This is a constant argument in the fitness community on how often you should fluctuate your workout routines and in a perfect world your routine should change quite regularly to keep the gains coming, however, if you're rotating things around too much how do you track change and figure out what works best.
The reality is that you need to change your workout at certain intervals in order to combat several problems. Brain fatigue, Recovery and Adaptation, Life Scenarios and Experimentation, which we will cover each of these issues later.
As a general rule of thumb, if you're an advanced trainee you're going to need more variability in your program and more frequent changes to keep on adapting to greater training stress. Plus, you'll have to consider that you'll need more recovery time and de-load periods (or periods of lowered training volume and intensity).
For these trainees you're going to want a program that changes constantly or at least every 3-4 weeks. This is assuming that you're lifting or training hard 3-5 times per week and have been exercising consistently for years on end (2 years and up).
If you're relatively new to training (2 years or less) your program should fluctuate fairly frequently with enough time given for the body to adapt. Generally this period is going to be about 4 to 6 weeks before you have to swap out a program, while training at least 3 days per week.
This will ensure you're able to get enough stimulus to cause the body to adapt and allow you to have structured changes within your program, but will also allow you the opportunity to really hone in on technique or form issues and increase intensity gradually over time.
For newer athletes it really doesn't matter the program you're on as long as it's structured and based upon good movement patterns. You're going to make great progress doing an easy program for quite a while or as long as 8-12 weeks. Your main focus should be in consistently adding weight to the bar and making sure your intensity is challenging for you and you'll keep making progress.
It's always nice to be the beginner and come off strong and keep making gains each and every week.
Once these preliminary elements of fitness norms have been taken into consideration one must consider the other necessary reasons for changing a program.
This is probably the real reason why most people need to swap there programs ever so often. You get bored!
This happens to us all. It may not be that the program isn't working as intended, you're simply tired of starting with the same old routine every week.
By switching it up at regular intervals you keep your enthusiasm and your workouts are better and more intense. Thus giving you a better quality workout.
Recovery and Adaptation
Now, depending upon if you're an advanced athlete or beginner, your needs for recovery and adaptation are going to be different.
More advanced individuals will need a much longer recovery time for high intensity exercise versus a beginner. They can simply handle a lot more volume, loading and metabolic stress in a workout. However, the advanced athlete that is squatting double or triple body weight will take a bit longer to recover from this exercise bout compared to a beginner lifter whose max squat is half of their body weight. The body still needs time to repair those damaged tissues, rebuild energy reserves and stabilize the nervous system for another serious bout of training.
They will also need more frequent variances in their program in order to improve, since they have a highly developed neuromuscular system that is adapted to moving large weights. Versus the beginner lifter won't need as much variance as they are still learning the correct movement patterns and how to use their muscle efficiently to lift heavier and heavier weights.
Basically, beginners need more practice so their bodies nervous system can adapt to moving with a load more efficiently, while the advance lifter needs more intensity and continued challenge to keep on adapting since they already (should have) a great deal of motor coordination and movement efficiency.
Here in the Strength Lab, we try to have our lifters de-load or choose workouts that are sub-maximal weights for about 2-3 weeks prior to conducting a high intensity block of training in order to recover and adapt to those heavier loads before ramping back up into the heavier thresholds of weights and volume. Versus the beginning trainees have to learn the basics of how to squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press and pulling motions which evolve over a six-month period.
Life is constantly in motion and in constant flux, as such your body is always adapting to ever changing scenarios as well. Your workout program may need a change in pace if for say you got a new job, switch to another sport, wanted to start running as the days are getting nicer, you had a new baby, whatever...
There's tons of life scenarios that are going to stop you from doing your regular routine in the gym, which may require you to switch your program around drastically to accomodate different time lines or scheduling difficulties.
It's not the end of the world, but sometimes you just have to roll with the punches and decide what you can do that's important in order to get to your goals.
Say for instance you just had a job change that puts your hour and a half workout at lunch in jeopardy and now you can only train an hour every other day. A big switch from training 5-6 days a week.
Too easy, simply pick your big movements that are going to get you the most bang for your buck and throw them in on those 3-4 days you have to train and go from there. Work on increasing your intensity by supersetting through most of your sets and increase the speed in which you can get a workout done. That way you're still getting a large amount of work done in the shortest amount of time.
In our personal training studio we thrive on increasing the amount of work we can get done in minimal time without sacrificing form or increasing the risk of injury by doing a lot of supersets to help get the most work in as short amount of time as possible.
Our last topic for why to change your workout routine, is experimentation. Without trying new things and experimenting with new programs you never can really be sure if a program is working well or not.
Everyone has certain exercises and methods that tend to work particularly well for them in enhancing their physique and building strength. If you stick with the same program day in and day out you not only plateau on those certain exercises eventually, but you never get to experience what else could be more effective.
By experimenting with different programs, exercises and training variables you can figure out which methods are the best ones for you that give you the most benefit.
That's one reason why we like try new techniques and methods on athletes once they're ready for that extra challenge. Not to mention it gives you something to measure against, providing your keeping track of your workouts and able to go back and evaluate what was working and what was not.
So hopefully now you understand the importance of why you should switch your workout up on a regular basis in order to continue to make progress with your fitness goals. Just remember where you're at in your training and keep on pushing through those challenging exercises. But make sure you're accounting for brain fatigue, adaptation and recovery, changing life scenarios, and experiment with different fitness options to figure out what works best for you.
Jesse “Captain Smash” Howland is the owner of SMASH’s Strength Lab, which offers targeted personal training to reach a variety of fitness and physique goals. A natural bodybuilder, competitive powerlifter, certified personal trainer, and nutrition coach, Jesse is often the go-to resource for personal training Ottawa. He studied Exercise Science at Oregon State University and even trained at the world famous Gold’s Gym. He’s a former US Army Captain with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, a former blog writer at Veterans Fitness Career College, and former Chief Executive Officer at U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM). His workouts and personal training are army-inspired to help reach your weightloss, athletic, or physique goals.