Finding a good workout isn’t difficult. Just search the workout routine database here on Muscle and Strength, and you’ll find a host of great options specific to your goals. All of these programs work, but just like any workout routine, none of them work forever. Knowing how to change your workouts over time to keep making progress is difficult. Most people fail miserably by taking one of two extreme approaches. Either they just keep doing the same thing forever or they develop training ADD and hop from one program to another with alarming frequency. Despite taking polar opposite approaches, they end up with a very similar outcome - a complete lack of progress!
Most people fail in reaching their goals because they get injured or are confused and frustrated about their plateau and quit. Knowing what training variables to manipulate and how to sequence different phases of training can help you to avoid plateaus, injury, and boredom. Even better, it can help you efficiently reach your goals.
3 Key Principles of Program Design
There are some key principles you need to understand to navigate the program design process. Once you understand these, then you will be equipped to make smart choices when adjusting your training. These principles are:
- Adaptive Resistance
- Progressive Overload
1. Adaptive Resistance
Your body is an incredible adaptive mechanism. It adapts to almost everything you through at it. This is why you need to vary your training from time to time. Think of it this way, your body’s number one priority is survival. It is constantly adapting to its environment to survive. Spend enough time in the sun and it will adapt by increasing skin pigmentation (aka a tan), when confronted with viruses it upregulates your immune system to fight off illness, find yourself in a threatening situation and it’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism will kick in to increase heart rate, release adrenaline, and divert blood flow away from digestion towards your muscles so you can run, kick, punch, or climb your way to safety. This same adaptation principle occurs in your training.
2. Specificity and the S.A.I.D Principle
S.A.I.D stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. When you train with weights your body will adapt in a manner specific to the demand to make it less demanding over time. In this case, you’ll build bigger, stronger muscles. Your training (the demand) has to be specific to the adaptation you desire if you want your progress to be efficient. Sure, your bench press max might improve training like a bodybuilder, but it will improve a lot faster if you follow a specialized bench press strength program. Key point – for optimal progress towards a goal, your training must be specific to that goal.
So far, so simple. Unfortunately, the body is smart. There is no need for it to keep adapting to the same stimulus. Once it has adapted to the point it needs to handle the stress you put it through, it no longer needs to allocate resources to continue to adapt. Once your body is accustomed to your workouts it doesn’t need to spend valuable energy building your muscles. That energy could be much more efficiently used as storage of body fat. After all, our bodies don’t know we want to be big and ripped. They are concerned with our survival, and stored body fat is generally more useful than carrying the muscle mass of a bodybuilder when it comes to surviving famines.
3. Progressive Overload is Specific to the Outcome You Desire
Effective training requires progressive overload. Progressive overload means your training has to represent an overload to the body which forces it to adapt. This overload has to be progressive. That is to say that, it needs to keep getting more challenging so that it stays ahead of the body’s adaptive capabilities. Long story short, your training has to be hard, and it needs to change over time to get harder.
Just resolving to train harder doesn’t work on its own though. Whilst it’s an honorable approach and will work to a point, there is only so hard someone can train. If you do the same thing and just try to do it harder you will run into a brick wall sooner or later. You need to train smarter and harder! A more elegant (and effective) strategy is to manipulate one (or some) of the key training variables to provide a novel stimulus to the body. A new stimulus will kick-start further adaptation – aka bigger and stronger muscles.
8 Training Variables to Change for Continual Progress
When making changes, don’t change everything at once. In my experience, a good rule of thumb is to make the smallest change that elicits a significant result. This could mean simply changing one variable at a time. There is no need to change everything. Get the most from the least. You have the following variables to play with:
- Rep ranges
- Set per exercise
- Relative intensity
- Exercise selection
- Rest periods
- Exercise order
- Exercise tempo
Changing just one of these is often enough. Even though you are only changing one variable, the magnitude of change doesn’t have to be radical either. For example, when changing rep ranges, going from sets of 10-12 to sets of 8-10 is often enough to spark further progress and is much easier to manage than jumping from sets of 20 to sets of 5.
1. Rep Ranges
In my experience, the repetition range is the variable the body adapts to quickest. For that reason, I suggest it is the variable you change most often. When programming my clients’ workouts, I often change the rep range as often as every three weeks, but regularly keep the same exercises for 9-15 weeks. This allows them time to develop the skill of the lift so they can maximize their output on it and the muscle-building stimulus created by it, but avoid their training becoming stale by adjusting rep ranges.
2. Number of Sets
Training volume is a powerful stimulus for muscle gain. When muscle building is the goal, I often increase training volume by adding sets. This is a careful balancing act. If you add sets too quickly, then it can quickly push you beyond your maximal recoverable volume (MRV) and into the realms of overtraining. At this point, the fatigue generated by your training exceeds your capacity to recover and progress stalls or even regresses.
