Have you been doing essentially the same workout for the past several months? Have you become bored or unmotivated with your workout routine? Are you frustrated with your lack of results from the same old exercises? Well this is a very common problem and all is not lost. In fact, lack of variety in training regimens is the second most common reason why people eventually stop working out altogether (The first is consistency, which has much more to do with an individual’s priorities and has already been discussed in a previous article entitled Six Essential Steps to Making A Healthy Lifestyle Change.
Despite all of the numerous methods and theories out there about the best way to workout, they are all really quite ineffective without variety in training. It is true that countless people have lost weight and inches and gained muscle tone and self esteem by following a certain method of weight training or cardiovascular exercise — be it the Body-For-Life or the super slow or the high reps-less weight or the low reps-more weight or the super set or the pyramid training or the cross training, or any other method that has been written about in books and fitness magazines or praised by celebrities.
However, after following any one of these proven methods for more than six or eight weeks the results you may have been experiencing begin to diminish. Eventually, you reach a plateau or point of no more progress. This plateau happens even sooner if you have been doing the same exercises, using the same weights, performing the same number of repetitions and sets at relatively the same intensity. I cannot tell you how many people have come to me for help and told me that they have been running faithfully every day for the same distance, at the same speed, at the same time of day and they are frustrated because their body fat has been increasing for the last several months. Or the people who have been doing the same exact weight training routine, with the same weights for two years and can’t understand why they can no longer fit into those jeans. If you have experienced this but never understood why, be assured that there is a very logical reason and a simple solution.
The very simple reason is that your body gets bored just like your mind gets bored. And when this happens your body, like your mind, performs the exercises with less effort, thus defeating the purpose of training. This is referred to as the “adaptation phase” and it typically begins to occur within four to six weeks after beginning an exercise routine. Individuals with more workout experience will reach the adaptation phase even sooner and those who are fairly new to exercise will reach it a bit later. This timing is also somewhat dependent on frequency and intensity of training. For instance, I have been working out very consistently for several years and find that I need to change my workouts about every one to two weeks..
The goal of training, be it cardiovascular or strength training, is to challenge your muscles. When you perform an exercise of any intensity, you are exposing your muscles to a stimulus that is somewhat greater than that to which it is accustomed on regular basis. This causes the muscle tissue to break down to some degree so that when it rebuilds itself it will be denser and stronger and better able to handle the challenge the next time. As you continue to increase the intensity of your effort, your muscle tissue continues to increase in density and strength. In the case of someone who has suffered a heart attack and has been prescribed a program of cardiac rehabilitation conditioning, the goal is essentially to expose the cardiovascular system to progressive levels of stress under controlled conditions so the body will be better able to handle another potential cardiac event. In the case of someone who is attempting to decrease or manage body fat composition, the goal is to constantly increase muscle tissue in order to raise the resting metabolic rate and burn more fat.
So how do you maintain variety in training and avoid those training plateaus? Well there are several variables to consider:
– Amount of weight or level resistance being used
– Type or mode of exercise being performed
– Intensity or amount of effort being exerted
– Number of sets per exercise
– Length of interval periods
– Length of time (recovery time) between sets or intervals
– Arrangement or order of exercises
– Overall duration of workout
– Frequency of training
Basically, you want to change one or two of these variables every four to six weeks, assuming you are training consistently (at least 3-4 times per week). Among fitness professionals, there is a structured approach to how to progress through these variables (this is known as “periodization”), but the important thing is that you change something every four to six weeks.
One example of when you would prioritize one variable over another is if your goal is to decrease your body fat composition. In this case, you should always be focused on maximizing your intensity. In other words, you should take every exercise to the point of momentary muscular fatigue or failure. Strength training is one of the areas in life where failure is the goal. If you maintain this focus throughout your training, you are complying with the most important factor in maintaining variety in training.
Once you have become comfortable with getting to failure with each exercise, you can then begin to modify one or two of the other variables. Perhaps you will increase the number of sets. If you have been doing one set of each exercise, increase it to two after four to six weeks, then to three after eight to twelve weeks, and so on. Then maybe you could modify the number of repetitions for each exercise. Since with strength training you are always focusing on getting to failure, the number of reps will be a range as opposed to a set number. For example, you may get to that failure point by the ninth repetition on one set and by the twelfth repetition on the next set. So when modifying the number repetitions, you may increase the range from 8-10 to 10-15. After modifying the number of repetitions, you may then focus on the amount of recovery time between sets, the frequency of training, and so on.
The approach would be slightly different with cardiovascular exercise for the same goal (reducing body fat composition). There are different schools of thought on this issue. One school of thought is that you want to maximize the intensity of the cardiovascular workout in order to maximize the total number of calories (and thus the total number of fat calories) being burned each minute. Another school of thought is to keep the level of intensity between sixty and eighty percent of your maximum effort in order to stay aerobic and burn a higher percentage of fat calories per minute. In my experience, which method is best for each individual should depend on that individual’s body type and health history. For example, since studies have consistently shown that intense cardiovascular training results in the increased production of free radicals and a compromised immune system for a certain period of time following the training, individuals with a history of immune deficiency or cancer should keep their intensity to a moderate level. Conversely, an athlete who is training for a race should consistently maximize their intensity in order to prepare their body for the event.
While maintaining variety in training is an extremely important component of any fitness program, sometimes other factors may take precedence. For example, if someone has an underlying endocrine condition or hormonal imbalance, no amount of variety in training will make much of a difference in his or her progress. Likewise, certain musculoskeletal and neurological conditions can negatively influence an individual’s progress. To truly maximize the benefits of any fitness program, you should really seek the guidance of a qualified fitness professional.
Remember, the goal of variety in training is to constantly keep your muscles and your body challenged to prevent it from adapting to a given training stimulus. Adaptation is such an amazing phenomenon and is an example of just how perfect the human body is as an organism. We must respect our nature’s inner wisdom and do what is necessary to keep our bodies healthy and strong. Those who do not respect this wisdom end up dependent on others for survival and quality of life when they get older. Maintaining variety in your training is just another way to ensure that you will enjoy good health and independence for the rest of your life.