Everyone gets bored with their workout routine from time-to-time and feels compelled to “switch it up.” You go from lifting with machines to lifting with free weights. Instead of using the Elliptical Trainer, you walk on the treadmill. You make changes to your workout routine out of psychological boredom, with little understanding of the physiological significance and importance that these changes have. The bottom line is that change to an exercise routine is one of its most critical aspects, as it is change that ultimately produces the results you’re looking for out of your exercise program.
Before I get into when and how to make changes to your workout routine, we need to discuss why it is so necessary to make changes by gaining a little better understanding of how the body adapts to exercise.
In short, exercise is a stress to the human body. Exercise disrupts the body’s normal functions enough to compel the body to make changes to its systems and structures to better accommodate that disruption the next time it occurs. We call these changes to systems and structures “adaptations,” and they include your muscles getting stronger, your heart pumping more blood, and your lungs taking in more air. Whatever the adaptation might be, it is dependent on one universally important mechanism: exercise must be stressful in order to set in motion the series of events that lead to adaptation. Another way to think of it is that exercise should never be painful, but it can’t ever be comfortable or your body won’t be compelled to adapt.
This is where change to your exercise program becomes critically important. The human body is a brilliant organism; it responds so quickly and efficiently to the exercise stresses we place on it that, within two to three workouts, what once was a stress no longer is, and with no stress comes no adaptation. How many of you reading this article go to the gym week in and week out, only to never see any real changes from what you’re doing? I’m sure quite a few of you. I know, I’ve worked in gyms my entire adult life. I’ve seen the same people come in every day (for years), do the same exercise routine every time, and never make one single physical or functional change. The reality is that change to your exercise routine continually gives the body something to adapt to, and never quite allows the body to become acclimated (entirely) to what is being done.
What defines change might surprise you. When most people think of change in their exercise routine, they think about changing up WHAT they’re doing (treadmill instead of bike, machines instead of free weights, etc.). If this is your definition of change, then it’s understandable why you may not make many changes to your exercise program. Changing the type (or mode) of exercise is certainly a reasonable change to make, but there are only so many pieces of equipment in the gym, and eventually change with respect to mode becomes difficult. There are other, much simpler ways to change up your exercise program by changing HOW you do things. Keep in mind that mode is only one of the four major training variables that can be manipulated. Changes to frequency, intensity, and duration of exercise are also ways to change your training enough to ensure that the body’s natural adaptational response to exercise continues.
The first, and most fundamental, “change” component that should be a part of everyone’s exercise program is something I like to call the “every workout a little harder” rule. Meaning, every workout should be a little more challenging than the last. Another (kind of sobering) way to look at this is that the last workout you performed was the easiest workout you’ll ever perform. Again, exercise is a stress that the body adapts to pretty quickly, and if you don’t make the next workout a little harder than the last, then the body has nothing to adapt to. Now I’m not suggesting you have to make every workout exponentially harder than the last; if anything, I’m suggesting quite the opposite. Each workout should be a little harder than the last, with no dramatic increase from workout-to-workout, just little subtle changes to how challenging your workout is every time you do it.
With that said, focusing on HOW you perform an exercise is the simplest way to add much-needed change to your exercise routine. How breaks down into the three components I mentioned before — frequency, intensity, and duration. All three of these can be manipulated in various ways to ensure your body keeps adapting to your exercise program.
Frequency is the easiest parameter to manipulate, so let’s tackle that one first. Simply put, if you increase the number of days per week you perform a given form of exercise, you automatically increase the stress it imposes on the body. So, adding an extra workout session or two might be an easy way change up your workout routine to stimulate greater change from your exercise program. As easy of a parameter as this is to manipulate, however, there are some constraints. First and foremost, you only have so much time to exercise during your week, so adding an extra session or two may not be feasible. Second, there are only seven days in a week and you certainly don’t want to work out every day (the body needs some recovery time). So, if you want to manipulate frequency as a way to change up your workout, you will fast get to the point where you can no longer do so because you’ll run out of days in the week.
Duration and intensity cannot be discussed separate and apart from one another, as they are very interrelated with respect to exercise. In general, the longer the duration of exercise, the lower the intensity; the higher the intensity, the shorter the duration. In practical terms, if you’re going to run really fast, you’re not going to be able to do it very long, but if you slow down (decrease the intensity), you’ll be able to run longer. This concept is fairly intuitive to most of you, I’m sure. But, the manipulation of one of these two parameters might be a little more complicated. First, in order to make your workout harder, you must increase one parameter, while holding the other one constant. That is, if you increase duration, you must maintain intensity to ensure the overall workout stress is more. The same is true with increasing intensity: if you increase intensity, you must not reduce duration or you haven’t made the workout any harder.
Let’s talk about this type of manipulation in a more specific context. Aerobic training is the simplest, so we’ll start with that. Increasing duration is always the preferred method of making changes to your aerobic workout. So, that’s the first thing to do — every couple of workouts, add 3-5 minutes to your workout until you reach 60 minutes. Once you’ve done that, you can focus on increasing intensity. When increasing intensity, you should focus on going a little harder or a little faster. Every week, increase the speed of the treadmill by 0.1-0.2mph, or increase the speed of the bike or elliptical trainer by 5-10rpm per workout.
Resistance training is a little more complex, but the same principles apply: increase duration first, then intensity. There are an infinite number of weight training workouts that can be performed, so, for illustrative purposes, let’s say you’re performing a workout that incorporates exercises for all the major muscle groups, and you’re performing 2 sets of 10 repetitions per exercise. The easiest way to increase the level of stress in this workout is to add a third set (time permitting), as this increases duration. A second example of increasing duration would be adding 1-2 repetitions (using the same weight) every couple of workouts. Once you’ve increased from 10 to 15 repetitions, you can then increase the intensity by adding more weight. Increasing by the smallest weight increment (next plate on the machine, next heaviest set of dumbbells, etc.) is usually advisable as a precautionary measure to prevent injury.
At the end of the day, the take-home message is pretty simple here: you have to keep making your workouts a little harder every time in order to ensure you continue to adapt and benefit from your workouts. I’ve outlined several ways to make simple changes to workout routines to allow you to keep responding to your exercise program. There is no “perfect” way to make your workout more challenging, so implementing any of the changes in frequency, duration, or intensity that I recommended in this article will be enough to result a continual response to your exercise program. This means your training sessions might not be easy, but I can promise you, they will be beneficial.