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What is cross training?

Women relaxing in gym after cross training
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You’ve probably heard of cross training in the context of exercise, as this method of training has become popular among elite and recreational athletes alike. Cross training involves incorporating different types of exercise into a workout routine. So, instead of running on one of the best treadmills (opens in new tab) every day, an athlete could mix it up with rowing (opens in new tab), HIIT classes, and Pilates (opens in new tab).

To learn more about the benefits of cross training and how to incorporate it into an exercise routine, Live Science spoke to Benjamin Rose, an exercise physiologist and fitness trainer at Trainer Academy.

What is cross training?

"Cross training is an exercise program that combines a variety of activities to help you attain your fitness objectives," said Rose, speaking with Live Science. "Cross training may help you perform better overall, avoid injuries and stay with your program by mixing up your daily aerobic workouts and including strength training into your weekly running/walking regimen."

Expert answer provided by
Benjamin Rose
Expert answer provided by
Benjamin Rose

Ben is the co-founder of TrainerAcademy.org. He is an exercise physiologist and a fitness trainer, with 10+ years of experience in the fitness industry. Among other disciplines, he is an expert in sports conditioning and strength training.  

In brief, cross training means incorporating different types of movement into a workout routine, instead of focusing on one exercise. This has numerous benefits.

For example, performing different types of movements (cycling, rowing, lifting weights) subjects the muscles, joints, bones and connective tissues to different stresses, loads and motions. This helps prevent muscle imbalances and overuse injuries.

Woman weightlifting at gym

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Every type of exercise has slightly different demands as well, so cross training can ensure that a person is training across the different components of fitness (opens in new tab) (training things like flexibility and mobility, as well as cardiovascular endurance and strength).

Rose also explained that while sticking to one particular exercise could help an athlete achieve a "personal best", it might limit their overall fitness progress.

"After repeating the same exercise for months, your body gets adept at doing such actions. Although that is excellent for competition, it restricts your total level of fitness and lessens the real conditioning you receive throughout training," said Rose. "You merely maintain a particular level of fitness rather than always becoming better."

How to pick a cross training exercise

Cross training can be thought of as any modality of exercise other than a person's primary sport activity. For example runners could try activities like cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing, hiking, jump-roping, lifting weights, yoga, Zumba, rollerblading and tennis. 

"It's a good idea to choose a cross-training exercise that targets one or two of the five components of fitness that you aren't already concentrating on," said Rose.

These five health-related components of fitness include muscular endurance, muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and body composition. 

Man jogging and doing cross training exercise on street

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A person who primarily runs or rides a bike—which mainly trains cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance—might want to add cross-training exercises that build muscular strength or flexibility. 

Are there any downsides?

Rose said there aren’t any downsides to cross training—other than the fact that it may take time away from a person's "main" sport. The other thing to be careful of is overdoing it. 

"Although incredibly useful, cross training may sometimes exhaust athletes," said Rose, who notes that this happens when a person adds too much volume or intensity to their cross training.

How to start

Rose said that it's entirely up to the exerciser as to how intense they want their cross-training workouts to be, and that it’s usually helpful to think about them in the context of an overall training program.

The goal of adding cross training to a workout program is to enhance fitness, add balance and variety, and improve areas of fitness that have been neglected. For example, if a person normally does relatively long endurance workouts—perhaps cycling or riding a spin bike—at a moderate intensity, they should ideally do short, vigorous cross-training workouts like HIIT training, using plyometric exercises like jump-roping, burpees and jump squats.

Man skipping rope as cross training exercise outdoors

(Image credit: Getty)

With this in mind, Rose advised the following: "Keep cross-training sessions short, frequent, and intense. Limit cross training to two times a week, for no more than an hour."

As with any sort of change to a workout routine or introduction of a new type of exercise, increase the frequency, intensity and duration slowly to be safe.

This article is not meant to offer medical advice and readers should consult their doctor or healthcare professional before adopting any diet or exercise regime.

Amber Sayer is a fitness, nutrition, and wellness writer and editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two masters degrees—one in exercise science and one in prosthetics and orthotics. As a certified personal trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, Amber likes running, cycling, cooking, spending time outside, and tackling any type of puzzle.