Variety may be the spice in many aspects of our lives but not when it comes to training.
21 Jun 2017
'You need to completely change your workout every 3 to 4 weeks’.
How many times have you heard this?
Constantly switching programmes just to ‘mix it up’ is one of the biggest lies in training. And it probably has something to do with the ‘4 week rule’ most personal trainers have.
If you’re a beginner or intermediate trainee, even advanced, this mentality will lead to no progress as your body will never have enough time to adapt to anything.
I’ve fallen into this trap many times. For the first few years of my own training I thought you had to change your workout every 3-4 weeks. So I’d mix and match completely random workouts just to keep my body guessing.
The worst example was when I did the Smolov Squat programme (so stupid, I would never recommend it now), and then followed it up with a phase of 6-12-25. Looking back, it made no sense at all.
And I think by the end of the 6-12-25 phase, I’d lost all the temporary gains I made on the Smolov programme.
As I’ve trained more and more people, I find myself changing programmes less often with far superior results.
The sweet spot I’ve found for the average person is somewhere between 8 and 16 weeks to truly milk a programme and adapt to it completely.
For many people, it can actually be longer. I’ve had people on the same programme for months on end and still get stronger off it. You should only change it when you’ve milked every last bit out of it.
If something is working, why mess with the recipe?
So does this mean we need to do the same thing week in, week out?
When we talk about keeping the same programme, it’s specifically talking about the exercises used, and especially the big compound lifts.
The reason it’s important to keep many of the exercises the same is because of the learning process and neurological adaptation behind each lift.
When you start a new exercise in your programme, the first 3-4 sessions is typically spent teaching your body how to coordinate itself to perform the move optimally.
The gains in strength you make in these weeks are neurological, and not related at all to gains in muscle mass.
After 3-4 weeks on the programme, the initial fast gains in strength you make in the new move will taper off. And this is what people mistake as adaptation and a plateau.
In actual fact, this is the time to push hard and make real muscular gains.
Your body doesn’t like adding muscle tissue, which is why it’ll opt for neural gains over muscular gains initially.
Once you’ve made these adaptations, your body has no choice but to add muscle mass when you continue to progressively overload a movement (providing you are eating the right amounts).
If you look over my training logs over the past year or so, you’ll see the same exercises crop up every week: floor presses, bent over rows, chins, RDLs, leg presses etc.
If you look at the training logs of the best bodybuilders in the world, you’ll see the same thing. The same movements performed week in, week out for years on end.
For our RNTers, if you’re wondering why I rarely, if ever, completely overhaul your programme and keep the same exercises in most of the time, it’s for this very reason.
I want you to apply progressive overload to exercises you’ve mastered.
The meat and potato lifts should remain the same. Sure, we all like to try new things now and then, but this should be saved for smaller isolation moves where the learning curve is less.
For your compound lifts, or ‘indicators’ as I like to say, once you find what works for you, stick with it.
So should I change anything at all?
Yes of course. You can’t expect to do exactly the same thing for years and expect to keep growing. The secret to making this work long term is to provide clever variation.
To do this, there are a few strategies that you could use:
1. Change Rep Schemes And Loading Parameters
This is my favourite method. Instead of overhauling a programme, often all you need to do is slightly tweak the rep scheme.
So if you’ve been doing sets of 8 to 12 for the last 6 weeks and can’t push your lifts up anymore, try lifting in the 6 to 8 rep range for a while.
You’ll be surprised just how long you can milk this strategy out for.
If you then combine it with a strategy like this to use within each block, you can string it out even longer:
Week 1: 3 sets of 8
Week 2: 3 sets of 7
Week 3: 3 sets of 6
Week 4: 3 sets of 8
Week 5: 3 sets of 7
Week 6: 3 sets of 6
There’s so many ways to do this. And I cover many of them in my extensive guide on continuous progression here.
2. Resetting Lifts
If you’re banging your head against a brick wall with a lift, often you just need to reset the lift.
After a certain point on a cycle, fatigue will mask fitness, so if you keep at the same thing you’ll only accumulate fatigue instead of making progress.
By resetting a lift by 10-15%, increasing the rep range a tad and staying away from failure a weeks, you’ll find when you do ramp up the intensity again you’ll be stronger.
This is similar to the blast/cruise cycle made popular by Dante Trudel in his DC Training.
3. Using A Rotation of Key Lifts
Instead of using just one big exercise per cycle for a body part, try to pick 2-3 exercises to rotate between.
My favourite way to train is to have two heavy days in the week where I train in the 4-8 rep range, and two higher rep days in the 8-20 rep range.
Besides stimulating a wide variety of rep ranges, this works really well because you build rotation of your key lifts into it as well.
For example, you may do this with chest:
Low Incline DB Press 3×6-8
Incline Barbell Press 3×6-8
60 Degree Incline DB Press 3×8-12
This way you’re rotating between two workouts and two rep ranges.
You can then string this out for longer without the need to change anything. Especially if you combine this with variety in rep progressions too.
4. Small Adjustments in Grip / Stance
If after all this you start to plateau, which will happen sometimes, you still don’t need to overhaul the whole programme.
Instead, make small adjustments to your grip or stance.
For example, if you’ve been using a neutral grip with all your dumbbell presses, switch to a pronated grip.
If you’ve been squatting shoulder width, take it 2 inches wider.
Small changes, more gains.
What if you’re super advanced?
Everyone’s rate of adaptability will vary. But as a general rule the more advanced you become, the quicker this becomes.
All this means is that you need to implement the strategies above more diligently.
More variation in loading parameters, more lifts in your rotation, more slight adjustments to grip/stance (especially to avoid overuse), and perhaps changing the conditions in your lifting more (e.g. exercise order).
But the main compound lifts will stay the same.
If you’re a beginner or intermediate you will do this less.
You need to focus on mastery of some key exercises and then pour all your energy into getting as strong as possible on them.