Many people, myself included, often fall into the routine of performing the same workout regimen day after day, week after week. This is not necessarily a good practice because by engaging in only one form of physical activity we usually address only one component of the total fitness package. Cross-training, on the other hand, refers to the practice of using several different modes of exercise to develop a well-rounded fitness program. While it may be necessary for an elite athlete to train specifically for their sport if they expect to excel at the highest level, for most people, cross-training is great way to develop and maintain a healthy balance of overall fitness.
Cross-training is not a special kind of workout program or one that is new to the fitness scene. To the contrary, it is a natural form of physical activity. Most of us, although we may not have realized it at the time, grew up cross-training. Our days were filled with a variety of physical activities — riding bikes, climbing trees, mowing the lawn, playing ball and swimming in the local pool. Cross trainers follow a similar philosophy to create workouts that are interesting, enjoyable and well-rounded. By varying the type and intensity of exercises, they also reduce the likelihood of overuse injuries and staleness because the same muscles are not being used over and over for the same activity.
A well-rounded exercise program encompasses three interrelated fitness components: aerobic (cardiovascular) fitness, muscular fitness and flexibility. Cross-training involves all three components. Aerobic fitness, defined as the maximal capacity to take in, transport, and utilize oxygen, deals with the body as a whole rather than with specific muscle groups. Vigorous aerobic exercise burns calories, improves circulatory function, raises levels of HDL cholesterol (the good type of cholesterol) and reduces stress. Examples include brisk walking, jogging, cycling, stair climbing, swimming, skating, soccer and dancing.
Muscular fitness has two primary components: muscular strength and muscular endurance. You can improve both through exercises that involve pushing and/or pulling against a resistance (weight) greater than you are accustomed to. Resistance training provides several benefits. It strengthens muscles and connective tissues, develops muscular symmetry, improves balance and enhances coordination.
Flexibility deals with the range of possible motion around a joint or series of joints. Poor flexibility not only impacts athletic performance but also limits our ability to perform routine functions like bending over to tie our shoes or picking up a toddler. Flexibility can be improved through a variety of static and dynamic stretching exercises.
Serious cross-training involves more than balancing workouts between aerobic, strength and flexibility exercises. You can also switch between different exercises within each category. For example, aerobic workouts can alternate between weight-bearing exercise like jogging or skipping rope and non-weight bearing activities like stationary cycling or swimming. Strength training workouts can vary in similar fashion. Use resistance machines for a few weeks, then switch to free weights for the next cycle, and every so often do it the old-fashioned way with body weight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, dips, and crunches.
A reasonable mix of workouts might include three or four days of aerobic exercise every week, two or three days of strength training, and flexibility exercises every day or at least every other day. Obviously, a person’s choice of exercises and workout schedule will reflect his or her fitness goals and objectives.
In any case there are numerous benefits associated with cross-training. One of the most important, in my opinion, is the potential for enhanced exercise adherence. Surveys suggest that many people drop out of exercise programs because they become bored and disinterested. Cross-training provides a safe and relatively simple way of adding variety to workouts, and as such can play an important role in motivating people to exercise on a consistent basis.