It’s a common request of clients that they need to “mix things up” to keep from getting bored with their workouts.
It’s completely understandable – no one wants to feel that they’re slogging through repetitive workouts day in and day out. While many people may like the effects of exercise (a more trim physique, better health, boosted energy, etc.), they may not enjoy exercise itself. Even people who do intrinsically enjoy working out as a hobby can get bored with too-repetitive routines.
Often, this is where someone like me can be really helpful to introduce interest and variety into someone’s workout routines, without sacrificing forward progress.
This is because the primary problem with variety without perspective is that it easily turns into “shiny object syndrome” – running after new and exciting concepts and workouts without letting something “stick” long enough to make a real difference (more about this at the end of the post!).
The key to real improvement, both in terms of strength and body composition, is structured variety. In other words, there’s enough consistency to keep progressively challenging your muscles and cardiovascular system in a way that yields impressive results over time, but also enough variety to:
- Keep enthusiasm high, and boredom at bay
- Reduce the chance of overuse injuries from too-repetitive workouts
- Challenge your entire body, without getting “stuck” on one habitual area
In simpler terms, we need structure to make progress, but we need variety to keep both our bodies and our minds fresh.
Here are five ways to incorporate variety into your regular workouts without sacrificing progress, whether you work out on the track or on the treadmill, in the gym or on your living room floor.
Once or twice a week, do shorter, far more intense workouts.
Instead of going for a 30-minute run, do 15 minutes of sprints. Instead of doing deadlifts for four sets of 12, do “sprints” of kettlebell swings, like five sets of 20. Instead of holding a plank for 60 seconds, sprint it out with mountain climbers for 30 seconds.
I’m not talking about making an exercise “a little harder” – I’m talking about sprints. This means that you work so hard for a short amount of time (30 seconds, for example), that you absolutely must rest for 30-90 seconds after.
Just by inserting a few very short, highly intense workouts into your week (at the most), you put other workouts into perspective. Suddenly, four sets of 12 doesn’t sound so “boring” – it sounds like a welcome break in the next workout, even if the exercises are very, very similar.
A few times a week, do much heavier workouts.
Similarly, a few times a week, super-charge your regular exercise. If you’re a runner, challenge yourself with a long tempo run that challenges your sustained pace. If you’re lifting, push yourself to add more weight to the bar for fewer reps.
By lifting heavier weights or pushing your legs to maintain a faster-than-comfortable speed for a long period of time, you’re eliciting a new response from your muscle fibers.
You’re changing up the level of demand (and mental engagement) without actually changing the exercise itself – which means that you’re paving the way for continued progress.
Switch up your grip.
This one’s for strength training only. Instead of dramatically changing your exercises, make the simple change of hand grip.
Do overhand pull-ups instead of underhand chin-ups. Use a pronated grip for rows and reverse flyes instead of a supinated grip (i.e. palms “back” instead of palms “in”).
When you change up your hand position, you influence which muscles get activated for exercises, and this can not only help you get stronger, but also prevent over-use injuries from rubbing the same joints with the same movements over and over, day after day.
Split dual-limb exercises into single-leg exercises.
For example, split your dual-leg exercises (think a squat) into single-leg exercises (think a single-leg squat or lunge).
This not only helps to prevent boredom, but also make sure that you continue to work on the same muscle groups but in ways that challenge your balance, core strength and stability, and your weaker side (because we all have one).
If you ever really need to change up your workouts because you “just can’t” with another day of squats, try doing single let goblet squats to a box, and you’ll find that within a few days you’ll be more than happy to do squats again!
Progress exercises you’ve mastered.
While this seems like common sense, it’s not – largely because most people who aren’t personal trainers don’t always know the next logical step in making an exercise more appropriate for their level of fitness.
Let’s take two very common exercises that people do on their own – bridges and planks. Because they’re simple and easy to do, people often become very proficient at both bridges and planks on their own… but run out of runway. They have nowhere else to go once they can hold a plank for a few minutes, or do a few sets of 20 bridges. Obviously, it can get boring.
But the reality is that there is a lot of runway, if you know where to look.
Bridges can turn into single-leg bridge push-ups, heel sliders, feet elevated bridges, feet elevated bridges with single leg push-up, Swiss ball hamstring curls, and more!
Planks can turn into dynamic bear crawls, advanced bird-dogs, Swiss ball pikes, mountain climber variations, and more!
One way to refresh your perspective on an exercise is to re-define it as a “movement pattern” instead of an exercise. What are you doing when you’re holding a bridge? You’re using your feet to help squeeze your glutes by lifting your hips. Once you master that movement pattern, you can make it more challenging by introducing variables like instability, balance, elevation, and more.
You’re still working the same muscles, but in a completely fresh (and sometimes insanely challenging) way.
Variety and Progress Aren’t Mutually Exclusive
In fact, by making exercises more challenging in the ways that I’ve described above, you’re introducing both interest and progression. You don’t have to choose.
Just beware of shiny object syndrome, which tends to look like this:
- Monday: Arm workout at the gym
- Tuesday: Spin class
- Wednesday: Running
- Thursday: Ab workout at the gym
- Friday: Yoga
If you look at the above work week, you’ll see that – admittedly – the positive is that exercise is happening. In fact, they exercised every weekday, which is laudable. For someone who is trying to work on consistency, this is an achievement.
However, the drawback is that no real improvement will be happening if this pattern continues. There’s simply not enough repetition of any kind.
Here’s a better format for a busy person who wants to enjoy a variety of exercise but also wants to see continuous progress:
- Monday: 30-minute full body strength workout (fewer exercises, heavier weight)
- Tuesday: 30-minute moderate pace run
- Wednesday: 30-minute full-body strength workout (more exercises, lighter weight, more single-limb variations)
- Thursday: 30-minute tempo run
- Friday: 20-minute moderate full-body strength workout followed by 10 minutes of HIIT
If you look at the above work week, you’ll see that not only is the person being consistent in exercising, but they’re also being consistent in getting better at specific skills. They’re becoming a better runner. They’re working out their whole body several times a week. As a result of this improvement, the great likelihood is that their body composition is also changing, becoming more muscular and leaner.
This is ideally what I try to create with my clients – a reasonable give-and-take in the average working person’s week, to provide interest with progression, without someone’s whole life getting sucked into fitness. Just by making a few small shifts, exercise can not only be disciplined, but also be interesting, exciting, and – yes – fun!