Variety may be the spice of life, but too much variety can ruin your fitness success. Whether it’s due to boredom or simply not knowing any better, switching up your workout routine too often may be what’s holding you back from reaching your goals.
Here’s what you need to know about how long you should stick with the same workout routine. As well as how often you should switch training variables, like exercises, sets, reps and weights. And how often you can add variety and keep things interesting without totally winging it.
REPETITION EQUALS PROGRESS
The thing about exercise is that doing the same thing over and over generally works. The more often you practice a certain exercise or routine, the better you get at it. The more often you squat, the stronger you get at squats. The more often you run, the faster you get at running. To truly master a discipline, including any form of physical exercise, you must do it frequently until it becomes second nature. Think of exercise as a skill, not a task. If you wanted to get better at playing guitar, you’d practice the guitar every day, right? You wouldn’t play guitar one day, then piano the next day, and trombone the following day and expect to sound like Jimi Hendrix.
This is because our body adapts to exercise according to the principle of progressive overload. We get stronger and build muscle by lifting a little more weight, doing an extra set or a few more reps, consistently over time. When we consistently run further or at a slightly faster pace, we get faster, our lungs get better at using oxygen, and our heart gets better at pumping blood to our working muscles.
When our body adapts to exercise, it’s simply a survival mechanism. We voluntarily apply stress to our body by working out. Afterward, our body says, “Wow, that was tough. If we don’t add some muscle here and increase our strength there, we may not survive that a second time.” But if that stress never returns, our body then says, “Must have been a fluke. We’re going to stop building muscle and strength now!”
THE TRUTH ABOUT MUSCLE CONFUSION
Progressive overload is where the notion of “muscle confusion” gets completely debunked. Our muscles don’t get “confused” if we switch up our workouts constantly and never do the same thing twice. But you could say our muscles never improve at any one skill, making it nearly impossible to apply the principle of progressive overload. So, if you’re perpetually switching things up, don’t expect to see much change in strength, muscle mass or whatever fitness goal you’re chasing.
Frequently changing your workouts might keep you mentally stimulated, leading to a high level of effort — a necessary component for workout success. However, no matter how hard you work out, if you don’t consistently make incremental progress in a handful of exercises that become mainstays in your routine, you’ll struggle to make meaningful changes.
THE IMPORTANCE OF INDICATOR EXERCISES
It’s helpful to have exercises that stay in your training routine indefinitely. Based on your fitness goals, pick certain exercises that you know will have the greatest impact on your success. If you want to get stronger, full-body strength training exercises like squats and deadlifts should probably stick around for the long haul. If you’re a runner, routines like tempo runs, long-distance runs and shorter distance sprints should stay on the menu so you can strive for constant improvement.
Whatever you choose for your indicator exercises, keep track of your progress. Each time you do them, write down what you did in a notebook or log it in your MyFitnessPal app: sets, reps, weights and any pertinent notes. Your goal over the long term is to do more than you did before: increase the weight on the bar, do more sets or reps, complete the workout in a shorter amount of time, etc.
WHEN TO MIX IT UP
How boring would working out be if you never changed things up? Sticking with a routine long enough to make progress is important, but so is staying motivated and engaged. If you get bored with your workouts, you won’t put in the necessary effort to get better, so mixing it up every so often is crucial.
Outside of your indicator exercises, switch up your movements on a semi-regular basis. For most people, every 4–6 weeks is a reasonable timetable to change your strength-training exercises, stretching movements, running routine, etc. When we say switch it up, we don’t mean change everything all at once to the point where the routine is unrecognizable compared to your previous one. We’re talking subtle changes — just enough to keep things interesting while still moving toward your goals. For example:
- Switch from reverse lunges to walking lunges
- Switch from pushups to dumbbell bench press
- Switch from traditional static stretching to a guided yoga workout
- Switch from running on a treadmill to running outdoors
In all these instances, the exercise category is the same but subtly different to keep things fresh.
For those of us with especially short attention spans, ending each workout with some type of “finisher” that changes daily can satisfy our need for variety without stalling our progress. In this case, we’re looking to exhaust a specific muscle group or do some type of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to complete our workout. These options can change every single workout because we’re not necessarily looking to progress in these exercises; it’s more about working hard via a bit of self-imposed suffering.
For example, for a muscle-building finisher at the end of a workout, you might pick an exercise for a specific muscle group and try to complete 100 reps in as few sets as possible. Let’s say you want to finish off your triceps. One workout, you might do cable triceps pushdowns, the next workout, do close grip pushups, and the next, use dumbbell skull crushers. It doesn’t matter you’re changing the exercise each time, as long as you fully exhaust your triceps.
As a HIIT example, let’s say you want to do 5 rounds of 20 seconds of work and 20 seconds of rest. You could pick any high-intensity movement, such as sprints on a stationary bike, kettlebell swings, medicine ball slams, etc. You could change the exercise every single workout, but as long as you push yourself with maximal effort, you’ll still reap the fat-burning benefits.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
To help you visualize how often you should switch exercises, here are examples of an upper body and lower body day strength-training workout.
- Bench press: keep indefinitely, trying to increase weight over time
Lats: rotate exercises every 4–6 weeks (i.e., lat pulldowns, pullups, etc.)
- Rows: rotate exercises every 4–6 weeks (i.e., dumbbell rows, machine rows, etc.)
- Finisher: rotate every workout, switching muscle groups each time (i.e., biceps, triceps, shoulders, etc.)
- Squat: keep indefinitely, trying to increase weight over time
- Hamstrings: rotate exercises every 4–6 weeks (i.e., deadlifts, leg curls, etc.)
- Abs: rotate exercises every 4–6 weeks (i.e., front planks, side planks, etc.)
- HIIT: rotate every workout, switching exercises each time (i.e., bike sprints, kettlebell swings, etc.)
Check out “Workout Routines” in the MyFitnessPal app to discover and log workouts or build your own with exercises that fit your goals.