What it do, what it be?
If you’re joining me and reading this article after coming from the Podcast, you know that that’s my new catch phrase.
Will it stick?
No shot, but I tried.
If you haven’t listened to episode 8 of the Made To Excel Fitness Podcast, you can do so here, as the first 4 tips in today’s articles are discussed in that show, that way you guys can listen to my very pretty and soothing voice.
Anywho, we’re here to talk about how often you should be switching up your exercise/workout program.
You might be in the boat of doing a different workout everyday (flavor of the day type deal), so there is nothing but changes in your workout program.
Or, you can be a person who got a plan back in 2018 and have been doing the same thing ever since. In which case there’s been absolutely no changes in your workout program.
At the end of the day, the million dollar question is how often SHOULD you be switching up your programming, and HOW should you switch it, when you come to that conclusion.
Here’s 6 tips to help out.
If you’re reading this and you’re a person with a training history, reach back into your memory, back to the time when you first began training. It was a euphoric time. Getting stronger every single day. Losing weight easily. Building muscle with ease.
The good times.
If you’re reading this as a beginner, I’m sorry. I dozed off into a fantasy world for a bit. But, sounds cool doesn’t it? I digress.
As I’ve talked about previously, there’s three phases to training.
A stimulus occurs when you’re forcing your body/muscles to do something that it’s typically not used to doing.
So, as a beginner, your body isn’t used to ANYTHING, because you haven’t done anything yet.
Paired with the fact that you can adapt and recover really quickly, you can make a ton of progress in a short amount of time.
But for those that have experienced the newbie gainz, you know it doesn’t last forever.
Once your body has adapted and has a new baseline of fitness, it becomes increasingly harder to stimulate a muscle, which is the catalyst that sets off the other two phases of training.
I know I talk about weightlifting a lot, since I know most about that, but imagine you decided to start running.
And you got really good at running a 10 minute mile.
You run a 10 minute mile constantly for weeks.
Maybe a few months.
That 10 minute mile is your new baseline of fitness.
You can probably do it in your sleep.
But, if you never run anything other than a 10 minute mile again for the rest of your life, you will never get faster, or be able to run farther.
You’ve stopped pushing your body, you’ve stopped stimulating the muscles used for running, therefore you have ceased any further progress.
You’re stuck being one of the best 10 minute mile runners on the planet.
And if that’s all you ever wanted out of life, then do you boo.
But if you want to get better, you have to switch up the training program.
Same applies to the gym.
You’ve been curling the same 15 lb dumbbells for 3 sets of 10 for 5 months, your arms can only get so big doing that. Odds are they stopped growing a while ago.
YOU’VE HIT A PLATEAU
*Insert sad violin music here*
A plateau according to the old google machine is “a state of little or no change following a period of activity or progress”.
The important distinction to make here is that if you stop making progress because you’ve stopped going to the gym, that doesn’t mean you’ve plateaued.
You more or less know that a drop off in performance and progress is coming if you stop training altogether.
A plateau occurs smack dab in the middle of a training program. When you’re working your ass on a week to week basis, and you’re not getting any stronger, or the numbers on the scale aren’t moving.
It can be extremely frustrating.
More often than not, it makes people want to throw in the towel.
But instead of looking at it as a moment of failure, look at it as a data point.
A data point that tells you it’s time to make a change.
If your body has gotten to the point that it stops making progress on whatever current training program you were on, odds are your body has adapted, you’ve stopped stimulating your muscles, and the plateau is the big red flag telling you it’s time for a switch.
Keep A Journal
If you’ve hit a plateau in your training, odds are it’s because you’ve been doing the same thing, for far too long.
One way to eradicate this, is to keep a training journal.
Doesn’t have to be a full blown journal, pen and paper style (unless you want it to be), but it could simply be an app on your phone.
The “Strong” app is a great mobile workout journal that you can use to keep track of what you’re doing in the gym (or home *quarantine life*)
(No, this is not an ad. If you think I have a big enough of an audience to warrant people paying me to promote one of their products, you are now my favorite person on the planet).
If you write down what exercises you’re performing, with the amount of weight, and sets and reps, *and the thing I’m going to discuss as tip #3*, that can go a long way to helping you track and make progress.
If you’re doing the same thing over and over again, you’ll quickly find that your journal looks the same from week to week.
This will/should be a glaring signal to you that your training has become stagnant, hence it’s time to change, especially if accompanied with a plateau.
