Variety, the spice of life…and your fitness routine

4 factors to help get you off that plateau
Staying motivated when it comes to your fitness routine is extremely challenging. You may become bored performing the same exercises in the same order, session after session. Not only are you unenthused, but also the results you once derived much pleasure from have seemed to come to a halt. You’ve reached a plateau. There’s no need to fret, however. The answer is to spice up your workout with a little variety. When you exercise, you are in effect challenging your body. Your body responds by adapting to stimuli, thus improving. Once adapted, your body will cease to improve in strength, endurance, and performance unless you provide a new stimulus. In other words, you must periodically challenge yourself in new ways so that your body can continue to grow, and/or improve. Four factors must be considered when designing an exercise program. They are mode, frequency, intensity, and duration. These same four factors need to be reconsidered when modifying an exercise program to include variety.

Mode refers to the type of activity that will be performed in an effort to achieve a desired result. Let’s say weight loss is your desired result, and up until now all you have been doing is stationary cycling for thirty minutes. You’ve been cycling for the past three-months and have enjoyed good results, but have remained at a standstill for the last two-and-a-half weeks. Additionally, you’ve become extremely bored with your routine, so much so that you’ve recently bagged your last three workouts. A viable solution, barring any medical conditions that would preclude you from certain activities, would be cross training. Instead of cycling for thirty minutes, why not cycle for fifteen, and walk on the treadmill for the remaining fifteen minutes. Another option could be to take your show on the road, and move your indoor activity to the great outdoors with cycling or hiking. Aerobic activity outdoors provides a wonderful backdrop; that breaks up the monotony of staring at the back of the person’s head on the lifecycle in front of you. Dealing with the elements outdoors also tends to be more demanding, and therefore results in the burning of additional calories. Remember though, when cycling outdoors that coasting is not work, so limit coasting as much as possible. Another option may be to participate in an aerobics class in addition to your cycling regimen. You may choose from step, to kickboxing, or any other activity that will get your heart pumping, and keep you motivated.

Strength training is another important component of fitness that needs to be considered. For the past year you’ve been strength training using machines only. At first you made tremendous strength gains, but lately those gains have tapered off, and you’ve become bored going from machine to machine. Free weights are a very worthy consideration. Strength training with free weights challenges balance and coordination as well as strength. As a result many smaller, stabilizing muscle groups are worked, resulting in the strengthening of muscles that would otherwise be ignored. In addition to changing from machines to free weights, you should also consider exercise order. There are a variety of ways to organize your strength-training program. Circuits, supersets, giant sets, and complexes are some examples of great ways to make your workouts more efficient. Circuits may consist of 5-8 exercises performed in sequence with little to no rest in between exercises. After completing a circuit the exerciser can then repeat the circuit one to several more times depending on their goals and fitness level. A superset is performing two different movements back to back with little to no rest in between movements. When you are resting from performing one movement you are performing a different movement. This gives some muscles a chance to rest but keeps your heart rate elevated while other muscles are working. Giant sets are like a superset in that we are performing two movements back to back with the difference being that the movements are similar, such as performing a pushup following a dumbbell chest press on a stability ball. Complexes are smaller circuits, usually 3-5 exercises. An example of a complex may be performing an inclined dumbbell bench press, followed by a dumbbell squat, followed by a plank, and finishing with a set of jumping jacks. You could perform this complex two or more times before possibly moving on to a different complex. If you feel stagnant, switching the order and pairings of exercises can be the breath of fresh air that your body and mind need.

In addition to mode, intensity also needs to be considered. How fast are you cycling, and at what level? If you’re running, how fast are you running, and is the ground level or hilly? Upping the speed and resistance (i.e. hills) will increase the intensity of your workouts. Interval training is a popular way of modifying the intensity of an aerobic workout. If you’ve read any of my other articles you already know what a fan I am of this type of training for those medically cleared to participate. For example, alternate sprinting for 15 seconds with walking for 15 seconds, and work your way up to doing this for 20 minutes. Adding a riser to your step in aerobics class will increase the intensity of your step class workout. When it comes to strength training there are a few methods of upping the intensity. Increasing the weight is one, increasing the duration of each individual repetition (slowing it down) is another, and a third way of upping the intensity is by decreasing the rest periods between sets/exercises. Modifying your current intensity levels will provide your body the “shake-up” it needs to get off that plateau, and will keep your mind fresh and free of boredom.

The final “spice” ingredients to be considered in adding variety to your workout are frequency and duration. Frequency refers to how often, and duration refers to how long. These two factors need to be considered within the context of your daily schedule and in relation to the other two factors: mode and intensity. Can’t seem to get off of that plateau, and you’re only training twice per week, consider adding a third day. Increasing frequency and duration are beneficial, but not if it means a significant decrease in the level of intensity. We don’t want to trade one for the other. Unless you are an endurance athlete, if appropriate, I suggest that you increase the intensity of your workouts and actually decrease the duration. I believe it is the duration for many that serves as an adherence deterrent. I also believe in being as efficient as possible, and getting the “most bang for your buck,” which is why I am a big proponent of strength training that incorporates short bursts of cardio, that limits rest periods, and that keeps the individual moving throughout most of the workout. For most, the days of getting on a treadmill for an hour or more should be over. However, for some, the strength training sessions and interval training as I have just described may not be appropriate and thus longer cardio sessions may be more appropriate. The same holds true if you currently find your intensity level to be too exhausting, so much so that it discourages you from exercising. If that’s the case then you may want to consider taking your workouts down a notch, and increase their duration in return.

In conclusion, by adjusting one, some, or all four of the “spice” ingredients (mode, frequency, intensity, and duration) we can add variety to our fitness routines. The key is to try new things, to keep our bodies on their toes, and most of all to have fun. If we enjoy what we do, we will be more committed to doing it, thus increasing our opportunity for success.

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