Whether you’re starting a new exercise program or have been immersed in an exercise routine for some time, you should absolutely understand the benefits of cross-training. Not having cross training activities built in to your schedule could set you up for mental burnout (aka boredom) or injuries by exercising the same groups of muscles too often. Cross training, simply put, is the practise of doing different workouts on different days with a view to better overall conditioning, developing new skills, reaching new heights, and helping to mix up your daily workouts by interspersing the less-enjoyable, yet just as necessary, routines with more enjoyable activities. Cross training not only allows one muscle group to rest, recover and repair, while another muscle group is being worked but it also prevents reaching a plateau in your conditioning from constant repetition of the same exercises. When this happens, you’re not improving, you’re simply maintaining. Creating a cross training routine is as simple as choosing different workouts for different purposes. For example, to address and increase your aerobic capacity, you might include biking on Monday and racquetball on Tuesday. On Wednesday, you can address strength training with either free weights or machines. On Thursday you might include a yoga class for more flexibility and on Friday you could incorporate exercises that improve your balance, agility and speed.
Why Cross-Training Is Important
You have an exercise routine that you’ve been doing for some time now. You can do this routine with your eyes closed and you’ve got the timing down to the last second to get you in and out of the gym in 45 minutes flat. You feel great after each workout and all is going well until someone shows you a new type of activity that leaves you feeling completely flattened. What happened? You thought you were in great shape! And you are, for the type of exercise you do routinely. However, once a new activity is thrown into the mix you begin to see where your old routine is letting you down.
Problem #1 – Being able to do an exercise routine without thinking is not always a good thing. Every time you lift a weight or do a sit-up, you should be mindful of each and every muscle group you’re working, of your breathing, and of your posture. You should be tuned in to how you’re doing the exercise and how your body is responding at any given time. If you’re not mindful of what’s going on, you could be setting yourself up for an injury. Call it “Zen” fitness, if you will.
Problem #2 – Focusing on the same routine, routinely, leaves a lot out. In order to get the full benefit of exercising, you need to incorporate different types of training that work different muscle groups and address other aspects of conditioning such as aerobic fitness, flexibility, posture, strength, and balance. A routine with a view to cross-training ensures that total fitness is addressed.
Problem #3 – Flexibility and Boredom. If you don’t switch things up every once and a while you’ll find yourself beginning to make excuses as to why you don’t have to exercise and this is simply the boredom talking, not reason. Don’t let boredom sabotage your efforts to stay fit. And what if you arrive for a swim and the pool is closed? That’s easy; just whip out your jogging shoes and away you go.
Of course, when you work several different types of exercise into your routine, you’ll need more than one type of equipment. For example, you need one type of footwear for jogging and another for indoor activities (don’t “cheap out” on the footwear!). You may need a swimsuit and goggles if you choose to incorporate swimming into your routine. If you’re adding yoga, you’ll need a mat, a towel, and possibly an old blanket for under your knees. You might choose to roller skate or bicycle in the spring and summer, or ice skate in the winter, and this requires separate equipment again. It’s best to start slowly, add activities you enjoy into the mix, and work up to obtaining all the different types of equipment you’ll need for each new activity.
Create Your New Routine
First thing to do is revisit your current training routine. Moving forward, you’ll want to ensure your new cross-training routine encompasses at least three components: aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercises. From your current regimen, pick out your strengths and weaknesses. Cross-training can definitely help you advance in areas where you may be lacking. For instance, if you’re aerobically fit but your balance is off, you might add a few yoga classes instead of more Zumba. Beware of the desire to stick with what you know and avoid trying new activities. One sure way to advance is by enlisting a variety of new disciplines. In the areas where you’re already strong, look to find new ways of doing your current routine so that you don’t get bored.
Add variety throughout the week by scheduling in different activities on different days. For example, choose a cardio activity (running, stair climbing) on Monday, strength training (free weights, machines) on Tuesday, flexibility/balance exercises on Wednesday (yoga), agility (obstacle course) on Thursday, and finish the week with something fun like bike riding or swimming as a reward. If you’re really keen, you can even break up your day with cross-training; jog in the morning and swim in the evening. Here’s a sample plan from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:
A balanced, weekly cross training program might look like this:
- Aerobic exercise: Three times a week for at least 30 minutes. Alternate activities such as walking, swimming, dancing, and stair climbing.
- Strength training: Twice a week (not consecutive days) for at least 30 minutes, working each major muscle group. Try to do different exercises for each muscle group on alternate days, or use different resistance tools, such as free weights or stretch tubing.
- Flexibility exercise: Every day for at least 5 to 10 minutes. Stretching exercises may be done daily, but be sure to warm up your muscles with a short walk or other aerobic activity before you stretch.
An alternative may be to combine different activities into one day’s aerobic workout. For example, you could combine 10 minutes of walking, 10 minutes on an elliptical trainer, and 10 minutes on a step climber. You may also decide to switch between upper body and lower body strength exercises on your strength training days.
On the days you do not have a specific workout planned, be sure to still get in your 30 minutes of activity — whether it be housecleaning, gardening, walking, or a combination of activities.
Cross-training also serves the social aspect of fitness. Currently, if you do your exercises by yourself, adding classes like yoga or Zumba, or learning a new sport like racquetball, can link you up with new training partners. Training with a partner helps you stay on track and accountable as well.
If you’re not sure about how or where to add new disciplines to your routine, a personal trainer can help you make these decisions, advise you along the way, and help you ease slowly and appropriately into your new schedule.
Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner, registered with Natural Health Practitioners Canada, who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 12 years experience in her area of expertise, naturopathic medicine, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch ® Practitioner and Reflexologist.
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