Selecting and Performing Cross-Training Workouts

cross training workout

Doing the same ol' workout, day-in and day-out, ad nauseam, isn't just boring; it can actually short-change your workout results. The human body isn't meant to act like a machine on an assembly line, mechanically performing the same tasks over and over; it's meant to stretch, turn, spin, and move in every direction in response to the world's ever-changing external environment.

This is precisely why cross-training is so important.

What Are Cross-Training Workouts?

Cross-training workouts are workouts that add dimension to your regular routine. They help train your body in ways it's not accustomed to training to even out muscular imbalances, strengthen potential weaknesses, and allay the likelihood of over-training or overuse injuries. Cross-training workouts aren't a specific workout, per se, but a personalized approach to counterbalancing your typical workout to enhance your overall fitness and athleticism.

4 Tips for Choosing a Cross-Training Workout

Because cross-training workouts aren't "one size fits all," you have to think critically about your usual routine to find cross-training activities suited for you. Consider the following tips for choosing a cross-training workout.

1. Add a Complementary Routine Based on the 5 Components of Fitness

There are five basic components of fitness: muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and body composition. Most workouts are designed to improve a few of these components but may not target them all. For instance, cycling, running, and swimming are all wonderful activities for improving cardiovascular endurance, and they can also enhance muscular endurance to a certain extent. However, they aren't the best activities for building muscular strength or flexibility, and they may or may not contribute to significant improvements in body composition, depending on other factors such as food intake.

When you're trying to pick a cross-training workout, it's a good idea to select a complementary routine that targets one or two of the five components of fitness that you're not already focused on. For instance, if you do a lot of running, you may want to start building muscular strength or improving flexibility. Your cross-training workout, then, could include strength training and/or yoga a few times a week.

2. Alter Your Impact

There are three basic levels of impact you engage in when exercising: high impact, low impact, and no impact. None of them are necessarily "better than" the others—they all have their benefits and drawbacks.

  • High impact activities, such as running and jumping, are great for developing lower-body power and building strong bones. Depending on the context, they're also wonderful at developing skill-related components of fitness, including balance, coordination, agility, and speed. The downside? They can be hard on your joints and soft-tissue, and if not approached carefully and with a keen focus on proper form, they can contribute to overuse injuries.
  • Low-impact activities, such as walking and strength training, where at least one foot is always in contact with the ground, are also effective at building strong bones, particularly in the lower body. These activities vary widely in context and intent, so you can combine them for a well-rounded workout routine. However, they aren't necessarily as effective at developing skill-related components of fitness, including power, agility, and speed.
  • No impact activities, such as swimming and cycling, take the pressure off your bones and joints, significantly reducing the likelihood of overuse injury to your lower body. Also, they're often appropriate for individuals who are recovering from injuries or those who are training for extreme endurance events and don't want to risk an overuse injury. That said, no-impact activities don't have the bone-building benefits of low- or high-impact exercise.

When choosing a cross-training workout, you might want to switch up the impact of your workout. For instance, if you're a big fan of dance cardio workouts that fall somewhere on the spectrum between low- and high-impact workouts, you might want to supplement your schedule with a no-impact alternative, such as indoor cycling or water aerobics. Similarly, if you're a big swimmer, it might be time to get out of the pool and try your hand at strength training or jumping rope.

3. Alter Your Direction

Humans move in three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal, and transverse. Moving within each plane requires engagement of different muscle groups to perform separate actions at the moving joints. If you're constantly moving in one place—for instance, runners and cyclists pretty much only move in a forward-backward trajectory within the sagittal plane—you're neglecting the actions and muscles required to move in the other planes. Over time, this can lead to muscle imbalances that can contribute to injuries. It's a good idea to choose cross-training workouts that break your movement patterns and force you to perform actions in different planes of motion. Here's what you need to know:

