FAQ's: When Is It Time To Switch Up My Routine

Knowing When it’s time to switch up your routine: the first two questions I have to ask are 1-“are you still experiencing gains/progress.” 2-“are you experiencing pain that is possible from an overuse injury.” The answer to the second question could be changing exercises. Exercises from different angles can hit the same muscles. But I like to think of the joints and angles of pressure put on them being like a drip of water on a stone, if the pressure and strain on the joints and bones is always at the same angle you might be wearing down that same spot over and over.

To the first question, “are you still experiencing gains?” If the answer is NO, Don’t immediately look to the workout itself, first think about other factors. Your workouts do not happen in a vacuum. You have all types of stress, and most likely inconsistencies in your recovery. I swear I can have an identical diet and training protocol from one week to another and let’s say one week I get 6 hours of sleep and the next I’m getting 8, I see significant differences. This example is highly subjective but I swear I see cuts and muscles more filled out with everything else identical but I’m just sleeping more l. In fact science supports this theory as well. So, don’t always look to just the workout, look at your whole human biological experience.

It might be time to mix it up if you’re not having fun anymore! If you’re not going to be a powerlifter you don’t necessarily have to straight bar bench press. Switch it up, depth jump push ups, TRX push ups, dumbbell work, and even the Jacobs Ladder hits the chest. If you aren’t going to be a powerlifter you don’t necessarily have to barbell squat. Everyone needs to do some sort of squat but the variation can change. My recommendation for general fitness is to cycle a different squat every 4 weeks unless someone has a specific goal of adding weight to a specific style. Personally I start a clients squat journey by teaching the front squat first. Reason being I feel this is the most intrinsically less risky and practical. Less risky because if form seriously breaks down the weight simply falls. More practical because many of my clients lift something up in front of them (heavy hag, object, or child) but rarely do they ever throw something on their back and squat it.

So to sum things up, it’s time to change things up in my opinion if you’re: hurting, not making progress, or bored. Other than that keep getting after it!

BOSU Shame

So rather than just saying a certain exercise or modality is stupid, which is easy (and fun), I have chosen to go into some depth as to why I feel the BOSU Ball Squat & deadlift should be viewed with scorn. English essayist and moralist Samuel Johnson said: “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I would argue that saying a nonsense exercise challenges your core strength is the last refuge of an incompetent trainer. 

 

The Dirty Secret

A large portion of fitness “professionals” are “slash trainers,” meaning that they don’t really train themselves and aren’t passionate about the subject. They have okay-ish physiques (maybe), one of the easier to acquire certifications, and they have another passion that is the main focus of their lives. Or, hey, it might just be that the circus wasn’t hiring that day (my case) or that Burger King required too much math, so, “Let’s be a trainer.” These people can often be seen playing on their phones while their clients flail around doing something next to meaningless. The result is also that effective means of training, especially ones that are difficult to teach, are passed to the side for low risk and lower reward moves. If you don’t know how to effectively program or explain the efficacy of an exercise such as the barbell squat or deadlift you can always throw someone on a BOSU ball, make them feel entertained, and take your paycheck. 

Efficacy of Training Balance

In and of itself, this is the subject of numerous studies which are not less than conclusive. First off, I believe there is never a reason to squat or perform any exercise focused on muscular development on the rounded portion of the BOSU ball. This teaches faulty movement patterns, and nearly always forces the trainee to collapse their ankles.

There are more effective ways to train balance and prevent injury through challenging synergist muscles (ones that assist the main muscle acting). Also, these exercises I’m about to list are great at pointing out asymmetry that might exist in your musculature left versus right. These are exercises where the foot can still be active and stable and adapting the body to asymmetrical loads similar to how they might need to be handled in real life and sport. A few examples are exercises like rear foot elevated split squats (a.k.a Bulgarian split squats), off-set deadlifts, and suit case carries. An important distinction being that balance is found by reinforcing postural integrity, meaning keeping the ankle-knee-hip organized in line, against an outside force. Similar to how you would have to pick up a heavy weight with one arm but not allow that to collapse your posture. One of my favorite tests for this is to progress from one single leg touch, to single leg deadlifts, to single leg rotational throws.

“Like, Core Strength, Bro”

I’ve heard the argument that unstable surface training activates more core musculature, thus burning more calories. This, frankly, is bullshit, pretty good bullshit, but bullshit none-the-less. Weight loss is a product of work output being greater than calories in. More core musculature is used squatting your bodyweight on a barbell, or even more core challenging, front squatting. Properly taught strength moves provide much more core stimulus than completion of a balance problem. 

