Change feels good. Whether it’s refreshing your hairstyle or color, pulling your cold-weather knits out of storage, or getting a pump of flavor in your morning latte, change keeps life interesting.
The same holds true for your workout routine. It’s amazing how simple tweaks like varying your running route or trying a new class can make all the difference in your motivation and even results.
That said, if you want to get the most out of your exercise routine, there is a science to changing your workouts. On the one hand, hopping around too much can sabotage your progress by not allowing your body time to adapt. But if your workouts get stuck on repeat, you’ll stop making improvements after a while.
So, where is the happy medium? We asked several fitness experts to clarify how often you should change your routine for optimal results.
Do You Need to Change Your Workout Routine?
Like many exercise-related questions, the answer is: It depends.
“Knowing if or when to change your exercise program is heavily influenced by a number of factors, which is why it’s never as simple as answering ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” says Jack McNamara, CSCS, an instructor with TRAINFITNESS.
One of the most important factors to consider is your goal. Are you looking to build muscle or strength? Get better at a sport? Burn calories for weight loss? Clarifying the purpose of your workouts will help you figure out whether you need to change things up.
“For some goals, it’s optimal to change up your workouts on a regular basis,” says Joe Johnson, personal trainer and owner of 9 to 5 Nutrition. For example, if you’re looking to improve fitness and burn some calories, it might pay to switch up your workouts often simply so you don’t get bored and lose the motivation to work out, he says.
However, if you’re still seeing progress and enjoying your training, you can stick to the same workouts for as long as you like, says Brett Durney, CPT, co-founder of Fitness Lab.
But if you do decide to switch things up, you may reap some of these benefits, experts say.
What Are the Benefits of Changing Your Fitness Routine?
“Getting fitter, faster, and stronger is your body’s way of adapting to the stressors we place upon it, be that intentionally through exercise or unintentionally through our lifestyles,” McNamara says. After a while, however, your body wises up and learns to adapt to your workouts more easily. “The longer you perform an exercise routine without changing it, the slower the progress,” McNamara says. Eventually, the improvements stop (also known as a plateau). To avoid plateaus, you have to introduce your body to new challenges if you want to keep seeing changes. That means switching up your routine in some form or another on a regular basis.
The one caveat: If you change your routine too much, too often, your body won’t get the opportunity to adapt to any of the stressors. This can also sabotage your progress, according to Durney.
Fewer overuse injuries
By varying your training, you may be able to avoid developing an overuse injury. “Your body has a limited ability to adapt, so if you repeatedly perform the same exercises time and time again, your tendons and ligaments are at a much higher risk of developing overuse injuries,” McNamara says. Changing your routine can stress your body in different ways, which lowers the risk of excessive wear and tear on muscles, joints, and connective tissues.
Helps you stay consistent
It’s easier to convince yourself to skip your workout when you’re sick of doing the same exercises, following the same routes, or going to the same classes. Switching things up on a regular basis lowers the risk of getting bored and quitting your exercise routine altogether. “If things feel fresh and interesting every session, it’s more likely you’ll stick to it,” Durney says.
How Often Should You Change Your Workout Routine?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how often to change your workout routine. (And, as noted above, it can be a bit of a Goldilocks approach.) The right frequency for you will depend on your goal, as well as how long you’ve been training. However, as a general guideline, aim to mix things up every 3-6 weeks, Durney says.
“You can also just change things whenever you feel like [your progress] is stalling,” he notes. For example, if you haven’t hit a personal best in a particular lift in a while, it may be time to vary your training.
Keep in mind that changing your routine doesn’t necessarily mean you need to perform a complete overhaul. “Small changes to sets, reps, or even just one or two exercises can make a big difference,” McNamara says.
But sometimes, a big change is exactly what you need. For example, a shift in seasons can be a great opportunity to shake things up, especially if you enjoy weather-dependent activities like skiing or mountain biking.
Just be sure you have rationale behind any changes. “Ensure that your program or workout is geared toward your goals, rather than just throwing a bunch of random exercises together,” Durney says.
How to Change Up Your Workout Routine
When you need a small change
There are countless ways to change up your workouts. And they don’t all involve remaking your routine from scratch, either, Durney says. (Though that’s certainly an option.)
“Technically, I change my workout routine every session,” McNamara says. “I always aim to include an extra repetition, change the weight, vary my rest periods, or even increase my overall time under tension.” (You can increase your time under tension by lifting a weight more slowly.)
Trying different variations of the same exercise can also make your workouts feel fresh, without changing them too dramatically. “If you normally do back squats, perhaps change that for front squats or Zercher squats instead,” says Becky Derbyshire, NASM-certified personal trainer and owner of The Lifestyle Blogger UK.
You can make small tweaks to cardio workouts as well. Try adding 5 minutes to your steady-state run, pedaling your bike a little faster during uphill climbs, or increasing the resistance on your indoor rowing machine.
The following methods are all great ways to make small changes to your routine:
- Increase or decrease the number of sets or reps of a given exercise
- Try a new variation of the same exercise
- Increase or decrease the resistance used
- Play with the tempo (speed) of an exercise
- Lengthen the duration of your workout, or try to get it done faster
- Change how often you work out
- Adjust your range of motion during a given exercise
“Try making just one or two changes to start with and see how this impacts your progress,” McNamara says.
See where you’re at after 3-6 weeks of the same program and decide if you’re ready to work on new exercises and skills.
When you need a bigger change
One of the simplest ways to revamp your routine is to try a brand new activity. Any activity that calls for learning new skills can be an especially good way to keep your interest level high. A few options to consider include boxing, hiking, rock climbing, yoga, and dance.
Or, switch up your exercise modality. If indoor cycling classes have been your cardio of choice for the past several months, sign up for a rowing class instead. Similarly, if you usually head for the elliptical as soon as you get to the gym, why not try the step machine?
Weightlifters can overhaul their routine by playing around with different training styles. For example, if you usually lift for strength, try some bodybuilding workouts on for size. Or, work on developing power for a few weeks. (You can also try out functional fitness training.)
Here are several ways to make your workouts feel like new again:
- Train for a race or other athletic event
- Try a new workout or activity
- Change your goal
- Try a different training style
- Try new cardio or strength equipment
The Bottom Line
Changing your routine offers plenty of benefits. It keeps your workouts feeling fun and fresh, which helps you stay consistent with exercise. Plus, varying your routine is essential for making continued progress toward your goals.
However, when and how you make changes will depend on many factors, such as your experience level, goals, and whether you’re making progress with your current routine.
At the very least, aim to tweak your workouts a little every week. “It doesn’t mean you have to change your workout completely,” Derbyshire says. “Just add a sprinkle of something new to spice things up.” It could be an extra set, a different exercise variation, or a small increase in your intensity.
If you’re bored, your progress has stalled, or your goal has changed, it’s time to make bigger upgrades to your routine. Try a new activity, train for a race, or experiment with different training modalities.