side plank (30 seconds on each side)
- Russian twists (10 to 15 reps)
- Push-ups (10 to 15 reps)
- Weighted Squats (10 to 15 reps)
- Jumping Squats (10 to 15 reps)
- Lunges (10 reps each leg)
- Single Leg Bridges (10 reps on each leg)
- Side Leg Raises (10 reps on each leg)
30-Minute HIIT Cross Training Workout
- Choose a piece of cardio equipment (treadmill, rower, stair climber, elliptical, exercise bike).
- Perform a five minute warm-up at a slow speed or resistance.
- Alternate 30 seconds at 85 to 90 percent maximum heart rate with 30 seconds at 40 to 50 percent maximum heart rate.
- Do this for 20 minutes.
- Cool down for five minutes.
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Steady-State Cross Training Workouts
The intensity depends on your goals and fitness level. The goal of steady-state cardio is to maintain a consistent speed, intensity, and work rate, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Here is a three-day steady-state cross training routine appropriate for endurance athletes and people with higher fitness levels who want to maintain or improve cardiovascular endurance.
Monday: 60 minutes on the treadmill
Wednesday: 60 minutes on the stationary bike
Friday: 60 minutes on the stair climber
If your goal is to support general fitness levels, this four day cross training routine is a great place to start. It’s also ideal for people who don’t have time for a 60-minute session.
Monday: 10 minutes on the treadmill, 10 minutes on the stationary bike, 10 minutes on the stair climber
Tuesday: 10 minutes on the rowing machine, 10 minutes on the elliptical machine, 10 minutes on the treadmill
Thursday: 30 minutes on the stationary bike
Saturday: 20 minutes walking outdoors, 15 minutes on the rowing machine
Kettlebell Cardio and Strength Cross Training Workout
- Grab two kettlebells (same weight). If you have access to multiple weights, vary the resistance based on the exercise.
- Perform each exercise for 30 seconds.
- Immediately move to the next exercise. Do not rest between exercises.
- Rest for 30 seconds at the end of the round.
- Repeat the round six to eight times.
- Kettlebell Suitcase Carry (30 seconds each side)
- Kettlebell Swings
- Kettlebell Clean and Press
- Kettlebell Farmer’s Carry
- Kettlebell Goblet Squats
How to Get Started with Cross Training
Getting started with cross training is fairly simple, especially if you’re an athlete or experienced exerciser. That said, knowing how to implement cross training workouts and where they fit into an overall program takes some planning, so you don’t add too much volume at one time.
If you’re unsure how to do this, consider working with a certified personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach. In the meantime, here are some tips to help you get started with cross training for fitness.
Make Sure Cross Training is Right for You
Cross training is an effective exercise method for all fitness levels. However, it’s most commonly recommended for athletes or people training for single sporting or endurance events, such as runners getting ready for a race.
While it’s generally considered a safe way to train, it’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting a cross training program, especially if you have any chronic health issues, medical conditions, or injuries.
Determine the Number of Cross Training Sessions Per Week
Cross training sessions are not in addition to your regular routine. Instead, they replace other high-impact activities to give your body a break.
These workouts still count towards total exercise volume, so you don’t want to do too much. In general, two to three cross-training sessions per week is a great place to start. Cross training sessions generally range from 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the activity.
Target the Different Fitness Components
If possible, try to integrate the different fitness components each week. This includes cardiovascular fitness, strength and muscular endurance, and flexibility. You can combine all three into one workout or split them up into individual sessions spread throughout the training week.
A straightforward way to get started with cross training is to alternate activities each workout. You can also alternate activities within an exercise session.
Warm-Up and Cool Down
A thorough warm-up and cool-down are essential to a cross training workout. Aim for a five-minute warm-up such as walking, high knees, or jogging, followed by a few dynamic stretches, such as leg swings, hip circles, and arm circles.
Dynamic stretches allow you to move your joints and muscles through a full range of motion. After a cross training session, spend five minutes performing static stretches like the kneeling hip flexor stretch, seated hamstring stretch, and standing calf stretch. These moves require you to hold a stretching position for 30 to 60 seconds.
Sleep, Eat, and Hydrate
Cross training workouts are no different than any other fitness protocol. To maximize benefits, you need to be fueled, hydrated, and rested. How you fuel your body matters too. Make it a point to hydrate before, during, and after each workout, and eat a healthy diet.
A Word from Ashley
I'm Ashley Walton, Cofounder and Chief Content Officer at GymBird, and I wanted to share my thoughts on cross training.
I'm not a professional athlete by any means. Years ago, when I first starting getting into fitness, I would get hyper-fixated on one workout type. I started running, and then that was the only kind of exercise I did for a while. I started doing circuit training or HIIT workouts, and then those were the only workout styles I did for a while. I got into kickboxing, and then that took over my life for a while.
It wasn't until some trial and error and actually learning from fitness experts that I realized I needed to round out my workout routine. I was falling into a pattern of hyper-fixating on one workout and then getting burned out on it. Instead, I needed to deliberately vary my workouts, so different muscle groups and joints could recover while I worked out other muscle groups.
When I finally started varying my workout routine, I started recovering from my workouts more quickly, and I also became way less susceptible to injury. My entire body was way happier, and I had more energy.
There were other benefits, too. I noticed I was building better overall strength. I stopped neglecting my core and my arms, and I started seeing a pretty drastic body transformation, to be honest. I hadn't realized how much I'd been neglecting parts of my body that needed attention.
Now I do a pretty good mix of different types of workouts in a given week. Although I mostly walk and do circuit training, I've also incorporated regular strength training, swimming, yoga, rollerblading, hiking, barre, and Pilates.
I make sure that I don't over-emphasize high-impact movement, and I do exercises that let my joints rest and recover. I'm much better at listening to my body and adapting to the kind of movement that feels good to me on a given day. I've never been happier with my fitness routine.
The Bottom Line
Cross training is an effective way to enhance sports performance, maintain or improve cardiorespiratory endurance, increase muscular strength, improve flexibility, reduce overuse injuries, and boost overall fitness.
If you’re unsure how to get started or have questions about incorporating cross training into your athletic or fitness program, consider working with a certified personal trainer via your local gym or an app like Future, strength and conditioning coach, athletic trainer, or physical therapist.
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