How Cross-Training is Killing Your Gains

Having owned a personal training studio for over 4 years, I try to be aware of the current trends in the fitness industry. One trend that’s growing in popularity can be categorized as cross-training, although that term may have multiple meanings. Especially popular amongst young professionals in bigger cities, cross-training in this context means engaging in a variety of exercise modalities on a weekly basis for the sake of improving physical fitness.


The weekly regimen of a person doing cross-training may include a combination of high-intensity group classes, Yoga, Pilates, jogging, and strength training. While cross-training may be a viable option to someone looking to make modest improvements across a wide range of fitness-related components, this training methodology is not ideal for individuals seeking more specific results. Let me elaborate. If you want to become a better swimmer, you have to swim. If you want to complete a full marathon, you have to run. Although both running and swimming are both activities that will improve your cardiovascular capacity and muscular endurance, you will not get better at one if you are only practicing the other.


The body adapts to the specific demands applied to it, but there’s only so much it can adapt to. The specific neuromuscular and metabolic adaptations the body makes are dictated by activities that are performed most frequently. Unless multiple activities have very similar physiological demands, spending more time doing one activity can take away from making improvements in another. This explains why soccer players don’t do very well in sports that require finite skill of the arms and hands, or why an elite sprinter like like Carl Lewis did not excel in sports despite being the fastest man in the world. 


But I’m not trying to become the next Carl Lewis


Let’s say you are a 26-year-old female who wants to lose some body fat, maintain lean mass, and get that muscle definition that is so highly sought after in our society. Believe it or not, that’s a pretty specific goal that requires a strategy and some understanding of basic physiology to achieve. A good strategy would be doing resistance training a minimum of three times per week in order to increase or maintain lean mass. More lean mass means a faster metabolic rate, which means you don’t have to starve yourself to start seeing ab definition. You can also add two additional days of high intensity interval training per week, which targets similar muscle fiber types as resistance training. Last but not least, a balanced and consistent diet will be vital to reaching your goal.


Here’s where a lot of people get it wrong. Most people associate “cardio,” or low-intensity endurance training, with fat loss. This is partially due to misinterpretations of scientific data that shows that the body utilizes fat as fuel for prolonged, aerobic activities. Although that is certainly true, it doesn’t translate to your body getting rid of the unwanted fat and keeping the muscle. So why is it a bad idea to include prolonged endurance training (like jogging) into your routine when trying to lean out? The body is smarter than you—it adapts to the demands it is exposed to. The body does not want to carry around additional mass (i.e. muscle) for a 40-minute jog. Frequent exposure to steady state cardio will improve your cardiorespiratory efficiency and the ability of muscles to manage oxygen for extended periods of time, but that doesn’t help the original aesthetic goal. Prolonged aerobic activities are counterproductive for someone trying to get stronger, add some lean mass, or preserve muscle while getting rid of fat. Conversely, if the goal is to run a marathon, packing on a ton of muscle won’t help your cause.  


Strength coach Charles Poliquin says you “can’t ride two horses with one ass.” In other words, it would be awesome if the body could adapt to a variety of exercise modalities and improve across the board, but it doesn’t work that way. If your goal is to get stronger, emphasize on strength training and take the time to understand what the optimal strategy is for that specific goal. There’s a reason why the average person who hops around from gym to gym doesn’t really see any significant results. Don’t be that person. Optimizing your workout routine and cutting out anything that doesn’t contribute to your ultimate goal is the smartest way to progress!