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Are you a creature of habit?
I know I am.
I like routines and tend to stick to them. It helps me stay productive and keeps me on track.
Occasionally I’ll mix it up, but most of my days look pretty similar.
I’m willing to bet you’re in the same boat.
You probably get up around the same time, eat similar things, and go through a daily schedule that varies by fractions instead of wholes.
As nice as routines are for day to day living, they can be disastrous for your training.
I’m not talking about warming up and all that jazz. I’m talking about the lift itself.
If you show up to the gym and do the same lift over and over and over again you will not make progress over the long haul. Sure…in those first couple of weeks you might see some gains, but that’ll eventually come to a screeching halt as you hit the dreaded wall of no progress.
Similar to the Dikimbe Mutombo commercial, but instead of rejecting rolled up paper he’s rejecting your desire to (fill in goal of choice).
This is usually when I hear from people–when progress stops being had. It just so happens the quantity of the “help I’m stuck” emails has been rather high recently, and in looking over all of their “routines” one thing stands out immediately: the lack of variety.
Adaptation rules all.
But seriously…it does.
It dictates who you are now and who you will become in the future. The nice part is you can control for adaptation if you understand it.
Thus, adaptation can be defined as the adjustment of an organism to its environment. The environment provides the stimulus and then our bodies will adapt.
Training is no different. We provide a stimulus, whether it be running, squatting, or doing push ups, and then our bodies adapt.
Not all stimuli, however, are created equal. Some will produce a positive adaptation, some will produce no adaption, and some will produce a negative adaptation (for our purposes negative adaptation simply means decrease in performance).
The three types of adaptation can be classified as follows:
Stimulating- magnitude of the training load exceeds the previous level causing a positive adaptation.
Retaining- magnitude of the training load equals the previous level causing no adaptation
Detraining- magnitude of the training load falls below previous levels causing a decrease in performance.
You can picture a graph with physical fitness on the y axis and training load on the x axis. The stimulating load will arch up, the retaining load will stay flat, and the detraining load will arch down.
Law of Accommodation and Law of Diminishing Returns
Two other important concepts to understand are the law of accommodation and the law of diminishing returns.
In a nutshell, the law of accommodation states that the response of a biological object (human in our case) to a constant stimulus diminishes over time. This makes logical sense. As your body sees the same stimulus over and over again it will eventually adapt and the stimulus no longer has an effect.
We can use music as an example. The first time you hear a new song it may be awesome. Play it on repeat for a few days and you eventually will no longer like the song.
The law of diminishing returns gets after the same idea: over time the magnitude of adaptation that occurs from a given stimulus diminishes. For example, a beginner lifter can see gains from simply squatting the bar because he or she has never performed the movement, while an elite powerlifter can lift a near maximal load and see hardly any adaptation because of the increased exposure to the stimulus.
These two ideas may seem simple, but they’re powerful. You always have to keep them in mind and respect they are there.
Also, these two laws bring to light the importance or need to continually challenge the system–a concept known as progressive overload. As the system adapts you have to continually provide it with a greater stimulus, or else you’ll flatline and eventually die off.
Another way to get after progressive overload is via variance–finding ways to change your routine to continuously generate a stimulus greater than what your body is used to.
How To Vary
When it comes to varying your routine you really have two options:
Change the load
Changing the load comes down to manipulating volume and intensity.
For sake of this conversation, volume will be the total number of lifts performed. Here’s an example:
You do 5 sets of 4 reps in the bench press. Your volume that day is:
5 x 4 = 20 reps
Intensity, on the other hand, deals with the average weight of the barbell, and can be calculated by dividing the total weight lifted by the number reps. The greater the weight the greater the intensity. Here’s an example:
Say you do 4 sets of squats for 5 reps a set, with each set looking like this:
Set 1: 100 lbs
Set 2: 100 lbs
Set 3: 120 lbs
Set 4: 120 lbs
To calculate total weight lifted you’ll do the following:
(100 x 5) + (100 x 5) + (120 x 5) + (120 x 5) = 2200 lbs
To find intensity you’ll divide 2200 by the total number of lifts:
2200/20 = 110
There you go. The average weight lifted that training session was 110 lbs.
With that in mind, I want you to think about how you can vary a training session.
Go ahead and take a minute and write something down.
So to vary a training session you’d have to either increase sets, increase reps or increase the load (general rule of thumb is to decrease volume as intensity goes up. just so you don’t make that mistake). Let’s see what that looks like the next time you squat:
You come back in to squat and decide you’re going to do 4 sets of 2 reps. Your sets look like this:
Now let’s find intensity:
(150 x 2) + (160 x 2) + (175 x 2) + (175 x 2) = 1314
1314/8 = 164
Notice what happened.
