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Cross Training Lets You Mix It Up for Your Muscles

When we find a sport or workout routine we enjoy, it’s hard to think about switching it up. In adolescent athletes, intense training in only one sport is called sports specialization. For adults and weekend warriors, sticking to one preferred workout is often simply a habit.

But only playing tennis, just jogging or being a weight-lifting gym rat every day actually can be bad on your body. It increases the chance of injuries, muscle fatigue and exercise boredom. If you are a solo sport enthusiast, it’s time to consider cross training.

What Is Cross Training?

Cross training refers to combining different types of exercise activities across the week. While tennis may address your cardiovascular fitness, for example, it’s not building much muscle strength. If you're a weightlifter, you're not really addressing your cardiovascular fitness. Golfing as your only endeavor provides plenty of walking, but not much stretching or cardio.

The key to cross training is mixing in a variety of different types of muscle movements. If you love to bike, you might consider adding swimming to your weekly workouts. Swimming works different muscles than cycling and improves overall aerobic ability and muscle strength. A tennis buff might pencil in some weekly Pilates or yoga classes for variety. A golfer might hop on the elliptical and lift some weights at the gym.

By adding another activity or two to your sports cycle, you can prevent overuse injuries, muscle imbalances and exercise burnout. 

The Downside of Repeat Performance

Constant repetition of the same exercises focuses on building the same muscle groups. This can create muscle imbalance, throwing off posture and creating isolated strength in certain parts of the body rather than overall strength.

Repeating the same motion over and over also can cause repetitive strain injuries (RSI) and damage muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves. This results in painful situations like stress fractures, irritation of the tendon called tendonitis and bursitis, the inflammation of the small, jelly-like sacs that cushion joints and reduce friction.

RSI injuries also have names more recognizable on the sports court. Think tennis elbow, runner’s knee and good old shin splints, that searing pain along the inner edge of the shinbone (tibia). These are all examples of sports-initiated RSIs.

Other examples include:

  • Swimmer's shoulder
  • Golfer’s elbow
  • Pitching elbow
  • Jumper's knee
  • Achilles tendonitis
  • Osgood-Schlatter disease, most often seen in adolescent athletes

The Cross Training Advantage

Changing up your workout by cross training requires your body to adapt to new routines while building up different body parts. An ideal cross-training practice includes cardiovascular exercise, strength training and flexibility exercises. By adding some variety to your workout repertoire, you up the fun and fitness factors while lowering the likelihood of injury and burnout.

Other benefits of a varied exercise routine include:

  • Improving overall fitness that balances the physical stresses placed on weight-bearing joints, muscles and tendons
  • Preventing burnout and boredom by mixing up workouts
  • Increasing agility and coordination, and improving posture
  • Enhancing overall general strength created by working more muscles
  • Boosting mental health by reducing the effects of depression and anxiety

A Simple Solution To Mix It Up

Cross training doesn’t have to be complicated. The goal is to work all the different muscle groups weekly to build up your cardiovascular system, increase strength and improve flexibility for whole body health.

To get started, consider taking this FAST approach.

  • Flexibility: Stretch every day for 10-15 minutes. Simple stretches and yoga can help unfold tight, overused muscles while improving balance and stability.
  • Aerobics: Get the heart pumping, build bone density and increase mobility with at least 30 minutes of cardio-intensive exercises three times a week. Mix it up by incorporating your favorite activities — tennis, running, swimming, hiking, cycling, dancing or pickleball.
  • Strength Training: Commit to working each major muscle group twice a week, but not on consecutive days, for at least 30 minutes. Choose various weight-bearing exercises like pushups or squats, or work with free weights, cables or stretchy bands. Consider switching between upper- and lower-body strength exercises on alternate strength training days for best results.
Ease into cross training by finding activities you enjoy. Start slow and build up your endurance. Talk to your doctor if you have a chronic condition, injuries or questions about trying a new workout.

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