This is an excerpt from Strength Training for Fat Loss-2nd Edition by Nick Tumminello.
One of the beauties of the human body is that it’s adaptive: The more it does something, the better and more efficient it becomes at doing it. Although this is a wonderful quality that allows us to improve the things we practice, it also means that the more we do a specific workout, the less likely that particular workout is to be as beneficial as it was when we first started doing it. However, there also has to be some consistency in the workouts you do so that you practice specific (new) exercises to improve your skill at them and create neural adaptations, which allow you to better coordinate the activation of all relevant muscles working in a given exercise (4). This will also improve your fitness level based on the demands of the program.
In other words, if you are constantly changing your workouts, you have no way of gauging if you are getting better. So, yes, you want variety in your training, but not too much too often. Let’s explore how your body adapts to exercise, how often I recommend changing your routine, and how to personalize your exercise program.
Understand How Your Body Reacts to Exercise
One of the most common questions about training is how often you should change your workouts. The answer I give to this is every three to five weeks, which is based on Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome (GAS) (5). GAS describes three stages of the human body’s response to stress.
Alarm, or Shock
This first stage of GAS involves the initial shock of the new stimulus to the system, which can include muscle soreness, stiffness, and possible temporary drops in performance. This first stage is unavoidable; it will happen early on every time you switch your program.
Resistance, or Adaptation
The second stage of GAS involves a positive adaptation by the body to the stimulus, which can include increased muscle size and strength, improved motor unit recruitment (i.e., neuromuscular coordination), and increased connective tissue strength and bone mass. The goal is to create a positive adaptation to the new program (i.e., training stimulus) without reaching the point of accommodation, where you stop positively adapting.
Changing your program every three to five weeks gives your body enough time to adapt—improved neuromuscular coordination and increased muscle hypertrophy (i.e., muscle size) have been shown to occur in the early stages (the first three to five weeks) of or when starting a new training program (6-8)—but isn’t long enough for your body to accommodate to the training stimulus so that the program becomes stale and is much less or no longer beneficial. If you’re doing the same reps each week, it’s a good idea to change the exercises you use more often, around every three to four weeks. However, if you’re changing the number of sets and reps you use each week for the same exercises, you don’t have to change your program as often due to the variety; in that case, changing your program every five to six weeks is in order.
Exhaustion, or Fatigue
The final stage of GAS involves a decrease in the body’s ability to repair and to positively respond to stress, which can lead to overtraining, boredom, and reductions in performance and energy. You want to avoid the exhaustion stage, where you’re doing more in your training than your body can handle.
Use the Same Exercises in Different Ways
Speaking of your body adapting to exercise, any good program should have both enough consistency to allow you to see progress and enough variety to prevent boredom and potential repetitive stress injury. This involves using the same basic exercises but in slightly different ways. For example, with a squat, you can mix up your foot positions (wider stance or parallel stance), you can place the bar in various positions (e.g., front squat, back squat, trap bar), and you can perform single-leg versions such as split squats and knee-tap squats. The consistent exercise is the squat, but every few weeks you perform a different squat variation. There’s no need to try to get too crazy and fancy with exercises. As with anything in life, it’s focusing on the basic movements (e.g., the squat) and knowing how to make the most out of them (e.g., squat variations) that’s going to make your training successful.
Personalize Your Exercises
One of the biggest mistakes in working out—and personal trainers often make this mistake—is attempting to fit the individual to the exercises instead of fitting the exercises to the individual. All of us are the same species, human, just like all automobiles are the same type of vehicle. But just like automobiles, humans come in all shapes and sizes. Just as you would never expect a brand-new sports car to drive and handle the same as a brand-new work truck, it’s unrealistic to expect a guy who’s built like a football running back to move the same as a guy who is built like a football lineman. It only makes sense that although both the running back and lineman can squat, push, twist, pull, and so on, they may perform the movements in slightly different ways. In other words, there is not any exact exercise that matches the movement of everyone, because there are variations in the way individual humans move. Therefore, people must choose the particular exercise variations that best fit how they move.
Not only do we all move a bit differently based on our size and shape, which is dictated by our own unique skeletal framework and body proportions, but past injury, loss of cartilage, and natural joint degenerative processes such as arthritis can influence how we move. Thus, attempting to fit every person to the same exercise movement is potentially dangerous. Doing so could cause a problem or further exacerbate an existing problem because it may go against the person’s current physiology and movement capability.
