Choosing Change

By Michael Krueger

Recently, a friend of mine told me he was going to start eating breakfast. He had read that this was important, and since he was “no longer a kid” he thought it was a good idea.

What had passed for his breakfast over the past many years was coffee in the car on his way to work. But since he had recently begun to exercise a bit, this lack of morning nutrition didn’t seem to jibe with his new mindset, so breakfast was added to his routine.

After a couple of days, he said he hated it; he had to get up earlier to make it and was hungry and grouchy by mid-morning—this was not what he had bargained for. He thought he would feel better not worse. So, he quit eating breakfast.

Oh, and stopped exercising too.

No changes come easy… not even eating more.

 

Homeostasis

We humans like things to stay the same. A certain predictability allows us to focus on other things. If you had to analyze every aspect of your life every day, you wouldn’t get much done. On the other hand, if nothing ever changes, you’d get bored and apathetic.

 

Change is a necessary part of life. Without change you can’t grow, learn, or improve. Unfortunately, though, it’s seldom an easy part of life. Some people try to avoid change at all costs. They would rather be unhappy and disappointed with life than make a difficult change. What they don’t understand is that by choosing to not make a change, they are still changing. They have chosen to become small, sad, and bitter. It’s an interesting choice.

On the other hand, some people desire constant change. New places, a different job, the more and diverse their experiences, the happier they are. These people don’t stay with much for long; they flit from thing to thing in all aspects of their lives. Since they’re always starting anew, they get the feeling that they’re always growing. Unfortunately, since they rarely stick with any activity long enough to see a benefit, they’re not really growing—they’re just doing something else.

Most of us fall somewhere in between. Parts of our lives are predictable and we like it that way. In other areas we choose adventure and novelty; and we like that too. Who hasn’t looked forward with anticipation regarding a vacation trip and after returning from that same trip said “It’s good to be home”? It’s not an inconsistency, it’s a balance between changes and predictability.

 

Changes in Training

When it comes to training, there are many ways to “mix it up.” Personally, I don’t make too many changes in my own routine; manipulating reps, weight, and exercise order is enough change for me. Some people like more than that, and that’s perfectly fine. I’ve had clients with whom I rotated up to eight workouts per month. It’s not my favorite way to train, but they liked it and they were doing the work, not me.

A few years back, “muscle confusion” was all the rage. The idea was that by constantly mixing up the exercises, reps, and resistance you could trick your muscles into growing. Some people had very good results with this protocol, while others were simply tired and confused. The people who did well accomplished this by consistently and intensely doing the training. They would’ve done well on any program they tried with this attitude. My guess is that most of the “muscle confusion” trainees who were successful on that program are on to something new by now… and doing well too.

I had a client years ago who insisted on having a different workout every time we trained. This was problematic since we got together three times per week. She didn’t like to repeat a single exercise; she said it was boring to do so. I explained how it wasn’t possible to never repeat an exercise since there are a finite number of lifts and pulls to address each muscle group. She responded with, “That’s your problem. I demand change. It’s how I live my life and it’s how I expect my workouts to be structured.” This was going to be difficult, and I didn’t expect it to end well.

I did okay for the first two weeks or so. I told her that dumbbell and barbell exercises were, in fact, different exercises because of the contrasting stresses placed on the muscles because of the stability of a bar and the instability of using separate weights. She was skeptical, but she accepted my explanation. I poured over every source I could think of to come up with something new for her, but, eventually, I exhausted all my sources and had to repeat.

One morning, while trying to write up her workout, I just stopped and went back to the first one we did together. I knew she would remember it, and I steeled for the fallout. When I told her what we were doing, she got upset and said it was unacceptable. She said that she thrived on change and insisted that she must do something she hadn’t done before.

I thought for a moment and said, “This is different because you’ve never repeated the exercises in a session before.” She argued, but she did repeat the session. When we finished, I showed her that she hadn’t really progressed since the very first time we trained together. She was not amused.

I explained that by constantly changing the workout, she had little chance to adapt to the workload. She felt that she was improving, because each workout was a challenge, but in actuality it was difficult only because she had never done it before rather than because she was challenged physically. She wasn’t getting stronger—she was just being entertained.

Now, to repeat, she was not amused. Also, to be honest, she was progressing, but in a way that is very difficult to quantify. Her nervous system was adapting to all the diverse stimuli and, therefore, she was getting more efficient. She was able to access the muscle she had available, so she was getting stronger but wasn’t adding to her muscle mass. This happens at the beginning of any resistance training program. It accounts for most of the strength gains until you actually begin adding mass. The gains taper off rather quickly, then they stop.

She insisted on switching trainers after that… and so it goes.

 

Middle Ground

Occasionally, changing up an exercise program is a good idea. How much of a change is wanted or needed is personal and varies among trainees. If you are keeping a good log, you can see what effect any changes you make have on the pursuit of your goals. If you are trying to add muscle mass and that hasn’t happened, then the changes were ineffective, and something new must done. If you are still progressing toward your goals, then there is no need to make a change unless you want to. In that case, just realize that you are doing it for your head and not your body; that’s fine, too.

Making a change because of psychological or emotional burnout, irrespective of physical gains, is just as valid as changing because of stagnating on muscle building. If you get to the point where even the thought of training sucks the life out of you, it’s definitely time for a change.

 

Sustainability

Finding the place where you are progressing toward your goals, happy with your workout but open to something new, is the “sweet spot” of sustainability. Making changes because you want them rather than feeling as though you need them is a good place to be. Knowing that you have a choice, and that this choice isn’t dependent on the opinions of others as to how you should train, is liberating and empowering.

If your idea of a perfect routine is to never repeat an exercise for as long as you train, then go for it. Ignore the naysayers…

…just don’t expect me to program it for you!

 

Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.

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