When it comes to achieving your fitness goals, consistency is key. And you’re consistent—you hit the gym multiple times a week, you work out hard, and you eat well. But you aren’t seeing results. What gives? Is it time to switch up your workout routine?
In The New Rules of Lifting: Six Basic Moves for Maximum Muscle by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove, Schuler writes, “By the end of every workout, you should have accomplished something you haven’t before.” This doesn’t mean totally revamping your program every day. It does mean pushing for more reps or heavier weight, or even tossing in a new exercise variation, every time you enter the weight room. But what’s the best way to approach these changes and how often should you make them?
Understanding muscle adaptation
Before you start retooling your workout plan, it’s important to understand why variation is important. We strengthen our muscles by overloading them. For example, if you can easily bench press 200 pounds for 8 reps, you should bump up the weight to a level that causes fatigue with the same number of reps. This constant challenge forces your muscles to keep growing to handle the weight. But when you stop overloading the muscles (i.e. repeating the same routine or continuously lifting the same weight), your muscles go through a process known as adaptation.
In adaptation, your muscles become accustomed to your usual workload, and you hit a plateau. On one hand, this is great because you’re stronger and more conditioned. But on the other hand, it means you have to push harder if you want to achieve more progress. To break through a plateau and fight adaptation, you need to do more than push for one more rep. It’s time to make serious adjustments, or you won’t see any progress, plain and simple.
Changing your workout routine
On average, you should switch things up every 6-8 weeks. “For those who are more intermediate lifters, you should consider changing your program as soon as your muscles begin to adapt themselves to a certain style of training,” writes Lee Boyce, CPT for Men’s Journal. And treat the 6-8-week rule as a guideline. You might need to tweak this period to better suit your body’s needs.
When you do make changes, don’t start over from scratch. Instead, take a more measured approach:
- Focus on sets and reps: If you’ve been lifting in the 8-12 rep range, lower the reps, and increase the sets and weight. Shock your body by approaching the same exercises in a fresh way.
- Change exercises: Swap out familiar exercises for variations. For instance, substitute dumbbell bench presses for the standard barbell bench press.
- Vary your intensity: Bump up the weight on some days, lower it on others. Don’t work at the same intensity level during every workout.
- Change the length or frequency: If you work out 3 days a week, add on 1-2 more sessions. Or vice versa. You can even try fewer, high intensity workouts instead of several, lengthy, low intensity workouts.
Also, it’s important to remember nutrition. Be sure to adjust your consumption to fuel the changes you’ve made. If you’re lifting heavier, you may need to add calories.
Variation is one of the greatest fitness tools at your disposal. A few tweaks to your workout routine can help bust through a plateau and continue the journey to your dream physique.