Or conversely, if your journal looks vastly different from day to day, then that should serve as a clear sign that there is TOO MUCH variance in your workouts to make consistent progress.
There should be some constant-ish throughline to your training.
Doing different workouts everyday could be considered the equivalent to picking a show and watching the episodes in random order. You could probably find some really fun and entertaining moments in the show, but it would be extremely difficult to follow the overall story of the show.
Regardless, your journal will give you a really good overall picture of your training history and could be a key tool to knowing when to switch up your programming.
AND, if nothing else, if you’re a person who goes into the gym without a plan, a journal can help you keep on track.
Maybe you do a lot of the same machines/exercises when you go into a workout, but you never can quite remember what weight you did last week. Or the week before.
So maybe week 1 you do a chest press machine with 50 lbs. But the next time you come in, you’re pretty positive that you were actually doing 40 lbs the last time you were there.
Keeping a journal takes the guesswork out of working out, and will allow you to pick up right where you left off in your last session(s).
Otherwise, going to the gym every week without a journal, is as good as getting hit by a Neuralyzer by agent J before stepping foot into the gym.
Rating of Perceived Exertion
In layman’s terms, you can call it the “how tired are you scale.”
The RPE scale is a 1-10 scale that you can use to quantify how fatigued you were doing a particular activity.
For example, all my clients have probably heard me compare a 1 on the RPE scale to laying in bed watching Netflix, and a 10 being running for your life.
For every given set of a workout, RPE should be the last thing you track in your workout journal.
For the most part we can quantify anything from a 1-5 as relatively easy. A 6-8 as getting difficult, but not to the point of being overwhelming. And finally a 9-10 as being extremely difficult, almost to the point of exhaustion.
If the majority of your workout lies in the 6-8 range, you’re probably in a really good place.
This means your exercises and workouts are likely difficult enough to stimulate your muscles but not fatigue too quickly.
Anything in the 1-5 range can be good for a warmup, but should be avoided for the bulk of your work since it may not be stressful enough to cause stimulus.
Anywhere from a 9-10 can be done every once in a while, especially for strength athletes, but would end up being too taxing if done too often. (A 10 RPE is equivalent to going to failure).
As you continue to workout, your RPE numbers will change and adapt as your body does the same.
If you workout consistently enough, an exercise that was once an RPE of 8, could eventually become an RPE of 5.
Once this happens, you can assume that the exercise that is now an RPE of 5 is getting to the point of no longer being stimulating to the muscle, and is your new baseline of fitness, and it’s time to make that exercise a little bit more difficult in order to continue to make progress.
4/1/20Barbell Back Squats
Set 1, 135 lbs, 12 reps, RPE 5
Set 2, 155 lbs, 12 reps, RPE 7
Set 3, 155 lbs, 12 reps, RPE 7
Set 4, 155 lbs, 12 reps, RPE 8
Barbell Back Squats
Set 1, 135lbs, 12 reps, RPE 4
Set 2, 155 lbs, RPE 6
Set 3, 155lbs, RPE 7
Set 4, 155lbs, RPE 7
Barbell Back Squats
Set 1, 135 lbs, 12 reps, RPE 3
Set 2, 155lbs, 12 reps, RPE 5
Set 3, 155lbs, 12 reps, RPE 6
Set 4, 155lbs, 12 reps, RPE 7
Barbell Back Squats
Set 1, 155 lbs, 12 reps, RPE 5
Set 2, 165lbs, 12 reps, RPE 7
Set 3, 170 lbs, 12 reps, RPE 7
Set 4, 175 lbs, 12 reps, RPE 9
As days go by, the 155 lb barbell back squat which was once difficult, got easier. To the point of dropping under the intended RPE range of 6-8.
Of course, your own progression may not be as quick as this (10lb increase in 2 weeks), but the same principle applies over a longer period of time. You get stronger, RPE decreases, intensity increases (workout should get harder).
So journaling your RPE can go a long way towards helping you progress. Without these data points you may never pay attention to how intense your workouts actually are, and may find yourself stagnating (plateauing).
Now that you’ve made the decision to switch up your workout, how do you go about doing it?
Well, you’ve got a few options.
If you wanted to keep your exercises exactly the same, option #1 could be adding weight. Using the example journal above, we can deduce that once the 155 lb squat for 12 reps became an RPE of 5, and became too easy, we added weight.
