Changing your fitness routine is good for your muscles, right? We know that our muscles adapt to the stress we place on them and this adaptation promotes muscle growth and strength gains. Without enough stress, a muscle would have no reason to adapt and change would never take place. In fact, the muscle would atrophy over time due to not being challenged.
But, you’ve probably seen people at health clubs who have been there for several years and still look the same as when they started. On the plus side, these folks are probably getting some benefits, like reducing the loss of muscle tissue that happens with age, but they could be getting greater benefits than they are. Their strength is essentially staying the same and they aren’t increasing the size of their muscles, despite training them. That’s because muscles must continue to be challenged over time for change to take place.
To keep challenging the muscles we work, we use progressive overload, the process of gradually increasing the stress you place on the muscles in a controlled manner. There are a number of variables you can alter to do this. Some of these include:
· Exercise order
Another way to alter the stress you place on place on muscles is to change the exercises that you’re doing. Why change exercises? Muscles are designed to move through three-dimensional space. When you do a strength-training exercise, you work your muscles in a single plane of motion – frontal, sagittal, or transverse plane. For example, biceps curls and squats work your muscles in the sagittal plane, These are movements that involve movement from front to back or flexion and extension. In contrast, frontal exercises are those you can do with your back against a wall, for example, lateral raises. Finally, transverse plane exercises are those where you rotate your body, like rotational lunges.
Ideally, you want to use a multi-planar approach to training and use a variety of exercises. That’s because working muscles in all planes help stimulate the most muscle fibers within a muscle. To work each muscle group in a multi-planar manner, you’ll need a variety of exercises.
However, to try to include all the exercises you need in to work a muscle in all three planes is challenging and you’d end up spreading yourself too thin. A better approach is to focus on one series of exercises, using principles of progressive overload, and switch to a new group that works the muscles differently once your muscles start to adapt to the current movements. How long should you train before switching exercises? Typically, your muscles will adapt to an exercise after six to eight weeks.
Although six to eight weeks is a general guideline, the time it takes to adapt varies with the individual and the degree of training. If you’re new to strength training, it will take longer for adaptations to take place than someone who’s just starting out. Plus, you may need longer than six to eight weeks doing the same routine to master the neural aspects of training, learning how your muscles should move when you do a particular exercise. It usually takes 6 weeks or longer for your brain and muscles to master new movement patterns when you’re new to training.
Some fitness trainers don’t recommend changing exercises until the exercises you’re doing stop working. In other words, you’re no longer seeing gains when you do that exercise. Another reason to change exercises is that you’re developing a muscle imbalance and need to train a particular muscle group harder and your current routine isn’t doing that. Boredom is another reason to switch up your exercises. If your routine becomes so rote that you can do it in your sleep, you’re not getting as many benefits as you could and it’s hurting your motivation. Time to switch things up.
Changes Can Be Subtle and Still Deliver Results
Changing a strength-training routine doesn’t require a major overhaul. Rather than adding completely new exercises, make subtle changes to the exercises you’re currently doing. If you do front lunges and back lunges, try curtsy lunges. If you always do biceps curls, switch to hammer curls. Do you mostly use dumbbells? Switch to barbells or dumbbells. Add some bodyweight exercises. Even subtle changes work the muscles you’re targeting differently and create a new stimulus for growth. However, sometimes it is a good idea to completely change exercises so that you’re working a muscle in a different plane and in a completely different manner.
Make the Strength Moves You’re Currently Doing More Advanced
Rather than completely changing your exercises, you can also make the current exercises you’re doing more challenging by changing the format. For example, alter the weight you use with each set pyramid-style, either a forward or reverse pyramid. Add some drop sets or structure your current exercises using a superset approach.
Another approach is to change the number of sets and reps that you do. If you typically focus on using a high resistance and a low number of reps, switch to lower resistance, higher volume training. You can even structure your workouts in a periodized fashion so you change the volume and resistance you use in a cyclical fashion to keep your muscles from adapting to the same mode of training.
Don’t Change Your Strength Exercises Too Often
At one time, “muscle confusion” was a big thing, the idea that you should constantly change the stimulus you place on your muscles to keep them guessing. This has fallen by the wayside to some extent. You need enough time to master a particular exercise and allow the neural patterns to become ingrained, especially if an exercise is new to you. So, don’t make it a habit of switching exercises every few weeks to “confuse” your muscles. It usually takes four to six weeks for your muscles to adapt to a training program.
The Bottom Line
Yes, you’ll need to periodically change your approach to strength training, but don’t do it too often. Every four to six weeks is what most fitness trainers recommend.
American Council on Exercise. “When is it Time to Change Your Workout?”
American Council on Exercise Fitness. “6 Signs It’s Time to Switch Up Your Workout”
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