People who ask for fitness advice are usually looking for a simple answer. Do this over that. Do so much of that thing for so long. Get these gains. In reality, things are never that simple.
That’s certainly true for the age-old question of how often you should change your exercise routine. Unfortunately, there is no single, perfectly designed study that accurately answers this question; a lot depends on things like how fit you already are, your goals, and how you train.
But if you’re thinking about changing your routine, there are a few factors to consider.
Progressive overload and diminishing returns
The notion that you should mix up your training routine probably comes from the concepts of progressive overload (where you need stimulus to make continued improvements) and the principle of diminishing returns (where the more experienced you are at something, the less you improve with a given stimulus ).
One way people try to incorporate these principles into training is via something called “periodization”.
It’s where you manipulate certain aspects of a training program, such as training volume, intensity and frequency.
Periodization models typically maintain a consistent exercise selection for a specific period of time, usually an eight to 12 week program.
The two main periodization models are linear and undulating. Linear periodization involves the gradual increase of a variable. For example, over an eight-week program, the loads may get heavier, but the amount of sets or reps you do will be lower.
Undulating periodization involves manipulating different variables (usually volume and intensity) on different days. So, Monday you can do some heavy lifting, then Tuesday’s focus will be on higher reps, and then have an explosive or speed priority for the next day.
Research shows that periodized programs seem to outperform their non-periodized counterparts, with no difference between undulating and linear models.
Even if you’re not consciously doing a periodized plan, most training programs tend to be eight to 12 weeks long and include some of the standard linear progressions mentioned above.
It depends on your goals
What about mixing up the exercises themselves? Research has shown that people gain comparative or greater muscle strength and size when they choose variable exercise compared to fixed exercise.
Variable exercise selection is where you don’t always stick to using the same exercise for the same muscle groups.
For example, you can switch between squats and leg presses the next session. Alternatively, fixed selection means for the duration of the program, you stick with the same exercise (eg squats).
And using a varied selection can be better motivation.
Conversely, excessive rotation of exercises appears to have a negative impact on muscle gain.
When it comes down to it, many moves are skill-based; by not practicing as much, you may not progress as quickly. This is probably only relevant for complex multi-joint exercises such as those performed with barbells (as opposed to, say, exercise machines).
Does this matter? If you have a performance-related goal of lifting a certain amount, or something similar, then maybe it will. However, if you exercise for health and wellness, that may not be a factor for you.
What about running?
Many of us run the same loop, at the same pace, for weeks and years on end. Is it a problem?
Some researchers recommend increasing the training stimulus after six months of endurance training, since most of the benefit occurs between three and six months, and then tends to plateau without changing the training regimen.
But is it enough for health? Our current national recommendations on physical activity do not mention the need to develop or vary exercise. They simply list the amount, intensity and type of exercise for health benefits. Training for performance or continuous improvement seems to be a different story.
If you are thinking about how often we should change our training, consider the time it takes for the body to adapt after training.
Research has shown that muscle growth can occur as early as three weeks into a resistance training program and plateau after about three months in previously untrained individuals.
Adaptations in cardiovascular fitness can occur as early as about one week into an exercise program, but have been shown to plateau within three weeks if no further progressive overload is applied.
Even after a progressive long-term aerobic program, measures of cardiovascular fitness tend to plateau around nine months after exercise.
Do what you like and can stick to
So what do we mean by all the evidence above?
Adaptation occurs quickly, but also plateaus quickly without ongoing stimulation.
Nevertheless, we all have a “ceiling” for adaptation, beyond which it will take considerable effort to progress.
This goes back to the principle of diminishing returns, where the more you train, the less able you are to improve.
All things considered, the traditional approach of changing the program every 12 weeks may actually make sense to prevent plateaus. However, there is no hard and fast rule about how often you should mix it.
Perhaps the best approach is to do what you are most likely to stick with and what you enjoy most.
After all, you can’t make gains if you don’t actually do the work.
Mandy Hagstrom, Senior Lecturer, Exercise Physiology. Director of Teaching and Education, School of Health Sciences, UNSW Sydney and Mitchell Gibbs, Lecturer, Exercise Physiology, School of Health Sciences, UNSW Sydney
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.