  • Sagittal Plane: This plane of motion cuts an invisible path through the center of your body, dividing you into left and right parts. When you move in the sagittal plane, you're engaging in forward or backward motion that runs parallel to this plane. Running, cycling, and biceps curls are just a few examples of exercises that take place in the sagittal plane.
  • Frontal Plane: The frontal plane cuts an invisible line through the center of your body dividing you into front and back halves. When you perform exercises in the frontal plane, you're moving side-to-side in a path parallel to the plane. For instance, cartwheels and inline skating take place in the frontal plane. Actually, inline skating is interesting because it requires frontal plane movement of your extremities while your entire body moves along in the sagittal plane. Other examples include performing the breast stroke in swimming and doing a side lunge at the gym.
  • Transverse Plane: The transverse plane cuts an invisible line through the center of your body, dividing you into top and bottom halves. When it comes to actions, the transverse plane is the hardest to conceptualize because it involves rotation and twisting movements. Swinging a golf club or a baseball bat are clear examples of moving in the transverse plane, but they're not the only ones. Activities including boxing, dance, and yoga often involve rotation and twisting, and strength training exercises like wood chops and Roman twists are other clear examples.

If you examine your normal workout and discover you're almost always working in one plane of motion, it's a good idea to combat muscular imbalances by incorporating a cross-training routine that encourages movement in multiple planes.

4. Just Try Something New

When you're stuck in a rut, repeating the same routine for months on end, you don't need to overthink your cross-training plan. Almost any new workout will "shock" your system and remind you you've got a slew of muscles you've been sorely neglecting. Pick an activity you've been dying to try and give it your best shot. You may love it, you may hate it, but at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. What's important is to keep your body guessing so you continue to see improvements to your fitness and health. 

Example Cross-Training Workout Ideas

If you need a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing, consider the following.

  • If You're a Runner: Runners benefit from strength training, core workouts, and flexibility training, particularly through the hips. Adding a quick strength training routine to your weekly runs can help balance out any muscular imbalances. It's a good idea to also set aside time for stretching or yoga each week.
  • If You're a Yogi: Yoga does amazing things for flexibility, balance, coordination, and some muscular endurance, but it won't drastically improve cardiovascular endurance or muscular strength. Consider adding a circuit training workout (that combines strength training and cardio) a couple times a week.
  • If You're a Strength Trainer: As great as it is to hit the weights regularly, it's also important to maintain flexibility and develop cardiovascular endurance. Add a 10-minute stretch after each of your strength training workouts, and on the days you're not at the gym, consider playing a sport, such as basketball, tennis, or soccer.
  • If You're a Cyclist: Cyclists have awesome lower body strength and endurance, as well as killer heart and lung health, but they may not be enjoying the benefits of workouts with more impact. Try adding an upper body strength training routine on the days you hit the bike, and on your rest days, incorporate hiking or rock climbing.
  • If You're a Swimmer: Like cycling, swimming delivers stellar cardiovascular improvements and muscular endurance, but it's not going to lead to significant gains in muscular strength or bone density. When you're not in the pool, add a boot camp class to your routine to take advantage of the benefits of low- to high-impact strength training.

When to Switch Things Up

It's a good idea to adjust your exercise routine about once a month. This doesn't mean you have to try a whole new cross-training workout every month, but it does mean you should make changes to the frequency, intensity, time, or type of workout you do on a regular basis. If you find a cross-training routine you really love, this might just mean adding one more workout to your schedule every week, or it might mean you adjust your cross-training routine into a shorter, more intense program. The important thing is to regularly change things up, even in small ways, to maximize physical adaptations and improvements.

A Word From Verywell

The subject of cross-training workouts can seem confusing, since there's not a hard and fast program that applies to everyone. Rather than stressing about the details, aim to perform two to four workouts each week of your favorite routine, then add one or two sessions of a completely different activity. Once a month, make a few changes. It really is that easy.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Laura Williams, MSEd, ASCM-CEP
Laura Williams is a fitness expert and advocate with certifications from the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine.