Is changing your exercise routine worth it?

There’s a lot that goes into an exercise routine, both mentally and physically. For some, changing things up every few months helps keep things fresh and exciting. For others, the idea of new exercises and unfamiliar territory in the gym can be daunting. We’ve asked our experts for their opinion on mixing up your exercise routine and whether trying something new is always worth it.

Wellbeing Personal Trainer Jamie RamageSenior Health and Wellbeing Physiologist Inez Griffin, and Mental Health Prevention Lead Lisa Gunn all give their perspective on changing your routine and the impact this can have on your progress, motivation, and your physical and mental health.

Things to consider

When assessing your gym routine, you want to make sure you’re always seeing progression.

If you’ve noticed a plateau in your progress whilst training, or you’re starting to feel demotivated - it may be time to change things up.

What this looks like will typically differ from person to person. Two of the most common indications of progression are the ability to lift heavier weights or to perform more repetitions.

Wellbeing Personal Trainer Jamie Ramage believes “if you’re stalling on an exercise for three or four consecutive sessions, this could be a sign that it's time to swap that exercise out for something else”.

Changing the structure of your regime

In terms of your overall program, if you’re missing sessions or going through a busy period in life, consider changing your training split. A training split is essentially how you split your workout up into single days or sessions where you train a specific muscle group.

“If you're struggling to hit three sessions a week doing a push/pull/legs routine, you might want to consider doing two full body workouts instead. You’d get an extra recovery day per week and a fresh routine that targets the same muscle groups in a different way”

There’s more than one way you can change things up too. Senior Health and Wellbeing Physiologist Inez Griffin confirms that a great method to follow is the FITT principle (frequency, intensity, time and type). 

“To switch things up, you could reconsider the frequency of your sessions and add an extra one per week, or you could increase the intensity or time of your workouts. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a complete regime change – making small adjustments can be just as beneficial”.

How often should I change routine?

This is all down to personal preference, but in general there are two things to consider before changing up your training regime.

The first is whether you’re bored with your routine.

If you aren’t engaged and motivated to train, you’re not going to perform at your best. At this stage, ask yourself whether you look forward to or dread training. If you’re not engaged and motivated, it may be time to assess your routine and mix things up a bit.

The second thing to consider is whether your progress has stalled

Ramage expands on the adaptive nature of the body and the importance of keeping it guessing: “the body adapts quickly and so it needs to be kept on its toes. Changing up your program can help challenge your mind and body with new and engaging exercises that target muscles you’ve perhaps not worked in a while”

What benefits can changing up your routine have?

Training needs to be engaging and fun or we’ll quickly lose interest. Changing your routine can help bring back that novelty you might have felt when you first started training.

Always keep your goal in mind

Ultimately, when and how you change your routine all depends on what your goal is.

Griffin expands on this by saying “whilst there’s no specific timeframe for changing things up, noticing that you aren’t progressing towards your goal can be a good indication that it’s time to try something different”.

What this looks like will all depend on what your goal is (it could be running your first marathon, losing weight, or getting stronger) and the type of training you prefer.

What does “change” actually look like?

Griffin reminds us that it’s important to understand progress isn’t always linear. “Sometimes you might progress quickly while other times you might find a similar level of effort just doesn’t produce the results you want”.

On the subject of adapting your sessions, she adds that “it’s important to stay focused on what your goals are. This could mean increasing your weekly running, swimming, walking, or cycling distance by 10% every 2 to 8 weeks.

In the gym, if you’re currently completing a certain number of reps that feel comfortable, you might want to start increasing either the number of reps in each set (e.g. from 8 to 10) or upping the resistance you are using by a small amount (i.e. add 2.5kg to your bench press)”.

If in doubt trial and error can be a good place to start. Always listen to your body and you’ll ultimately land on an adaptive routine that works best for you and your body.

What about sticking with my routine?

Consistency is great and it helps us form healthy habits, however if your goal is to get fitter, faster, stronger, or leaner - you will need to progress your plan in some way in order to see results.

