Break It Up

By Fernando Pages Ruiz |

I know variety is supposed to be the spice of life, and there’s no doubt that a dash of diversity is great for busting out of mind-numbing ruts. But when it comes to working out, I’ll admit, I tend to choose a familiar groove. If I like a particular exercise, I’m inclined to repeat it every day for a year, monotony be damned.

I used to think this approach was a sort of testament to my stalwart determination. In fact, I believed that endless repetition was vital to accomplishing great things at the gym. The only problem with this notion: I was totally wrong. Athletic research proves that variety not only offers a balm for boredom, it actually helps you make progress toward your strength and aerobic fitness goals.

Athletic trainers refer to this phenomenon as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which in plain English means that habitual exercise delivers diminishing returns. The upshot: The same workout that provided great results six months ago will now barely maintain your body’s status quo.

Remember feeling awkward, tired and sore when you started your exercise program? And the pain? Yeah, well, you probably remember the gains, too. If you want to get reacquainted with them, it’s time to change things up.

Presto Change-o

There’s probably nothing wrong with your current workout, except that you’ve already mastered it. To keep moving ahead, you have to teach your body some new tricks.

This doesn’t mean you have to change your goals. It just means that the best road toward your goals may not be the straight and narrow one. Case in point: Once, I made up my mind to do 20 wide-grip pull-ups. I started at five, and then doggedly worked my way up to 12. But after that, no matter how many times I hung on the bar pulling for dear life, it seemed that my body had reached a dead end.

Eventually, I gave up on the idea and adapted a totally new-routine. Six weeks later, without having done a single pull-up, I jumped up and ripped out 17. I’ve yet to reach 20, but the break actually helped me improve and taught me a valuable lesson: Sometimes a scenic detour turns out to be a short cut, too.

Adding variety to your workout can be as simple as switching between doing shoulder presses with dumbbells to doing shoulder presses with a barbell. The change shifts the strain on your muscle fibers and engenders a new round of physiological adaptation. But variety can also mean trying something totally new, like rock climbing or water aerobics. Unless you are a competitive athlete who has to focus on a single skill, you’ll probably find that a total change in routine leads to dramatic improvements in your general fitness – and fun.

Of course, most of us like to do what we do well, and the idea of appearing goofy while in the throes of some new and unfamiliar exercise feels, well, embarrassing. Relax. And get over yourself – other folks are much too busy worrying about their own act to watch you.

Besides, I’m going to give you a few tips on how you can add variety to your workouts without losing your dignity.

Visit a New Club: Sometimes anonymity makes it easier to make changes. Try a different club location, one where you don’t know anyone. Get oriented to new equipment, a different class schedule and a whole new crowd. Perhaps your alternate facility offers that Cardio Kickboxing class that you never could fit into your calendar. Try Hydro Training, Fitness Yoga or even a Salsa class. Who cares if you look goofy? Nobody knows you there, and when you return to your old digs looking fast, lean and fit, you can tell your weight-room chums, “I took a working vacation.”

Hire a Trainer: If you’re used to taking group classes and don’t feel entirely comfortable in the weight room, hire a personal trainer for a few sessions. Personal trainers don’t just work for movie stars anymore. They can help anyone (from rank amateur to professional athlete) gain tangible benefits through a well-designed exercise program. A certified trainer knows how to provide you with novel workouts that keep your muscles guessing, and can also fine-tune your technique so you’ll benefit more from the old standbys, too.

Hit a Bull’s Eye: While most of us train for general fitness, vanity and health, it’s hard to stay motivated without a more tangible goal. Create a fitness target by training for a specific event, like a local road race or racquetball meet. It will move you into a whole new level of fitness intensity. Just ask any amateur marathoner: Every year thousands discover the amazing feats anybody can accomplish once committed to a goal. After your first event, you’ll feel empowered to tackle athletic endeavors you never dared dream of. What’ll you do next?

Get Feedback: A heart-rate monitor can help keep you engaged and motivated by providing biofeedback. You adjust your pace and intensity according to your exercise goals. This focuses your mind on the workout at hand. In the same vein, you might consider a pedometer to help you track your distance. If you’re serious about your conditioning program, consider getting your V02 max tested occasionally, too. All these strategies give you the benchmarks and information you need to know about how hard you’re working out, and whether your workouts are working.

Tune In: When exercise starts to feel exhausting and boring, it’s tempting to escape the tedium with a pair of headphones or MTV. For some, this works wonders, but it can also have the effect of disassociating you from your body, thus diminishing the benefits of your workout. If you’re so bored with your workout that you need external distractions and entertainments, it’s time for a change, ideally one that tunes you into your own body, thoughts and feelings. Paying close and careful attention to your form, breathing and movement deserves – and requires – real mental energy. And 20 minutes of intense, focused exercise with excellent form provides more benefit than hours of mindless plodding. When you don’t pay attention, your form gets sloppy and every move you make ingrains this “close-enough” attitude into your neuromuscular pathways. It’s as if you were deliberately learning to play an instrument out of tune. You’re better off taking a nap.