Performing a lift on a BOSU or Indo Board  might be challenging. But is it challenging because you are taxing the musculature you want to develop or is it just a coordination puzzle? Also, squats and deadlifts are effective because your body is challenged to generate force production. If you take away your ability to do so with an unstable surface you have now negated the purpose of the exercise.

If your goals are to lose weight or gain muscle figuring out how to use weights far-far beneath sub-maximal on an unstable surface is as relevant as your goals as devoting 30 minutes of your training session to juggling. Often performing exercises on an unstable surface is used in physical therapy. I personally know this from rehabbing a severe tear of ligaments in my ankle. Physical therapy exercises have never been intended to drive aesthetic or performance adaptations. Which is what 99% of personal training clients are looking for and largely skewed towards the first of those two stated goals.

The Fallacy of Functionality

The term functional has become a bit of meme in fitness circles. In order for something to be functional it must have a function.  Are you going to be playing your sport on a wobbly surface or fighting someone in a row boat? I’ve regrettably seen hang cleans performed on unstable surfaces by competitive athletes. What is the purpose of the hang clean? It is to teach force production through triple extension. But when this exercise is performed on an unstable surface the weights that must be used are now ones that the athlete could probably bicep curl. So not only are you are practicing force production on a surface that does not mimic the field of play, you are now using weights that won’t drive the desired adaptation. 

#Themoreyouknow

I would encourage you to be ruthless in your exercise selection, if you cannot immediately and without doubt identify the purpose of an exercise in your routine, cut it. For the majority of you out there, you are balancing the gym with the rest of your life and you cannot afford fluff or modalities of dubious value. For competitive athletes, every second wasted on something that doesn’t produce quantifiable results could be used in recovery or increasing skill.  Remember it’s intelligent intensity that gets you the results you deserve. 

 

Respect for the Beginner

 

It’s natural for us as humans to want to compare, rate and rank. Now, let’s say you’ve been boxing and training for about a year. You now crave a good training session. The next few days after class your body no longer feels like it was hit by a car and will revolt against you any moment. Another human tendency, and one of our less admirable ones, is to gain a feeling of superiority by comparing ourselves to those less skilled. Remember you will always be a beginner compared to someone else out there.

Thailand Lessons

In Thailand over the course of 4 months I lived in a room underneath the gym at Sitsongpeenong Muay Thai Camp. I showed up to Sitsonpeenong with a couple of decades of experience, in shape (but still fat by Thailand standards), and 20 fights under my belt. However, compared to many of the Thai 16 year olds there, who will already have close to 100 professional bouts at that age, I was a rank novice. Also, fighters in camps such as the one I was at are usually there because there is no other choice for them and their family. Despite sweating all over the place, being comparatively a beginner with motivations most likely perplexing to someone fighting for survival, I was never treated with anything but respect. I strive to, although not always successfully, to remember this lesson in humility and graciousness.  

Back to New York

So, back to New York and group boxing classes. Even though you are now finding a “groove” there will be times when your motivation begins to flag. You might know exactly what to do at this point. “Jab,” “cross,” “slip,” and “weave,” are now all part of your vocabulary. You have all the right gear, you have a gym community, your comfort level is higher, yet still sometimes you might find it difficult to make it to the gym. Take a moment and think how much more of a challenge it is for someone new. Someone who feels awkward, doesn’t know anyone, and isn’t speaking the language yet. 

It’s Takes a lot of Heart to Begin

There is a difference between knowing because you’ve experienced something and knowing because you have been told something. If you have been in shape before, or used to be an athlete, you have a tremendous advantage over a beginner. You truly know that the results can and will happen with work, fuel, rest. The true beginner is venturing into uncharted territory with their body. In many ways what they are do is the more than just difficult, it’s courageous. They deserve our respect.

The Bloody Toothbrush Analogy

Regular exercise should be a habit. I understand that’s in an ideal world. Here’s a quick question: If you had a %90 percent chance of dying tomorrow what habits would you still keep? You would probably still want clean teeth, I’m guessing at least. So, take this in mind: It is purported by the historian Herodotus that the 300 Spartans (those people Kayne thinks are the Romans) passed time before the battle of Thermopylae by doing calisthenics, even though they were confident of impending death the next day. I’m not saying that level of exercise habit is realistic for most of us. However, just maybe skipping a workout to wait for January 1st or because Christmas is two days away is bullshit (especially in comparison).    

I try to remember that I enjoy working out, I always have. More so than enjoying it I see it as a non-negotiable. Exercise, if not actual structured training, is in the category of brushing my teeth. Now I try to be objective and remember to many people physical fitness is less like that and say more like say my Spanish CDs that are sitting around and might get vigorous use right before the possibility of a trip but otherwise lay unused. I mean, I haven’t finished them, and I bought them when people actually bought CDs!