Being consistent with your overall routine whilst progressing each session is a great way to track your progress and see the improvement you’re making.

It can be easy to put pressure on yourself to remain “consistent” and complete the exact same exercise routine every week. However, life happens (think holidays, birthdays, illness, injury etc.) and our exercise routine should be able to adapt to it. Whilst it’s important to stay consistent, a certain degree of “go with the flow” is needed, whilst still allowing us to maintain our fitness or progression.

Ramage adds that there’s nothing wrong with keeping things familiar if it works for you.

“As the saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don't fix it’. If you're enjoying your training and everything's moving in the right direction, then there’s really no pressing need to change things up”.

Do ‘plateaus’ really exist?

Unfortunately, yes.

Sometimes even with proper nutrition and rest, you just can't seem to get past that bench press weight you've been stuck on for three weeks straight.

If this sounds familiar, you’re likely plateauing. 

 “This happens when the body has gotten used to the movement and adapted to it as much as it can. This is a sign it might be time to work the muscle in a different way by swapping the exercise for something different, like a dumbbell bench press”

Ramage adds that “this can force the body to adapt to a new stimulus. In this example, your chest will be stimulated by two independent weights that require more muscular stabilisation”.

“It’s common to mix things up for a few sessions, go back to the original exercise and comfortably complete the lift at a threshold you were struggling with.”

What about overtraining?

Overtraining doesn't necessarily mean you need to change your whole routine, but you may want to strip back the overall volume of your training for a short period.

As previously discussed, this could mean doing two full-body sessions per week instead of three, or just performing two to three sets of exercises instead of your normal three or four.

You need to allow the body to recover properly, so stripping things back while making sure you're getting adequate sleep and rest can have big benefits in the long run.

How does routine help us mentally?

Mental Health Prevention Lead Lisa Gunn confirms that developing good habitual behaviours and routines is good for our mental health and productivity. 

“A lot of the same rules apply when comes to exercise. Knowing how and when we’re going to exercise can create healthy habit loops in our brain that help positive behaviours become more automatic and easier to engage with”.

Can boredom impact this?

Unfortunately, boredom can impact our ability to fully engage with an exercise routine.

“As with any routine that we do for too long, it can start to feel mundane and boring.

When it comes to exercise, we benefit from the feel-good hormones that are released when we move. If we start to get bored or tired of our routine, the effect of these hormones can diminish over time, overriding one of the main positive benefits of exercise”.

Gunn continues, saying “this is where changing routine comes in. Mixing things up, whether that means changing what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, or even who we’re doing it with, can be helpful for keeping our minds engaged and focused when we exercise”.

What about stress?

Stress can have a detrimental effect on our body as well as our mind.

When we feel stressed, cortisol is released into the body, which can be damaging for our health over time. Exercise is a great way to help reduce cortisol levels and flood the body with feel good hormones.

“It’s important to be mindful of our mind and body when we’re stressed. If we’re holding a lot of tension in our muscles, we can become more prone to physical injury. This makes warming up and cooling down more important than ever.”

Unfortunately, the negative effects of cortisol don’t end there.

“Cortisol can also block muscle development over time. If adding muscle is your primary goal whilst working out, mixing up your routine (with a blend of cardio and resistance training) to help lower cortisol levels can help”.

Taking a mental health break from exercise

We often focus on the body and our muscles when considering whether or not to take a break from exercise. It’s important to remember that the mind can become burned out on exercise in a similar fashion.

Gunn continues by saying that there are benefits to taking a break from exercise whilst we reevaluate our routine and relationship with working out.

“Physical burnout can cause fatigue and demotivation, causing our mental health to deteriorate simultaneously. With this in mind, it’s important that we diversify our routine and make sure we’re getting pleasure from several sources and activities away from exercise.

This way, if life gets in the way and we need to take a break from exercising regularly, we’re able to maintain our mental health whilst the body takes a break”.

Last updated Friday 22 March 2024

First published on Friday 22 March 2024