Cross training for fitness competitors: What you need to know
If you're gearing up for a competition, the 12–to–18–week program of cuts and gains you follow to get in shape is intense. You don't have much wiggle room at the gym or in your diet—so why consider adding cross–training sessions into the mix?
For starters, the right cross training program can help you maintain muscle mass without overtraining. Because cross training also elevates your heart rate, you'll get the added benefits of cardio and a boost to your body's ability to burn fat, too. (Perfect for when you're in that cutting phase.)
Not sure whether cross training is right for you? We break down what you need to know below:
What Is Cross Training?
When you're focused on strength training training and bodybuilding exercises, your aim is to target specific muscle groups. We're talking impeccable pecs, banging biceps, and swole calves. In order to get the kind of definition you need to compete on a national stage, you'll have to build muscle mass by maxing out your last set by training to failure. You train hard and you rotate your targeted muscle groups every day. If you want to compete, you need power and definition, in addition to strength.
In cross training, however, the end goal for every athlete is different—and there are as many ways to cross train as there are weight machines in the gym! Cross training exercises combine techniques from strength training, cardio, and other forms of exercise to elevate the heart rate, burn fat, and build muscle.
For example, CrossFit, HIIT, and Tabata are all considered forms of cross training. Working them into your week at the gym could help you gain speed and agility, improve your ability to complete functional workouts, and burn fat. Because cross training routines are also designed to elevate the heart rate, you'll get plenty of cardio and conditioning benefits that can help improve your endurance, too.
So the next time someone suggests you hit up a CrossFit box, don't turn up your nose—you'll get more strength and conditioning benefits out of this highly efficient form of training than kicking it on the treadmill, guaranteed.
Why Should Bodybuilders Cross Train?
Do we think you should abandon your quest to max out the hypertrophy of your delts for CrossFit in the weeks leading up to a competition? No way! But cross training can help you increase definition, maintain strength, and even shake you out of a plateau—and this can be especially beneficial during those tough cutting phases.
As bodybuilders, we're taught to embrace our specialty workouts and to target specific muscle groups to build muscle mass, gain strength, and carve out definition. But going all–out during our strength training workouts can lead to overtraining or muscle imbalance—neither of which will help when it comes time for competition.
Not only will cross training help you carve out the definition you need to be a successful fitness competitor by helping you burn fat more efficiently, but it'll also help your body maintain a wider range of motion and prevent muscle imbalance, says certified strength coach Sean Adler.
“It’s great to be spectacular in a specific activity, sport, or style of training, but we must also take into consideration that our bodies will eventually adapt and become super–efficient at whatever the primary movements involved are,” Adler explained to Men's Journal.
“We must also understand that the other parts or systems of the body are being neglected, increasing the likelihood for muscle imbalances from overuse or overtraining," he added.
Since overtraining prior to competition can lead to disaster and injury, building in rest and recovery days becomes ever more important. Cross training is an effective way to build in an active recovery day to your workout sessions as needed, explains Jonathan Lomax, the founder of Lomax Gym in the UK.
“Active recovery focuses on completing a ‘workout’ or series of activities at a level that is just high enough that it gets the blood moving in order to help reduce residual fatigue in the muscles to repair and prepare for the intense activity to follow,” Lomax told HuffingtonPost Fitness.
It's an effective way to maintain muscle and burn fat, too. After all, when you're gearing up for competition, you have little time to waste. You'll need a day each week when you give your muscles a break but still work out effectively. Because cross training doesn't isolate specific muscle groups in the same way that bodybuilding does, it's a perfect active recovery workout!
Which Cross Training Workouts Should I Try?
Not sure which cross training workout is for you? Ultimately, it depends on your fitness goals and the nature of your fitness competition. If you're gearing up for a physique competition, for example, you'll likely choose a different cross training workout than someone who's getting ready to compete in powerlifting.
No matter which fitness competition you've signed up for, consider adding a cross training workout one time per week to help your muscles recover, maintain muscle mass, or burn fat if you're in a cutting phase. Here are three workouts you can shape for your particular goals:
For fitness competitors focused on building mass
Physique and bodybuilding competitors must develop their muscles to hypertrophy—essentially breaking down their muscles to build them back up bigger and stronger than before. This strategy affects the size and "pump" of your muscles, giving you lots of mass and lots of definition.
For fitness competitors who focus on mass, strength training with a cardio element will help you maintain muscle mass and improve your overall conditioning, increasing your endurance and blood flow to your muscles for that extra "pump."
Cross training workout to try: Functional exercises, like sled pushes and pull–ups, will use the entire range of motion in each of your muscle groups—and improve how your muscle groups work together. This strategy helps you work out any muscle imbalance that might arise from all that isolation work in the weight room. Incorporating moves that get your heart rate up, like box steps and battle ropes, will help you stay lean and improve your overall conditioning, too.
For fitness competitors focused on overall strength
Power lifters must have strength, impeccable form, and plenty of endurance. Like physique competitors, you're concerned about building lean muscle, too—but you know that too much cardio can eat away at your ability to maintain strength. That's why cross training works for you—strength exercises with endurance components will help you stay lean, increase your focus, and keep building muscle, even on off days.
Cross training workout to try: HIIT or Tabata circuits that amp up your heart rate and keep you strong. Be sure to pick moves that target your arms, legs, and core. A round of Burpees, anyone?
For fitness competitors focused on definition
Fitness competitors who focus on definition more than strength, like bikini or beach body competitors, should choose cross training activities that help burn fat without losing muscle. You want to blast away fat to show off all the work you've done in the weight room, but you don't want to lose any gains by spending too much time doing single state cardio. It's all about finding the right balance.
Cross training workout to try: High–octane activities like kickboxing, swimming, or rowing will get your heart rate pumping, kick all of your muscle groups into overdrive, and burn fat like nobody's business. Plus, you're not putting as much pressure on your muscles and joints as you would when lifting weights, which makes these workouts great for an active recovery day.
Need more workout options? Check out this cross training program for bigger gains from Muscle & Fitness.
A Note on Nutrition
Working out for competition—from strength training to fat–blasting cardio—puts your body through a lot of stress, which means you'll need the right balance of protein, carbs, and other nutrients to stay on track and meet your fitness goals.
Check out our series of great–tasting recipes for snacks, shakes, and meals to stay energized all day long—even after a tough workout.