Cross-Training: Fast, Whole Body Workout

People who practice cross training develop high levels of fitness in a short time. Cross training stresses whole body, high-intensity training using exercises such as deadlifts, cleans, squats, presses, jerks, kettlebell exercises, snatches, plyometrics, sled pulls and weight carrying. Cross trainers learn to handle their bodyweight by practicing gymnastics, pull-ups, dips, rope climbing, push-ups, handstands, pirouettes, flips and splits. They also do cardio such as running, cycling and rowing, but the emphasis is on speed and intensity. Cross-training programs, such as CrossFit, attempt to develop well-rounded fitness by including exercises that build cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy. CrossFit, founded by Greg Glassman and Lauren Jenai in 1995, is the granddaddy of cross-training programs.

Cross-training programs change the exercises in the program frequently and try to use broad and constantly varying training stimuli. They also try to develop a metabolic capacity by doing high-intensity aerobic exercise and interval training. Their goal is to build the broadest and most general fitness possible. Their specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival and many sports reward this kind of fitness and punish the specialist.

The best cross-training workouts are tough but tailored to physical capacity and age. Good technique is essential. When performing squats and pulling exercises from the floor (e.g., cleans, snatches, deadlifts), people should maximize the use of the hips and protect the spine. This can be difficult because cross-training programs such as CrossFit emphasize speed and high intensity. Performing high-speed cleans and squats improperly can lead to severe injury.

Functional fitness is the main objective of cross-training programs such as CrossFit and Gym Jones. They achieve this through a series of grueling exercises that build endurance, strength, power, flexibility and quickness. A workout might include a high-speed bike ride, kettlebell swings, medicine ball tosses and pull-ups. Program elements are as diverse as wind sprints on a rowing machine or stationary bike, sled pulls, rock carries, static holds with a heavy kettlebell, push presses, plyometrics, Olympic lifts, and pullovers on the still rings. They link exercises like burpies, pull-ups, front squats, deadlifts, push presses, tumbling and box jumps into excruciating combinations that test the limits of human endurance.

Short, Intense Workouts With Fast Results

The appeal behind cross-training programs such as CrossFit is that the workouts are short, intense and produce fast results. The programs build muscle and cardiorespiratory fitness at the same time without requiring hours of exercise on a treadmill or elliptical trainer. Studies from Canada showed that high-intensity training (HIT) produced startlingly rapid results. Researchers found that HIT on a stationary bike increased muscle oxidative capacity (citrate synthase) by almost 50 percent, muscle glycogen by 20 percent, and cycle endurance capacity by 100 percent.

The subjects made these amazing improvements exercising a mere 15 minutes in two weeks. A follow-up study in moderately active women using the same training method showed that interval training increased whole body and skeletal muscle capacity for fat use during exercise. The key element in both studies was training at 100 percent of maximum effort. These studies showed the importance of high-intensity training for building aerobic capacity and endurance.

Cross training combines long, slow-distance training, high-intensity interval training, high-rep calisthenics, and heavy lifts that build a well-rounded and high level of fitness. The workout takes about 20 minutes plus warm-up. Most workouts involve about 150 reps of various exercises. The goal is to do the exercises as quickly as possible, while maintaining good form and posture. They build a combination of strength, power and muscle endurance by including exercises such as heavy deadlifts and presses with high rep exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, dips, thrusters and burpies.

Accountability is an important part of many cross-training programs. CrossFit, for example, uses six benchmark, timed workouts named after women (e.g., Barbara, Angie, Chelsea) that help gauge performance and improvement. For example, the Barbara workout includes five rounds of 20 pull-ups, 30 push-ups, 40 sit-ups, and 50 squats, with three minutes rest between rounds. The benchmark workouts include modifications to accommodate older or less fit people.


Sample Cross-Training Workouts

It is impossible to provide a comprehensive cross-training program in one post. The basic concept is to change the exercises frequently, train intensely, and work out quickly. Also, maintain good form, particularly when you get tired. The following workout will give you a taste of this kind of training.

