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Cross-Training: The Key to a Balanced and Well-Rounded Fitness Routine

Caitlin Updyke, MS, RD

Published in Fitness

7 min read

May 8, 2023
four people doing cross training exercise
four people doing cross training exercise

Maintaining a fitness routine has important benefits for your health. Engaging in regular physical activity in amounts appropriate for your body not only helps in burning calories but also helps to manage stress, improve sleep, improve heart health, and build strong bones and muscles.

But doing the same exercise routines over and over again can lead to burn-out, or a plateau in fitness results. The human body is adaptive, and it needs variation and challenges to continue to improve.

This is where cross-training comes in–and this can be helpful for beginners and elite athletes alike. In this article, we’ll cover the benefits of cross-training and provide some tips to help you get started. 

What is Cross-Training?

benefits of cross training list

Cross-training is a form of training that incorporates different types of exercises into your fitness routine. It involves doing different activities that work different parts of the body or use different muscle groups.

For example, some runners may incorporate swimming, weight-lifting, or rowing into their weekly routines. Cross-training can be useful for a number of reasons:

  • It can be used to reduce burn-out or boredom in your workout routine.
  • It may help reduce the risk of injury from high impact sports.
  • It can help build strength and increase endurance.

Key Benefits of Cross-Training

Incorporating different activities that work different parts of the body or use different muscle groups can help you achieve a more balanced and well-rounded fitness routine. Here are some of the potential benefits of cross-training:

May Help Prevent Injuries

someone using athletic tape in the gym

When you do the same exercise routine repeatedly, your body can become overworked and prone to injury. Research suggests that specializing in a certain activity may even increase your risk of injury by 50 percent or more.

By incorporating different types of exercises into your routine, you can give those overworked muscles a break and work other muscles that may not be getting enough attention. This can help to prevent the repetitive strain that can lead to injuries, like tendonitis or stress fractures.

For example, if you're a runner, cross-training with low-impact activities like swimming or cycling might help you maintain your cardiovascular fitness without putting excessive strain on your leg muscles, bones, and joints.

Increases Strength, Power, Speed, Endurance, Agility, and Balance

a girl with a nutrisense patch doing a dumbbell workout

Cross-training workouts can have an impact on several aspects of physical fitness, including strength, power, speed, endurance, agility, and balance. By incorporating a variety of exercises into your routine, you can work different muscle groups and develop a more well-rounded level of fitness.

Here are some examples of exercises to incorporate to your training program to achieve better performance in these specific areas:

  • Strength: Cross-training can improve strength by targeting different muscle groups and challenging them in different ways. For example, arm and shoulder resistance training can help build upper body strength, while squats and lunges can target muscles in the lower body
  • Power: Incorporate explosive exercises like plyometrics or powerlifting, which can help develop power, or one’s ability to produce force in a certain period of time. 
  • Speed: Incorporate exercises that focus on speed, like sprint interval training
  • Endurance: Try incorporating cardio exercises that build endurance, like running, cycling, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
  • Agility: Agility refers to the ability to change direction quickly and efficiently. Try exercises like exercises with lateral (side-to-side) movements, like lateral jumps, or short-term high-intensity plyometric exercises, like jumping hurdles.  
  • Balance: Try incorporating exercises like yoga or pilates, which focus on core strength and stability and can improve balance.

Maintains Mental Stimulation

Following the same training plan repeatedly can become monotonous and lead to boredom. Cross-training can provide mental stimulation and variety, making exercise more enjoyable and engaging. 

Incorporating different types of exercises into your routine can challenge the mind to learn new movements and skills.This can help keep you engaged and even help prevent burn-out and keep you motivated to continue your fitness journey.

Helps You Recover From Your Main Sport

two people with bikes on a trail

Cross-training can be a useful tool for recovery after participating in one primary sport or activity. Doing the same repetitive movements over and over again can cause overuse injuries, fatigue, and mental burnout.

Incorporating cross-training into your routine can help alleviate some of these issues and aid in the recovery process. Another way a cross-training routine can aid in recovery is by allowing for active recovery.

Active recovery involves performing low-intensity exercises, such as swimming or yoga, that help to increase blood flow and promote muscle recovery. By incorporating active recovery exercises into your routine, you can help reduce muscle soreness and prevent injuries caused by overuse.

Examples of Cross-Training

graphic with six types of cross training

There are many different ways to cross-train, and you can tailor your routine to suit your interests and fitness goals. Here are some examples of cross-training activities to incorporate into your fitness routine that may benefit your performance, improve overall fitness, and prevent overuse injuries:

1) Cross-Training Exercises for Cyclists

Cycling is a great form of exercise that offers many physical and mental health benefits. Cyclists may benefit from cross-training exercises like:

  • Strength Training: Strength training exercises can help cyclists build the muscular endurance needed for long rides. Squats, lunges, and deadlifts are excellent exercises that target the lower body muscles used in cycling.
  • Pilates: Pilates can be an excellent cross-training exercise for cyclists, as it can help improve flexibility, balance, and core strength.
  • Swimming: Swimming is an excellent low-impact exercise that can help cyclists improve their cardiovascular fitness while putting less stress on their joints.
  • Running: Running is another great cardiovascular exercise that can help to improve cardiovascular fitness and endurance.

2) Cross-Training Exercises for Swimmers

a person swimming laps in the pool

Swimming is an excellent low-impact exercise that offers many health benefits, including improved cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, and flexibility. Swimmers may benefit from cross-training exercises like:

  • Running: Running is an excellent cardiovascular exercise that can help to improve endurance and strengthen the lower body muscles used in swimming.
  • Rowing: Rowing is a low-impact exercise that can help swimmers improve their upper body strength, particularly the muscles used in pulling motions. Rowing also provides an excellent cardiovascular workout.
  • Cycling: Cycling is another low-impact exercise that can help swimmers improve their cardiovascular fitness and leg strength. Cycling can also help to improve endurance and speed.
  • Strength Training: Strength training exercises can help swimmers build muscular endurance and prevent overuse injuries.

3) Cross-Training Exercises for Athletes in Sports

someone with a nutrisense patch doing core exercises

Athletes in sports, whether team or individual, can benefit from cross-training exercises. Cross training can help build strength, reduce muscle imbalances, and lower the risk of injury.

Some of the best cross-training methods for athletes include:

  • Rowing: Rowing is a full-body exercise that can help athletes build strength and endurance, particularly in the upper body and core muscles. Rowing can also help to improve cardiovascular endurance.
  • Swimming: Swimming is a low-impact exercise that can help athletes improve their cardiovascular fitness and build upper body strength.
  • Plyometric Exercises: Plyometric exercises involve explosive movements that help to improve power and speed. Examples of plyometric exercises include lateral jumps, jump squats, and jumping jacks.
  • Strength Training: Strength training exercises can help athletes build muscular endurance, prevent overuse injuries, and improve power output.
  • Yoga: Yoga can be an excellent cross-training exercise for athletes, as it can help improve flexibility, balance, and core strength. It can also help to reduce stress and improve mental focus.
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Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Reviewed by: Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.