No one gets out of shape overnight. It’s a relatively lengthy process of consistently repeating a combination of behaviors that result in a physical transformation. And the process of getting in shape is the same—repeating the right behaviors over enough time.
Yet, often when we start exercising, we want to see results immediately. And if it doesn’t happen in a week or two, we start to wonder if we should try a different program. On the other hand, it’s just not that interesting to do the exact same workout forever. Repetition makes you a master, but too much repetition fosters boredom. How do we resolve this?
To answer the question, “How often should I change my workout?” we must the answer two other questions:
1. What do you mean by “change?”
2. What are your goals? Do you have general fitness goals—like the majority of the population—or do you have more ambitious athletic or strength-development goals?
What Do You Mean By Change?
In general, everyone should be doing squats. That does not mean everyone should be performing barbell squats. A squat is a foundational human movement, so everyone who seeks optimal functioning must do it. However, there are truly endless variations of squats, so periodically switching to a different variation while keeping the main movement in your program is a way to vary your workouts without completely changing them, as Nick Tumminello, author of Strength Training for Fat Loss, puts it.
Foundational movements should always occupy a spot in your routine, but there is nothing wrong with periodically using a different variation of that move to provide some variety.
What Are Your Goals?
If you are seeking significant strength and muscular development, then you need to stick with it and get after it. It’s that simple. The first few weeks of a challenging strength-training program results in primarily neurological adaptations. You’ll feel stronger and more fluid in the exercises almost from one workout to the next. By the time you “plateau,” you are probably right at the start of your most significant muscular gain. If you abandon the program at this point and change to something new with new movements, you’ll be starting over at the neurological adaptation stage.
With general fitness goals, however, it is less necessary to keep plugging away at the same routine for longer periods of time. There isn’t as much need to keep attacking muscles with the attitude and ferocity of a rabid MMA fighter. Of course you’ll still need to bring some effort to make improvements, but the sense of enjoyment around your workout routine is just as important as the intensity to help you stick with it long-term. I love it when clients tell me they are bored with their routine.
The ONLY way to get bored with a routine is to do it often enough to get bored with it! This can also be a great indication that someone’s physical capabilities have improved. With general fitness goals, typically exercises are of a full-body nature, sometimes using only bodyweight or perhaps the many forms of handheld resistance. With these types of exercises, you are still doing the foundational human movements, but the variety in equipment and in human movement potential means there is plenty of opportunities to make changes at a pace that works to keep it both physically challenging and mentally engaging.
For some general fitness clients, this means they get a few varied exercises or a few variations on some of the movements they have been doing the longest. The entire program changes far less often—new exercises, sets, reps, rest, etc. Typically, once you’ve found a structure that fits your schedule and chosen workout location, it is easiest to vary a few of the moves at regular intervals.
How often can you tweak a program under these circumstances? It varies widely by individual, but anywhere from four to 12 weeks. If any changes are made at four weeks, these are typically only minor adjustments to make existing movements more beneficial based on the individual. But remember, this frequency applies to those with general fitness goals. Those with more “hardcore” training goals should stick with programs and exercises for longer amounts of time to get the most from them.
One final point: I’ve found great success—and surprised a few clients—by simply changing the order of the same exercises, changing lifting speed, reps, rest or any of the other larger program variables. And it makes an existing routine “feel” new and challenging for most people. It’s changing the program without having to learn anything new.
Once you get an effective program, get into it, do the work and make sure to keep it steadily progressive so as your body adapts as things get a little more challenging. Too many people focus too much on the little details in exercise programs, but when it comes to exercise choice, one simple truth emerges regardless of the goal: If you want change in your body, you need a challenge to your body. And that challenge should come from progressive overload, not from constantly changing exercises.
For more information on how to alter the variables of your clients’ programs, check out this article in the April issue of ACE ProSource.