I’ve churned through over 150,000 emails, social media comments and messages, and blog comments in the last 6 years.
And that means I’ve fielded a ton of questions.
As you can imagine, some questions pop up more often than others, and I thought it might be helpful to take a little time every month to choose a few and record and share my answers.
So, in this round, I answer the following question:
- How Often Should You Switch Exercises?
If you have a question you’d like me to answer, leave a comment below or if you want a faster response, send an email to [email protected].
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Hey, Mike Matthews here and welcome to another episode of Muscle for Life. Thank you for joining me today. Now, as you can imagine, I have fielded a lot of communication and a lot of questions over the years. I’ve easily gone through over 200,000 emails, social media comments and messages and blog comments since I got into the fitness racket back in 2012 and.
Some questions pop up more often than others, and some are very topical. Sometimes they are related to things that a lot of people are talking about, and so I thought it would be helpful to take some time on the podcast now and then and answer questions that people are asking me, ones that I think all of you out there may benefit from or may enjoy as well.
So in this episode, I’m going to answer the question, how often should you be? Switching exercises. Also, if you like what I’m doing here on the podcast and elsewhere, definitely check out my health and fitness books, including the number one best selling weightlifting books for men and women in the world, bigger, leaner, stronger, and thinner.
Leaner, stronger, as well as the leading flexible dieting cook. Book The Shredded Chef. Now, these books have sold well over 1 million copies and have helped thousands of people build their best body ever, and you can find them on all major online retailers like Audible, Amazon, iTunes, Cobo, and Google Play, as well as in select Barnes and Noble stores.
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All right, so for quite a long time now, for at least a few decades, many people have thought that changing your exercises, and I’m talking resistance training here, that changing up your routine was an important part of proper workout. Programming that if you did the same exercises too often, your body would get used to them, quote unquote, or would adapt to them so much so that nothing you could do so long as you were still doing those exercises would cause you to gain more muscle and strength no matter what you did in terms of volume or frequency or intensity.
If you were still doing the same exercises, your body wasn’t going to respond well to that training. And another school thought was that it wasn’t that dramatic. But if you were to change the exercises frequently, And manipulate volume, frequency, and intensity properly, you would get better results. And one of those theories was often used to promote the muscle confusion technique.
Now, of course, the confusion part was an analogy. It was metaphorical. People weren’t saying that muscles literally have cognitive abilities and you can confuse them. And if you confuse them, they will respond more anemically to training. At least I never came across that. But the idea was, and it still is because muscle confusion is still a thing.
It’s not as popular as it was when I first started lifting weights like 20 years ago. But it’s still around. It’s still promoted by various experts in gurus and influencers. Anyway, the idea is by continually exposing your muscles to different stimuli in the form of different exercises, you are going to gain muscle.
And gain strength faster than doing the same exercises, exposing them to the same type of stimulus again and again for extended periods of time. Even if you work to progressively overload your muscles, even if you work with that same exercise to add weight to the bar or add weight to the dumbbells or gain reps.
Now, this is not true. The muscle confusion theory has not. Panned out. You are not going to gain muscle faster simply by changing up your exercises more frequently. Now, what is also true though, is if you keep doing the same exercises and using the same amount of weight and doing the same amount of reps, then.
Nothing much is going to change. You are not going to gain muscle and strength doing that. You’re gonna have to continually challenge your muscles more and more over time. And what that comes down to for intermediate and advanced weightlifters is you’re going to have to continue getting stronger over time.
You’re going to have to continue gaining whole body strength. And you will see that in your one rep max is on your big lifts. Most you will see that in your one RM on your squat, whether it’s a back or front or safety bar or whatever other variation you’re doing, you’re gonna see that on your one rm, on your deadlift, whether it’s conventional trap bar, sumo, whatever on your bench press, on your overhead press, so long as those one rms are going up over time, you are going to continue gaining muscle.
So that’s why every strength training program that has proven the test of time that has been with us for a while and proven its effectiveness focuses on those exercises. You do those exercises every week, usually several times per week, and sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. Sometimes that’s.
