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How Often Should You Change Your Workout?

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That you should change your workout program from time to time is becoming almost cliché in today's fitness world. You can read about the importance of variety in not only health magazines, but news and gossip periodicals as well. It's even blared at you over the loudspeakers of large chain health clubs in a manner eerily similar to, "attention K-Mart shoppers." So, on one level, it's a no-brainer: change your workout, variety is the spice of life, don't let yourself stagnate so on, and so forth. But on another, more practical level, information is slightly more scarce, mainly that little detail of when to change and what to change to. Here is a quick breakdown and history lesson that should give you a more clear idea of what, why, and when.

Periodizational Training

This simply means to break one's training into a series of periods. During these periods you focus primarily on one thing. After a period of time, just as you adapt and your learning curve begins to level off, you change what you are doing so that your body maintains a steep learning curve.

Here is a simple example that may clear this up. If you run 5 miles today, it will most likely have a strong effect on your body--especially if you've never run 5 miles before (ouch!). Do this everyday and, over time, the effect on your body will diminish. Why? Because your body adapts to this ritual, getting better and better at it so the those same 5 miles have less and less effect on you.

History

Periodizational training is one of the concepts that came from the Eastern Bloc sports machine during the period from the late 50's to 70's, when most revolutionary training concepts emerged from this part of the world. Romanian coach and ex-Olympian, Dr. Tudor Bompa, is credited with the term, though it really became popularized by the phenomenal success achieved by East German and Russian athletes. While Western athletes embraced this approached almost immediately, it's taken more than a quarter century for it to become accepted as an efficient means to train for anyone that wants a healthy lifestyle.

How it Works

When you start any exercise program, your body must adapt to this new and strange set of movements. This adaptive phase is when your body's engrams, or neuro-muscular patterns, are trying to figure out how to do these movements efficiently. As this happens, the inefficiency of the movements causes mass muscular microtrauma (essentially meaning that you're getting a great workout). A growth phase follows, as your body is smart enough to do these movements to their full potential. Beyond this, your body is too good at them and your results start to level off. This period is known as a plateau, which is when you need to change what you are doing.

When to Change

3 weeks is really the shortest period that you should do any program. Any shorter and you will not leave enough time for the body to properly adapt to the new exercises. You must give the body enough time to undergo the structural changes necessary and if you alter this too soon, you don't allow the capillaries, muscle fiber, etc, time to adapt enough to continually make steady progress. Conversely, avoiding change will lead to a never-ending plateau. Some trainers' advocate this "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to training, which is scientifically and literally unsound, since the point of exercise is to break down the body and cause it to adapt.

The adaptive phase will vary, depending on the type of exercise you are engaged in and the fitness level of the individual. Beginners generally take longer to adapt, so it's no surprise that they may see continual gains on the same program for 8 to 12 weeks. More seasoned exercisers can maximize a routines' potential in as little as 3 to 4 weeks, but less than this is too little time to get all the potential out of even the simplest program.

And Change to What?

Athletes train in "blocks" that each stress different bodily energy systems. Usually these are referred to as: capillarity (foundation or endurance phase), hypertrophy (growth phase), motor-unit recruitment (strength or power phase), and lactate threshold (power-endurance phase). The simplest way to break this down for the layman is to just use number of reps as an example. While ultimately, the biggest changes will occur when you change your program entirely (so long as you change it wisely), a change in program can be as simple as adjusting the weight you use so that you fail at a different number of reps. The quick, once-over looks like this: endurance, over 20 reps, hypertrophy, 6 to 20 reps, and power, 1 to 6 reps, and power-endurance is evaluated by how much time you spend above your lactate threshold, or working in the state where your muscles are filled with lactic acid and feel "pumped". In the simplest format, a program should start with higher reps and less weight and move towards lower reps, with more weight.

Cardiovascular Considerations

Reps works as a gauge for resistance exercise but not for cardiovascular workouts. As far as cardio is concerned, you want to shake up your engrams, so that you never get too comfortable. This can be accomplished by something as simple as changing to any different cardio workout. This is why it's nice to have different options and gyms offer a myriad of choices: spinning, kick-boxing, step, power yoga, etc, etc. Many times, all it takes to break through a plateau is a random change: your run to a bike ride, your spinning class to an aerobics class, just anything that rocks the boat from time to time and doesn't let your body get too comfortable.

Save Those Tapes!

Don't throw any your old workout tapes. Something may always come in useful at a later date once you've exhausted it. The more tapes you have in your arsenal, the easier it is to keep shaking things up, which both keeps you from getting bored and keeps the results coming!

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