How Often Should I Change My Exercise Program?


The importance of variation – Nick D’Amelio Exercise Physiologist

You have a training goal; get fitter, get stronger, lose body fat/weight, gain muscle/weight, improve performance, improve function, improve mental health or some combination of all.

You have a training program, a list of exercises, to achieve that goal whether it be one workout or a combination of several workouts that you do each week. Alternatively, you may have scheduled classes or blocks of exercise e.g. pilates on day one, weight training on day two and cardio on day three and you repeat this every week. Let’s say on average that three exercise sessions per week with a day rest between sessions is the optimal amount of training for most people’s goals.

Now, if you are regularly doing these exercise sessions, feeling good after doing them and seeing results then you are doing it right – keep doing what you’re doing! However, if you’ve had the same program since you started at the gym 5 years ago and your body hasn’t really changed since then, it may be time to switch things up a bit.

The short answer to the age old question ‘how often should I change my exercise program’ is every six weeks. Typically this should be enough time to see an adaptation at which point your body is more effective at performing the given task and no longer needing to improve (meaning you get less of the benefits from the same training). Once you are used to the exercise program there is no reason for your body to waste resources to improve the conditioning of your muscles, heart and lungs etc.

Some guidelines:

  • If you are a beginner to structured exercise you should probably stay on the same program for a longer period to learn the basics.
  • If you are intermediate or advanced with your level of training you can change your program more often.
  • If you enjoy your exercise and don’t have any specific goals besides keeping active, mobile and pain-free then no need to change anything.

Have a look at the concept of super compensation below. This is a favourable adaptation to training in which you get slightly better following a bout of training. Given that your training intensity (the stimulus) during the session is adequate, training actually lowers your biological state initially. You are worse off straight after training and depleted of resources to be able to perform. During the recovery time when you eat, sleep and rest, your biological state raises back to baseline and then some; into super compensation.

The SAID principle or ‘specific adaptation to imposed demands’ relates to this concept as well. This occurs so that the next time your body encounters that same stress (or training bout) you are better able to meet that particular challenge. In the case where the training stimulus is too easy or too intense, or if the rest period is too short or too long, you will not see these benefits. If you are doing the same program over and over, you can bet that you’re not getting as much bang for your buck as you’d like and your progress will stagnate.

With this in mind it is important to understand how we can manipulate the training load to invariably keep our body adapting to said training and keep seeing those improvements rather than reaching a plateau. So, if after six weeks you haven’t gotten stronger, fitter, slimmer or moved closer to your goals, then you probably need to change some aspect of your program.

There are a few good reasons to change your program:

  1. To provide an adequately challenging stimulus to achieve a favourable adaptation (as stipulated above). For instance, novel exercises are more physiologically demanding than that of well-trained ones so a new training program with different exercises (or variations) that you are not used to can lead to better results. As an example for fat loss you might try 4-6 weeks of strength training followed by 4-6 weeks of high intensity interval training. Weeks 1-5 of these programs will gradually increase in overall intensity with the final week being almost like a rest week, as seen in periodised training schedules of athletes.
  2. To keep training interesting and motivating for yourself. Enjoying the new challenge will help keep you engaged enough to keep doing it long enough to get those results and avoid boredom.
  3. When certain exercises are just not working for you. If there is an exercise you don’t like or that causes pain then changing your program by reducing the load, slowing down the movement, changing the position or changing the exercise completely will help eradicate that problem. You shouldn’t just push through if it is too uncomfortable.
  4. Variation in training translates to having a greater number of movement strategies to interact with the environment, promotes motor development and may reduce the risk of injury. For example being able to perform a forward, backward, lateral and curtsy lunge may translate to improved ability to stay on your feet in martial arts or other sports. Being able to deadlift with a flat back, rounded back, sumo stance or single leg stance could mean lifting boxes from awkward angles won’t become a concern in regard to low back pain.

How can you change your program and what things should you change?

Here are some variables:

  • Number of sets. Typically exercises are performed for 3-4 sets for general bodybuilding. In German volume training you do 10 sets. In strength training you do 5 sets. In each case, if performed well with enough physical strain on the muscles, you will respond with greater strength and muscle mass, and less body fat.
  • Number of reps. This usually is inversely related to load and rest; for less reps you want to lift a heavier weight and should take more rest between sets and vice versa for higher rep ranges. If you’ve always done 10 reps of an exercise try increasing the weight so that you can only do 5 with control.
  • Exercise selection. In general, it’s a good idea to train horizontal push/pull, vertical push/pull, hip hinge, squat, lateral and rotation style exercises in any program. As an example, a horizontal pushing movement may be performed as a machine chest press, a dumbbell chest press, a barbell bench press, a push-up, a med ball wall throw or even boxing. Some of these exercises will be better suited to strength work and others to sport or cardio but in each instance it is horizontal pushing working a certain muscle group that you should be training. The exact exercise may not be as important as training the general movement so feel free to select any of these exercises that suit your goals, work at it and then change.
  • Order of exercise, super setting and rest. What sequence you do the exercises in can change the intensity. Whether you pair a pushing and pulling exercise together or whether you pair a compound movement with an isolated movement of the same muscle group without resting can increase the overall demand of the task.
  • Speed of movement and intensity. This is also inversely related to the load. For a heavier load you will move slower, for a lighter load you would move faster in order to adequately load the muscles. Plyometrics like jumping, hopping, skipping and/or bounding would be an example of training the faster end of the spectrum where near maximal force is exerted over a very short time span. It’s great for improving athleticism and sport performance but should definitely be gradually built up towards in training. Slow eccentric weight training would be at the other end of the spectrum where you are working on the lowering phase of the movement in order to promote strength and muscle gain.

So, if your program isn’t right for you or you simply need a change, why not come in and see one of our Exercise Physiologists! They can work with you to design a program that is right for you and that will help you reach your goals and MOVE THROUGH LIFE.

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