How often do I need to change my workout?

March 24, 2012

Q: I recently started lifting weights and have had good results, but I’m confused about when to change up my program. I have read a lot of articles that say you have to constantly change up your routine if you want to make progress. What are your thoughts on this issue? How often do I need to change up my work out? What types of changes do I need to make to keep making progress?

A: If you want to continue to make progress, you must learn to change your workouts, but there’s a method to the madness, and it depends on your experience level. Change up your workout too fast, and you miss out on the basic mechanics and limit strength needed to transition to more advanced exercises. Change it up too slowly, and you will drift off into a plateau and receive little results for your effort.

Untrained - Six months to a year of training
Untrained people who have never lifted weights before don’t need to change their routines as often, because their bodies will react to almost anything. Instead, they should focus on the basics of learning proper form and increasing their limit strength. This takes time and works a lot better if you focus on six to eight basic movements, learning how do the lifts properly while isolating specific areas of the body such as back, legs, chest, arms, shoulders and core. Once you’ve mastered these exercises, you can begin to add more advanced movements, but take your time and establish a strong foundation that will set you up for greater results and few injuries in the future.

Trained - One to five years of experience
Trained people who have been working out for one to five years are no longer getting the easy results of the beginner and must learn to throw their bodies a curve ball now and then by adding new training splits, exercises and rep schemes. I’d suggest changing one or two of these variables every three to five weeks to keep the body off balance and continue forcing results. A training split is which body parts you choose to work on different days. A good example of changing a training split would be starting with a full-body workout with one exercise per body part and three sets per exercise, then progressing to a three-day training split with three body parts per day and two exercises per body part, and eventually moving to a four-day training split with two body parts per day, three exercises per body part. As you can see, the volume of work per body part changes for each split, making the program more difficult.

You can also change exercises by upgrading what you’re already doing with more difficult movements. A good example would be changing leg extensions to dumbbell squats, cable rows to dumbbell rows, seated legs curls to walking lunges, triceps pushdowns to dips, and regular crunches to bicycle crunches.

Athlete/Lifetimer - 10 to 20 years of experience
Lifetimers who have exposed their bodies to a decade or more of hard work and tried every workout under the sun can quickly adjust to almost any stimulus you can throw at them. At this point, no two workouts should be the same anymore, as they have to constantly try new and innovative things to get a response from their muscles. The good news is, they have developed a tolerance for pain that makes it easy to push themselves to the limit on a daily basis, but they must be willing to work outside their comfort zone. Techniques such as super sets - working two body parts back to back without rest; giant sets - working the same muscles back to back with no rest; or metabolic interval training - working a variety of muscles in succession back to back with no rest - should be used on a regular basis to keep the body from getting used to the routine.

So as you continue your quests for fitness, remember it’s important to take it slow in the beginning and learn to do basic exercises correctly while increasing strength. As you gain experience, allow your workout to evolve, changing things frequently as your body becomes more capable of handling more intense workouts.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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