An Overview of Cross-Training

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Cross-training is a term that gets thrown around a lot at the gym. It's a term that everyone seems to be familiar with, but its strict definition feels somewhat elusive, especially to the uninitiated. For instance, you might hear a hard-core lifter say, "Nah man, I'm not lifting today. I'm cross-training with some running," while you hear a dedicated runner say, "Today's my cross-training day, so I'm going to lift weights."

Did you catch that? One person's regular workout is another person's cross-training workout. So how are you supposed to know what your cross-training workout should be? Luckily, it's not as confusing as it seems.

What Is Cross-Training?

Cross-training is any workout that complements your normal routine, helping to even out potential muscle imbalances or weaknesses. It ultimately enhances your fitness level while reducing your likelihood of injury.

All good things, right? But that doesn't answer the question about which cross-training workout is right for you. To answer that question, you need to know a little more about the five health-related components of fitness:

  • Cardiovascular endurance: The ability of your heart and lungs to keep up with your muscles' demands for oxygenated blood and fuel throughout a workout.
  • Muscular endurance: How long your working muscles are able to continually perform a specific task.
  • Muscular strength: How much force a muscle can exert against resistance (how much you can lift in a single bout).
  • Flexibility: The extent of your range of motion around any given joint.
  • Body composition: The ratio of fat mass to fat-free mass (muscle, bone, water, and other tissue) as it relates to total health.

In a perfect world, your regular workout routine would target each of these five components of fitness equally. But because people are often drawn to a specific workout or training method, it's common for training to become unbalanced and for one or two components of fitness to vastly outweigh the others. And while you may think this isn't a major problem, it's certainly not ideal.

Think of it this way. The five components of fitness are like the five fingers on your hand. Each finger is important to your hand's overall function, just as each component of fitness is important to your overall health. While you may think of one finger as more useful than another, you probably don't want to give up any of them. Likewise, when considering your total health, it's important to prioritize all five components of fitness.

Cross-training is a method of preserving all five components of fitness, or all five proverbial fingers. For instance, if you're a hard-core yogi, which is great for flexibility and some muscular endurance, then your cross-training routine might include more cardio or strength training workouts to enhance your cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength.

Likewise, if you're a heavy lifter, which is great for muscular strength and body composition, you might cross-train with activities that enhance your flexibility and cardiovascular endurance. In this manner, cross-training isn't a specific workout per se; it's a customized approach to training that's designed to maximize your personal health and fitness.

Top 7 Things to Know About Cross-Training

Conceptually, cross-training is pretty straightforward, but here's what you need to know about its benefits and how to add effective workouts to your training schedule.

1. It's Not One Size Fits All

Because your standard workout may be different from your best friend's (you love barre class while your best friend loves to swim), the best cross-training workout for you probably won't match that of your friend's. When planning your cross-training routine, you need to think honestly about where your weaknesses are and how you can choose a cross-training workout that helps counterbalance them.

2. It Can Help Prevent Boredom

Doing the same workout day in and day out, ad nauseam, is a surefire way to bore yourself right out of the gym. Not to mention, you're less likely to keep pushing yourself hard during workouts if your body's on autopilot. Cross-training is a great way to break up your standard workout and put some "oomph" back into your training routine. You'll never be bored if you're constantly adding new and different workouts to your training program.

3. It Can Reduce the Likelihood of Injuries

If you do the same workout every time you hit the gym or street, you're constantly placing stress on the same muscle groups, in the exact same manner, over and over and over again. If this goes on for too long, you're practically asking for an overuse injury. Cross-training gives overworked muscles, tendons, and ligaments the opportunity to rest and repair before they're put to work again.

The other downside to performing the same workout repeatedly is that while some of your muscles are worked regularly, others may not receive the same level of attention. This can lead to muscular imbalances that contribute to injuries and chronic pain. When you choose a cross-training activity that effectively strengthens any weaknesses you may have, you're giving your body the balance it needs to support an active, injury-resistant lifestyle.

4. It Can Enhance Motivation

Chances are you keep doing the same ol' workout for one (or several) of the following reasons:

  • It's familiar and doesn't take much thought.
  • You enjoy it.
  • You're good at it.

But after a while, it becomes harder and harder to set new goals and push yourself if there's no change to your routine. Cross-training is a great way to add challenge to your workout, providing new opportunities to set new goals.

For instance, incorporating a new yoga class into your cardio-heavy workout routine won't be easy. Chances are you won't have the balance or flexibility to do all the poses on your first go-around. But this challenge gives you room to grow, and you may find yourself getting fired up to nail a warrior III or crow pose.

5. It's Inefficient—and That's a Good Thing

Bodies are pretty amazing. They're designed to conserve energy and perform tasks as efficiently as possible. They do this when a task is repeated regularly by improving neural pathways, developing stronger motor units, undergoing cellular adaptations to enhance energy delivery, and creating "muscle memory" to put oft-repeated tasks on autopilot.

These are all awesome features related to human physiology, but from a fitness standpoint, there's an upper limit to the benefit. The more you repeat a single workout, the more you experience the law of diminishing returns. As your body becomes more efficient, you burn fewer calories and experience fewer adaptations, resulting in the dreaded fitness plateau.

For example, If you start a workout program with the goal of running three miles at a 10-minute-per-mile pace, it's probably going to feel pretty challenging at first, and it might take you a while to hit your goal. But if you keep at it, your body adapts and you hit the mark. If you then continue to run three miles at a 10-minute-per-mile pace, never adjusting or changing your routine, your body becomes more efficient, and the workout becomes easier and you stop seeing improvements beyond your initial gains.

