Break It Up

Stuck in a rut? Bust out for greater gains!

I know variety is supposed to be the spice of life, and there’s no doubt that a dash of diversity is great for busting out of mind-numbing ruts. But when it comes to working out, I’ll admit, I tend to choose a familiar groove. If I like a particular exercise, I’m inclined to repeat it every day for a year, monotony be damned.

I used to think this approach was a sort of testament to my stalwart determination. In fact, I believed that endless repetition was vital to accomplishing great things at the gym. The only problem with this notion: I was totally wrong. Athletic research proves that variety not only offers a balm for boredom, it actually helps you make progress toward your strength and aerobic fitness goals.

Athletic trainers refer to this phenomenon as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which in plain English means that habitual exercise delivers diminishing returns. The upshot: The same workout that provided great results six months ago will now barely maintain your body’s status quo.

Remember feeling awkward, tired and sore when you started your exercise program? And the pain? Yeah, well, you probably remember the gains, too. If you want to get reacquainted with them, it’s time to change things up.

Presto Change-o

There’s probably nothing wrong with your current workout, except that you’ve already mastered it. To keep moving ahead, you have to teach your body some new tricks.

This doesn’t mean you have to change your goals. It just means that the best road toward your goals may not be the straight and narrow one. Case in point: Once, I made up my mind to do 20 wide-grip pull-ups. I started at five, and then doggedly worked my way up to 12. But after that, no matter how many times I hung on the bar pulling for dear life, it seemed that my body had reached a dead end.

Eventually, I gave up on the idea and adapted a totally new-routine. Six weeks later, without having done a single pull-up, I jumped up and ripped out 17. I’ve yet to reach 20, but the break actually helped me improve and taught me a valuable lesson: Sometimes a scenic detour turns out to be a short cut, too.

Adding variety to your workout can be as simple as switching between doing shoulder presses with dumbbells to doing shoulder presses with a barbell. The change shifts the strain on your muscle fibers and engenders a new round of physiological adaptation. But variety can also mean trying something totally new, like rock climbing or water aerobics. Unless you are a competitive athlete who has to focus on a single skill, you’ll probably find that a total change in routine leads to dramatic improvements in your general fitness – and fun.

Of course, most of us like to do what we do well, and the idea of appearing goofy while in the throes of some new and unfamiliar exercise feels, well, embarrassing. Relax. And get over yourself – other folks are much too busy worrying about their own act to watch you.

Besides, I’m going to give you a few tips on how you can add variety to your workouts without losing your dignity.

Visit a New Club: Sometimes anonymity makes it easier to make changes. Try a different club location, one where you don’t know anyone. Get oriented to new equipment, a different class schedule and a whole new crowd. Perhaps your alternate facility offers that Cardio Kickboxing class that you never could fit into your calendar. Try Hydro Training, Fitness Yoga or even a Salsa class. Who cares if you look goofy? Nobody knows you there, and when you return to your old digs looking fast, lean and fit, you can tell your weight-room chums, “I took a working vacation.”

Hire a Trainer: If you’re used to taking group classes and don’t feel entirely comfortable in the weight room, hire a personal trainer for a few sessions. Personal trainers don’t just work for movie stars anymore. They can help anyone (from rank amateur to professional athlete) gain tangible benefits through a well-designed exercise program. A certified trainer knows how to provide you with novel workouts that keep your muscles guessing, and can also fine-tune your technique so you’ll benefit more from the old standbys, too.

Hit a Bull’s Eye: While most of us train for general fitness, vanity and health, it’s hard to stay motivated without a more tangible goal. Create a fitness target by training for a specific event, like a local road race or racquetball meet. It will move you into a whole new level of fitness intensity. Just ask any amateur marathoner: Every year thousands discover the amazing feats anybody can accomplish once committed to a goal. After your first event, you’ll feel empowered to tackle athletic endeavors you never dared dream of. What’ll you do next?

Get Feedback: A heart-rate monitor can help keep you engaged and motivated by providing biofeedback. You adjust your pace and intensity according to your exercise goals. This focuses your mind on the workout at hand. In the same vein, you might consider a pedometer to help you track your distance. If you’re serious about your conditioning program, consider getting your V02 max tested occasionally, too. All these strategies give you the benchmarks and information you need to know about how hard you’re working out, and whether your workouts are working.

Tune In: When exercise starts to feel exhausting and boring, it’s tempting to escape the tedium with a pair of headphones or MTV. For some, this works wonders, but it can also have the effect of disassociating you from your body, thus diminishing the benefits of your workout. If you’re so bored with your workout that you need external distractions and entertainments, it’s time for a change, ideally one that tunes you into your own body, thoughts and feelings. Paying close and careful attention to your form, breathing and movement deserves – and requires – real mental energy. And 20 minutes of intense, focused exercise with excellent form provides more benefit than hours of mindless plodding. When you don’t pay attention, your form gets sloppy and every move you make ingrains this “close-enough” attitude into your neuromuscular pathways. It’s as if you were deliberately learning to play an instrument out of tune. You’re better off taking a nap.

Get Philosophical: Even if you’re not apt to take up meditation as a practice, apply a Zen-like focus to your workout. Make it a sacred time: Lace your sneakers with care and intent. Regard the dumbbell in your hands with the same respect a Samurai gives his sword. Don’t work your body as if you were exercising a gerbil in its cage; work into your body mindfully. Build a philosophical physique with your mind firmly trained on the marvelous God-given machinery at your command. Every rep you do with good form represents another step in the creation of your ideal body and mind. It is in this sense a gesture of gratitude: A conscious attitude that helps you to excel in every aspect of your life. And seriously, if this advice seems totally unrealistic, then you definitely need to reevaluate your workout. Exercise can become the highpoint of your day, and if you can’t imagine it feeling that way, you owe it to yourself to try something different.

Regarding Repetition

It takes a solid and somewhat repetitive routine to get fit or accomplish any athletic goal. Of course it’s better to trudge along a familiar bridle path than to quit exercising entirely. But unless you mix it up now and then, your body will settle into the doldrums. Finding new exercises can help you stay interested while your body receives the challenges it requires to keep on making progress toward your goals – and beyond.

Fernando Pagés Ruiz is a freelance writer and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He is a regular contributor to Experience Life.

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