Do the circuits three times but do not exceed 20-30 minutes for the workout. Break the exercises into sets if you cannot complete all the reps (e.g., 20 pull-ups). Record your time. Train as hard and as fast as you can while maintaining good technique. Select a weight that allows you to complete the reps in the sets. Change exercises during week two.


40 push-ups

10 standing long jumps

40 Squats with hands on your hips

20 dumbbell swings

Skip rope rapidly for 3 minutes

Rest 3 minutes; repeat circuit 2 more times





20 pull-ups

20 dumbbell thrusters

20 overhead squats

10 kettlebell snatches (10 for each arm)

2 minutes standing spinning on bike, maximum intensity

Rest 3 minutes; repeat circuit 2 more times



20 burpies with push-ups

40 deadlifts

Sprinting in place (high knee, fast arms), 1 minute maximum intensity

20 lunges with arm curls (20 for each leg)

20 push presses with barbell

Run 800 meters at 90 percent intensity

Rest 3 minutes; repeat circuit 2 more times


Principles of Cross Training

Eat a “caveman” type diet that emphasizes lean meats, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruits, while minimizing intake of simple sugars. Eat enough calories to support exercise but not enough to promote obesity.

– Do whole-body, functional exercises. Practice major lifts, such as deadlifts, snatches, squats, presses, and clean and jerks. Do dumbbell and kettlebell exercises, such as swings, thrusters, one-arm snatches, and overhead squats. Also, do basic gymnastic exercises on the floor, rings and parallel bars.

– Throw objects far. Examples include medicine balls, shots, heavy stones.

– Train intensely and move quickly from one exercise to the next.

– Vary your exercises every workout. Use many different patterns and combinations of sets, reps and types of exercise.

– Practice and learn many different sports and movements.

– Build rest into your exercise program.

– Always use good technique. Maintain a neutral spine and maximize the use of your hip muscles (glutes and hamstrings) rather than your back (erector spinae) and thigh muscles (quads) when doing exercises.

– Build cardiovascular fitness using high-intensity interval training.

– Exercise within your capacity. For example, while an extremely fit young man might do iron crosses on the rings, an 80-year-old heart patient might pull against a chest high bar or rope.

The Downside of Cross Training

Cross-training programs, such as CrossFit, have their critics. They disapprove of inadequate education and experience of some trainers, the increased risk of severe injuries, and lack of concern for the principle of specificity.

Level one certification for CrossFit requires that potential trainers attend a weekend workshop and pass a short test of CrossFit principles. Cross training includes a wide variety of exercises, including the Olympic lifts and complicated gymnastic movements. These skills take years to master. A novice could never begin to learn them in a few days. However, most cross training instructors are highly motivated and dedicated. Most cross-training coaches have passion, which includes far more training than a weekend seminar.

Some commercial cross-training programs stress pain and agony. Performing high-speed, high-rep sit-ups or squats often push muscles and joints to failure, causing severe knee or back injury or muscle destruction (rhabdomyolysis; “rhabdo”). Until recently, physicians only encountered rhabdo after extreme trauma from automobile accidents. These days, rhabdo is common because of the popularity of “feel the burn” cross-training programs. Biomechanists, such as Stuart McGill from Canada, feel that high-speed sit-ups and squats damage the spine. The benefits of high levels of fitness are counterbalanced by the risk of injury.

A basic philosophy of most cross-training programs is that you are only fit if you perform well in 10 areas of fitness. Movement is highly specific. Sports science pioneer Franklin Henry from the University of California, Berkeley developed the principle of specificity of training in the 1950s. His studies showed that movements are highly specific, which means that skill development is unique to a given movement performed at a given speed. Motor control studies from UCLA showed that practice reinforces motor patterns in the brain. These patterns are specific to each movement. There is no general coordination, agility, balance and accuracy. The balance required in skiing is different from the balance required to stand on one foot or do tricks on a skateboard.



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