OK, picture this:  You’re at the gym.  You see the same guy there every day.  He’s working out hard, lifting weights, doing cardio, and pushing himself into the ground.  He seems to be doing everything right.  But for some reason you notice that his body never seems to change.  And then you take a look in the mirror and notice that this guy is you.  What’s going on?  Why is it that so much hard work and dedication can lead to absolutely nothing in regards to physical appearance?  The answer is a difficult one.

In order to understand the all too common plateau, a closer look must be taken at the victims of this nation wide trend in the fitness industry and at the exercises that they are doing.  If one does look closer, after a while another common trend will become obvious.  There is something familiar about the exercises that these people are doing.  It isn’t quite clear at first, but if you really pay attention you will eventually figure it out:  They’re all doing the same thing!  Not necessarily the same thing as each other, but the same exercises that they have been doing for the last month, 6months, year, etc.!  And herein lies the answer to the all too common problem of the plateau:  There’s not enough variety!

1.  Variety with resistance training.  This is the most important concept to remember when working out.  Many people get caught up in doing the same routine over and over again- the same weights, the same machines, the same order of exercises, and on and on.  Repeating a cycle over and over will never bring about continued progress.  Instead, one will stop seeing results and may eventually experience over- training symptoms.  Workout programs, or routines, should be consistently altered every three to four weeks to insure progress.   This means changing the exercises, intensity levels, and grouping of muscle groups.  For example, if you’ve been working chest and biceps together for a while, you’ll need to switch to working chest with triceps or back.  As far as intensity is concerned, advanced lifters may benefit from increasing intensity on a weekly basis.  One week they may lift moderate to light, the next week heavy to moderate, the third week heavy, making sure that they warm themselves up first and gradually work into the heavy sets.  Beginning exercisers will probably want to increase intensity on a far more gradual basis.  For advanced lifters, advanced training techniques such as breakdown training, forced negatives, and super slow training may also be used to stimulate growth in a muscle.  By constantly changing the workout program with different exercises, intensity level, sequences, and techniques, the body becomes confused and is put through a sort of “shock treatment”.  This change of events will cause the body to constantly shift gears which will bring about continued progress.

2.  Variety with cardio.  Resistance training is not the only form of exercise that needs to be varied.  It is also very important to have variety in cardiovascular exercise.

Performing one type of cardio will still bring about substantial health benefits, however if one wants to see continual physical progress as well (and who doesn’t?), then variety must once again be employed.  It is a very good idea to perform both impact and non- impact aerobics.  Examples of non- impact aerobics would be biking, swimming, and using the elliptical glider.  Forms of impact aerobics would be using the treadmill, stair mill, taking a step class, or any exercise that involves the feet making repeated impact onto a surface.  Using variety in heart rate also brings about desired results.  For example, when someone uses the stationary bike, they are operating at a lower heart rate which puts them in more of a fat burning zone.  However, if someone goes for a run on the treadmill, they are working at a higher hear rate which puts them in a higher calorie burning zone.  Both are good and both should be utilized unless if someone is told otherwise by their doctor.  Interval training involves using periods of low intensity followed by periods of high intensity for the entire duration of the aerobic activity, not including the warm up and cool down.  This form of training can be very beneficial and bring about desired physical results.  However, care should be taken not to perform interval training more than twice per week.

3.  Variety with nutrition.  I think this is a very important concept.  Eating healthy has always been important but some people develop “tastes” for certain foods over others.  While it is perfectly fine to favor a certain food, I would try not to get caught up in eating nothing else.  Eating a wide variety of healthy foods will enhance metabolism and bring about physical progress, especially when consistent exercise is also performed.  This is also important to prevent boredom which sometimes causes people to abandon their good eating habits all together and resort to unhealthy alternatives.  I always recommend that my clients eat a wide variety of lean proteins, starches, and fibrous carbohydrates.

4.  Variety with active rest.  I recently wrote a column on the importance of active rest.  Active rest simply means a different form of exercise than the traditional weight lifting and aerobics that is typically enjoyed by the individual.  Examples are sports (of any kind), dancing, dog walking, snow shoveling, and yes, even sex!  Staying as active as possible in our every day lives is very important and when a variety of active rest activities are employed, it can strongly enhance progress in physical fitness.  And the best part is we get to do things that we enjoy.  So stay active!

5.  Utilizing alternative exercise and the power of rest.  Every once in a while it is OK to stop lifting weights and performing cardio.  But not for long!  I would say no longer than two weeks.  This time off allows the body to rest and recover and this will prevent overtraining symptoms from occurring.  However, I strongly recommend that alternative forms of exercise be employed at this time.  Examples of alternative exercise would be Yoga and Pilates.  Both are great and both bring about positive physical results.  The body is still exercising, but in a completely different way.  Remember folks, it’s all about variety!  However, taking complete rest is fine also.  It allows the body to “have a vacation” while resting and recovering.  That way, when someone comes back to the gym for traditional exercise, the change will be that much more profound.

By employing these ideas into our every day lives, continued physical change and improvements are inevitable.  Variety is truly the key to fitness success!  So don’t get caught up in doing the same old routine over and over again.  What fun is that?  If you need help, hire a trainer!  That’s what we’re here for.  If you become comfortable with introducing variety into your fitness routine, you may just find yourself introducing variety into other aspects of your life.