Your volume decreased from 20 reps to 8 reps, but your intensity increased from 110 to 164.
Now I wish we could go into more depth on this front, but there’s just not enough time to do so because what we’re beginning to tread on is periodization–the art of planning training to control for volume and intensity in the most effective manner.
That convo will have to wait for another day, so just remember to change up volume or intensity and you should be good for now.
Change the movement
Another way to mix things up is to change the movement. The opportunities here are limitless, so don’t be afraid to get creative.
Here are a few examples:
Change the movement completely
This is as simple as it sounds. Pick an entirely new movement. You’ve been doing squats…try deadlifts. You’ve been running…try pulling a sled. The list can go on and on.
Add chains or bands
Putting chains or bands on the bar can completely change the movement by way of accommodating resistance. Although it may not seem much different to you, I can promise you’re body and central nervous system think it’s different.
Change your stance
Another easy way to mix things up. Instead of doing something standing up drop into a half kneeling or tall kneeling stance. Try squatting with a wide stance. Try squatting with a narrower stance. Try deadlifting while standing on a small platform to increase the range of motion. Just use your imagination and have some fun with it.
Vary the tempo
A lifts tempo is often overlooked. You can change how long the eccentric, concentric and sticking point of the lift lasts. For example, while doing a single arm dumbbell row take 1 second on the concentric portion, 1 second on the sticking point and 3 seconds on the eccentric portion. I think you’ll enjoy the different stimulus.
Change the type of bar you use
Unfortunately, a lot people do not have access to a wide variety of bars. I’d be willing to go even further and say most people don’t know different bar types exist. Either way, they can be an extremely powerful tool in your toolbox. Here are a few to get you started: trap bar, swiss bar, cambered bar, and safety squat bar.
(If you’re in the market for bars I’d recommend checking out Rogue’s selection. They have some of the best stuff around. Just click this link and it’ll take you straight to the page: Rogue Weightlifting Bars)
This has been a very brief overview of how to vary up your routine, but I hope you’ve gotten something out of it.
Adding variety to your training routine should be fun. Get creative, experiment, and see what works best for you.
As I mentioned earlier, variety will depend on your training experience.
If you’re a beginner, you won’t need to vary your routine as much as an experienced lifter because you haven’t spent much time around the stimulus. And please god take advantage of that. Don’t get all trigger happy and start changing things up every two weeks. Ride out the good wave while you can. Continue performing a lift as long as you’re seeing progress. Once progress drops off then change things up.
For intermediate and more advanced lifters, a generalized rule of thumb is to change things up every 3 to 4 weeks. Start there and see how things go. As you lift you’ll get a better feel for how your body adapts and how long you can spend on any one thing.
Sometimes people make the mistake of believing all they have to do is follow the set and rep scheme on a program, and they’ll instantly get better. Granted, this carries some weight, but if you know how to methodically work your way through a program, you can make more progress and set a pr (personal record) everyday.
This is obviously important for many reasons, but for me, it’s always helpful to see progress. When you know you’re improving, it’s easy to stay motivated and get excited about training. There are many ways to get after this, but let’s focus on three big ticket items that are relatively easy to manipulate: volume, intensity and density.
Volume: the total amount of weight lifted over the course of a workout (sets x reps x weight).
Intensity: relates to how “heavy” a weight is. For example, lifting a load that’s at 90% of your 1 rep max is more intense than lifting a load that’s 60% of your 1 rep max.
Density: how long it takes you to complete an exercise, or how many reps/how much weight you lifted in a set amount of time. For example: performing 3 sets of 10 reps of push ups in 6 minutes is more dense than performing 3 sets of 10 reps in 7 minutes. You did more work in less time.
Generally speaking, you should go into each training session asking how you can I improve one of these qualities everyday. That way, you are always hitting a personal best, and continually see improvement.
Here are two ways you can apply these ideas to your programs:
Simple Volume Wave
Let’s say you want to build your way back to deadlifting. Generally speaking, we want to hit volume before intensity, so your rep and set scheme for a 4 week cycle may look something like the following:
Week 1: 6×3
Week 2: 8×3
Week 3: 10×3
Week 4: 12×3
Notice how I built in a volume wave to ensure continual progress.
If you do 6 sets of 3 at 315lbs week 1, your volume comes out to 5670lbs.
In week 2, if you decide to not increase weight you’ll still be hitting a personal best because your total volume lifted is now 7560lbs. Thus, you improved.
Don’t always relate improvement to intensity. By increasing your volume from week to week you are improving! Granted, that’s not to say you can’t increase weight from week to week, but be smart in the way you do so. You already know you’re going to be lifting nearly 2000lbs more than the previous week, so maybe stay at 315 for the first 5 sets, and then put on 5 lbs for 2 sets, and then throw on another 5 lbs for your last set. Now you’ve increased volume and intensity!
