Weight training: Do I need to change my workout to see results?
I've been told that every two to three weeks, I need to change my weight training routine or else my body will become too accustomed to it and I will stop seeing results. Is it really necessary for me to change my entire routine, or do I only need to increase weight and/or repetitions?
Your question is a good one! In fact, the body does adapt to weight lifting, so your progress might start to plateau if you continue with the same routine. After weeks or months of training, the same exercises that once exhausted you may seem almost effortless. To continue increasing your fitness, it’s a good idea to challenge your body in different ways by making your workouts progressively harder in one way or another. The good news is that it doesn’t mean that you have to change your entire routine; you could change the weight and number of repetitions. That being said, trying new exercises can also be part of the fun in weight training and help motivate you to keep training consistently.
Weight lifting is a type of resistance training where you apply external resistance to your body to grow muscle or build strength. Resistance training is centered around the overload principle: in order to increase muscle size or strength, your body needs to face physical exertion at levels it isn't used to. If you continue with those exercises that physically exerted you, at some point your body will likely become accustomed to it and you won't progress as quickly as you did before. There are two types of muscle growth from weight training: myofibrillar hypertrophy makes you stronger, and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy grows your muscles. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is when certain protein filaments thicken, allowing them to exert a greater force. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is when a certain fluid in the muscles fills up and creates added volume, making the muscles bigger.
If you follow the overload principle during your weight training, you’ll likely observe a combination of sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy over time. During exercise, your body undergoes two types of stress: mechanical and metabolic stress. Mechanical stress creates tiny tears in your muscle tissue, which trigger biomechanical reactions and cells within the body to build new muscle proteins. Metabolic stress is the process the body goes through following exercise that leads to an increase in growth hormone production which then promotes muscle growth. Other hormones released after mechanical and metabolic stress that contribute to muscle growth include testosterone and insulin-like growth factor 1.
The time it takes to see the fruits of your labor, in this case muscle growth, may vary by your experience level and your eating patterns. Folks new to weight training can experience increased muscle mass as early as six to eight weeks into their training program, while more experienced lifters may have to wait for eight to twelve weeks. These are just estimates, and timelines will certainly be different for everyone, but one way to speed up the process is by ensuring you're eating enough food, protein specifically, to fuel your body to lift as heavy as possible. Typically, it’s recommended that weight lifters eat a calorie surplus to be able to power through their workouts. For those who are aiming to lose weight, however, it’s possible that a calorie surplus is detrimental to your goals depending on the type of food you're eating and the intensity of your workouts. Either way, your body will need fuel to be able to keep up with the exercise.
Now, how should you change your workout routine to avoid plateauing your progress? One way is to play around with the amount of weight you're lifting and the number of repetitions (reps) for each exercise. There are three general methods, and which one you choose can depend on your fitness goals.
Do you want to build strength without bulking up? The maximal effort method demands you carry the maximum possible weight to maximize motor unit activity.
Do you need to be able to exert the greatest amount of force in the shortest time, perhaps for a sport? The dynamic effort method doesn't use the heaviest possible weights but does require you to harness more explosive power for every rep, stimulating more muscle motor units. However, this method isn’t effective for building muscle size because there is little mechanical or metabolic stress.
Do you want to put on lean muscle mass? The repeated effort method puts your body under both mechanical and metabolic stress by lifting a non-maximal load for as many reps as possible (sometimes dubbed "AMRAP") until failure. Unlike the maximal effort method, the repeated effort method encourages hypertrophy by incorporating more motor units and also has a lower risk of injury.
If you're looking for more general advice on how to mix up your workout routine, then here are a few ideas to guide your program, no matter your fitness goals:
Increasing resistance (whether this is using heavier weights, stronger fitness bands, etc.) builds muscle mass and strength. Even if you're hoping to lose weight, building muscle mass increases your metabolic rate and burns more calories.
How easily can you complete your sets? If you can finish the number of prescribed reps with ease, you may want to push yourself further and choose heavy enough weights that force you to struggle through the last one to two reps.
Are you keeping your heart rate up throughout the entire workout? It doesn't take very long to get a good training session in, even 20 minutes could be enough as long as you take minimal rests between sets and keep a high intensity throughout the workout.
Need ideas for how to increase intensity? Supersets and hybrids are great ways to push your body to its limits, while also minimizing rest. For a superset, try doing two or more exercises that target the same muscle group back-to-back without rest. Hybrid exercises combine two or more movements into one, such as doing a dumbbell bicep curl into a shoulder press.
Are you looking for something more fast-paced or more varied? Circuit training might be more your tempo. Move through a list of different exercises, take a brief rest, then repeat the circuit again.
With these principles, you can choose to modify your current workout routine or create a completely new one to avoid the dreaded plateau in fitness progress. It’s good to keep in mind that if you increase resistance, you may need to decrease repetitions and increase recovery time between exercises. If you add more sets, you may need to decrease the number of repetitions.
Although important, your weight training routine alone isn’t the only factor that impacts your results. Keeping a positive mindset and giving your body a chance to rest and recover are equally important. Keeping a positive mindset can help you overcome mental barriers you may face when trying to reach your fitness goals. While you may not want to rest as much during your workout to maintain the intensity, taking time to recover between training sessions is essential. The 12 to 24 hours following a grueling workout are essential for protein synthesis, muscle tissue repair, and glycogen restoration. To help with that rest and recovery, it’s recommended to allow 48 to 72 hours between training the same muscle group and get some good sleep. During the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle of sleep, testosterone and growth hormone are made, which help build muscle.
Finding what works best for you might take some trial and error. If you need support, you might want to work with a certified personal trainer to create a schedule you can work with over a period of months, tailored to your needs, abilities, and fitness goals.
Originally published Nov 15, 2002
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