Pete McCall by Pete McCall

When it comes to exercise having a standard routine or adhering to a specific habit may not be a bad thing because any form of regular physical activity provides some benefits and is better than doing nothing at all. However, when it comes to getting results from your exercise program, staying with a routine that you’ve been following for a long period of time may actually work against you.

General adaptation syndrome describes how the physiology of the body adapts to a physical stimulus such as exercise. When beginning an exercise program, there is an initial alarm phase of one to three weeks, where the body recognizes that a new stimulus is being applied. This is followed by an adaptation phase of four to 16 weeks, where the body adapts to the stimulus and becomes more efficient at tolerating it. Finally 12 to 16 weeks, the body reaches what is called the exhaustion phase, where the stimulus no longer has a significant effect.

This is why the first few workouts of a new exercise program can be extremely tough and leave you feeling sore. As you continue with the program, your body adapts to the stimulus and the exercise becomes a little easier, causing your body to be less sore the longer you stay with that program. The physiology of the human body is highly adaptable to any exercise stimulus placed on it in an appropriately challenging manner. Exercise that is too intense or increases in difficulty too quickly may overload the tissues and cause injury. On the other hand, doing the same exercise repeatedly could lead to a plateau where no more physiological changes occur. 

Here are six signs that it’s probably time to change up your workout routine:

1. You are stuck at a plateau. You stop losing weight, you stop getting stronger or your strength isn’t increasing the way it used to. One definition of insanity is performing the same action repeatedly, but expecting different results. This definitely applies to exercise because doing the same exercise routine repeatedly could cause a plateau where the body has adapted to a stimulus. Whatever the cause, anytime you feel like you’re stuck in a rut and not making any progress, it’s time to change your workout and try something different.

2. You start feeling bored and look for other things to do rather than exercise. Let’s face it, doing the same thing over and over again is rather…well, repetitive and boring. If you start scheduling activities other then exercise it might be because your workouts have stopped being fun. The solution can be as simple as trying new equipment. For example, if you usually use machines, try free-weights. If you usually use free weights, try bodyweight exercises with equipment like a TRX. If you usually do your cardio on an elliptical, try a different machine or rotate between three different machines to bring variety back into your program.

3. You continue to feel sore or have nagging injuries that don’t seem to go away. Doing the same exercise routine over and over can cause overuse injuries. Likewise, doing a lot of high-intensity exercise with minimal time off for rest and recovery can lead to overtraining. In either case, simply changing your exercise routine to do different movements or using a different amount of weight can be an effective strategy for reducing the overall stress on the body. (Note: If pain persists for a period of time, it might be a good idea to see a doctor to make sure you have no serious underlying issue.)

4. Exercise becomes more of a chore that you feel you have to do rather than a fun, leisure-time activity that you look forward to doing. When we were young we would play for hours at a time because it was fun and engaging, and provided constantly changing challenges. If you feel as if exercise is no longer fun, it might be time to start thinking of your exercise time as “play time” and look for ways to bring the fun back. Taking a boot-camp class or challenging yourself with dance or martial arts lessons, for example, may help make your workouts more enjoyable.

5. You feel as if you are spending all of your time in the gym. Traditional bodybuilder-style “split routines” focus on one body-part or muscle group at a time. If you follow a split routine, the focus on one body part with the requisite rest intervals means that you have to be in the gym most days of the week to properly exercise all parts of your body. Total-body circuit routines, however, where all body parts are targeted in a single workout can be an effective way to save time by reducing the need for lengthy rest intervals. Alternating between exercises for the upper and lower body, or between pushing and pulling movements, means that one set of muscles is resting while another is working. An additional benefit is a higher cardiorespiratory demand, which helps burn more calories during the workout.

6. Research has identified a mode or style of exercise that may provide more or different results than what you’re currently doing. A number of years ago the standard way of doing cardiorespiratory exercise was to do long, slow distance training. Over the past few years, a plethora of research has demonstrated that shorter periods of extremely high-intensity exercise can be effective for burning calories (losing weight) and improving aerobic capacity.

If you’re looking for a way to organize your workouts to avoid becoming bored in the first place try this strategy: There are 52 weeks in a year and four seasons, each lasting approximately 13 weeks. Adjusting your workout program when the seasons change is an effective and consistent method for constantly changing the exercise stimulus applied to your body.

This doesn’t mean that you have to change everything. If you like running, continue to run but change your route or distance. If you enjoy participating in races, enter a different race distance each season. For example, run a 10K in the spring, train for a marathon in the summer, enter an obstacle course race or train for a triathlon in the fall, and find a destination race during the winter months, where you can combine a run with a vacation from the cold weather.

If you lift weights, changing with the season is pretty straightforward. Focus on developing strength with heavier weights for fewer reps over the winter. As the calendar transitions to spring, start using lighter weights, but lift for higher reps with shorter rest intervals to promote muscular definition. In the fall, leave the free weights behind and focus on bodyweight or multi-planar training using equipment like the TRX, medicine balls or Sandbells to allow for a period of active recovery.

If you’re a group exercise junkie, it’s important to know that many health clubs will change their schedules with the seasons to reflect new programming options and usage of the facility. If your facility doesn’t change its schedule that often, try a class with a different instructor or try to attend classes at different times of day. If you regularly go in the evening, forcing yourself to get up a little earlier for the morning classes could be a nice change to your schedule.

To stay engaged with your exercise program and continue seeing results be sure to change your workouts regularly, but not too frequently. When it comes to using exercise to change your physique, it is important to have some consistency to allow your body to adapt to the applied stimulus.