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Cross-Training Doesn’t Work—Unless it’s Weight Training

I grew up believing that weight training makes you a better athlete; it works for just about any sport, from golf to track and field. It’s a little known fact that competitive weightlifters are often outstanding all-around athletes. Stan Stanczyk, Gold Medal winner (light heavyweight) at the 1948 Olympic Games, was adjudged the fastest moving athlete at the Games, measured electronically. Heavyweight John Davis, many times World and twice Olympic Champion, did nothing but lift and could standing broad jump over 10 feet. Bodybuilder John Grimek was an outstanding gymnast. And, believe or not, Paul Anderson, who weighed over 350 pounds, was a good sprinter—especially up stairs. If got out ahead, no one could pass him on narrow stairs.

On a personal level, weightlifting allowed me to win the New Mexico State High School Pentathlon Championship, a five event fitness competition, including running and jumping. Some years later, Lovelace Medical Center tested my fitness on a cycle ergometer, and found it to be 50% above average. My 20 minutes time was the same as registered by Olympic 10,000 meter champion Billy Mills. (His time on the bike was rated better, because I was heavier.) A few years after that, my treadmill time at the Cooper Clinic was well above the 99th percentile for my age group. Lifting also gave me an edge in competitive indoor rowing; it still does.

Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones had a theory about the type of strength training that transfers best to other sports. He believed the best way to get stronger for a specific sport (any sport) is to train the whole body in normal fashion. The worst thing you could do, Jones insisted, was try to mimic movements of the sport. For example, he said that swinging a heavy baseball bat or golf club would be a mistake; it would only screw up your swing. Far better results would come, he said, from strengthening the total body with basic exercises, such as the squat, deadlift, bent-over row, bench press, and shoulder press—and then develop specific skills by practicing your sport. Modern science has proven him correct.

Hirofumi Tanaka, an exercise physiologist at the University of Texas in Austin, reminds us that each sport uses highly specific muscles and nerves. Don’t let weight training interfere with your specific sport. It works best as a means of strengthening the whole body. And, as we’ll see, it does work. 

That’s also why cross-training as it is usually understood—doing a second sport or activity on days you aren’t doing your main sport—doesn’t improve performance.

Cross-Training Doesn’t Work

Gina Kolata addressed the issue of cross-training in the August 15, 2011, issue of The New York Times. In general, Kolata writes, “If you want to be a better runner, you have to run…If you want to be a better cyclist, you have to ride. The same goes for swimming.”

In other words, cycling won’t make you a better runner, or vice versa. And neither one will make you a better swimmer. Any of the three may, however, improve overall health and fitness, but not performance in another sport.

“You can maintain your cardiovascular capacity by cross-training, but it is extremely difficult to maintain your performance when you rely on cross-training,” Hiro Tanaka told Kolata. “This is because you are violating the principle of the specificity of training.” Tanaka came to this conclusion more than a decade ago in a review of published papers. Recent small studies, he says, have come to the same conclusion. For performance, the only factor that matters is training your specific sport.

Using an elliptical cross-trainer may feel like it’s exercising your running muscles, but it is not giving you the same kind of training that running does, according to Tanaka. Nor does it train the muscles you need for cycling.

The one exception is weight training.

Weights Work

“If an alternate sport doesn’t help endurance athletes, resistance training might,” Kolata reports.

In a review of published studies, Dr. Tanaka found that resistance training improved endurance in running and cycling.

Kolata reported that a more recent study of runners by a group of Norwegian researchers confirmed that weight lifting could increase performance. One group did half squats with heavy weights three times a week while continuing a running program. The other group just ran. “Those who did the squats improved their running efficiency and improved the length of time they could run before exhaustion set in,” Kolata wrote.

“It is not known why weight lifting would improve performance,” Kolata wrote, “but investigators speculate that it may train supporting muscle fibers in the legs, allowing runners and cyclists to use them to augment muscles that get tired.”

It doesn’t work for swimmers, according to Dr. Tanaka. In swimmers, research suggests that mastery of the highly technical swimming strokes is the most important factor in performance and endurance. Upper-body strength plays at best a minor role, according to Tanaka.

Injury Prevention

What about injury prevention? Will cross-training help to heal or prevent injuries? Only if it means you do less of your primary sport.

The only way to prevent running injuries is to run less or not at all—until the injury heals. If it hurts, stop doing it or switch to an activity that doesn’t hurt.

“Unless cross-training means you simply do less of your primary sport, then, don’t expect it to protect you from injuries,” Gina Kolata concludes after consulting with experts.

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I do believe it helps overall fitness--and cuts down on injuries--to spread the stress around by doing several different forms of endurance exercise. As readers of my books know, I believe in training the whole body aerobically, arms and legs. (Changes that result from aerobic exercise are at least half in the muscles being used.)  I currently rotate between the Lifecycle, the Airdyne, and the Concept 2 rower. I also enjoy hiking in the foothills above our home. This variety keeps me fit and injury free. It also keeps me fresh and energized.

I do the same with weight training, by using several different exercises to train body parts. For example, I recommend doing squats, bent-knee deadlifts, and leg presses for the lower body. Rotate among these exercises, doing only one movement in each workout. I believe this is far better than sticking with any one movement, especially over the long term. (It may be a different story for power lifters or Olympic lifters.)

If an exercise hurts, switch to something else that doesn’t hurt.

The bottom line is that cross-training is helpful if you keep your priorities straight. For total fitness and reduction in the risk of injury, spread the stress around. To specialize in a specific sport, practice that sport.

Either way—lift weights.

[For more details on variety in training, see my books Ripped 3, Lean For Life, and Great Expectations: http://www.cbass.com/PRODUCTS.HTM ]

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