We realize starting a new fitness program takes a lot of work. Once you do, you will see enhancements to your health, fitness, and even athletic performance. In a positive light, that is. The bad news is that if you always do the same routine, your results will eventually stop improving.
“Variability is crucial,” says Yaron Ilan, MD, director of the Department of Medicine at Israel’s Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical Center, in an interview with LIVESTRONG. “From a sporting perspective, if you run the same distance and speed on a treadmill every day for years, there is no variability.”
However, how frequently should one switch up their exercise routine? When you hit a plateau, what adjustments do you need to make?
Kylie Harmon, Ph.D., CSCS, an associate professor of exercise science at Syracuse University who focuses on resistance training, explains that even minor adjustments might be enough to push the body.
Our bodies thrive on homeostasis or equilibrium, so “overall,” little alterations over time may build up to dramatic adaptations,” Harmon explains on LIVESTRONG. That’s what we need to see if we want to boost productivity.
How Often Should You Switch Up Your Exercise Schedule?
Harmon suggests switching things up every four to six weeks to keep things interesting and your body guessing.
She explains, “You don’t need to change an entire program every four weeks,” adding that doing so is counterproductive. “Weekly changes, such as increased weight or reps, may be possible, depending on the objective.”
Harmon cites standard strength programs as an illustration, noting that they often add a new component or change an old one every four weeks, known as a “reload” wave. You should take a “reload” or “rest” period to prevent overtraining and give your body time to recuperate.
In his article for the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, published in February 2022, Dr. Ilan takes a more extreme stance, arguing that we should vary some aspects of our exercises every minute.
More transformation is preferable, he believes. When you’re working out, every second counts. Daily use is also OK. Increasing the amount of uncertainty is always a good idea.
It’s unrealistic to expect a runner, for instance, to constantly adjust their speed. Despite this, the runner can still improve their speed and endurance. But mid-run surges could be a smart method to bring this continual diversity in a single workout: An easy three-minute run should be followed by a faster 60-second pickup.
How Can I Mix Up My Workout Routine to Prevent a Plateau?
Progressive overload is a well-known method for increasing strength among weight lifters. Specifically, you should choose routines and weights focusing on gaining as much muscle mass as possible. This is one method for avoiding a rut, but remember that even minor adjustments can significantly impact.
According to Harmon, one way to increase strength is to go from a bilateral activity (like a barbell back squat) to a unilateral one (like a Bulgarian split squat).
Or, as an alternative, Harmon suggests varying your workout by alternating between barbell, dumbbell, and gym machine exercises.
Harmon suggests increasing repetitions each week without reducing weight if your goal is to change your body composition (by, for example, gaining lean muscle). Increasing the weight while lowering the number of repetitions is a good strategy for developing strength.
What Occurs When You Stick to the Same Exercise Routine
“Variety is the spice of life,” the adage goes. That applies just as much to your fitness program.
Harmon says, “Your body just wants to adapt to handle stressors.” Your body is resilient, and it can adjust to new stresses.
Repeatedly performing the same exercise can help us become proficient at it, but once we reach that level, the activity is no longer challenging, and we will not experience any further adaptation or gains in performance.
Dr. Ilan agrees and uses NBA superstar LeBron James as an illustration.
For example, “LeBron James practices and gets better, but then he hits a plateau because of the connections between his brain, muscles, and nerves,” as Dr. Ilan puts it. His body has built a tolerance to the plateau, so continued practice will not be as effective as it once was.
In other words, exercising your intellect and establishing new brain connections is a side effect of switching up your training regimen.
“If you introduce surprise into a workout, you can overcome the plateau in your brain,” Dr. Ilan explains. To paraphrase Charles Darwin: “We’re designed to adapt to changes, our brain adjusts, and then we need to cheat the brain.”
According to Harmon, you’re less likely to grow bored with your workout if you switch things around.
A strong proponent of “liking what we’re doing,” she adds, “I’m a big believer in that.”
Adding a little spice to your fitness routine might help keep you motivated. A small sample of male volunteers in a research published in PLOS One in December 2019 showed similar increases in strength. Still, those with more diversity in their exercises were more motivated to keep at it.
Dr. Ilan and his firm, Oberon Sciences, created a program that varies the user’s workout now and then, whether it’s the user’s running rate or distance, to prevent the dreaded training plateau.
According to Dr. Ilan, a user may sync their app with a treadmill and have the software choose a speed between three and five miles per hour. The tempo of the workout will vary minute by minute.
“You can break that training plateau,” he adds, explaining that the algorithm will learn how you exercise and adjust the program accordingly as you use it.
The Summing Up
Switching up your routine every few weeks is the best way to keep from reaching a training plateau. Altering your performance, no matter how slight, helps protect your mind and body from becoming stale.