How's that 'Workout' Working Out for YOU?

They say variety is the spice of life, and in many ways this applies to exercise as well; after all, who wants the prospect of performing the same routine from here to eternity, especially if you find it hard enough to get motivated in the first place. A varied exercise programme that includes a blend of cardio, strength and mobility work will not only keep things interesting, but will also prepare you better for what everyday life has to throw at you.

But if motivation is to be maintained in the long term, variety needs to be balanced with continuity and measurable progression; unexciting words, I know, but essential if the ultimate goal is making exercise a permanent fixture of your life - something we should all be aiming for. And this balancing act is missing in many of the attractively marketed, and sometimes wacky, online 'workouts' that flood our social media timelines... Some are well meaning enough, and might be a great addition for somebody already enthused about fitness, but if you struggle with motivation, and are looking to make exercise a habit, you are going to need some proper structure to your programme.

Exercise variety can increase motivation, but should be balanced with the need for progression and continuity.

Exercise variety can increase motivation, but should be balanced with the need for progression and continuity.

And this is where a fitness professional fits in, as a good one can make a real difference to your outcomes. And this doesn't mean you have to invest in a personal trainer, because a qualified fitness instructor will have more than enough knowledge to get you started in the right way, and are surprisingly under utilised in most gyms.

Get to know your gym instructors. These guys have the knowledge to get you moving in the right direction, and are often under utilised.

Get to know your gym instructors. These guys have the knowledge to get you moving in the right direction, and are often under utilised.

But as good and dedicated as some professionals are, they are not immune to the influence of colourful, but often random #workouts that pop up on our smartphone screens. And in an effort to keep things interesting, can sometimes allow this influence to filter into their own programming.

I have been there myself: As a super keen instructor, waking up to teach a 6.30am class in the early days of my career, a class where everyone knows me, and will be waiting with baited breath for the latest instalment of Dylan's Super Power Circuits (or some equally inspiring title); only to spend breakfast, and the bus ride to work, agonising over what wackery I can throw at them this week because, having already exhausted all my original ideas, I so desperately want to avoid them getting bored and not turning up for the next round.

Well it didn't take long for me to realise that approaching exercise prescription in this manner was a short road to nowhere in terms of client results and satisfaction, which in the long term far outweigh any fall-out from boredom alone. And this awakening is something I've tried to pass on to colleagues and clients alike, as I've watched them getting drawn into the endless cycle of 'menu du jour' programming; an easy trap to fall into, especially when they're up against the increasing appeal of daily pin-up workouts on photo sharing sites, and the popularity of choreographed exercise combo GIFs from so-called celebrity trainers. These elaborate exercise hybrids seem to be more a demonstration of the trainer's creativity (if there's even a qualified trainer at the heart of them), rather than their coaching abilities, and just fuel the unfounded belief that this is what the fitness game is really about. And I can pretty much guarantee that the purveyors of these beautifully sequenced workout minestrones didn't build their own physiques by practising their own creations; but rather on the bench and in the rack, just like the rest of their peers.

Elaborate combination exercises with thousands of 'likes' may look amazing, but in reality they are time-consuming to learn and unlikely to achieve enough overload in any one muscle group. If you are really looking to 'tone up' or get stronger, stick to the basics and save these for the circus.

Elaborate combination exercises with thousands of 'likes' may look amazing, but in reality they are time-consuming to learn and unlikely to achieve enough overload in any one muscle group. If you are really looking to 'tone up' or get stronger, stick to the basics and save these for the circus.

Now despite the slight cynicism above, there might still be a place for a random approach to programming, especially if it gets someone moving for the first time, and is part of a longer term and more structured plan. And one could argue that it has its advantages if the goal is simply to achieve a metabolic loading and to burn lots of calories. After all, what difference does it make which exercises you select or how you combine them, as long as you're working hard, and you keep coming back for more. But this will only work for so long, as once any fat loss goals are achieved, the programme will leave little incentive to keep going. Having the additional motivation of seeing measurable progression in terms of strength and endurance (load and reps) on some key movements is a powerful tool when trying to make exercise a long term habit.

The other argument that is often put forward in support of the 'let's just wing it' approach, is the concept of 'muscle confusion'  -  popularised by some branded fitness routines. This theory suggests that training the same muscle groups with different loads and exercises every session leads to better results than the more established 'linear progressive' approach. And while there is evidence to suggest this provides better short term strength gains (12 weeks), there is nothing to show that this process is ongoing. So again, unless you're subjecting yourself to regular and potentially risky 1RM testing, it lacks the motivation of seeing regular and measurable improvements from a more progressive and constant routine.

So if you’re really serious about making a long term difference to fitness, just how do you keep your programming interesting, whilst remaining goal-focused and progressive?.. Well, if you're a fitness professional who feels under pressure to re-invent their programme every session to prevent your clients getting bored, then take a step back and try putting  yourself in the shoes of these same clients: A trainer may teach the same exercise - let's say a box-standard push-up - several times a day, but a client may only do that exercise twice a week, and had only attended 4 or 5 sessions; so who's the one really getting bored?.. Also, a fun and motivational style of teaching will help to eliminate boredom in even the most structured of programmes - something every good trainer should work on alongside their technical know-how.

Secondly, whether you're a trainer or an aspiring exerciser, just by following the basic principles of progression, enough variety is more or less guaranteed in a routine, without deviating from the aims of the plan. Consider, for instance, all the variations of the Squat exercise that can be fed into a programme over the course of weeks and months, and re-introduced from time to time to help beat stubborn plateaus: bench squats, body-weight squats, goblet, suitcase, barbell back, front - there's at least 6 months of programming there for someone who trains 3 times a week, and that's just on one body part and with one exercise. All achieved without the likes of a single ‘squat-step-kick-press-row-somersault combo’ that will not achieve overload in any single movement, take an age to learn, and be impossible to track in terms of improvement. 

So rather than trawling the internet every few months for the next 'new start' to your lapsed exercise routine, go and say hi to your friendly instructor, or try planning a little more and keep working to get better at the basics. This doesn't mean your workout has to lack variation, but by charting results aside from just weight loss, you'll have added motivation to keep going in the long term. And this is the point that people usually become hooked; dreading the consequences of giving up and having to drop back on some hard won and measurable gains.

Thanks for reading.

Dylan