Consistency and routine are the backbones of any fitness program. If you want results, you have to stick to your workout habit. But sometimes a routine can stall progress. If you’ve hit a plateau in your training and you want to take things to the next level or get back on track toward your goals, varying your workouts could be the key. Read on for advice from two personal trainers on how often you should change your workout routine, how to mix things up, and the benefits you might see.
Meet the Expert
Benefits of Varying Your Workout Routine
Prevents Overuse Injuries
According to Alex Songolo, personal training manger at Life Time 23rd Street in New York City, one of the most significant benefits of varying your workout routine is injury prevention. “If too much of a good thing can be bad, too much of the same thing, particularly concerning your workout routine, can be harmful. When you only do the same workout movements, time and time again, you do not give the primary muscles that assist you in executing those movements adequate time to recover, which will put you at risk of injury through overuse,” he says.
Overuse injuries can cause pain and swelling, or even damage to tendons, muscles, and bones. For example, if you run a lot without varying your routine, you could experience shin splints, knee pain, or other injuries.
Varying your workout routine can keep you motivated if the same type of exercise starts to get boring. “It can help keep things exciting and improve overall motivation since performing the same moves repeatedly can get monotonous for some,” says Anna Victoria, certified trainer and creator of the Fit Body App.
Research published in 2019 shows that mixing up your routine can increase your motivation without getting in the way of results. If boredom is preventing you from sticking to your routine and giving it your all, try choosing different exercises to keep things interesting.
When you always do the same type of exercise, it’s easier to neglect specific areas or muscle groups. Switching things up can ensure you’re building a balanced, symmetrical physique. “You will be able to build a more visually pleasing and symmetrical physique when you challenge your body in different ways with different movements. This is because, with varied movements, you can recruit different muscle fibers during your workouts and build a more toned physique,” says Songolo.
Increases Strength and Performance
When your body has to adapt to a new stimulus, it can lead to more strength and better performance. “Doing different moves will challenge your body in different ways, leading to further muscle breakdown, recovery, and therefore an increase in strength,” says Victoria.
If you’re routinely missing certain areas of your body, you might hit a strength or performance plateau due to a weakness that isn’t being addressed. Switching up which exercises you do can better ensure you’re hitting all those small muscle groups and supporting structures that keep you pushing for those personal bests.
How Often to Mix Things Up
Although variety is the spice of life, it’s important not to get carried away. Mixing things up too often can create chaos since you won’t be able to monitor how you are progressing and whether or not you’ve plateaued.
“I recommend doing the same workouts for at least two weeks in a row, and then you can change them up," says Victoria. "The reason for that is because if you change workouts every single week, you will not be able to keep track of progressive overload and if you are truly increasing reps or weight from week to week."
Songolo suggests assessing on a case-by-case basis and speaking to a personal trainer who can help you make a personalized plan based on your results and goals. For most people, though, switching things up by adding or changing movements each week is ideal. “That said, generally speaking, it is best to mix up a few different movements in your workout as frequently as every week for your body to adapt and change, and you should transition your entire routine every 6–8 weeks,” he says.
How to Vary Your Workout Routine
There are several ways you can inject some novelty into your workout routine to get results and avoid a plateau. First off, if you haven’t been closely monitoring things like reps, weight, distance, speed, and other metrics for your workouts, getting that data can point you in the right direction for making changes that get results.
Switch Up Your Rest Times
Songolo recommends checking your rest times if your progress is stalling. “The first thing that can vary your routine is paying attention to that stopwatch function on your fitness watch or phone. Often we are taking too much rest when we are training. And while it may not seem like a big deal in the moment, your body notices,” he warns.
Playing with your rest times can change the whole game. For instance, if you’re hoping to burn fat or get your heart rate up higher, shortening rest times will help increase intensity, whether it’s with strength training or sprints. If you are trying to push for that personal best with weightlifting, longer rest times can give you the chance to recover more effectively.
Change Your Tempo
Similarly, sticking to the same reps, weight, and sets can lead to a plateau. If you are using weights, switch between heavier and lighter. For bodyweight exercises, switch up the tempo by varying the time under tension. “For example, if you are performing a squat, instead of just going up and down at a regular pace, count out three seconds on the downward and upward phase of the movement—and control your body, moving more slowly through the movement, to match the count,” Songolo says.
Sub In a New Move
Simply changing the movement you do while keeping the same intensity can sidestep a plateau. “Swapping one move that targets a certain muscle group with another move that targets that same muscle. You want to be sure that you are swapping like for like. For example, swap a squat for a glutes bridge but not a squat for a biceps curl,” advises Victoria.
Songolo agrees, stressing that plateaus can be avoided by subbing in exercises that work the same muscle group but through a different plane of motion. “This improves muscle flexibility, strength, overall physique, and even has a positive impact on our brain health through proprioception. It challenges our mind to connect more with our body through a given space,” he says. So, for example, if you always do regular lunges, try substituting them for lateral lunges, rear lunges, or curtsy squats. You’ll challenge your brain and body in new ways and bust through any plateau.
Adding variety to your workout routine not only avoids boredom in order to keep you motivated, but it also encourages your body to keep changing, progressing, and adapting. When your body is forced to work harder to keep up with these changes, it can’t plateau. Keep in mind that for progress to occur, there needs to be some structure. It’s how you play within the lines that keeps you growing and advancing toward your goals.
Aicale R, Tarantino D, Maffulli N. Overuse Injuries in Sport: A Comprehensive Overview. J Orthop Surg Res. 2018;13(1):309. doi:10.1186/s13018-018-1017-5
Baz-Valle E, Schoenfeld BJ, Torres-Unda J, Santos-Concejero J, Balsalobre-Fernández C. The Effects of Exercise Variation in Muscle Thickness, Maximal Strength and Motivation in Resistance Trained Men. PLoS One. 2019;14(12):e0226989. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0226989
Fonseca RM, Roschel H, Tricoli V, et al. Changes in Exercises Are More Effective than in Loading Schemes to Improve Muscle Strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(11):3085-3092. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000539