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Easy Fitness – Cross-Training
Despite its scientific pedigree, cross training is just a spiffy word for mixing up your exercises. The best way to achieve solid weight loss and healthy fitness while staying in control of your sanity.
If you want to get all the benefits of exercise, and there are plenty of them: strength, endurance, health, a lean look, you have a much better chance of covering all the bases by doing different activities.
The term cross-training is often defined as a combination of different types of exercise: for example stretching, aerobic and resistance exercises. But every time you mix up your workouts—for example, cycling plus running plus brisk walking—you’re working out.
Cross training is not complicated. You can do it simply and effectively without a personal trainer or without a pair of sneakers so expensive that they speak four languages and pay your taxes. More importantly, it has many benefits.
Mixing up your exercises brings more muscles into play. This will make you stronger and less prone to injury, and few people lose weight when you train a muscle. The full-body muscle zap will also make you look better, so you can avoid the funny house mirror look of the zealous cyclist with Terminator thighs and a taffy torso.
From a practical standpoint, cross training gives you more options and fewer excuses. Pool closed? Takes out and runs. Run sniffed new a fresh dump of snow? Grab the cross-country skis. Stuck in a strange city whose traffic is second only to the crime rate? Do some gymnastics in your hotel room.
If your goal is to get lean while enjoying a huge variety of exercises, sports and training sessions, then cross-training is definitely for you. If you want to build a healthy fitness base and burn fat, cross training works very well.
The aerobic attack
With the exception of avoiding onion rings, snack cakes, and other fatty (and fattening) foods, the most effective way to cut excess calories is with regular aerobic exercise. By alternating between a variety of aerobic choices, everything from cycling and swimming to in-line skating, you’ll whip your heart and lungs into shape while simultaneously working (and balancing) the muscles in every part of your body.
Think big – It’s a simple rule, so it should be easy to remember: The more muscles involved in an exercise, the more calories are burned. When you want to burn fat, go for the big muscle groups – the kind you work by running, swimming, cycling, cross-country skiing, rowing, tennis, basketball and so on. Table tennis certainly has its inherent values, but unless you’re a member of the Chinese national team, weight loss isn’t one of them.
Start early – You don’t have to be a seasoned athlete to take up cross-training. It’s also a great way to get back in shape. Mixing up exercises eases the initial shock to unfit muscles. Start a fitness program with only running and you’re putting a lot of repetitive stress on some pretty fragile muscles like the calves and Achilles tendons. But if you run one day and cycle the next, your calves and hamstrings get a rest on cycling days and your quadriceps get a break when you run.
Better yet, get off the ground. Alternate running or cycling with a swimming day. Not only is it good exercise, but it’s also a wonderful liquid conditioner the day after a bike ride or run that stretches the muscles and frees them from the stress of gravity.
Mix it slowly – It’s a painful scenario: A long-term cyclist decides to run something. He sets off hard. Calf muscles make a sound like peeling Velcro. Cyclists spend many weeks retraining.
Whether you’ve just started working out or have been polishing your butt for longer than you care to admit, it’s important to take new exercise slowly. While your heart and lungs aren’t the limiting factor, your muscles and tendons are, and if you don’t care for them, you’ll have problems.
Coming back from time off or starting something new will set you up for a tendon or ligament injury by going straight into a hard effort. You will get better results if you are patient and build things up slowly.
When you start a new sport, no hard effort for at least four to six weeks. In the meantime, take it slow and steady. Build endurance and condition the muscles first. Don’t worry about speed, just go slow and have fun.
Break up the training – There is a male mystique that says you must always finish what you start. If today is your running day, you run. When you start on the exercise bike, you end on the bike. While this kind of single-track thinking might get you through business school, it’s not as productive when it comes to aerobic exercise.
You can avoid fatigue to some extent by doing two different aerobic exercises during the same workout. Shifting the load to another set of muscles mid-workout allows you to push harder just a little longer, and pushing harder helps maintain a higher calorie burn.
The calorie burn varies from person to person, but in general if you spend 15 minutes on the treadmill exercising at 70 percent of your maximum ability and then jump to the cross-country machine for 15 minutes at the same intensity, you will burn approx. a third more calories than you would if you ran on the treadmill at 50 percent effort for 30 minutes.
You may not be able to maintain that effort every time just because you change activities, but usually you will be able to benefit both psychologically and physiologically by changing things up.
