Fitness experts break down how cross-training can help boost your performance and minimize your risk of injury — without making exercise feel like a total drag.
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Credit: Alex Sandoval

To a fitness newbie, the workout world's penchant for vague terminology can be incredibly confusing. Even the way a trainer tells you to lie on the ground can sometimes use complex words such as "prone" and "supine," for example, or the terms "Tabata" and "Pilates" give you zero clue as to what the workout methods actually involve. Plus, what is cross-training exactly? Is it a style of shoe, a kind of workout routine, or something else entirely?

To help set the record straight — at least, on the matter of cross-training — Shape tapped pro trainers to explain exactly what cross-training entails (spoiler: It's more than just a kind of sneaker) and why it's so important to incorporate into your routine no matter what your fitness goal. You'll also find simple tips on how to create a personalized cross-training routine that makes you genuinely excited to break a sweat.

What Is Cross-Training?

Simply put, cross-training involves incorporating several different fitness modalities that complement each other into one individual workout or complete fitness regimen, says Melissa Kendter, an ACE-certified trainer, functional training specialist, and EvolveYou coach.

Rather than weight training for every workout, for example, you might supplement strength training with swimming or yoga a few times a week. The primary purpose: "To help you improve in your goals by hitting or targeting muscles that you aren't using in your typical workouts," adds Keri Harvey, a NASM-certified personal trainer in New York City. "It's really just to help make you an all-around effective athlete."

There's no one right way to cross-train, either, and the workouts you mix into your schedule should be based on what you personally benefit from and love. "The key to getting the most out of your cross-training is to think about your specific exercise goals or what you enjoy the most for long-term success, then think about what kind of side sessions will complement each other," says Kendter. You might pair HIIT with speed walking, running with strength training, or triathlon training with yoga, she suggests.

Or, you might combine multiple training styles into one single cross-training workout (think: going for a light jog after lifting, performing weighted arm exercises while cycling). If you're doing two different workout methods back-to-back, however, the order does matter, says Harvey. "For example, I would suggest strength training before your run," she adds. "This will allow you to focus on proper form in order to lift safely."

Regardless of how you cross-train, "I think for anybody — athletes, everyday recreational exercisers, whatever it is — it just makes you a more well-rounded, fit person, and it enhances your performance in your main sport or activity," says Kendter. 

The Benefits of Cross-Training

In a nutshell, consistently mixing up your fitness routine via cross-training offers both physical and mental health perks, says Kendter. "That mental and physical challenge keeps you wanting more and keeps you active," she adds. More importantly, cross-training regularly can help improve your performance in your primary activity, whether it's running, HIIT, yoga, or cycling. Below, the trainers break down the biggest benefits of cross-training.

Reduces Risk of Injury

Pushing through the same workout day after day may seem like the best way to reach your fitness goals — to be a better runner, you have to run, right? The truth isn't so black and white, as never breaking from your fitness routine can do you more harm than good. When you repeat one type of exercise or technique for an extended period of time, your muscles, joints, and bones are constantly put under the same stress, which, in turn, can increase the risk of injury due to repetitive strain and/or overuse, according to information published by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).

Cross-training, however, can help prevent these injuries by allowing your body to use different muscle groups and avoid overloading one area, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you're a runner, for instance, you'll want to consider mixing strength-training workouts, focusing on single-leg and core work, into your routine, suggests Harvey. "When you're running, you're moving in a sagittal plane, so each side is moving front to back," she explains. "You want to start working in opposite planes of motion so that you're working all around the body. That will help to prevent any imbalances in the muscles and also help to reduce the risk of injury." You can also incorporate cycling workouts into your schedule so you can continue to build and maintain endurance without taxing your body, especially your joints, in the same way as running, says Kendter. (Related: The 5 Essential Cross-Training Workouts All Runners Need)

Improves Performance

Regularly switching up your workouts can also boost your overall performance in and out of the gym, says Harvey. "Implementing cross-training overall can improve your total-body fitness and improve your cardio endurance," adds Kendter. "[It ensures] you're strengthening the entire body as one unit because you are using your whole body when you're doing strength training, running, or yoga." In fact, a survey analysis of more than 600 women soldiers found that those who participated in cross-training had greater muscular endurance (determined by the number of push-ups and sit-ups completed in a specified timeframe) than those who only ran or only lifted weights. 