When coaching someone personally, I use a combination of objective and subjective data to help guide my assessment of their recovery status and volume tolerance. To apply this yourself, I suggest you try adding one set per body part to your program every other week and monitor your results. Alternatively, if you have a lagging body part you particularly want to increase volume for, you could add a set to this each week, but keep all other body parts static throughout a block of training. This means you are pushing this body part towards its individual MRV, but keeping your total systemic MRV in-check by not pushing all the other muscle groups to their individual MRV. Managing your overall systemic MRV like this means you have greater recovery reserves that can be dedicated towards growth in the target muscle group.
This specialization approach works very well for advanced lifters who carry a lot of muscle mass but are looking to fine-tune their physique.
3. Relative Intensity
Relative intensity is a measure of how hard you work on a given set. Essentially, it is a measure of how close to failure you go and how many reps in reserve (RIR), you have at the end of a set.
There is an inverse relationship between volume and intensity. So, you can vary your training by having a phase where you reduced volume (by doing fewer sets per exercise), but push relative intensity high and train to failure (e.g., 0RIR). In the next phase, you could increase volume but reduce the intensity, by performing multiple sets per exercise but leaving a couple of reps in the tank on each (e.g., 2RIR).
I have found this to be an extremely effective approach. Initially, you get the most muscle-building stimulus from the lowest possible volume but the highest relative intensity (0RIR), then in subsequent phases, gradually increase the sets but reducing intensity to the 1-3RIR range.
As more volume (up until the point you exceed your MRV) seems to stimulate more growth, this is a powerful progression scheme for size gains.
4. Exercise Selection
Changing exercises to target a muscle from a different angle or point of the strength curve is an effective strategy to provide a novel stimulus.
As mentioned earlier, I tend to vary exercises less frequently than rep ranges, sets, or relative intensity. I believe it is key to develop the skill of an exercise to maximize the stimulus it creates. This takes time. Generally, I include some key multi-joint exercises which form the foundation of a program. Being multi-muscle, multi-joint exercises they have a higher skill demand than single-joint style exercises. These key exercises generally stay in a program for a minimum of 12 weeks. Some accessory or single-joint exercises change more frequently. The lower the skill requirement the more often they will change. Generally, machine-based isolation exercises are the ones that change most often. For example, squats might be in your program for 12 weeks, but leg presses get switched for hack squats after 6 weeks, and leg extensions are subbed out every 4 weeks.
Another thing to consider with exercise selection is the rep range you are utilizing and the training adaption that drives. If training the biceps with high reps (e.g., 15-20 reps) and looking for a metabolic stress stimulus then, an exercise that challenges the muscle in its shortened range and provides stability means you can push through the burn safely and effectively. A dumbbell spider curl works well for this. However, if lower reps (e.g., 6-8) and mechanical tension is the focus then, exercises which place the muscle in a stretch under load would be a good choice. An incline dumbbell curl would fit the bill well.
Think of exercises as a tool to get a job done. Your sets, reps, RIR, and rest periods will provide the job description. Then it’s up to you to pick the right tool for the job.
5. Frequency / Split
Changing how often you train per week and how often you hit a specific muscle group can also be a useful variable to adjust. From a psychological perspective, a new training split can create some excitement and enthusiasm for your training. This is not to be dismissed lightly. Whatever program you follow is only going to be as good as your commitment and effort in executing the program. For that reason alone, I find adjusting your training split every 6-12 weeks is a wise move.
Adjusting training frequency is also useful during high volume or specialization phases. A higher training frequency can create the potential for higher training volumes. Just like adding a lane to a motorway means more traffic can travel along with it at any one time, doing more sessions per week means more training volume can be performed per week.
Research indicates that past a certain threshold there is only so much muscle growth you can stimulate from one session. This is different for everyone, but for argument’s sake, let’s say anything more than 10 sets of chest in a session is beyond this threshold for you. Doing more than 10 sets of chest in a session just increases fatigue, but has no added muscle-building benefit. Now let’s say your chest has been stubborn and you are planning a chest specialization phase to try and kick-start some growth. You normally train chest twice a week with 8-10 sets per session for 16-20 sets per week. This hasn’t been enough to grow so you decide to do more. You speculate based on past experience you need 24 sets per week to stimulate growth. Following your normal routine of two chest sessions a week means you have to do 12 sets per session. Unfortunately, that pushes you beyond the effective per-sessions threshold and you’re doing junk training volume for sets 11 and 12 of each session. By changing your chest training frequency to three times a week you can hit the required weekly volume and avoid junk volume. Splitting your chest training into three sessions of 8 sets would probably be more effective for you.