A big mistake I see people make is coming out of the gates too fast. They try and blow week 1 out of the water from an intensity standpoint, and fail to set themselves up well for week 2. Use a weight that’s challenging, but nothing that’ll crush you. This way you can progress from week to week.
I promise this will bring better long term results.
Decrease Reps, Boost Weight (Intensity)
Here’s another super easy way for you to get better every week and every workout. Start off with higher reps and then drop reps from week to week so you can increase the weight. Here’s an example of a rep scheme you may use for an accessory exercise for a 4 week cycle:
Week 1: 3×10
Week 2: 3×8
Week 3: 3×8
Week 4: 3×6
Notice the reps drop from week to week--this is a built in mechanism for you to increase weight (intensity).
Say you do single arm dumbbell rows at 65 lbs week 1. Week 2 you should be adding weight since the reps drop, therefore boosting intensity and allowing you to make progress. Again, set yourself up for success the following week by not crushing yourself. Challenge yourself, but don’t feel like your trying to hit an 8 rep max.
In week 3, the reps stay the same, and you can attack this in one of two ways. Either increase the weight (you don’t have to increase for all the sets, just increasing 5 lbs in the last set is a pr compared to the previous week) or do the same weight in less time (increase density). This way, you’ve made progress in one of the major categories and once again hit a personal record.
Since you’ve been smart about adding intensity and/or density from week 2 to week 3, when week 4 comes rolling around you should be prime to jump weight once again and boost intensity.
Neither of these concepts are revolutionary. They’ve been around forever, and it’s something all successful coaches and athletes do. The big take away from this should be your thought process. Constantly be thinking and analyzing how you can get better at one of the big 3 categories in your next workout. Don’t accept mediocrity. If you plan appropriately, you should be able to pr almost everyday. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty awesome to me.
Header photo credit
When you first begin to train, you'll find progress everywhere you look. Hell, I honestly think some high school kids can waltz into a weight room and just think about lifting and get stronger because they've never done anything.
With time, however, progress becomes harder and harder to come by.
What used to work eventually stops working (also known as the law of diminishing returns), and you find yourself stuck in the abysmal land of stagnation.
This is a shitty place to be, and makes training a miserable experience. I mean who wants to bust their ass in the gym if they aren't going to get any better?
Hopefully you never have to experience this wonderful phenomenon, but if you do here are 5 variables that may be holding you back.
You Don't Have A Plan
If you don't have a plan you're lost, and making constant progress will be nearly impossible. Although showing up and doing whatever comes to mind may work in the beginning, it will not work for long.
Action Item: There are too many variables for you to just wing it and expect to keep making progress. If you want continued success, then start coming up with a plan or pay somebody else to do it for you.
You Aren't Focused
Like everything else in life, in order to make real progress you have to be 100% focused. Just going through the motions will not bring about improvement. Geoff Colvin, in his book Talent Is Overated: What Really Seperates World Class Performers from Everybody Else, stresses this point by emphasizing intense deliberate practice. In other words, you need to bring an incredibly intense focus to whatever it is you're doing.
Action Item: When you start your workout, the cell phone needs to go away, the chit chatting needs to stop, and you need to avoid being distracted by the smoking hot girl or guy on the other side of the gym. If those things are important to you, show up two hours early to mess around. Every bit of your focus needs to be devoted to whatever you are working on that day. When it's time to work, it's time to work.
You Don't Get Enough Sleep
I cannot stress how important good sleep is. Without opening up an enormous topic, just know that poor sleep leads to a host of problems like reduced insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, reduced testosterone, and increased exposure to cortisol.
Action Item: Checkout this article by Ryan Andrews to learn a little more about sleep.
You're Nutrition Isn't Up to Par
I hope this doesn't come as a surprise to you, but in order to make gains in strength, power, speed, endurance etc. then you have to have a solid nutrition base. Nutrition provides the fuel for you're body to run on and the tools to repair/build up muscle. If you come up short here, you will come up short just about everywhere.
Action Item: checkout our free ebook Winning the Nutrition Battleand we'll show you how to build meals based on your body type and goals.
You Don't Work On What You Suck At
I'd be willing to bet that you don't work on what you suck at. Who can blame you though. Working on something you suck at isn't fun by any stretch of the imagination. Unfortunately, if you want to see consistent progress then you have to. Think of it this way: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and you are no different.
Action Item: Find someone you can trust to give you an honest evaluation of what you need to work on, and be willing to put your ego aside during this process.
[Bonus Item] You Feel Like This On A Constant Basis
Action Item: Um...quit doing drugs?