The Hype Behind Hybrid Athletes Isn't All BS

The hype behind hybrid athletes isn’t all BS

Hybrid athlete training is hyped-up online, but I was skeptical it could work. Would learning more change my mind?

I LOVE A CHALLENGE. That’s why in 2022, I ran the New York City marathon—while simultaneously training for a 500-pound deadlift. I piled up mileage that November and got into the minutiae of hydration and nutrition gel strategy. I’d barely missed a 500-pound attempt a month before the run and felt like I was on track to nail that shortly afterward. I was also convinced I would slay my marathon goal time of 3:05—and possibly run even faster.

What I got instead was a firsthand lesson in the challenges of pursuing multiple fitness goals at once. Instead of crushing the marathon, I finished nearly 20 minutes later than I’d hoped, in 3:23.30. Even worse, I left hobbled by a hamstring issue. All the strain—from running far and lifting heavy—was too much for me. Instead of celebrating an awesome feat of strength and endurance, I wound up spending the next three months rehabbing that hamstring.

I’m reminded of all this whenever I scroll through social media posts of jacked guys running major mileage—and yes, it’s a little triggering. Because somehow, at least according to Instagram, there are a bunch of people who consistently run far and lift incredibly heavy.

They call themselves “hybrid athletes,” and they excel at the blend of training styles that crippled me, simultaneously adding strength while pushing their cardio. I know this because I keep seeing their posts (thank you, Instagram and TikTok algorithms). These include posts from a fitness personality named Nick Bare (959k Instagram followers), who serves as an evangelist for the training style.

Scan through Bare’s content, and you’ll instantly know he trains. A lot. He’s posted about logging nearly 80-mile weeks running, yet he still has a superheroic chest and the sculpted arms and abs of a weight room junkie. Scroll through his YouTube feed and you’ll see videos of his bodybuilding show prep. Scroll some more, and he’s prepping for an ultramarathon. It’s a non-stop cycle, and I’m almost tired just looking at it.

There are others, too. U.S. marathon record-holder Ryan Hall now uses the label after a few years focused on strength developmentLucy Haldon’s Instagram profile proudly proclaims she’s “hybrid AF.” Ramses Principe’s social is a mix of biceps blaster workouts and running tips. And there’s an entire apparel brand, Ten Thousand, that considers hybrid training a major pillar.

But how does Bare (and the rest of the hybrid athlete uprising) get it done without getting hurt? I decided to find out.

What is hybrid athlete training?

 

TO UNDERSTAND THE hybrid athlete trend better, I started by studying Bare. He’s released multiple hybrid training plans on his fitness app and regularly breaks his plans down on YouTube. And yes, his training is as demanding as I expected. His 2022 program has you working out six days a week, and four of those days involve two-a-day workouts (one strength workout and a running workout, too).

It’s a workout program that seems to fall for what I call the “volume trap.” What is the volume trap? Well, if you have a fitness goal (say, to deadlift 500 pounds), you’ll typically devote all your training time to working towards that goal. If you then add a second goal (say, the NYC marathon), you’ll be tempted to add even more training time every day so you can keep chasing the first goal–and get better at the second. The potential result: Overtraining and serious fatigue.

I fell into this exact trap during my marathon prep. But that’s not what Bare suggests. “You can’t just throw more volume on top in the beginning,” he tells me. “It has to be this balanced load of volume and adjusting based off your ability to recover to that stimulus.”

What this looks like in practice is fairly simple, he says. If you’re already, say, lifting weights five days a week, and you want to add in cardio, you wouldn’t add more workouts. Instead, Bare would advise you to cut back the lifting to three days a week, then add in two (or maybe three) days of running. A business owner and a father, he admits that he sometimes misses workouts.

“There are chapters and seasons in life,” he says. “If I’m in a marathon prep, most of my training is focused around running and the strength training will complement that. And vice versa. You can flex up and down on the area of focus of training based off what your goals are for the time being.”

Bare sometimes runs up to 80 miles per week, along with strength training.

This flies in the face of how most hardcore lifters and runners train. They’ll use periodized programs as they prep for competitions, but their focus is squarely on specialization rather than variation. The whole point of specialization is to leverage every physical aspect you can to gain every possible advantage to accomplish your goal. This is why a powerlifter might refuse to do any steady state cardio for fear of cutting into strength gains, or a marathoner skips out on the weight room to avoid gaining muscle that might slow them down on the course or track.

This, of course, makes sense for competitive athletes trying to wring every bit from their performance. If you want to be the best, you’ll need to be laser-focused, says Deventri Jordan, a performance coach who has trained athletes for the NFL Scouting Combine. “There’s a fine balance of periodization and programming that you need to understand as an athlete,” he says. “If you just focus on the endurance training, you’re gonna burn out.” Jordan is adamant that the hybrid training principles employed by Bare and others could never work for high-level athletes, and he cautioned me about getting caught up in the social media hype.

Most everyday people, however, don’t want to be the best football player, powerlifter, bodybuilder, or runner in the world; there are only so many Eliud Kipchoges and Hafthor Björnssons in the world. The general public is more interested in looking good, moving well, and having fun.

