When they came out with the four-bladed razor, I just knew things had gone too far. This was yet another example of how something that worked just fine — the three-bladed razor — needed to be “improved” in order to charge more money. Sometimes, new isn’t always better — it can even be worse than the original.
This can happen with fitness too. New exercise programs come out that want you to change everything about the way you work out, when what you were doing before was just fine. Don’t get me wrong: change can be good. That said, I don’t see continually changing everything in every workout as important, or even advisable.
What’s the argument for change?
Those who believe in the concept of muscular confusion assert that you need to continually change your exercise program — even on a daily basis — to see real results and blast through plateaus. This isn’t just for weightlifting, but for any type of exercise that alleges it can “shock” your body into rapid fat loss by using different ways to run, swim, cycle, do yoga, or dance around to some really funky music.
You don’t really need to continuously shock your body, though. In fact, it may not be such a good idea.
Many fitness gurus extol the virtues of interval training — which is constant speed changes — for things like running, cycling, swimming, and even for a machine like an elliptical trainer, saying it improves the rate at which your body burns fat. However, as I’ve written about in the LA Times, this simply isn’t the case. Interval training is a tool for getting faster at your specific sport, and burns no more calories than going at a steady state. Not only that, but it can lead to injury and many find it so punishing they can’t do it as long as if they maintained a steady pace.
Then there’s the new fitness classes that promise to shred fat faster than those that came before them. They claim to constantly challenge your body in new ways, turning it into some kind of fat-incinerating blast furnace.
What to do if you’re a runner
While many of these classes are good, and even fun, plain old running will likely help you lose fat more quickly. Working your way up to a fairly fast pace of regular running is more challenging and therefore burns more calories than just about any sustainable exercise. It is also incredibly practical and can be fit into even the busiest of schedules because it doesn’t require a gym, and it’s fun and even addictive.
If you are a runner and want to lose more weight, then don’t start thinking you need to change everything about the way you work out. You just need to do a couple of things: run faster, run more frequently, and run further. That will get the job done.
How to make improvements with weights
What about building muscle?
I’ve written before about why weightlifting is a great idea for women, and I don’t want you to worry about losing your femininity or getting freaky big.
The results of weightlifting in terms of strength and size — meaning things that make you both fitter and look better — are from what is called “progressive overload.” This means you keep working harder at your given exercises to lift more weight, both in terms of the amount of the weight lifted for one specific repetition and the total volume of weight lifted via things like doing additional sets. Metabolic fatigue, which is essentially pushing yourself to the limit, plays a role in improvement as well.
Don’t become a jack of all trades and master of none
Do you really need to keep changing what you do in the gym every single day to see real results? Definitely not, and here’s a great analogy that explains why.
Muscle confusion proponents say to keep your body on its toes by “shocking” it with new exercises each day, but trainer Elsbeth Vaino thinks this is foolish. In her fitness blog she writes:
“If you are always shocking your body, then you are not allowing your body to get stronger.
“Training by always shocking your body with new exercises is akin to learning music by taking piano on Monday, clarinet on Wednesday and violin on Friday, followed by drums, trombone, and guitar the following week. At the end of two weeks you have tried six instruments, but can you do anything with any of them?”
Basically, instead of changing what you do in the gym every day so you never get good at anything, you should pick some core multi-joint exercises like squats, lunges, dead lifts, bench press, rows and chin-ups and just get really good at them. Yes, there are many other exercises you can integrate, but don’t forget these old-school ones just because someone told you that it’s necessary to keep changing things up.
When change is good
All that being said, there is merit to integrating some change into your workout routine. One reason is to help prevent boredom, and the other is to rotate back and forth between strength-focused lifting and size-focused lifting.
My earlier article on women and weightlifting explained that lifting heavy in the one-to-five repetition range and taking longer breaks leads mostly to increases in strength, whereas moderate weights in the six-to-12 range leads to more muscular size. Anything above 12 reps is endurance-focused lifting that does very little to change the strength, size or shape of the muscle.
Simple ways to integrate change include changing the amount of weight you lift, the number of repetitions and sets, the types of exercises you do and your rest period in between sets.
One last warning about integrating too much change into a workout regime: this is something that unscrupulous personal trainers often recommend, because it makes you dependent on them. A good trainer can teach you everything you need to know to keep you busy with weights in less than ten sessions. If they teach you to be self-reliant, you can “graduate” from needing a trainer fairly quickly and do things on your own so you have self-confidence and save money.
Trainers need your money though, so if they convince you that you need to do something differently every single time you work out, that justifies your buying more and more training. Watch out for that.
James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, AB. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get a free metabolism report at Body For Wife. Email James at email@example.com.