Whether you sweat just a couple of times a week or an hour a day, there are many different factors that affect just how much you’re really going to gain from going to the gym. But two of the most important have to be consistency and timing. You need to stick with a routine to see noticeable results—but not for too long or you won’t be challenging your muscles enough.
In order to track your progress, you need to commit to regular exercise, but ultimately your muscles require a certain amount of confusion in order to continue to grow. The longer you do a single move, the more your muscles become used to it. You’ll likely notice you’ll be able to perform the move without any next-day soreness, and while that can be a welcome improvement, it also means you’ll stop seeing much gains in the mirror.
Most experts subscribe to the strategy of changing your workout routine every two months or so to avoid any sort of plateau, but like with anything when it comes to your health, you can’t simply rely on hard dates. You need to listen to your body, says Los Angeles-based personal trainer Lalo Fuentes. You’ll know when it's time to change up your routine and challenge your muscles more, he says. But, just in case you need some help recognizing the signals, here are some red flags to watch out for.
This is the most common sign. If you’re merely going through the motions, it’s clearly time to switch things up. If your mind and heart aren’t in your workouts, you could get yourself hurt. Or you could simply lose motivation. Exercise scientists at the University of Florida observed that individuals who modified their workouts every two weeks over an eight-week period appeared to enjoy their workouts more and were more inclined to stick with their exercise programs when compared to individuals who followed the same workout regimens week after week. After all, if you lose interest in what you’re doing, you’ll lose any motivation to push through those difficult last few sets or to sprint towards the finish line.
You’ve Hit a Plateau
Our bodies are smart. And while they’re built to be active, they’re also programmed to conserve energy and sustain itself as best as it can. When you do the same activity all the time, your body will inevitably get used to it—and once the motion becomes efficient, your body adapts. That means you burn fewer calories even when you’re doing the same amount of exercise. More work with less payoff? No thanks. The solution: Challenge your body in a new way. When your body isn’t used to doing something, it will have to work harder as it adjusts to the new activity. And that means that you’ll burn more calories and build new muscles when you work out.
Your Heart Rate Is Low
If you want to get serious about getting the most from each workout, then you probably want to monitor your heart rate. One of the easiest ways to tell if your body has adapted to your regular workout is your heart rate. If your HR is staying relatively low when it should be working very hard, that’s a clear sign that you have adapted to this routine. To ensure your body is being challenged, you should aim to keep your heart rate at 60-80% of your max for most of any high-intensity or cardio routine. But if it drops below that for the bulk of a workout, it’s time to change up your routine.
You’re Resting More (or Less)
A serious workout will require some rest. And that’s the point—you’re pushing yourself and so it’s normal to need some time to recover. But maybe you’re resting longer between each set. You body may not even require it, but you’ve clearly lost motivation to keep going. That’s a sign. Or perhaps you’re taking the same amount of rests (watching your stopwatch countdown) but not feeling any different before or after. Your body is noticing this too. Playing with your rest times make a noticeable difference in your workouts. For example, if you’re hoping to burn fat, then try shortening your rest times to boost intensity—whether it’s with strength training or sprints. If you are looking to push for that personal best with weightlifting, longer rest times can give you the chance to recover more effectively and properly prepare to lift heavy.
You’re Sore … But Not in a Good Way
There’s a reason why you get hurt when your body regularly performs the same motion over and over again. Medically speaking, it’s called a “repetitive strain injury.” And it’s fairly common with athletes, because this type of injury often occurs from doing lots of repetitive motions, such as running, hitting a tennis ball, punching a bag or performing the same swimming stroke. By mixing up your activities, you give all of your overused muscles, joints, and ligaments a chance to properly recover before putting them into action again. And if you do happen to get injured, then performing a new activity that works a separate part of the body allows you to stay active while engaging other muscles (while still properly healing).
FYI: Scientific research published in 2019 shows that mixing up your routine can increase your motivation without getting in the way of results.