For guys like me, hybrid training just may be a net positive. Especially if you’re training for longevity, you want to both build muscle and hone your cardiovascular system. “The dedicated pursuit of a diverse spectrum of health and fitness parameters,” says MH advisor David Otey, C.S.C.S., “is a very, very good thing.”

The science backs this up, and shows that the old fitness wisdom separating strength and aerobic training has long been flawed. When sports scientists study protocols that resemble the hybrid approach, they use terminology that sounds less sci-fi movie, more textbook: “concurrent training,” which refers to a program that combines strength training and cardio. Some literature even seems to support the protocol: a 2022 systematic review of 43 studies published in Sports Medicine found that concurrent training doesn’t “interfere with” strength and muscle hypertrophy. Simply put, you can continue to make strength and muscle gains while you train for endurance, too.

You do, however, need to temper your expectations if you take this approach, says Otey. “Because you’re finding the peak version of yourself from an athletic performance standpoint, that means that you are going to sacrifice your peak ability to build muscle, you’re going to sacrifice your peak ability to build strength, you’re going to sacrifice your peak ability to run because you’re not dedicating yourself 100 percent to one thing,” he says. Hybrid athletes cede the top end of their potential for the flexibility to use their body in different ways. But as the science shows, you can still make gains with this approach if you train smartly.

To be clear, hybrid athletes aren’t actually leading some fitness revolution. For decades, football players (and other athletes) have used forms of concurrent training, combining weight room sessions with on-field running drills so they have the muscle to hit hard and the endurance to break off a highlight-reel 96-yard touchdowns near the end of a game. Sports like football, basketball, and boxing require a blend of classic strength and endurance (and other traits, like agility and coordination, too).

Most casual fitness goals (like completing a 5K or bench pressing your bodyweight) don’t challenge all those athletic traits. So, especially when time is tight, it’s convenient to focus your workouts on just one goal. The hybrid approach offers another path to expand your horizons while still making progress. No, you can’t get World’s Strongest Man strong by doing this, but you can get strong enough. The gains you can make with a hybrid approach will be more than enough for anyone who just wants to live a healthy life.

Not that you (or I) have to train like Bare to reap the benefits of hybrid training. Long before hybrid athletes were flooding my Instagram, CrossFit offered exercisers a style of training that blended Olympic lifting, gymnastics, cardio, and much more, with overall fitness being the end goal. You can see this same DNA in Hyrox, the trendy fitness race that has you running a kilometre one moment, pushing a sled the next, and rowing 1,000 meters after that. You see it in obstacle course racing, too.

I’m not chasing any of those goals. But at age 33, I do increasingly understand the desire to explore more of the fitness spectrum. It’s something I’ve done often since my football career ended a decade ago. Bare and his hybrid peers have essentially settled the age-old fitness debate (strength or cardio?) by merging them into one. The older I get, the more I understand that I need it all.

Why hybrid athlete training began

 

BARE’S FIRST BRUSH with a hybrid-style regimen was in the military. As an infantry officer, he needed to be prepared for anything and everything. That meant distance running, heavy lifts like squats, and—unsurprisingly for anyone who’s done a Murph—lots of calisthenics like pullups.

When he transitioned into civilian life in 2017, Bare swore he’d never run again and went all-in on strength, peaking at a 700-pound deadlift. But he felt lethargic and limited in his larger, stronger body. Ultimately, he realized that type of strength was only useful in the gym, and he wanted to challenge himself outside of it. “I didn’t feel like I could promote this fitness lifestyle when I didn’t feel functionally fit, especially compared to what I felt like when I was in the Army,” he says. Bare signed up to run a marathon in 2018, then another, then went all-in on endurance sports with an Ironman race in 2019. His deadlift total dropped (he’s still plenty strong, as evidenced by this video from last year where he lifts 405 pounds for 20 reps), but his running improved, and his marathon PR is a respectable 2 hours and 48 minutes. He’s now done multiple Ironman races and 100-mile ultramarathons, but also trained with heavy weights and for bodybuilding shows.

ormer Olympic distance runner Ryan Hall, another hybrid athlete, had the reverse path to the training style. “When I was running professionally I was lifting but I wasn’t strong (at all) and I felt fast but ask me to pick up a decently heavy object and I was in trouble,” he wrote in an Instagram post. Hall took a much-documented foray into strength training, which led him to another extreme: He found himself “out of breath walking up the steps to the gym.” Now that he’s adopted a hybrid approach to training, Hall feels more capable.

When Bare first conceived of his new fitness outlook, he knew that he wasn’t necessarily creating something entirely new. “It’s the way that people have been training for decades and decades—people have been using strength training and cardiovascular conditioning because they understand and realize it’s a healthy way to workout, train, and live,” he admits. But he still wanted to acknowledge his shift and create a label for his plan (and as a business owner, he knows the importance of branding).

Alex Viada literally wrote the book on the hybrid athlete. He’s still training clients that way almost a decade later.

