I’ll be honest.
The training game has evolved by leaps and bounds over the years, but one thing that has made for constant contention amongst its professionals is the idea of when and how to “switch things up”.
The truth is, there are many philosophies on this idea. Workout programs that ask you to stay the course for 12 weeks are antiquated in the minds of people who think that muscles need to be constantly “confused” to see results.
In reality, I’ve come to make my own assessment of the situation:
Both Training Philosophies Are Correct
I know the whole “it depends” fallback answer that we use in the gym is becoming a bit of an old dog, but it’s undeniable that programming changes depend heavily on many factors. To name a few:
- Training age
- Training goals
- Movement skill levels
- Actual strength levels
That’s why it’s simply not black and white to say a program should change after a given time period. Everyone’s different – and so are their goals and needs. With that in mind, there are some guidelines I try to follow with my own clients to yield the best results.
Going for Strength and Performance?
What many people fail to understand with strength training for numbers is the fact that in many cases, the art of repetition is one of your best friends as a lifter. Strength training is a process to develop thicker muscle fibers, a more efficient nervous system, and better overall performance as a result. It’s also a massive game we play with physics, finding the way to make a pattern as efficient as possible to get the bar from point A to point B.
Moreover, when most trainees say they’re interested in strength training for performance, they’re typically talking about no more than a handful of movements in particular: Deadlifts, squats, bench press, overhead press, chin ups, and perhaps cleans.
With such a small number of movements to really zero in on, it creates plenty of opportunities to place time and volume into those big lifts and their variations (more on that later).
The only way to improve your performance and produce a stronger effort would be to practice that effort in question. Accessory movements have their place, but you’d benefit most if your programming didn’t stray much from the necessary foundational movements you’re trying to improve. Don’t give your program an overhaul after 6 weeks.
Looking for Physique Gains?
We have to look at things from a totally different perspective when we’re putting our lifting numbers and performance on the backburner in favor of purely cosmetic improvements. Hitting muscles from different angles, and embracing your inefficiency can be the best thing you can do to trigger aesthetic change.
What does this mean? Simply put, for a lean physique, it’s good to constantly suck at stuff. Your lack of skill at a given pattern will recruit more motor units from more muscles and will burn more calories for every rep of a given set.
This isn’t all to say that you need to be doing a new program every week, full of instability training and BOSU balls. It’s just suggesting that you shouldn’t be scared of a little more variety when you’re not as concerned with how strong you can get.
It also suggests that you’re more likely to hit a plateau in terms of your gains if you have the same movements lingering around in your program for too long. There’s nothing wrong with making some tweaks to your programmed lifts after 8 or so weeks to receive a new stimulus and challenge.
So, How Do We Tweak It?
It doesn’t take a world of change to still get all the benefits and avoid a plateau. Consider these ideas.
Change Your Tempo
Making your weight take on a more challenging presence by adding time under tension and forcing yourself to resist negative reps can create a night and day difference compared to the way you’d been lifting the same exercises prior.
That in and of itself can change your rates of perceived exertion one hundredfold.
Same Movement, New Implement
Just because you’re supposed to keep squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses in your workouts, no one says it has to be barbell squats, barbell deadlifts, and barbell overhead presses.
Try squatting with kettlebells, a sandbag, or a Zercher hold. Try switching to the trap bar for deads. And if you’ve got overhead presses covered, you’ll be quickly humbled when you go for a bottoms-up kettlebell press instead.
Pair or Group Your Movements
Substituting straight sets for supersets or trisets can be a great way to trigger a greater work capacity, influence your conditioning, and even stimulate more muscle growth – especially if you use compound sets in an isolation training workout for bodybuilding.
Remember – the goal in a hypertrophy workout is to exhaust and break muscles down. Even if you’re using the same old movements, you can get plenty of benefits from applying this technique to change things up in a smart way.
Change Your Rest Time
Whether your goal is strictly performance or you’re looking to sculpt your body, the amount of time you give yourself to rest between sets of a given movement will be directly related to that outcome. Increasing your metabolic demand and burning fat by extension will come from keeping the heart rate elevated for a longer period of time, especially when coupled with large, compound movements.
Less rest time than you're used to will provide a new challenge for your muscles to perform while not fully recovered (likely requiring a weight decrease), while also attacking the points above.
Alternatively, to optimize lifting performance, adding time to your rest can allow the central nervous system to fully recover between heavy sets, which can result in a better quality pull or press pattern.
If you still have the same questions you did before reading this article, I’d suggest you take a few minutes to clearly determine the exact goals you’re pursuing in the weight room.
Once you’ve figured that out, the rest comes automatically, and you’ll know what to do as far as orchestrating your programming goes.
But if you’re on the fence about training goals, I’ve got one sole piece of advice: Start with getting a baseline of strength under your belt. It doesn’t mean you have to become a powerlifter, but it should mean you take the time to learn to move respectable numbers in the big lifts using good form.
Taking the time to develop that capacity will pay dividends for the rest of your training journey. And it will make programming for other goals (and making changes to that programming) a whole lot easier.