Get Stronger and Leaner With Cross Training
Using the technique favored by pro athletes can get you better results and fewer injuries.
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
You've faithfully jogged three times a week for years, and think you're in pretty good shape. But when a less athletic friend suggests you go inline skating, you're shocked to discover you can't keep up.
Perhaps you've mastered the elliptical machine, and regularly work out on it for 45 minutes at a stretch. But one day you bend over to pick up your 4-year-old, and you end up with a back injury that lasts for weeks.
Or maybe you're a power weight lifter, the top bench presser at the gym. But when your son's new puppy takes off around the block, you get winded trying to catch him -- and the puppy isn't even breathing hard.
All of these scenarios show what can happen when you think fitness means mastering a single sport or activity.
"When you only do one fitness activity -- like running or weight lifting, for example -- and you only work on the muscles involved in that sport, you may discover that you are far less fit than you think," says Todd Schlifstein, DO, a sports medicine rehabilitation doctor at New York University Medical Center's Rusk Institute.
Using just one set of muscles repeatedly can also increase your risk of repetitive injury, Schlifstein warns.
"The harder you train your body for just one activity, the more stress you put on all the muscles and bones involved in that one activity, so the more you do and the better you get, the more you risk overuse -- and the greater your risk of injury," says Schlifstein.
So what's the answer? Athletic trainers and personal coaches agree it's cross training -- essentially, alternating your workout routines in a way that will increase your performance and overall fitness without stressing your body to the max.
For a single-sport athlete, cross training can mean anything outside the athlete's primary sport, while for the fitness enthusiast, it means using many different activities to ensure total fitness, says James Herrera, MS, CSCS, director of coaching with Carmichael Training Systems and Trainright.com in Colorado Springs, Colo.
How Cross Training Can Help
While professional athletic trainers once believed it was most important to work on those muscles directly related to a particular sport or activity, experts now say cross training is a much better approach. All sorts of professional athletes, from ball players to golfers, tennis players to swimmers, make cross training part of their regimes.
Cross training is also making its way into the average person's fitness routine, with more and more "weekend workout warriors" discovering its benefits.
But exactly what can it do for you?
Professional athletic trainer Jim Thornton, MA, ATC, sums it up this way: "Cross training takes into consideration the fact that many muscles in different parts of the body contribute to a single activity. So to get the most out of any activity, and to do it safely, you must pay attention to all the muscles in your body that are involved, not just the ones directly related to that activity."
For example, while a runner needs to build strong leg muscles, he or she must also pay attention to the muscles that control pelvic movement, core strength -- even the upper body. "All these areas are utilized when you run," says Thornton, director of athletic training services at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and a member of the board of directors of the National Athletic Trainers Association.
But that's not all. Experts say cross training can also help us with the tasks of our daily lives.
"Implementing a variety of activity into your routines almost certainly guarantees that you will be much more functionally active ... and that you can complete day-to-day tasks with much more ease," says Herrera.
Climbing stairs, working around the house or yard, or taking the dogs for a walk takes much less effort when you're "functionally fit," he says. It's also easier to avoid injuries related to those everyday activities.
"You're much less likely to injure yourself bending down to pick a child or heavy box off the floor," says Herrera.
What Cross Training Involves
For people devoted to a particular sport or fitness activity, there are specific activities that make up an ideal cross training routine.
"As you create variation in your activity, you're cross training!"
For example, if running has been your only activity, your "prescription" for overall better fitness would include strengthening exercises for the pelvis and hips, as well as weight workouts to build the upper body, Thornton says.