As a trainer I see this scenario all the time: the same people come in at the same time on the same days and do the same workout involving the same machines. While I think it's great that these people are dedicated to their fitness and actually show up and do SOMETHING, I often have to fight the desire to go up to them and tell them to change their routine.
Why you ask? Simple. The human body is a dynamic organism; it is constantly learning and adapting on some level. When we fail to vary our routines at the gym, the body becomes very proficient at learning how to perform these exercises with the least amount of energy expended and as a result less muscles are used to do the workout, less calories are burned, and less progress is made. Even the most seasoned of us are guilty of allowing ourselves to get into this workout rut from time to time, but if you allow yourself to do the same thing all the time, you are not maximizing your time in the gym or the results that you can attain from your hard work.
By constantly varying our workouts we do not allow our bodies to adapt to any one routine, and keep it in a constant state of guessing and learning. On a physiological level we are producing new patterns of motor unit recruitment and allowing muscles that you may not have used in a while be stimulated once again. In addition to the effect on neural recruitment in the muscles we are also promoting adaptive changes in the tendons and bone that will increase their strength. Wolff's law states that bone in a person will adapt to the loads placed on it. If we are in a workout rut we lose the benefit of this adaptation; this is of particular importance to post-menopausal females worrying about bone issues such as osteopenia and osteoporosis. By varying the stresses we place on our body, especially using axial-loading activities, we ensure continued bone and tendon adaptations.
If you want to vary your routine, try some of these ideas:
1) Regularly switch between cables, bands, free weights, and machines.
In my mind free weights are always king. Free weights challenge you more, require more motor unit recruitment, and promote better strength and balance, but it doesn't mean they are the only thing you can use. In the routines I devise for my clients I regularly use a variety of exercises. All these modalities have their place in a properly designed routine. On a safety note however if you are new to working out, have medical conditions, or are a senior novice, I would recommend hiring a trained professional to assist you using free weights until you have a proper foundation.
2) Add circuit training to your workout.
In its simplest form circuit training is simply moving from one exercise to the next with little to no rest between. This promotes not only a strength component to your workout, but because the rest is very short you promote cardiovascular improvement as well. A good circuit can have 4-6 exercises targeting most, if not all, major muscle groups. All exercises should be completed for one circuit with little to no rest between exercises. After an entire circuit is complete you can take 10-2 minute rest and perform another circuit. For beginners 3 times around a circuit program is realistic and effective.
3) Change your normal sets and reps.
3 sets x 10 reps. This is the most common exercise prescription I see among trainers and physical therapists alike. Again, nothing wrong with this per se, unless this is what you always do. Change up your routine by varying how many set or reps you do of a particular exercise. A good general rule to remember when doing this is the more weight you use do less sets/reps, and the less weight do more sets and reps. Do not try to do a high number of sets and reps with heavy weight as this can cause injury and prolonged muscle soreness.
By using some of the above suggestions you can continue to make progress with your workout and maximize the time you spend in the gym. If this seems overwhelming to you then don't hesitate to take advantage of a knowledgeable personal trainer, but make sure you read my post "Not all trainers are created equal" before you make that leap.
Until next time, best of health to all! - Aaron
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