How to Change Your Strength Training Workouts

If you've ever lifted weights, you've probably heard of the dreaded plateau - that is, the moment your body stops getting stronger or losing fat because it's adapted so well to your workouts.

Adaptation is a good thing - after all, it means you've been working consistently enough that your body is stronger and able to handle your workouts. The bad side is that you're likely to hit a plateau, a situation you can avoid by changing your workouts regularly.

That sounds simple, but how do you decide what to change? It all starts with knowing a little more about how your body responds to exercise.

Why You Need Variety

When you lift weights, what you’re actually doing is teaching your muscles how to be stronger. For your muscles to grow, however, you have to challenge them with more than they can handle. This idea of overloading your muscles is one of the most important principles of strength training and the guiding force behind any good routine.

When you start lifting weights, everything you do is new and challenging, so it doesn’t take many exercises or much resistance to create overload. Once the honeymoon is over, however, your body adapts and it's time to go back to the drawing board to create more challenge.

Because there are so many components to a strength program – how often you lift, what exercises you do, how much weight you use – there are endless ways you can change your workouts.

Below you'll find ideas for exactly how to do that.

1. Change Your Frequency

How often you lift weights depends on the type of training you’re doing. If you’re following a total body program, you’ll need at least a day of rest between workouts. For that reason, you may lift 2 or 3 times a week. If you’re following a split routine and lifting for different muscles on alternate days, you may lift 4 or more times a week.

Changing how often you exercise will change the format of your workouts, pushing you past your plateau. Some ideas:

  • Try a split routine. Changing from total body training to split workouts will allow you to do more exercises and focus more on each muscle group. Some examples include:
  • Try a total body program. If you’ve been doing a split routine, going back to total body training can be refreshing and a great way to lighten up on your training schedule for a week or two.
  • Mix it up. You don't have to do one or the other. Try a total body workout one day and then an upper body workout and a lower body workout later in the week to keep things interesting.

Remember that you don’t want to work the same muscles two days in a row, so set up your schedule so that you always include at least one day of rest.

2. Change Your Exercises

When you do the same exercises over and over, your body isn't the only thing that adapts. Your brain adapts as well, getting so used to certain movement patterns that you zone out as your body goes through those familiar motions. By changing your exercises, for example doing a hammer curl in place of a regular biceps curl, you activate your muscle fibers in a different way, allowing you to break your plateau.

For ideas, browse through these workouts and articles to get new ideas for working different muscle groups:

3. Change Your Sets

Another simple way to stimulate your body is to change the number of sets you’re doing. Beginners may see results with just one set but, as you get stronger, adding another set or two will offer more challenge. Some studies suggest that one set is as beneficial as multiple sets (providing you lift to failure).

However, in my experience, most people don't lift to failure and end up getting more results by doing more than one set.

Of course, how many sets you choose depends on your goals, how much time you have and your fitness level. General guidelines suggest:

  • For muscular endurance: 1-3 sets of 12-20 reps
  • For building mass and strength: 1-6 sets of 8-12 reps
  • For maximum power and strength: 1-5 sets of 1-8 reps

If you're doing one set, add a second set to your routine and give your body a week or two to get used to that. You can add another set over time when you're ready for more of a challenge.

4. Change Your Weights and Reps

Changing the amount of weight you use and the number of reps is another way to elicit new strength gains and keep things interesting. An easy way to tell if it’s time for a change is to keep a log of your workouts. If you notice you can do more reps than before, increase your weight and drop your reps back to where they were previously or lower.

You can also change the type of resistance you’re using.

If you’ve been on machines, try free weights. If you usually do free weights, try cables or free motion machines. Your exercises will feel different and you'll involve your muscle fibers in new ways.

For beginners, experts suggest alternating changing your weights and reps on a weekly basis. Below is an example of how you might change a typical beginner program over a 6-week period:

Weeks 1 and 2 – Start a total body program, doing each exercise for 10 reps with a moderate weight
Week 3 – Increase the weight by 5-10% and reduce your reps to 8. For example, if you’ve been doing biceps curls with 10 lbs, you would increase the weight to about 12 lbs and perform 8 reps (Note: if you can do more than 8 reps, increase your weight until you find a resistance you can only lift 8 times)
Week 4 – Keep the same weights, but increase your reps from 8 to 10
Week 5 – Increase the reps to 12
Week 6 - increase the weight by another 5-10% and drop back down to 8 reps

This is just an example, so base your changes on your own program and what makes sense for you and your goals. Remember that any change, even a small one, can make a difference.

5. Change Your Method of Training

If you’re a beginner, you may want to be more conservative with your changes. Too much change can lead to injury or soreness and you need more time to master the exercises and get used to lifting weights. If you started out with total body training, you may want to stay with that for a few weeks before you venture out into different types of training.

If you have a few weeks or months of training under your belt, you’re ready for more drastic changes, such as changing the format of your workouts.

Below are just a few examples of how to do that:

  • Drop sets: After completing all your reps and reaching failure, reduce your weight to finish up the set with a few more reps. Some experts recommend doing one set of drop sets and only doing them for 2-3 exercises to avoid overtraining and injury. You may need to experiment with this training method to find what works best for you.
  • Pyramid Training: This type of training involves increasing or decreasing your weights and reps with each set. For example, doing one set of curls with a lighter weight for 15 reps, using a heavier weight and doing 12 reps for the next set and then finishing with your heaviest weight for 8-10 reps. You can find examples in this Upper Body Pyramid Workout and this Lower Body Pyramid Workout
  • Supersets: Supersets involve doing one exercise immediately followed by another without rest. You can do two or more exercises for the same muscle group or work different muscle groups. Some examples:
  • Superslow Training. This method of training involves performing each rep at a slow tempo, usually 8-10 seconds. This type of training is very challenging, for the mind and body. Strict focus on form is key for avoiding injury with slow training.
  • Eccentric Training. This type of training involves focusing on the lowering portion of each exercise, such as lowering the weight during a biceps curl. For this training method, you'll often need a partner to help you lift the weight into position so you can then focus on the eccentric movement.
  • Circuit Training: Circuit training workouts can have many formats - all strength training, all cardio or a mix of both. The idea is to go through several exercises, one after the other, for one or more circuits. You'll find a variety of examples in this database of circuit-training workouts.

How Do I Know What to Change?

Looking at all your choices you may think – do I have to change all of these? And if not, which ones should I choose? Remember that all of these components – frequency, weights, reps, sets and method of training - are related. Changing one aspect of your training may require you to change others to make things work. Keep it simple by changing just one component and allow your body to respond to that. Over time, you'll learn more about your body, allowing you to make changes more easily.

Sources:

American Council on Exercise. (2003). ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 3rd Edition. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise.

Hass, Chris J., et al. Single versus multiple sets in long-term recreational weightlifters.

Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol 32(1), Jan 2000.

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