How Often Should You Switch Up Your Routine?

Question:

Marc, I’ve been wondering how often I should switch up my sets and reps?  I’ve been following a program now and while my weights are increasing, I’m still doing the same number of sets prescribed along with the same repetitions.  During the first six months, the changes (visual) came quickly.  Now I’m not seeing that as much.  What can I do?

Answer:

Anybody who looks for this answer on the Internet is bound to get 1000 different views and opinions.  Unless the person in question knows you personally and your situation, tossing out:

“You should change up your routine every week.”
“You should change up your routine every 6 weeks.”

Is useless advice.  You probably came here looking for a quick calculator or a pretty table where you can cross reference your level of ability and find out what you need to do next.  That’s not how champions are made.  And all those awesome body transformations you see, are mostly beginners who can pretty much do anything and get fantastic results.  See what they do AFTER the transformation.

I can be it’s not some cookie cutter calculator on what to do next.  They take it to the next level of personal development and learning.

Anybody who follows a cookie-cutter routine is bound to fall into this trap.  And if your “expert” offers you no resources on where to turn to next or have EVER mentioned the term Periodization, you should be confused.

I’ve often tried over the last few years to TEACH people the basics and the fundamentals all the while sending links to resources and books in hopes they would continue the education.  You see the problem you face is something we all face.

It’s called Progression and Plateaus.

As a beginner, you can do almost anything (sets, reps, rest periods) and your body responds quickly.  These so called beginner gains can last anywhere from 6 to 9 months!  After that, the amount of work required to induce change becomes a focal point.  Your ability to recovery quickly becomes an issue.  You see as a beginner… (and I don’t mean to burst your bubble) …

You aren’t really lifting that heavy.  You think you are but it’s not really the weight per se, it’s the amount of work done and the stress to your muscles.  As a beginner it doesn’t really take much for your body to quickly start adapting and growing new tissues to support your efforts.  When you get to the Intermediate levels and beyond, the amount of work done is significant and your ability to recover from such a bout is called into question.  If you do the same workouts over and over for months, you plateau and your progress is held steady as there’s no reason to adapt to further stress.

Adding more weight, reps and sets will ultimately lead to over-training (which is all to often used) and it just means your ability to recover is now compromised and you cannot work out hard enough to bring about changes.  As you begin to approach training loads closer to your genetic potential, your ability to recovery is now called into question.  Recovery takes longer and thus, different training protocols are used with intermediate beyond than beginners.

While the 3 sets of 10 is valid for beginning lifters, that routine gets old quickly and fails to add enough stress to disrupt the homeostasis required for change.  It’s why you see somebody without any training experience suddenly make fantastic changes (depending on how out of shape they were to begin with) but might stay the same for decades.

They were able to train to a point where the body needs to change no more without added stress.  And without a qualified coach they simply don’t know what to do except more of the same with a few variations here and there.

All this means is that depending on your current level of fitness, you may need to modify the number of sets, repetitions, possibly rest periods in order to make progress again.  This probably means some form of back-training (deloading) so that you undertrain for some period of time before coming back and going at your routine hard again.  When you do come back, there’s many variables you can modify.

Resource:  How to Increase the Intensity of Any Workout

According to powerlifter Dave Tate, an advanced lifter may adapt to a routine within 1-2 weeks.

Strength coach Ian King says that unless you’re a beginner, you’ll adapt to any training routine within 3-4 weeks. Coach Charles Poliquin says that you’ll adapt within 5-6 workouts.

Training Sets and Repetitions:

Training Application Repetition Guidelines Working Sets
Endurance 12 or more 2 to 3
Hypertrophy 6 to 12 3 to 6*
Strength 6 or fewer 2 to 6
Power 1 to 2 3 to 5

* Bodybuilding sets may vary dramatically depending on program design

When do you change up your program?

Depends on your level of fitness and your training goals.  If somebody tells you to switch your entire routine every 6 weeks and go to the next one, they are giving Internet advice.  Meaning, at my level, I can switch my routine almost every workout and survive but if I did that to my beginner friends, they’d be continually sore and never develop proper neuromuscular control.

As a beginner, you might stay in foundation routine for months.  Or maybe 6 to 9 weeks before moving into a growth phase.  After the growth phase, you can move to an absolute strength phase.  Then back to a foundation… and repeat.  What you are really doing is not staying in any particular phase for too long as you want to stress your body but change it up shortly thereafter to either take advantage of the new muscle (growth to absolute) or to take an active break.. absolute back to foundational.

That’s why taking a bunch of programs that all do different things, tossing a dart at them and picking one is variation but it’s not periodization and it’s not building off the blocks of previous training.

It’s a complicated theory and most people don’t have a plan beyond that training day or that month.  (I’ve been there myself).  You finish a routine and it’s “Now what?”

This is where a periodized training plan is a must!  You can use all of the various intensity techniques in the stages but you cycle thru:

  • Foundation Training
  • Functional Training (sports specific)
  • Pre-Season Training
  • In-Season Training
  • Active Rest

This blog is related to bodybuilding but each sport will have different seasons and different drills and exercises associated with each.  Hopefully your coach has a specific plan to address your sport.

If you are just into general fitness, then go to the gym, do your sets of 3 with 10 reps, eat better and you’ll be fine.  But if you plan on competing in a contest or you want to increase your bench press, pull-ups or deadlift, that’s where a training plan comes into play.  Adding weight forever won’t work forever and you need techniques to get you past sticking point.

By now, you should realize that simply changing up sets and reps will work for some but it’s not a random process.  A beginner can stick with a certain number of reps and sets and be fine while the advanced athlete may need to cycle thru the stages on a weekly or semi-weekly basis.  It’s not as simple as looking at somebody and telling them, “You’ve been working out for how long?  Okay, it’s time to change your sets and reps.”

Stick with me folks, I’ll take this concept further and explain the concept in more detail and give you some example routines so you can get a better understanding.

Marc David – CPT
“The NoBull Muscle Guy”
Author of NoBull Bodybuilding

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One Response to "How Often Should You Switch Up Your Routine?"

  1. Mike Mahony:
    February 03, 2012 08:43 pm

    Marc, great response to such a common question. Because of all the misinformation in the fitness industry, many people truly think they can just do this or that workout and get in shape and then continue to progress later. Since changing my own physique I have had many people ask me about giving them a workout that will do the same for them. My answer, while not as detailed as what you give in this article, is very much the same as what you talk about here. There just is no cookie-cutter approach for getting into great shape. To me learning the concept of the Experiment of One was what brought me to a new place in my training.

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