Get Philosophical: Even if you’re not apt to take up meditation as a practice, apply a Zen-like focus to your workout. Make it a sacred time: Lace your sneakers with care and intent. Regard the dumbbell in your hands with the same respect a Samurai gives his sword. Don’t work your body as if you were exercising a gerbil in its cage; work into your body mindfully. Build a philosophical physique with your mind firmly trained on the marvelous God-given machinery at your command. Every rep you do with good form represents another step in the creation of your ideal body and mind. It is in this sense a gesture of gratitude: A conscious attitude that helps you to excel in every aspect of your life. And seriously, if this advice seems totally unrealistic, then you definitely need to reevaluate your workout. Exercise can become the highpoint of your day, and if you can’t imagine it feeling that way, you owe it to yourself to try something different.

Regarding Repetition

It takes a solid and somewhat repetitive routine to get fit or accomplish any athletic goal. Of course it’s better to trudge along a familiar bridle path than to quit exercising entirely. But unless you mix it up now and then, your body will settle into the doldrums. Finding new exercises can help you stay interested while your body receives the challenges it requires to keep on making progress toward your goals – and beyond.

Compared to resistance training, aerobics seems relatively simple. Exercise scientists define only two parameters for aerobic training: Endurance and speed. But these twin variables (like yin and yang) create a whole universe of possibilities.It decreases as speed increases. Most of us can walk for an hour and some of us can jog that long, too; but only a few elite athletes can keep up a record-setting pace for 60 minutes. So by altering your speed, distance and time you can attenuate your endurance threshold in many different ways.Perhaps the hardest challenge in marathon training comes from the clock, not the miles. Most of us just can’t stand the monotony of two to three hours of running, even at a moderate jog. To improve your mental endurance while upping your aerobic capacity, forget the miles and just focus on your watch. Try adding 10 minutes to your long run every week until you surpass two hours. Settle on a pace you can sustain without agony and don’t force yourself to go faster or farther. Once you have mastered the two-hour-plus run, then see if you can gradually increase your pace.When you just can’t imagine 40 minutes or more on the treadmill, try an aerobic cocktail instead: Start with 10 minutes of moderate running, then jump on a stationary bike and do another 10 minutes of fast-paced cycling followed by 10 minutes of rowing, and then a slow, hard climb on the step mill. You’ll have completed a 40-minute aerobic workout without even knowing it. Sometimes I like to mix it up with abdominal work, too. I do 10 minutes of fast or uphill running interrupted by 10 minutes of advanced abdominal exercises. Swapping back and forth, I complete a rigorous 60-minute workout that leaves me feeling quick and lean without mental boredom.Interval training always helps me blast through aerobics plateaus, and it’s anything but boring. Check with a trainer or instructor first, because interval training is only useful once you’ve developed a base level of aerobic fitness. Once you have the okay, hop on a treadmill or your favorite stationary cycle and alternate one minute of fast-paced running with one to two minutes of active (moderate paced) rest. Use a heart-rate monitor to safely gauge your moves up and down your aerobic profile (see the September 2002 issue of  for heart-rate training guidance). Interval training burns calories at an accelerated rate and helps pump your metabolism into overdrive.Here are some variation techniques that athletes use to stay focused and moving ahead in their resistance work:There’s more to strength training than just pumping iron. Sports physiology has added a layer of science to the old sport. Now you can tune your body very precisely. It turns out that your muscles respond to the stimulus of exercise in four ways: They become stronger, they grow bigger, they carry on longer and they move faster. Different types of strength-training exercises emphasize these four results to differing degrees. Lots of repetition with moderate weight stimulates endurance and growth; heavy-duty lifting with tons of iron and few repetitions increases power, density and strength. But even though you want improvement on all fronts, it appears physiologically impossible to enhance strength, size, endurance and power simultaneously. So athletes cycle through four phases of training in a progressive schedule known as “periodization.” You can apply a similar technique by simply cycling through the weight room changing the basic parameters of your workout every four to six weeks.If you’ve gotten used to doing three sets of 12 repetitions on all your exercises, try increasing the weight until you can only do three sets of eight repetitions for a change. Conversely, if you are already working heavy, lighten up and go for sets of 15 to 20 repetitions. This shift in balance between strength and endurance will shock your muscles into new growth and definition.Reorganize the sequence in which you perform each exercise so that you don’t always target the same muscles either fresh or fatigued. When you want to get stronger at a particular exercise, do it early in the workout. If you aim for endurance, like I do with pull-ups and pushups, include these exercises in the latter stages of your workout. But never follow one pattern exclusively. Switch exercises around so that you target every muscle both fresh and pre-exhausted.The easiest way to vary your resistance training without abandoning the weight room is to vary the equipment you use with each body part. If you worked your chest with the bench-press exercise, next time try the incline and decline benches, dips, flyes and dumbbell presses with your back on a Swiss ball. All of these exercises target the chest muscles, but they do it in slightly different ways. Muscles are versatile instruments that need to be exercised at many different angles to obtain optimum results.

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