How often should you switch up your exercise routine?

Emma White - Certified Personal Trainer | 10 Apr, 2023

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I think many of us are guilty of getting into an exercise routine and then sticking to the same thing week in, week out. Do you do the same class and walks each week? When was the last time you tried something new or did a longer walk than normal? I challenge you to try and remember!

It's easy to assume your three workouts a week are enough, but changing your routine is essential if you want to keep reaping the maximum benefits. Regular progression or more variety is the key to long-term results with exercise, so let's discuss why and how often you should be switching things up.

Why does it matter?

Our body is incredible, and its only goal is survival in the most efficient way. The human body is constantly adapting to the environment it's in and the stimuli we expose it to. This leads to activities we do regularly becoming easier over time and requiring less effort. Sounds great, you might think! But what it ultimately means is that it requires less energy to do the same tasks than it did a month ago. Also, because our body is now well prepared for specific tasks, no further adaptations are needed to allow us to perform them most efficiently. In short – we stop getting fitter.

Progressing what we do when it no longer feels as challenging ensures more stress is placed on the body, resulting in further adaptations. This is how we get fitter, burn more calories, and change our body shape by building muscle for example.

How do you know when it's time to progress?

Exactly when you should change your routine depends on what activity you're doing, what your goal is and you as an individual – as we're all different! But that said, there are things you can look out for to help you identify when you might need a shake-up.

  1. You're no longer improving – probably the simplest one, but if you haven't lifted more, or run faster or further, for a month or more, you've stopped progressing.
  2. You're getting bored – if you don't feel stimulated by your activity choices anymore, chances are you've been doing the same routine for too long. Sign up for that Zumba class you've been putting off and give things a shake-up!
  3. It feels too easy – are you barely breaking a sweat, or singing at the top of your lungs during every workout? If yes, then you're not working hard enough. Up the intensity please!
  4. You don't feel it the next day – do you remember when walking down the stairs was a painful event? While the extreme muscle ache we can get when we first start a fitness plan can be a bit much, a little bit of an ache the day or so after a workout is a sign you’ve had a good workout. If you don't feel it, it may be time to up the intensity a little.

How often should you progress?

Some very loose guidance is to ensure you change your exercise routine every four to six weeks or so. Following this advice helps you to create a long-term plan that progresses, and acts as a reminder to regularly revisit your regime and goals. But, this is just a guide and exactly when you should progress depends on lots of factors.

One such factor is your reason for exercising in the first place and what your goals are. If you're just trying to ensure you move more for general health, you may want to change what you're doing approximately every four weeks to prevent boredom, but being really regimented with this is less important than it would be for someone who has a specific fitness goal in mind. For example, if you're training for a marathon, you should probably be aiming to add a mile to your training every week. Similarly, if you are training to get stronger, you will need to monitor how much you can lift for three sets of 12 reps for example, and if you start to feel like you can keep repping – add some kgs to that barbell.

Ultimately specific fitness goals need a structured programme and regular progression. Whereas generally being active for health is a little more flexible, and it can simply be trying a new class or walking a different route to help keep you stimulated and challenged. If you have a specific goal, set a programme to help you reach it and review every couple of weeks to identify if anything needs tweaking. Maybe you need to add some distance to your runs or up the weights, or even add an extra workout session to your week. Just ensure you keep progressing.

How do you progress your routine?

It's all about doing a bit more than you were before, or testing your body in new ways – so progression can come in many forms.

  • Increasing duration – if you usually go to the gym for 45 minutes, increasing this to an hour and ensuring you're achieving more in that hour is a surefire way to know you're moving forward.
  • Increasing resistance – if you're lifting weights or doing a class involving resistance such as bands or weights, monitor what you use and ensure you're upping the weights. Equally, try adding ankle weights or a backpack to a run to boost resistance.
  • Upping the intensity – this tends to mean moving faster, so increase the pace on the exercise bike or walk in a more brisk way than you were. You know you're progressing when you're covering the same ground in less time.
  • Adding more reps – more is more! If you do a full body circuit including a minute of various exercises, monitor how many push-ups, squats or burpees you complete in each minute. Aim to increase these over the weeks so you know you're improving.
  • Try something new – adding something new into your routine, while keeping some key elements more consistent can be a great way to keep things fresh. You could see bigger fitness gains and less boredom, while still working on your core goals with a structured programme.

Note! While change can be good, if you have a specific goal, this must be born alongside consistency. It will be hard to monitor your progress if your goal is to run a marathon and one week you're running and the next you're swimming. Likewise, lifting heavy one week then switching to light weights and more reps the next week won't be ideal on your quest for increased strength. Stick with a format and create the progression around this.

Summary

Progression is key if you want to keep seeing significant results from your exercise routine. Monitor your own improvements and take note when a routine starts becoming too easy or boring. If it does, it's time to give things a boost. This doesn't have to mean giving up more time to exercise either – working harder or doing something completely different as a new challenge also leads to ongoing improvements. Don't get stuck in a rut!

Last updated by Beth Furness 04/04/24

Emma White (Certified Personal Trainer) has always loved fitness. She's passionate about the many benefits of regular exercise, particularly the positive impact on mental health and overall quality of life, as well as how it provides the key to successful weight management.

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