Not that Bare was the first. Trainer Alex Viada published The Hybrid Athlete in 2014, outlining the balanced strength and endurance-based exercise philosophy he still uses with clients today. “I got a challenge to go run 5k with a friend of mine, and promptly died about a quarter mile in,” he says. “I realized at that point, how much fitness I had lost by just hyper-focusing on lifting.” He had another reason for diversifying his training, too. “Part of what got me back into running was a reminder that heart disease is really an issue in my family,” he continues. “I was looking good, but probably a little bit rotten on the inside.”

Viada developed his protocols in the early 2000s, and remembers how the era’s online message board culture demonized any form of cardio training. Still, he felt there was a way he could develop a program where running and lifting could coexist, and he knew early CrossFitters who were finding success with an exercise approach that was designed to make people “ready for anything.”

He says he began formally using the “hybrid” terminology in 2010. “My whole statement all along since day one has been the best definition when we talked about hybrid training—this used to just be called ‘exercise,’” Viada says. “This was almost a return to how people used to train before they thought they knew better.”

That’s really the appeal of a hybrid training plan: it allows for greater facility. If you want to be able to take on a wide variety of challenges—from outdoor hiking adventures to pickup basketball—you’re much better suited for it when you train for more than just one thing.

Eric Sung is another trainer who has embraced the hybrid training principles.

Eric Sung, C.S.C.S., a New York City-based coach who identifies as a hybrid athlete (and offers an online hybrid training program for purchase) puts it simply: “I just want to lift heavy, and I want to run fast and far.”

In simpler terms, he wants to be able to do it all.

Why you should try hybrid training

 

I HAVE TO admit it: I’ve totally come around on the concept of the hybrid athlete. Like Bare (and scripture) says, there are seasons in life, and I want mine to be multifaceted. I never picked up a weight or went on a run with a world record as my end goal. So I’m now thinking about what my own form of hybrid training might look like—should I start building up endurance for an ultramarathon? A back squat PR? Both?

I just need to avoid that volume trap. There’s simply no way to do all the training Bare does, and I have a feeling that’s the case for most regular guys. We all need room for balance, so I went back to Bare, Viada, and MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. to hash out a realistic hybrid plan.

How to Train Like a Hybrid Athlete Without Burning Out

 

Start Slow

Like Bare said, you can’t just jump into double sessions and ultra-intense, high-volume training. That’s just fine. “Whether you’re just strength training or you’re training hybrid, you need to start by deciding how many days you can truly commit to your workouts,” says Samuel. “Even if you’re ‘adding’ cardio to a strength workout, you don’t want to add workout time.”

A good starting point for a hybrid program is four days of training per week says Samuel. Stick to this for at least four weeks before you consider adding a fifth day of training or a two-a-day session into your regimen.

Find Your Focus

The danger of a hybrid training program is this: Your training lacks so much focus that you never make progress. It’s no wonder Viada and Bare both speak about keeping specific goals in mind (think a distance race or bodybuilding competition) when they built their workout schedules. “You can train for both strength and cardio and still badly want a big bench press,” says Samuel. “And that big bench press can help steer your training plan.”

Aim to write down at least one training goal for your hybrid program every 3 to 6 months, and use that goal to guide your training. Whatever that goal is, you should lead your training weeks off with a workout that can help you reach that goal. And when you hit your strength sessions, consider leading off with exercises that can make you better at your goal, whether that means hitting plenty of lunges (for distance runners) or crushing biceps curls (for those who want big arms).

Those goals will govern your workouts if you ever shift to two-a-days, too. When you do double sessions, keep your main goal in what Samuel calls your “primetime” slot. This is going to be “when you are most awake, when you are strongest, when you are most ready to train,” according to Samuel.

Make Rest and Recovery Your Third Pillar

There’s no way you are able to pile up the training you’ll need without taking a break. That means that anytime you do a double session, you’ll need to make sure that you have some time to recover between workouts. Aim to build in at least one rest day.

And listen to your body and the results of your workouts, says Samuel. “Chart your mile splits when you run, and chart your progress on key lifts in the gym,” he says. If the numbers are steadily declining over the course of a week or two, your training volume may be too high. “Don’t be afraid to add in an extra rest day if your performance is diminishing,” says Samuel, “and reevaluate your training split.”

If you keep those tweaks in mind, then you can reap serious benefits from a hybrid program—and dodge training monotony by continually mixing up the challenges your body faces. “It makes training fun again,” Bare says. “I’m not trying to be the strongest and I’m not trying to be the fastest, but this is how I feel best and I enjoy training the most.”

Whether you want to call what you’re doing the hybrid athlete lifestyle, old-school exercise, concurrent training, or anything else, you should be enjoying the work you’re putting in on some level.

And now that I’m over my injuries, I certainly am. I can lift and I can run; I’m not limited to just one identity in my fitness. And tomorrow, I think I’ll do both.

This article originally appeared in Men’s Health US.

Related:

This is why your cardiovascular fitness matters

How CrossFit Games athlete Marcus Filly combines strength training and cardio

By Mens Health Staff

More From