Ruts. We all experience them – relationship ruts, job ruts, weekday dinner ruts – they’re a part of life. We either accept them or we break out of them. What we don’t do is respond by dropping the behavior altogether. We don’t, for example, live a life of solitude, stop earning a paycheck or quit eating dinner.
Why should workouts be any different? Yes, workout ruts are a real thing. The difference is, once someone realizes she’s in one, she’s likely to abandon all exercise if she doesn’t break out of her humdrum workout routine.
The psychological need to change things up is easily understood. But, there’s also a physical component to exercise ruts. The physiological benefits we realize from exercising regularly are the direct result of the body’s ability to adapt to new stressors. In other words, the reason why a specific workout feels easier the more we do it is because it actually is easier for the muscles and cardiovascular system to perform it each subsequent time. After doing the same workout week after week, month after month, our brains and muscles can perform on auto-pilot. When this happens, if we don’t infuse our workouts with different challenges, the fitness gains will plateau – we won’t get any stronger or faster and we’ll burn fewer calories per workout compared to when we first performed it.
One way to up the ante is to add time to the workouts we’re already doing. But, most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to devote multiple hours to exercise most days a week. Also, adding minutes to an established workout is the least efficient way to achieve new fitness gains. It’s far better to challenge your body with a brand new 30 minute workout than to add 30 minutes to the 60 minute workout you’ve been doing four days a week for the last two years.
Here are three simple ways to improve your fitness, boost your metabolism and break out of your workout rut without increasing the time you devote to exercise:
Those who regularly exercise multiple times a week usually have a favorite mode of exercise, be it cardiovascular, strength or flexibility-based. If you find it easy to go for a run most days but rarely do any other kind of workout, now is the time to introduce strength or flexibility workouts (or both) to your routine. If, on the other hand, your weekly routines are predominantly strength or flexibility-based, then it’s time to swap in a cardio-based routine.
Rather than add the new workout to your current docket, substitute it for a routine you already do. For example, if you power walk Sundays through Fridays, don’t add a strength-based workout on Saturdays. Instead, trade one of your walks for a strength-based workout.
The ultimate goal is to gradually trade and mash-up your routine until you have a minimum of three cardio workouts, two strength workouts, one flexibility workout and one rest day each week. Keep in mind, the modes of exercise aren’t mutually exclusive. There are many opportunities to combine two (or all three) modes in one workout. It is possible, therefore, for one workout to count as one cardio, one strength and one flexibility workout at the same time.
If your workouts, whatever the mode, are performed at a steady, consistent pace, adding intervals can inject challenge, metabolic charge and enjoyment to a stale routine. For cardio workouts, alternating between fast and moderate pace (traditional intervals) or very fast pace and active rest (high intensity intervals or HIIT) is a great way to break out of a rut without needing to abandon a beloved workout. To introduce adaptive challenges to strength workouts, vary weight amounts, reps and rest periods between sets. Even a yoga vinyasa can be infused with the interval concept by varying the pace. Link to my interval training post here or my HIIT post here to see a blueprint for interval workouts.
If you do cardio-strength combination workouts, chances are you perform the cardio phase first followed by the strength training phase. There’s good reason for this. Exercise science has proven this exercise order optimizes cardio performance. Meaning, a person who swims and does a full-body strength training circuit in combination will swim a faster pace and/or longer distance if he swims before strength training compared to swimming after the circuit training workout.
But, if the exerciser isn’t an athlete-in-training, the goal may not necessarily be optimal cardio performance. Recent studies show flipping the protocol – strength training first followed by cardio – results in higher total calorie burn, including higher stored fat calorie burn, compared to the traditional cardio-strength order. If your goal is weight loss or improved body composition, flip the order of your combination workouts.
If you’ve found yourself in a workout rut or exercise plateau, try one of these three simple strategies to break out of it without stealing a moment of time from the rest of your busy life. You’ll be fit and happier for it!