Now to the bloody toothbrush analogy, I’m sure that brings up a lovely mental image, but I’m using it to drive home a point: exercise is like brushing your teeth. Steady and consistent wins the day, NOT “Beast Mode,” “training INSANE,” or other such silliness. If you skipped brushing your teeth for 3-4 minutes a day for 10 days would you try and catch up with a 40 min session of vigorous brushing? Basically when an untrained person comes up to me and says “I just started exercising and I’m doing 2 sessions a day, I can hardly move, it’s great!” My initial reaction would be the same as someone coming up to me with a bloody smile saying “just brushed for 2 hours, no cavities for this guy!” Yes, because you’re not going to have teeth soon. 

It’s not glamorous to start with modest goals. Also, much like sleep, you cannot back log exercise. Regular exercise, even 3 times 15 minutes a week, is great. I understand It’s not always glamorous to start with modest and achievable goals. However, I always cringe someone who has not been running in years, and is usually overweight, tells me they will be running a full marathon in 2 months. But that sounds so much more alluring than just committing to adopting better habits and sustained improvement over a lifetime. Start small. Start smart. If you can’t access or afford a knowledgable coach use resources that are science backed. Also, as a general rule gravitate towards the advice of those who aren’t trying to sell you a machine or product (especially those that seem too good to be true). It’s not glamorous. However, it also shouldn’t be expensive or that complicated. Start with a routine that is above all sustainable for life and minimize your visits to the orthopedic surgeon. 

 

Measuring Progress Versus Constant Variation

In this blog post I’m going to specifically focus on strength exercises and providing a counter point to proponents of constantly changing them, i.e. the good ole “muscle confusion” crowd. Although I am going to discuss strength exercises what I’m saying holds true for conditioning and sports as well. I would assume Michael Phelps probably swims more than once a week. Do you think his muscles are “confused” when he’s in the pool? Whether it's Usain Bolt at the track, or Gennady Golovkin on a heavy bag, athletes strive to perfect similar movements day in and day out. The best of them also include some cross training to balance out their bodies and prevent repetitive motion injuries. If you want the body of a well conditioned athlete, you should probably train like one. 

YOUR SQUAT WILL NEVER BE PERFECT

Perfect is not attainable, excellence is - but we will never be truly perfect at anything worthwhile. You will never “outgrow” the barbell squat, deadlift, overhead press, pull-up, etc. There will always be tweaks to get more out of the core lifts and movements. You can always gain by having a coach look at your benchpress. Once you start doing these “simple” movements you realize how infinitely layered mastering them becomes.  The statement that you “never outgrow the basics” is universally excepted by athletes in sports. However, sometimes I see this being forgotten in the gym. What are the basics? Universally speaking the movements (notice I said movements NOT muscle) of the squat, hip-hinge, push, and pull. 

A REASON YOUR TRAINER MIGHT NOT HAVE YOU SQUATTING OR DEADLIFTING

Quick disclaimer, a trainee might not be ready for these movements. In this article I'm specifically speaking about in shape, uninjured, reasonably fit clientele. A good deadlift, loaded carries (the farmer’s walk for example), and a good squat are true fitness “game changers.” Silly things done on a BOSU ball are not, even if your goal is weight loss. Weight loss is a condition of more work being done than calories entering the body, and very few exercises cause the body to work more than these three for example. However, these exercises take focus to learn. To be honest, a lot of you (not “you” you but that collective “you”) have the attention span of a gold fish. It’s easier to keep a low-commitment client “entertained” if things are constantly changing. 

Also, squats and deadlifts in particular take an experienced coach to teach. Not just someone who is the “rep-counter/gym babysitter” type trainer. Also, like anything rewarding, there is risk involved. If a trainer is only concerned with just making sure you are there to keep paying for sessions, your workouts might primarily be comprised of only low-risk and lower reward “entertaining” exercises. I see the same thing being done with boxing training. Clients being taught choreographed pad-work routines before they are anywhere near fundamentally sound to keep them entertained.

WHEN TO USE VARIETY

Most well thought out training programs include a phase that is some sort of General Physical Preparedness(GPP). At the base of the training pyramid is a period of acclimation to training, the body should be challenged in different ranges of motions, differing energy systems and rep-ranges. Accessory work, ("what is accessory work?" is a discussion for another time), is a perfect time to include some variation to keep things fresh. Also, there can be variation with in the movement itself (goblet squat versus barbell back squat for example). Changing rep schemes and rest periods can also be manipulated to keep things fresh. 

IN CLOSING

Training needs some metric to gauge progress: how many punches you can throw in a minute, mile run time, bench/squat/pull/press numbers. There is a place for variety. However, if you are constantly changing exercises and don’t have quantifiable numbers measure progress you will always be just “exercising” and never training.