6. Rest Periods
Manipulating rest periods can dramatically change the training stimulus and energy systems taxed during a workout. 5x5 with 3 minutes rest between sets feels very different to 5x5 with only 30 seconds between sets. The weight used would be much lighter in the second. Mechanical tension would, therefore, be lower, but metabolic stress higher. Knowing which mechanism of hypertrophy, you were targeting would help inform you of the rest prescribed. It also means you can challenge mechanical tension in one phase and metabolic stress in the next by simply changing your rest periods.
For fat loss goals, this is also useful as reducing rest can increase workout density. Density is work performed per unit of time. By adjusting rest periods down from week to week or phase to phase, you can do more work in a given timeframe or do the same work in less time. Higher workout density will increase energy expenditure which is useful for achieving a calorie deficit and causing fat loss. Simply cutting 5 seconds off your rest period each week can be enough to keep providing an effective overloading fat loss training stimulus for several weeks.
7. Exercise Order
Tradition dictates that the most complex, skill-based, high power output, multi-joint exercises that train large muscle groups should go first in a workout. With single joint, lower-skill exercises coming last. For strength and power training, this makes perfect sense. For muscle gain, however, research is indicating that the highest training effect comes from the exercises you do earlier in your session. As a result, if developing a certain muscle group is a priority for you it might be worth placing smaller muscle groups or even isolation work first. Got tiny calves? Starting your leg day with calf raises might well be the best choice for you!
This is also useful information if you plan on using specialization phases. When specializing in a body part, be sure to make it the first muscle trained in your sessions to give it the best chance of growth. If for example, you rotate through specialization phases for chest, back, legs, shoulders, and arms, then be sure to change the exercise order of your sessions to match the specialization phase you are in.
Tempo is often overlooked. It is, however, a useful training variable that can keep you progressing. Swapping touch and go bench press for a 2-second pause at the bottom can provide enough of a change to be an effective stimulus. Try this approach out over your next 3 phases of bench press:
- Phase 1 – 5 seconds down, 1 second up
- Phase 2 – 3 seconds down, 2 second pause on chest, 1 second up
- Phase 3 – regular touch and go tempo
The first time you do regular touch and go reps in phase 3, your performance will probably be about the same as it was before, but after re-learning the ‘skill’ of touch and go you will probably see your numbers jump up week on week to a PR.
How Often Should You Change Your Workouts?
Exactly when you should change your program is an impossible question to answer because everyone is different. I can provide you with a simple rule of thumb to guide your decision - use it for as long as it is delivering the results you are looking for. In a perfect world, you would transition to a new program just as your current training is losing its effectiveness. Knowing when this is, to the exact day is impossible, but using a combination of objective data like gym performance, scale weight, and subjective data like fatigue levels, muscle soreness, muscle pumps, and motivation to train can all guide your decision-making process.
Don’t Make Change for Change Sake
The last point I want you to consider is whether change is actually needed or if you have fallen into the “grass is always greener” syndrome. All too often we compare ourselves to others. We see them making what seems to be rapid progress and we think we should be doing the same. Social media can, in large part, be blamed for this. ‘Fit-fluencers’ post their latest PR or a video of some whacky exercise to get views, and we fall into the trap of thinking we need that exercise or that we should be hitting PRs more often. Comparison is the thief of joy (and gains!). The reality is that slow progress is better than no progress. In all honesty, past the beginner stages, ‘slow’ is a completely normal rate of progress. We just wish it was quicker and easier.
When considering changing your routine, ask yourself, ‘am I making progress?’. Having a training log will help you to answer this objectively without letting emotion drive your decision. If you are still doing an extra rep here or there, putting a few lbs on your big lifts, or managing to do more sets at a given weight then you probably just need to knuckle down and keep grinding. The gains are coming, they are just not coming as quick as you wish they would, but you’re doing great! Building a physique is a marathon, not a sprint. Keep stacking small wins long enough and you’ll build the body you always wanted.
If on the other hand, you notice your reps or weight going up has gotten slower week on week for a while and has ground to a halt for a few weeks straight, that is a definite sign that adaptive resistance has set in, and your program needs changing.
Your Body Loves You, But It Hates You
In conclusion, it is crucially important you change your training routine occasionally to avoid your body using the same survival mechanism that built your muscles to prevent them from growing more. Your body loves you, but it hates you. It desperately wants to keep you healthy and alive, so it adapts, but it also wants to preserve energy so it stops adapting. It hates your continual pursuit of strength, muscle mass, and lower body fat. It doesn’t want to have to keep adapting. You need to give it a reason to. Armed with the variables listed in this article, you have multiple options to make sure you stay one step ahead of your body and keep forcing it to adapt to the different stimuli you include in your training.