Trying to fit yourself to certain exercises simply doesn’t make any sense from either a physiological or safety standpoint. Here’s a simple way to find exercises that do make sense, one that takes an individualized approach to exercise selection.
This book has provided five categories of exercises that should be included in all training programs to ensure your workouts are fully comprehensive: upper-body pushing, upper-body pulling, leg-oriented lower body, hip-oriented lower body, and abdominal or core. Within each of these categories, you’ve been given a large variety of exercise options to choose from. When it comes to choosing the exercises that best fit you, there are two simple criteria:
- Comfort—The movement is pain free, feels natural, works within your current physiology, and so on.
- Control—You can demonstrate the movement technique and body positioning as provided in each exercise description. For example, when squatting, you display good knee and spinal alignment throughout, along with smooth, deliberate movement.
To allow for comfort and control, you may have to modify (shorten) the range of motion of a particular exercise to best fit your current ability. As discussed earlier, you should perform the workouts for roughly four weeks to make sure you can gauge your progress.
The way to gauge your progress can be summarized in one word: performance! Improvements in your performance can show up as increases in exercise range of motion (e.g., your squat depth improves) or as improvements in strength (i.e., you lift more weight or perform more reps using the same weight load than you did previously).
In regard to gauging your exercise range of motion, if you lost some movement (i.e., exercise) range of motion from simply not using it (“Use it or lose it”), that lost range of motion gradually comes back once you reinstate the movement into your regular lifestyle. If your range of motion does not improve, or if it ceases to improve once you’ve been regularly performing that movement (with good comfort and control, of course), it’s not recommended that you push yourself to go further, because you’re probably already doing what your physiology currently allows.
Train Hard and Smart
Many of the metabolic strength training concepts in this book are high intensity and therefore challenging. As excited as you may be to get after it and put these workouts into practice, understand that, as you learned earlier, in order for a workout program to be maximally safe and effective, you must avoid the exhaustion, or fatigue, stage of GAS. The “go hard or go home” mentality isn’t the smartest approach to training; instead, it’s an ego-driven recipe for quickly reducing your performance and health.
Be sure to begin using the concepts in this book by engaging your brain, not your ego. Progress through the workouts at a gradual pace, keeping all of your workouts at a level that challenges your current fitness without leaving you crawling on the floor or feeling like you want you throw up. Any type of training can make you tired; only smart training can make you better. Be smart, and don’t judge your workouts by the fatigue they create; judge them by the results they create, which is more muscle and less body fat—without injury.
Incorporate Other Types of Exercise
You’ve been given a large variety of exercise options to include in your metabolic strength training workouts. We’ve also discussed the importance of using a variety of exercises, not only to fit how your body moves but also to keep your workouts interesting and your body positively adapting. That being said, although all of the exercises in this book are different, they can still be grouped under the same type of training, which is (metabolic) strength training. And just as it’s important to do a variety of exercises to ensure your workouts are comprehensive, it’s also important to incorporate diversity in the type of exercise you do to ensure you develop a body that’s not only lean but also well rounded in its abilities. Following are various types of exercise that can diversify and complement your metabolic strength training.
Take Up a Sport
What’s the difference between running sprints and running football pass patterns with someone playing quarterback and throwing to you? Actually, they’re virtually the same, but sprinting to catch a football is way more fun because it’s playing, whereas running sprints is “working out.” Regardless of how motivated you are to exercise, physical activity is more fun when it’s done as part of a game. Not only will taking up a sport that you regularly play and practicing a few times per week help you stay more active, which will help keep you lean and fit, but it can also be more fun than just going to the gym. Plus, it will serve as a tremendous complement to the metabolic strength training programs in this book.
Take Up Yoga
The general rule of joints is that they’re designed to primarily function in their midranges of motion, but they also need some full-range-of-motion activity in order to stay healthy and maintain their current range of motion. Again, use it or lose it, as the saying goes.
The metabolic strength training concepts in this book avoid end-range joint actions, which is the safest way to lift heavy loads. That said, attending a yoga class one or more times per week can serve as a nice complement to your metabolic strength training workouts. Because of their low-load, slow-paced nature, many yoga moves require your joints to move into their end range of motion, moving them in a manner that you don’t get from weight training. Doing yoga can help ensure better joint health, provide more variety of activity, and give you a more well-rounded body that’s not just strong and lean but also mobile. In addition, many athletes have found yoga to be helpful for improving their ability to relax and recover from intense exercise.