The following sessions saw 155 lbs now being a warmup weight, and progressing to a 175 lb squat. In a gym surrounded by weight plates, dumbbells and machines, this is an easy option to use. Unless you’re the World’s Strongest Person, there’s probably always more weight that you can use.
But, this option may not be viable for those working out at home (like most of you are in the midst of this Coronavirus Pandemic), or if you’re not comfortable adding weight for a particular exercise.
Sometimes even when an exercise becomes too easy, there’s a fear of adding weight, especially if you’re not fully comfortable with a particular exercise.
Deadlifts for example, are one of the more complex exercises out there. It’s a full body movement with lots of moving parts.
So if you’re still in the beginning stages of learning how to deadlift and it’s getting easier, but your form is still improving, it might not be the best idea to throw more weight on the bar. Just to be on the safe side, you might consider adding reps to the weight that you were previously doing.
Deadlifting 85 lbs for 8 reps too easy? Try to do 10 reps with the same weight.
The weight on the bar remained the same, but the intensity increased when doing more repetitions, thus making the exercise harder. This, in turn, will also affect your RPE.
But, if you’re already doing a certain weight, for a high amount of reps (15+), and you’re still not comfortable adding weight (or you’ve run out of weight to add), then try adding an additional set.
So as opposed to doing 3 sets of 20 for a banded squat.
Try doing a 4th set of 20.
Weight remains the same. Reps as well. But adding an additional set ups the intensity by a sizable margin.
Lastly, if you’ve run out of weights, and your reps and sets are pretty high, and you feel like you’ve run out of options, you can always manipulate rest time.
If you’re used to doing sets with 1 minute of rest in between, and that’s become too simple, try dropping your rest to 45 seconds. 30 seconds. 15 seconds.
Giving your body less time to recover between sets is just another way to implement an increase in intensity.
Manipulating weights, reps, and sets, and rest time, allow you to increase the intensity of your workouts without ever changing the exercises that you do.
And you can probably run with that for quite some time.
But, if you get bored, or you max out the other three variables, the last variation you can make is implementing new exercises altogether.
New exercises = new stimulus
Introducing a new stimulus usually means starting from the beginning again, and going through the process anew, but don’t fret my friends. This is an amazing thing, as it is a sign of progress, and you getting more and more fit.
One Change at a time
When setting up a good experiment, one of the key factors for success is having only one independent variable. So all factors of your experiment are exactly the same except for this one thing. This way, you can be 100% certain that the one different variable was/was not the cause for the outcome of an experiment.
For example, if you wanted to prove that watering plants made them grow better, you would need the exact same plant, in the exact same pot, with the exact same amount and type of soil, in the exact same environment. The only difference being, one plant would be watered, the other one not.
That way if the watered plant did grow taller, faster, you could say with certainty, that it was because of the water.
If you for some reason used different variables for each plant (different type of plants, different types of soil, etc. etc.), you would never know what factor to pinpoint increased growth with.
This is no different than when you’re working out.
If you deemed that it is time to change up your workout, by changing multiple factors at once (weight, reps, sets, rest time), you may be doing additional unnecessary work to continue to make progress, and you’ll never be able to pinpoint which change to credit for the most progress.
It’s kind of like buying an entire new car, if all you needed to do was repair the brakes on your old one.
Of course, if you were bored with your program and wanted to do a complete revamp, obviously these principles go out the window and you’ll likely change multiple, if not all factors at once. But if you feel like your training just needs a little pick me up, changing one variable at a time is usually all you need to continue progressing.
Check Back Every 4 Weeks
Most training programs work on 4 week cycles.
Even people who sign up to work with a trainer for several months, don’t do the same workouts throughout the entirety of that time. It usually adapts every month or so.
Of course, there’s tons of variance involved and depending on that clients goals, will dictate how that training program progresses.
But simply put, if you’re working out consistently, it’s a good idea to take a step back and reassess your program, and your progress every 4ish weeks.
If things still look good and you’re happy with the outcome, then keep on keeping on. If things seem like they’ve slowed down and you might be ready for a change, that’s your opportunity to scroll back up in this article, and start implementing some of those changes into your workouts.
Don’t let your workout programs go on too long and stifle your progress. Conversely, don’t let your workouts be TOO varied. Find the middle ground. Switch it up every once in a while, and let the progress keep on flowing.