Now here’s the thing about progressive overload: You can’t advance an exercise if you don’t stick with it for weeks or months at a time. In fact, to make significant improvements, people often need to consistently perform—and progress—the same base exercises (think: deadlift, squat, push-up, pull-up) for years, Perkins says. For example, if you’re alternating every few weeks without a game plan between kettlebell deadlifts, single-leg deadlifts, and sumo deadlifts, you won’t be able most effectively add progressive overload. (While the moves target much of the same muscles, they’re performed differently and with different loads. This challenges muscles differently and can hinder the process of progressive overload.)
There’s a pretty neat physiological reason for this too, and it all comes down to what’s happening in your brain and body when you’re first starting a new exercise. No matter how fit you are, when you perform a new exercise, workout, or routine, your initial strength gains—lasting for the first few weeks—have a primarily neurological foundation, Dr. Behm explains. The motor neurons that tell your muscles to contract and lengthen “learn” how to fire most efficiently and with the best coordination possible. As a result, your neurological system gets more skilled at a given exercise. These are the “newbie gains” you might hear about.
During these initial weeks, your muscles are definitely working, but they’re also letting the neurological system do the bulk of the adapting. After all, your body doesn’t necessarily know how long you plan to stick with a given exercise. And if an exercise is just a fleeting thing, why spend the energy building muscle? It’s easier to just let the neurological system handle things.
It’s not really until after that point that the majority of your fitness gains will actually take place in your musculoskeletal system, Perkins says. This is when your muscle cells grow, become stronger, and your body composition shifts. The amount of time it takes for this to happen depends on your current fitness level, exercise history, workout frequency, and more. Expect to spend at least six to eight weeks, if not more, with your base workouts before switching up your exercises, Perkins recommends.
Reinvent the wheel before your muscles have really even adapted and you’re not really spurring your muscles to grow. Ditto with your connective tissues, bones, heart, and lungs.
But what if you like to switch up your workouts?
“Oftentimes, people think they’re training for muscle confusion because it’s what’s going to help them—but in actuality, they’re just the personality type that gets bored easily and doesn’t like to do one thing for very long,” Perkins says.
If that’s you, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. And if your goal for your exercise routine is to maintain the fitness you already have, or just move more, let off steam, or manage stress, switch it up all you want. It’s your workout, so you want to make sure you’re doing something you enjoy. (Just make sure that you’ve built a strong foundation before dabbling in advanced exercises or variations, to reduce your risk of injury.)
But if you get bored easily and have fitness goals like building strength, endurance, or muscle? You still don’t have to sacrifice workout enjoyment for progress. And how you structure or plan your workouts can make a difference.
Week over week, you’ll repeat those same workouts with the same exercises, but you’ll still have plenty of variation within the week to keep things novel. Plus, every week, even though you’ll be cranking out the same base workouts, you’ll perform them with slightly new stimuli. You’ll lift slightly more weight, do your exercises with slightly better form, or run a bit faster—however you want to employ progressive overload.
It’s that slightly increased challenge that equals progress and, over the long term, will allow you to progress exercise variations, Perkins explains. Depending on your current fitness level, exercise schedule and the progress you see, every few weeks or months you can add new challenges by altering your exercise choices. For instance, maybe you progress from a goblet to barbell squat.
Of course, none of this progression works if you don’t stay consistent with your plan, which is why it’s important to craft it around exercises you actually enjoy. Focus your workouts on exercise you’re fired up to master and progress, and you’ll get the perfect combination of consistency and novelty, Perkins says.