If you’re constantly reading bodybuilding or fitness magazines, books and web sites searching for the routine – the perfect combination of exercises, sets, and reps – or the training method – the perfect style of performance – I’m going to save you some time and frustration…
There is no such thing.
While some exercises are better than others for specific muscle groups or specific individuals, there are several that are effective for each muscle group, and while there are many different high intensity training methods like the traditional Nautilus principles, SuperSlow protocol, timed static contractions, etc., all of them are effective if done hard and progressively as long as you don’t overdo the volume and get adequate rest between workouts.
However, constantly changing routines is not the answer either.
If you are not making progress changing your routine or specific exercises is usually not the answer. Either you are not stimulating the body to produce a response (not training intensely enough), or you are interfering with or preventing the body from producing a response, by doing more exercise more often than the body is capable of recovering from and adapting to within some time period or by not getting adequate nutrition or rest.
Before switching up exercises or changing training methods ask yourself,
- Am I really working as hard as possible on each exercise?
- Am I keeping my workouts relatively brief?
- Am I allowing my body adequate time to recover between workouts?
- Am I eating well?
- Am I getting enough sleep?
If the answer to any of the above is “No” then changing the exercises you’re performing is not going to help your progress.
Often, changing exercises, routines, or training methods appears to break plateaus because during the first six to eight weeks of a new routine weight progression tends to be more rapid due to neural adaptations or learning the skill of the new exercises or method of performance (or relearning the skill of exercises not performed for a long time). Changing exercises at this time is a mistake, however, because it is after this period of neural and skill improvement that real progress begins. When skill and neural adaptations can be ruled out as a major factor in progress you will know every time you improve by repetitions or weight on an exercise it is due to changes in the muscles and not just how efficiently you’re using them.
Some recommend variation because they believe a muscle will become resistant to further adaptations to a particular exercise after a period of time. Unless you are at or near the limits of your potential strength for the muscles worked if you are unable to progress on an exercise you are either not training it hard enough to stimulate improvement or doing something to prevent your body from recovering and producing the improvements stimulated. Contrary to uninformed opinion the body does not become resistant to further adaptations to the exercise movement itself – as long as potential for improvement remains, the stimulus is provided, and the requirements are met for recovery and adaptation the body will improve – what it adapts to is the level of demand of the training. The more advanced your training becomes and the nearer you get to the limits of your potential the harder you have to train to stimulate further improvements.
The more skilled you are at performing an exercise and the better the neural adaptations the harder it is possible for you to work the muscles involved. If you want to maximize the intensity of your workouts you must maximize these neural and skill adaptations, not prevent them by constantly varying your routines.
Another reason some people recommend varying exercises regularly is to avoid harm to the joints from overuse, however this is not a problem if proper exercises are selected and performed correctly to begin with and if the overall volume and frequency of work is not excessive.
This does not mean you should never vary your training, but changes should be made for specific reasons rather than variety for its own sake. Assuming the volume and frequency of training are reasonable, you can get nearly as big and strong as your genetics will allow training hard and progressively on a very basic routine of just a few exercises with very little variation. This should form the foundation of your training.
I realize some people like to vary their routines for psychological reasons: they get bored with their workouts, or find the appearance of faster progress that comes with a change of exercises motivating. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the long-term emphasis is on progression on a few basic exercises and the routines are not varied too often. While entirely switching routines every month or two is a mistake, there are some ways to incorporate variety into a routine while also maintaining enough consistency to ensure you are making real progress rather than just increasing numbers on paper.
The two approaches I suggest are:
- Perform one or two routines with a few consistent, basic exercises, and a few exercises that alternate.
- Alternate between a consistent “benchmark” routine and one or more varying routines.
For example, certain exercises make up the core of all my routines; squats, deadlifts, standing presses, chin ups, parallel-bar dips and gripping. I have a few other exercises I like and perform consistently, but however the workouts change they always include those few. You might perform completely different exercises, but the specific exercises are not as important as long as they effectively work all the major muscle groups.
Some advanced trainees may find despite a significant degree of overall improvement in strength and size certain muscle groups are not as strong or well developed as others. This may be due to genetic factors – not everybody has the genes to develop perfectly proportional or symmetrical strength and size throughout the body – however any perceived imbalance or asymmetry may be improved by changing the routine to focus more on lagging muscle groups.
Other situations where variation may be needed is to accommodate changes in other activities or to work around an injury.
With a few exceptions, beginners should stick with the same basic exercises for at least their first two to three months of training, focusing on learning and practicing proper form and becoming accustomed to pushing themselves through the muscular burning and discomfort associated with training at a high level of intensity. Even advanced trainees should not vary their training too often and stay focused primarily on consistently progressing on a few basic exercises.
Whatever variety you incorporate, keep in mind any changes made should should be purposeful and contribute to overall, long-term improvement. Select exercises and structure your routines in accordance with your training goals and how your body responds to exercise rather than simply switching things around randomly or just following whatever appears in the most recent Muscle & Fiction magazine or in the forum at BodybuildingBroScience.com, or whatever is popular in your gym at the time.
While some workouts may be better or more thoughtfully designed than others there is neither a single “ultimate” routine nor a need to constantly vary routines for best results. The best routine is is any that effectively works all the major muscle groups and is performed hard, consistently and progressively.