It’s a rare type of person that can endlessly repeat the same five or six exercises and, by fluctuating relatively few training variables, still get enough diversity to stay consistent over months or years. Adherence to this type of fundamental training, while effective, can prove difficult for a couple of reasons. Firstly, long-lasting results take more time and patience than most people realize, and secondly, the lack of mental stimulation from such a basic type of training can be too much to take. As a result, many people fall victim to “shiny object syndrome,” where they try to keep themselves interested by doing a different workout every time they train or starting a new program every couple of weeks when the novelty of the current one wears off.
The reality is that every time you switch exercises, workouts, or training programs, your body must reset or readjust – which will take you back several places from your current position. The less you’ve progressed, the less it takes to find yourself back at square one. Imagine yourself at the bottom of several staircases, with the door you want to go through at the top. While they may all lead to that same door, every time you change the staircase you’re climbing, you must go back down to do so. Thus, if you’re constantly changing staircases after a few steps, you’ll find yourself in an endless cycle of new stairs but never getting any closer to the door at the top. So, does this mean that the choice is to either have NO variation or find yourself forever running at a standstill?
In short – no. The trick is to strike a balance between keeping your training interesting while being consistent enough to keep moving forward.
What Is Your Goal?
If the primary reason for your training is just to be in good general health, this simplifies things a great deal since there’s no specific measure you’re targeting. As a result, you have a lot more freedom with your training choices – make sure there are some strength training elements, some aerobic work, and a little bit of basic mobility, and you’ve got your bases covered. But this vague and non-specific target can ultimately prove to be just as lacking in stimulation since training without a purpose can lead to a lack of motivation.
Conversely, having specific goals that you’re working towards requires greater specificity in training. Improvements in strength and cardiovascular endurance can take months of consistent work – and it is for this reason that it can be so detrimental for athletes to be bouncing around between programs and workouts randomly. The higher level of the athlete, the more structured the program needs to be to elicit the desired improvements in performance.
Variation Can Come in Different Forms
Being consistent in your practice does not mean that nothing changes from workout to workout – it simply means that (although a seemingly contradictory statement) variety must have some sort of structure in the broader context of the program.
The most basic type of “structured variety” for the beginner trainee is a simple progressive overload: following the same weekly program but increasing either the number of reps, the amount of weight, or (if it’s a cardiovascular endurance sport) the distance. This isn’t an endlessly linear growth pattern, and as you gain experience and begin working closer to your “ceiling” (your maximum training weight or your best time), you will need to utilize different ways to manipulate these training components.
Another way to keep your training interesting is to narrow your focus onto one or two very specific targets, then structure your program so that you are consistently working on them week over week, but allowing the rest of your fitness plan to be more of a freestyle approach. Whether it’s jumping in on a friend’s boot camp class, playing a game of pick-up soccer, or just hitting the gym and doing whatever you feel like for an hour – it can be a great way to balance “work and play” and keep the effort interesting. What you must remember if you’re leaning towards taking this tactic, though, is that the more specific the goals (or, the larger the number of them you have), the smaller the percentage of time you can leave open for this randomized approach.
How Often Should I Change My Program?
Like everything, we’ve spoken about previously, this ties into what your goal is. Improving your conditioning prior to training camp might only be a four-week program, whereas shaving ten minutes off your marathon time may be an eight to ten-month work in progress. But a good rule of thumb is to follow a program for two to three phases (generally 8-12 weeks) and then assess if you’re making progress – if so, you may want to continue down that path and if not, re-examine your program choice.
Balancing Consistency and Planned Variety is the Key to Progress
While the overriding theme in all fitness success stories is adherence to a well-planned program, enjoyment and mental stimulation are equally important to the long-term realization of your goals. Therefore, it’s essential that you’re progressively challenging yourself week-over-week, having pre-set stages for review and evaluation in your programming, and incorporating a certain percentage of your training into a less-structured, freestyle approach. Remaining consistent with everything mentioned above will help you reach your goals of sticking to your program and completing lasting achievements.