Cross-training is a way to keep your body guessing. When you introduce new exercises and new routines into your schedule, you're reminding your brain and your body that you haven't mastered these new routines—that your body needs to work harder to overcome its inefficiencies. These constant changes and adaptations ultimately enhance your level of fitness and help bust you through workout plateaus.

6. It Can Help You Develop New Skills

Let's say you're a cyclist who decides to take up dance on a large scale, you're learning a new skill. But skill development through cross-training goes deeper than that. In addition to the five health-related components of fitness, there are also six skill-related components of fitness. These athletic skills include speed, power, reaction time, agility, balance, and coordination.

Like the health-related fitness components, the skill-related components are all equally important for well-balanced athletic performance. Cross-training gives you the opportunity to develop skills that might fall outside those of your favorite workout.

Take, for instance, the example of the cyclist who starts cross-training with dance. While cycling is an excellent way to develop power, speed, and balance, it's not necessarily going to enhance agility, coordination, or reaction time. Dance, on the other hand, ​may be the perfect cross-training workout to help even out those less-developed skills to create a more well-rounded athlete.

7. It Offers Workout Flexibility

When you stop pigeonholing yourself into a single workout routine, you're more mentally and physically prepared to roll with the punches that sometimes interfere with day-to-day workout plans. For instance, if you typically run three days a week and cross-train two days a week by taking a strength training class at your local gym, the next time a big storm prevents you from getting your run in, you can simply mix up your workout schedule and hit the gym for a rain-free routine.

Or if your boxing class is unexpectedly full, you don't have to ditch your workout plans. You can simply hit the cardio equipment or weight room instead. The more comfortable you are with a variety of workouts, and the more open you are to the benefits of cross-training, the more flexible you can be about your schedule and plans.

3 Tips for Planning a Cross-Training Workout

If you're still not sure how to incorporate cross-training into your weekly workout, use these tips to develop your plan.

1. Make a Schedule

There's no need to completely upend your current workout schedule to accommodate cross-training. Look at your weekly plan and ask yourself a single question: How can I fit cross-training into the mix?

A good rule of thumb is to include one to two cross-training routines each week. You can do this one of three ways:

  • Add one or two cross-training workouts to your schedule.
  • Replace one or two workouts on your schedule.
  • Tack cross-training onto a few of your current workouts.

The option that works best for you is completely reliant on how much time you have to dedicate to your workouts and what type of cross-training you're hoping to do.

For instance, if you want to add flexibility training to your routine, you could add a yoga class to your schedule once a week, you could replace one of your other workouts with a yoga class, or you could carve out 15 extra minutes on the days you're already scheduled to workout and dedicate those 15 minutes to stretching. The important thing is to come up with a game plan and a schedule to make cross-training happen.

2. Try New Things

Even when it comes to cross-training, it's easy to get stuck in a rut. Plan to switch up your cross-training workout roughly once a month. You can do this in four different ways:

  • Incorporate new exercises into your workout. For instance, if your cross-training routine involves strength training, after a month of doing the same workout, switch out your repertoire of go-to exercises for new or different exercises that target the same muscle groups but in slightly different ways. Instead of a back squat, try a squat variation like the hack squat. Instead of the barbell bench press, try a dumbbell bench press.
  • Try new pieces of equipment. If you've never tried balance training, why not challenge yourself by doing exercises on a BOSU ball? If you've never tried suspension training, now's as good a time as any to give the TRX a try.
  • Sign up for a new class or activity. Powerlifters might want to try water jogging. Runners might want to try rock climbing. Barre enthusiasts might want to try trampolining. There's practically no end to the number of classes and activities available, so why limit yourself? Learning new skills is half the fun when it comes to being active.
  • Alter the format of your current workout. If you're completely invested in your straightforward cross-training routine, you can still mix things up by changing how you approach your workout. For instance, if your cross-training routine involves strength training with heavier weights, switch up the format by trying high-intensity interval training, circuit training, or strictly utilizing bodyweight exercises. Or if your cross-training workout is a weekly yoga class, mix things up by giving a different style of yoga a try, like hot yoga, SUP yoga, or aerial yoga.

3. Think About Impact

One other way to think about incorporating cross-training is to consider the level of impact your current workout has so you can select a cross-training routine that counterbalances that impact. You see, high-impact and weight-bearing exercises help build muscle mass and bone density, but they also place greater stress on your bones and joints. If your routine consists heavily of high-impact activities like running and jumping, it's a good idea to cross-train with lower-impact activities like swimming, cycling, or rowing.

The reverse is true as well. If your primary workout is lower-impact, it's a good idea to incorporate weight-bearing or higher-impact exercises into your cross-training routine. For example, swimmers may want to cross-train with strength training or dancing.

Cross-Training Workouts

If you need a place to start, consider the following information on cross-training for specific sports, activities, and goals:

A Word From Verywell

At the end of the day, there's no right or wrong way to go about implementing a cross-training routine. Don't waste time overanalyzing your decisions or getting caught up in the "rules." Just keep trying new things, make adjustments to your workout schedule, and do what feels right and enjoyable.

The goal is to develop better health through the cultivation of well-balanced measures of physical fitness. This won't happen overnight, so start by choosing a cross-training activity, then stick with it. After a month, you can reassess. There's simply no need to stress about how to get started.

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.