There is a way to repeat exercise routines without compromising progress—don't cancel your cardio class or quit your strength training workout just yet!
When it comes to working out, most people fall into one of two categories. Some love to mix it up: HIIT one day, running the next, with a few barre classes thrown in for good measure. Others are creatures of habit: Their workouts look the same—indoor cycling, weight lifting, or yoga—day after day, month after month.
Yet any fitness expert will tell you that it's the former who reap the real boons of exercise. And studies support the fact that workouts that challenge your body in new ways over time are the most beneficial. But some of the most popular forms of exercise: road races, rowing, and cycling call for training that more or less looks the same—so is sticking with the same workout ever a good thing? The answer is complicated, so we dug in to break things down. (Stuck in a rut? Try Plateau-Busting Strategies to Start Seeing Results at the Gym.)
If You're a Cardio Queen...
If you frequent an indoor cycling class three days a week or are training for a half-marathon, you're definitely reaping the benefits of regular cardio, like improved heart health, improved efficiency in your lower body muscles, and more burned calories, says Kyle Stull, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified trainer and performance enhancement specialist.
"Repeating workouts is not an inherently bad idea, especially if you enjoy what you're doing," Stull explains. And research shows that enjoyment is one of the main reasons people stick to a workout. Once people find an exercise they love—running, rowing, or swimming—they'll be hard-pressed to skip a few sessions for the sake of "switching it up." (Just ask any runner why they never miss a daily jog.) Plus, some repetition is necessary to acquire new skills. "If you have a goal of becoming better at something, then you must repeat it," Stull adds. After all, no one's going to attempt a marathon without doing some long runs before (we hope).
The only problem: The human body is a master at adaptation. "Whatever the body is asked to repeat, it will become very efficient at it," Stull explains. "After a few months, you may continue to feel the psychological benefits, but not necessarily the physiological benefits." Translation: What was once a great calorie-burning workout may become no better than the average walk, Stull says.
Change it up: To prevent plateauing and continue improving your endurance, mix up your cardio. The simplest way to do this: Follow the F.I.T.T. principle (which stands for frequency, intensity, time, and type), suggests Jacqueline Crockford, an exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise. Implement one of the following steps per week.
First, increase the frequency of your workout. For example, if you've been cycling three days a week, bump that up to four times a week (make sure you allow for one full day of rest each week too). Then increase the time—or duration—of your session. If you've been exercising for 30 minutes, add on five or 10 minutes. (Pressed for time? Learn how to Make Your Cardio Workouts Harder (Not Longer).)
Next, increase the intensity, which can be measured most accurately by heart rate. If you've been working at 70 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR), for example, increase it to 75 percent. A heart rate monitor will come in handy here, but you can also determine your target heart rate with a little bit of math:
1. Subtract your age from 220 to find your MHR. (If you're 30 years old, your MHR is 190.)
2. Multiply that number by 0.7 (70 percent) to determine the lower end of your target zone. Then multiply by 0.85 (85 percent) to determine the upper end of your target zone.
3. To determine your beats per minute (BPM) during exercise, take your pulse inside your wrist, near your thumb. Use the tips of your first two fingers to press lightly over the blood vessels. Count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply by six to find your beats per minute (BPM). If your beats match the 70-percent mark, adjust your exercise intensity to reach that upper end of your target zone.
Finally, try switching up your usual cardio of choice with a different type of movement. (Like these 5 Plyo Moves to Sub for Cardio (Sometimes!).)This helps to strengthen different muscle groups, improve endurance, and eliminate the risk of overuse and eventual injury, Stull says. For example, instead of cycling, try running, swimming, or something that changes the motion completely, like dance cardio, once a week.
If Strength Workouts Are Your Thing...
Strength training devotees are known for following a set routine each time they enter the weight room. Here's some good news for those creatures of habit: Strength routines need to be repeated for a period of time in order to be effective, Stull says. In fact, if you're just starting a new routine, there are major benefits in doing the same thing consistently, says Darryn Willoughby, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and professor at Baylor University. That's because in the first four to six weeks, the improvements you'll experience are mainly neurological—your brain is learning how to most efficiently recruit your muscles to complete the moves.
The bad part: This doesn't translate into increased muscle size (yet). "A good general time frame to expect noticeable progress is 12 to 16 weeks, but it varies by person and intensity of training," Willoughby adds. That's why you don't want to give up a month into a new strength training program just because you're not seeing "results" in the mirror. If you're starting a new program, commit to that 12-week time frame. But after that, as your body adapts to the routine, you'll need to vary your program in order to continue to reap the benefits and keep seeing results, Willoughby says.
Change it up: First, switch your strength moves. "The intensity and volume of training must be repeated to develop strength, but the exercise selection can be varied," explains Stull. "For example, you can increase lower body strength by squatting, dead lifting, or doing a leg press," Stull says. "All will require the muscles to work in a very similar way, but will be very different to the nervous system.
Willoughby agrees. Although there are plenty of moves to work the chest muscles—from push-ups to the bench press—that doesn't mean any move is better than the other. In fact, it's probably a better strategy to change up the exercises on regular basis so you work the muscles at a slightly different angle, which helps improve muscle adaptation (and growth) over time. (Want stronger abs? Switch your crunches for 9 Core Exercises That Get You Closer to Six-Pack Abs.)
A final way to can change up your strength workout: a type of programming called non-linear periodization, repeating the same exercises but varying the intensity (amount of weight used) and the volume (reps and sets), Stull says. For example, if you're training on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you could make Monday a heavy day with less volume, Wednesday a moderate day with moderate weight and volume, and Friday a light day with a higher volume. Studies suggest this is a great way to increase strength has been shown to be more beneficial than performing the exact same routine over and over again. (We have an awesome 4-Week Weight Training Plan for Women to get you started.)