We train to give our bodies a new stimulus to adapt to—one that forces us to get stronger, faster, fitter, or more efficient. The catch is that our bodies do adapt to the stimulus over time, which means we have to change our workout every so often to give our bodies a new challenge.
The godfather of fitness Jack LaLanne himself once told me that his secret to avoiding plateaus was religiously changing his workout routine every three to four weeks. He was pushing 90 at the time, and though certainly past his physical prime, he was still remarkably fit and strong, thanks to heeding his own advice.
LaLanne understood that the human body is incredibly adaptable, which is why he switched up his workouts so much. Should you follow suit? Or how often should you change your workout? Here’s what to know.
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How often should you change your workout?
Changing workout routines every three or four weeks is a good rule of thumb, but it’s just that, a general rule of thumb. For the best results, you should change it up according to your experience level and where you are in your training cycle and/or season, says Menachem Brodie, C.S.C.S., head coach at Human Vortex Training, USA Cycling expert coach and USA Triathlon coach.
“Some parts of your routine can and should stay the same for two to four months, while you might change other elements every seven to 10 days,” Brodie says.
Again, it’s all about priming your body for continual adaptations and those go beyond the muscular level. Your body also responds to strength training at the hormonal level, within your central nervous system, and in your connective tissues. Depending on how much riding, racing, or other endurance activity you’re doing, all of that needs more or less time to train, recover, and continue making positive adaptations.
If you are a beginner or are performing a set of exercises for the first time, it will take your body about two weeks to orchestrate the neuromuscular coordination and joint positioning required to learn each movement pattern. Then tack on another three weeks to make anatomical adaptations. So you’d ideally perform a set of moves for five weeks before changing them.
That said, everyone from beginners to advanced athletes should perform dynamic warmup exercises considerably longer before switching those up, Brodie says.
“Your dynamic warmup exercises, such as side lunges with arms overhead, knee pulls, and other bodyweight compound movements, are a great place to address many of your imbalances and movement issues, which take longer to learn and adapt to. You should keep those pretty much the same for two to four months,” he says.
How do you actually change your workout routine?
Swapping exercises isn’t the only way to alter your routine. While you may want to repeat the same exercise for several weeks before changing it, you’ll want to change the loading scheme much more frequently, Brodie says.
The loading scheme is what creates your perceived intensity or how “hard” a move feels, and influences how your body will adapt. You can change the loading scheme by adding weight or by changing the number of sets and reps or even the tempo (the time to execute each repetition) at which you perform a given exercise.
For example, if you’re performing a basic deadlift for 3 sets of 10 repetitions, to change the loading scheme, you would perform 5 sets of 5 repetitions at a heavier weight. Or you could change the tempo, performing 4 sets of 3 to 4 reps, taking three seconds to lift and three seconds to lower, which makes the perceived intensity harder.
“Changing the load scheme every seven to 10 days is where the magic happens,” Brodie says. “That’s how you continue to see benefits over the long run.”
You should also plan to change your strength routine as you change your endurance routine. For instance, when you ramp up endurance training, turn down the volume—but don’t come to a screeching halt—in the weight room.
“During your heavy riding season, continue to work on your weaknesses and the other muscles and movements that don’t get used as much during those activities,” Brodie says.
For most of us, that means going way easier on our legs, but continuing to work on glutes (which are notoriously weak in endurance athletes), core, upper back, shoulders, and other supporting muscle groups for short sessions three to four times a week.
Finally, don’t forget to build in complete recovery. You need to “deload” on a regular basis to let your muscles and nervous system completely recuperate from regular, rigorous training.
“A good place to start is progressing for three weeks and then taking an easy, recovery week,” Brodie says. “Two easy ways you can do this are to simply keep the weight the same but do one fewer set of each exercise, so instead of doing 3 sets of 8 repetitions, do 2 sets. Or you can decrease the weight you’re using by 10 to 15 percent and keep the sets and repetitions the same. The important thing is to decrease the stress you’re putting on the body.”
The Bottom Line on How Often to Change Your Workout
To get the best results, you should change up parts of your workout every three to four weeks depending on your experience level and the time of year. Remember to master your form for several weeks first and then change up the loading scheme more frequently.