If weight lifting is your go-to activity, adding yoga into your routine can help you increase flexibility, reduce joint tightness, ensure you're able to move in various planes of motion, lower the risk of injury, and simply make day-to-day movements more effective and efficient, according to the International Sports Sciences Association. Incorporating cardio, such as swimming or cycling, into the mix can also help boost your cardiovascular endurance so you don't feel so winded after a strength-focused HIIT session or after lugging your laundry up the stairs, says Harvey. 

Keeps Your Workouts Exciting

Cross-training also prevents your routine from feeling stale, which, in turn, encourages you to stick with it. "Even if you're the person who loves to work out, if you're doing the same workouts over and over again, eventually, your mind is going to get tired of it, and your body will also get acclimated to what you're doing," says Harvey. "Adding in some other form of training really just helps to keep you motivated — it's not as monotonous."

Prevents Fitness Plateaus

Aside from keeping things fresh mentally, cross-training can keep your body on its toes and ensure you continue to progress toward your fitness goals. During the first few weeks of performing a particular workout, your body is reacting to a new stimulus, which encourages physiological benefits such as muscle growth and improved endurance. "After some time, usually four to eight weeks, your body gets used to the amount of stress it's being put through in the workout and stops responding," explains Harvey. "In order to continue seeing progress, you must introduce new challenges." (Learn more about the progressive overload technique.) In other words, you want your workouts to keep your body guessing, as it will adapt to the exercises it's repeatedly exposed to and your progress will plateau. And cross-training can help give your body the variety it needs.

How to Create Your Own Cross-Training Routine

Remember, your cross-training routine should be specific to your own likes and goals, which means you'll have to do a bit of introspection to craft a regimen that works best for you. In general, your well-rounded workout routine should include strength training (e.g. weight lifting, CrossFit), cardiovascular training (e.g. HIIT, running, swimming, cycling), and flexibility training (e.g. yoga, foam rolling, Pilates), according to the AAOS. So, start by thinking about the activities within those categories that you enjoy or want to test out. "Try different avenues of fitness first," suggests Kendter. "Sometimes people go all-in for one sport or two different activities and they hate it so they just give up. So I always tell people to try a few different things and see what you love, then that will help you adhere to a program for long-term success."

For your cross-training days, you'll also want to choose activities that are lower in intensity than your primary workout, adds Harvey. "You're also trying to give your body some time to recover from your main focus in training," she explains. Of course, you can take a full-fledged rest day, rather than an active recovery day, throughout the week as needed. If strength training is your primary focus, you might lift weights on Monday, go for a jog on Tuesday, and either complete a gentle yoga flow or take a complete break from working out on Wednesday, she says. Then, you can repeat the schedule all over again. (Related: Here's What a Perfectly Balanced Weekly Workout Schedule Looks Like)

Typically, you'll want to change up your workout at least once or twice a week, then switch the workouts you're doing for cross-training every four to six weeks, suggests Harvey. At that point, "you want to adjust your intensity, maybe the amount of time that your spending in your workouts, or even the type of workout," she explains. "Maybe the first four to six weeks, a strength trainer was focusing on interval training on those cross-training days, so then they might want to switch to yoga, flexibility, maybe even some swimming. Just throwing some other things in there." If you're feeling completely clueless about what to include in your cross-training routine or how often you should mix up your workouts, consider meeting with a certified personal trainer, who can help plan out the best routine for you and your fitness goals, suggests Kendter. 

When you first kick off your cross-training routine, you may worry it's going to mess with the progress you've made while training for a half-marathon or weightlifting competition. But trust, incorporating variety into your fitness regimen will only make you stronger, adds Harvey. "If you are making sure you keep that intensity lower than your normal training days, then cross-training is something that will be a perfect complement for those other things you're working on — to really help you be that amazing, all-around athlete."

Cross-Training Workouts to Try

If you mostly run...

If you mostly lift weights...

If you mostly practice yoga...