Changing Things Up – Mixing Up Your Gym Workouts

This article is all about getting the most form your workout or fitness routine. Sometimes it’s better to change your workout from time time … it’s more than to simply eliminate boredom.

Change your gym workout once in a while
Change your gym workout once in a while

Do you have a fitness program or a workout routine, or do you swagger up to the gym and wing it?

‘Aimless workout’ sounds too close to ‘pointless workout’ in my opinion.

Not that you need something really complicated, and it doesn’t even need to be written down, but a basic plan that you build on every week should be the bare minimum.

The rest of this article assumes you do that already and that you have reached a level in your training where you feel you need to change something up in order to continue making forward progress.

The Problem With Doing the Same Workouts

After a while of doing the same program, some people start to plateau.

The intense growth stage at the beginning of a novice’s lifting career is largely due to neurological adaptation and once that has levelled off, the person can for all intents and purposes be considered an experienced lifter.

So the drastic improvement dies away, and with it the drive and interest to keep chugging along with same old routine.

It’s definitely time for a change, and that’s where periodization may play a part.

Changing Things Up – Altering Your Workouts

Many professional strength athletes have to mix up their program on a regular basis to avoid the stagnation that can set in at the highest performance levels. Imagine constantly being within 5% of the best in the world.

Any weight you lift, or time you run, or whatever is going to be so similar to one another. Breaking a personal best must be so exhilarating, but it takes a world of effort to work towards it…and it’s only a tiny bit better than these people can do on a daily basis. That’s the margin when you’re at the top.

Pro-level performance requires dedication that only a few people can understand. To break through new barriers of achievement takes a monumental effort.

For the mortals amongst us, tiny changes can yield huge improvements. Our margin is not as narrow as the elite. This is a good thing because it means you have a lot of room to improve even when you think there isn’t.

Micro Level – Reps and Sets

Technically this isn’t periodizing but we’re talking about switching things up in general anyway so it’s worth mentioning.

The smallest tweaks can elicit unexpected gains allowing you to switch between them as soon as you get too comfortable with one.

A great example is to work on a 3 week cycle where:

  • Week 1: Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy [for size gains] e.g. 3 sets of 15 reps. Last 5 reps burn, last 2 hurt)
  • Week 2: Myofibrillar Hypertrophy [for strength gains] e.g 5 sets of 5 reps. Higher weight than week 1 and slow and steady lifts
  • Week 3: Muscle Endurance [stamina and active recovery] e.g. 2 sets of 20 reps. Keep it lighter. Last 5 reps burn a little. Keep heart rate up.

This way, you will keep yourself guessing, and the neurological adaptation will not fully set in.

You can go for maybe 12 weeks like this without throwing in another change. It’s good for all round improvement. Where you may have been powerful in one area, you can expand your abilities.

Messing around with set design can also stimulate a break through. Sometimes, a person will go through an entire week (total body coverage) of working the muscles to failure. This is a little like and overreaching spell and should be followed with a much lighter week to induce maximal growth.

Drop sets, supersets and compound sets can all be worked into this week to ensure every muscle group is getting its fair share of exhaustion.

Isolating the core is often overlooked by guys hungry to get on with the big lifting. A real quick 3 to 6 minutes of plank every day chopped up into 60 second spells will give you a world of inner strength that is used on all of the major lifts.

Your core is always engaged isometrically when you squat, dead lift, bench press, military press and numerous others.

If you haven’t focused on isolating your core (and no, I don’t mean thousands of sit-ups and crunches – I’m talking about static holds) then you are throwing away 30% of your potential.

Love free weights? Think they are the only way?

They are possibly the best way to build all round strength, but a machine can help you get through a plateau by focusing on strength rather than splitting it between strength, balance and safety factor.

Using the leg press allows you to put the guards in place and add more weight (a little more mind, don’t be silly). After a couple of weeks of adding that, your free squat might have another edge.

Ever feel like you have a million exercises to do and you’re scared you won’t get them all in? Maybe the gym is super busy and you’re stressed about getting on with it.

Try dialling back the quantity of movements in your repertoire. Get back to the basics and really focus on your core lifts; dead lift, squat, military press and bench press. And maybe some pull ups for you lats.

That’s five exercises. Sure, all the fancy movements are good but if you put all your dome into busting out the best big lifts you can, while leaving nothing in the tank, then you are going to make progress in them. Let’s be honest anything else but those lifts are icing on the cake anyway.

Macro Level – Periodizing

Pro cyclists are a good example of how to train at the top and stay there. They don’t repeat their weeks ad nauseam. You’d think they just have to put in miles and miles of cycling but that is the quickest way for them to drop off the peloton.

Periodizing is more about intensity levels. There’s no space to grow if you are always killing it at full tilt. Burn-out is a phrase being used more and more for this paradigm.

Train smart not hard is another. Jump from cyclists to Ironman triathletes; possibly the most endurance savvy folk around.

There’s amateurs who get interviewed before the big Kona Ironman competition every year saying they’ve put in 60 training hours a week. And then there’s the Pros who range from 8 to 24 hours. There’s a big difference between 8 and 60, and it’s called intelligence.

Lifting weights doesn’t make you big and strong, it’s the rest in between.

Periodizing your workout so that you have a good balance of high intensity weeks and lower intensity weeks will give your body the chance to grow bigger and stronger, without hitting the plateau. Here’s an example.

Week 1: Building: 6 high intensity weight sessions, 3 light cardio sessions.
Week 2: Active recovery: 4 low intensity weight sessions (40 minutes), 4 aerobic cardio sessions (20 – 30 minutes). Nothing to failure/exhaustion.
Week 3: Low Volume/High Effort: 3 strength weight sessions, 2 separate long and intense sessions
Week 4: High volume/Low intensity: 4 weight sessions (machines and isometrics), 4 cardio sessions (20 – 30 minutes at jog level).

That’s one example out of several million combinations. The trick is to find a good trade off between building weeks and active recovery weeks. It is the active recovery week where you will find you see the difference in body composition, whereas the building weeks you will see the performance improvement.

Final Thoughts

When you find yourself wondering whether you have to do the same workouts for the rest of time just to stay in the same shape as you are, the answer is of course no.

When passion becomes a chore, it’s time to do something about it. Taking your foot off the gas might sound completely counter intuitive but it can often be that moment in which you find the key to further improvement.

It’s okay to take a step backwards, if you plan on taking 2 forward at some point.

About Tony Jay

Tony Jay (CEO of AGJ Media, CPD certified in Diet and Nutrition) Tony is a fitness enthusiast, writer, and entrepreneur. He’s been active in the health and wellness industry since 2007 and firmly believes correct nutrition is the key to good health. A workaholic by nature, Tony uses power yoga to keep his mind sharp, maintain physical subtlety, and keep fit. LinkedIn

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