Program hopping is an epidemic. The temptation to try new things every time you step foot in the gym is at an all-time high. With elite coaches and athletes putting out new, quality information daily, it’s extremely tough to stick to one program for an extended period of time.
Ironically, that’s exactly what you must do to see results.
Variability in training can be a good thing. It can produce a new stimulus for the body and initiate a positive change. Too much variability, however, prevents you from making any progress.
So just how long should you stick with one workout plan? To answer that question, I’ll split this into two categories: training goals and training variables.
A training goal is your overarching “why.” It is the reason you’re going to the gym. It is the foundation for which your program is based. Examples of training goals are fat loss, strength/mass building or increased sports performance.
Each training goal has a very specific purpose and therefore a very specific path to success. Although it’s possible for these goals to overlap, it’s not optimal in most cases. For athletes, your training goal (and its duration) should be dictated by where you are in relation to your sport’s season.
A football player should not be concerned with adding 50 pounds to his Deadlift mid-season. He should be focused on performing better on the field and maintaining the strength he built up during the offseason. As long as an athlete is in-season, their primary goal should be to remain healthy, productive, strong and useful. The training program should directly reflect that.
During the offseason, shift gears to improving numbers and changing body composition. Get stronger. Get faster. Build muscle or lose weight as needed. For most athletes, this means that your training goal should remain the same for three to six months.
For non-athletes, sports performance is not generally a consideration. In most cases, people are either trying to lose fat or build muscle (or both). The key is to focus on one.
Despite what some trainers would have you believe, losing fat and building muscle/getting stronger at the same time is possible. It’s actually quite likely. However, trying to do both will also limit the progression of both.
If you are overweight, focus on losing fat. That means you need to eat at a caloric deficit, strength train and do a decent amount of cardio/conditioning. If you are underweight, focus on building mass. That means you need to eat at a caloric surplus, strength train and do just a bit of cardio/conditioning. Either way, accomplishing these goals takes a significant amount of time.
Your training goal should remain the same for a minimum of three months. For beginners, or those who have more to lose/gain, your goal could be constant for over a year while still seeing steady progress.
Training variables are the tools you use to reach your goals. They’re the methods, the exercises and the set/rep schemes. They’re the details.
Change the variables too often and you’ll never make progress in any one area. Don’t change them enough and you’ll plateau. So where’s the sweet spot?
You should keep all training variables the same for at least one month at a time. One month gives you enough time to get comfortable with an exercise, use proper form, choose a challenging weight and execute. You can and should increase the amount of weight you’re using to ensure consistent challenge, but if you change exercises weekly, every lift will feel brand new. You likely won’t be able to use an appropriate weight or even perform the exercise correctly. While some minor “accessory” movements may be rotated slightly more frequently, I still suggest keeping everything the same for at least a couple weeks.
Beginners may continue to make progress on the same plan for months on end. In such cases, sticking with the same training variables may be appropriate. More advanced lifters, however, will need some changes to continue seeing results.
Rather than changing the entire program monthly, just slightly alter the methods. Keep the main movement patterns (squat, hinge, push, pull), the training split (full body, upper/lower, push/pull/legs), and the general principles the same. Minor adjustments can have a major impact on continued results. For example, if you did a Sumo Deadlift in Month 1, switch to conventional Deadlift for Month 2. If you performed Dumbbell Split Squats, switch to a barbell. If you did Overhand Lat Pulldowns, switch to underhand. These small tweaks are the very definition of training variability, and have the potential to elicit an entirely different response in the body.
In summary, keep your training goal the same for at least three months. If you’re an athlete, this duration will be dictated by the length of your season/offseason. Keep your training variables the same for at least one month. After that, keep principles constant while making minor adjustments to factors such as grip, angles, equipment and positioning.
Photo Credit: Ridofranz/iStock, Steve Debenport/iStock