The same mix-it-up approach can also be used outside the club. Run to the pool. Or throw a pair of in-line skates in your backpack, ride your bike for 15 minutes, and jump off and skate.
Do training within training – Technically, cross-training involves mixing different sports and exercises at different times. But we’re going to get creative for a moment and suggest mixing things up at the same time.
Remember, the more muscles you involve in your workout or the more you tax those muscles, the more calories you burn. So renew yourself. Carrying a pair of 3-pound dumbbells while running can increase the amount of calories burned by as much as 20 percent. Wear fins in the pool; it will make the big, oxygen-hungry muscles in your legs work harder and gobble up more calories.
Obviously, you don’t want to go too far. Using dumbbells while cycling is likely to cause problems, but the only limit is your imagination. It doesn’t take big changes to get results.
Location, Location, Location – If you start a sport that can only be practiced in a fitness park across town and only between 5:00 and 6:00, you won’t do it for long. It has to be practical so you can do it. If you have to drive 15 miles across town to exercise, you’re not going to do it.
Be reasonable – Cross-training is the best path to well-rounded fitness, but that doesn’t mean you have to adopt an exercise routine that requires its own appointment book. The sports equipment industry would certainly like it if we all incorporated boxing, volleyball, running, cycling, aerobic dance and judo into our training week, but that is neither practical nor wise. You must participate in a certain exercise with a certain regularity.
Why? Because repetition brings conditioning. If you only run once every two weeks, you’re almost starting from scratch every time, and you’ll definitely never get in good enough shape to work hard enough to burn serious calories.
Although this isn’t written in stone, experts generally recommend choosing two aerobic exercises that you like and then mixing them up throughout the week. Cycling on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and running on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (because each exercise stresses different muscles, alternating them in this way gives these muscles a day off to recover).
That weight training could be used to lose weight may seem ridiculous, as even recreational lifters add bulk to their frames and serious lifters look like sides of beef. But experts have found that weight training is an extremely effective tool in the fight to burn fat, especially when combined with aerobic exercise.
Although severely outnumbered on most of our frames, muscle cells are far more metabolically active than fat cells. A pound of muscle can require 35 to 45 more calories just to get through the day. Adding more muscle to your frame actually helps burn fat more efficiently throughout the day. Especially when combined with aerobic exercise, cross-training in the weight room trains a greater variety of muscles than performing the same lifts over and over again. This means that existing muscle cells grow, which of course means more fat burning.
When trying to lose weight, experts say, it’s a good idea to combine three days a week of aerobic exercise with two days of weight training. Although two days of weight training is not enough to promote significant strength gains, it is more than enough to provide muscle mass to achieve the metabolic burn that you are looking for.
Work the large groups – If you spend a lot of time in the gym, you’ve almost certainly seen the big guys spend what seems like an inordinate amount of time working on small parts of their anatomy, doing wrist curls or heel raises. But when you’re trying to lose weight, doing isolated dumbbell curls isn’t the best bet. Instead, focus on lifts that hit large muscles and large groups of muscles. The more muscles and joints involved in a lift, the more calories burned.
There are plenty of these large muscle groups to work on. Doing lunges, for example, works the quads and hamstrings; bench presses are good for building chest, shoulders and triceps.
Make the circuit – A good way to combine lifting with aerobic training is circuit training. Here’s how it works: Choose six to eight big muscle lifts that will give your entire body a workout. Do 12 to 15 repetitions of each exercise. Rest 30 seconds between exercises. After you’ve done all the exercises, rest for up to 2 minutes, then repeat the circuit again.
Lifting like this pushes the cardiovascular system to a higher level and then keeps it there because you don’t allow enough time for recovery. Because your cardiovascular system is elevated, you burn more calories.
When you do circuit training, you will significantly reduce the weights you normally lift. As a general rule, plan to lift 40 to 60 percent of your current max. If you’re new to weight training, you’ll want to build a base of strength first: lifting three days a week for two to three months should do it.
Stand and move – To boost the calorie burn just a little more, concentrate on standing lifts. For example, standing dumbbells do military presses as opposed to those performed while seated. Standing deadlifts burn slightly more calories because you’re also working to support your own weight. Add some movement to the standing lifts by doing lunges instead of taking a seat on the leg extension machine and you’ll increase the calorie burn again.
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