All you’re doing. Other programs focus on those exercises and then supplement them with accessory exercises. Sometimes just for aesthetic purposes, like for example, if you were to only do those exercises, if you’re a guy, you’re probably not gonna get the biceps you want. If you want to get the big biceps, you’re probably gonna have to do some biceps curls in addition to your heavy pulls.
And so a strength training program may have you do the pulling and then also allow you to do some. Barbell curling, for example. So just to make myself clear here, so long as you are progressing on an exercise so long as you are gaining reps with your working weights, and then eventually kind of cashing in that progress for more weight.
So for example, if you are using double progression, and it doesn’t really matter what exercise you’re doing, let’s say you are working in the rep range of 60. Eight, or maybe it’s four to six, like you do a lot of in bigger lean or stronger. And if you hit one, two, or three sets of, let’s say six, depending on the programming, you then add weight to the bar or the dumbbell or the machine, and you’d work now with that new heavier weight until you can hit the progression target for that add weight and so forth.
And so as long as that is occurring, you are. Training productively, even if you’re doing the same exercise for 1, 2, 3, 4 months. So long as you’re getting stronger on that exercise, you are accomplishing what you want to accomplish. Now, maybe you could do better with a different exercise. For example, if you were only doing the leg, Press for your lower body and you are progressing.
I would say that’s great, but you can probably do even better if we include a barbell squat in there, a back squat, or a front squat or a safety bar squat. And so if you were doing, let’s say, six or eight sets of leg press per week and maybe additional sets of some other exercises, I would propose, why don’t we split?
That leg press volume in half. Let’s do three or maybe four sets per week, and then let’s do three or four sets of barbell squatting as well. And if we were to do that, you probably would make progress a bit faster. But we’re not changing the exercise simply to change the exercise. We’re not changing because we think that the leg press is going to become less and less effective simply because it’s the same exercise again and again.
We’re changing more strategically. We are. Taking some of that volume and replacing it with volume on an exercise that is even more effective for training the lower body. And so, just to make sure that I’ve made my point here, I just wanna say this one more time. It’s true that if you keep providing your muscles with the same stimulus, the same exercise, the same amount of weight, the same amount of reps you are going to stagnate, things do have to change.
This stimulus does have to change over time to continue gaining muscle and strength. But the key changes are in load and volume. Number of hard sets per major muscle group per week is a very practical way to look at volume. Just changing exercises isn’t enough. Even if an exercise feels more difficult than the one that you’re doing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be more effective for gaining muscle and strength, but what is certainly effective for gaining more muscle?
Is getting stronger is adding weight to the exercise, to the bar, to the dumbbells, to the machine, and so intensity is something that does need to change and it needs to change as often as you can change it, right? You want to add weight to the exercises as frequently as you can. Now, of course, as you become more experienced, it gets harder and harder to do that.
You may have to work a month just to add weight to an exercise, but that’s of course just part of the game. And once you have added weight to it, you have progressed a little bit further. You have made it a little bit closer to your genetic potential for overall muscularity and strength. And another training factor that you can manipulate profitably that you can use to provide additional stimulus for muscle growth is volume.
And you can look at volume in a couple of different ways, but hard sets per major muscle group per week. And. Total reps per Major muss group per week are two of the more useful methods. And I don’t want to go off on a long tangent on that. If you wanna learn more about that in particular, pick up my book Beyond Bigger, leaner, stronger, which is specifically for intermediate and advanced weightlifters.
Obviously it is skewed toward men. The title gives that away, but the fundamentals apply just as much to women as men. And I will create a female version of that book. However, the fundamental principles are not going to change. The examples are going to change, and probably the wording of different things is going to change when I know I’m speaking specifically to women and the programming is going to change because the beyond bigger, lean or stronger program has more upper body volume than most women would like, and not enough lower body volume.
And so I will be flipping those things when I create. The female book, but women can read beyond bigger leaners, stronger learn a lot, and by the end of the book, they’ll probably be able to just tweak the programming themselves without any issue, especially if they are an experienced weightlifter, which they should be to follow that program.
They don’t have to be. And same thing for men to read the book and to learn, but the programming is. Inappropriately difficult for people who are new. That’s all. Anyway, coming back to this point regarding volume, that is something that you can manipulate. You can change it over the course of training cycles to gain muscle faster than if you made no changes.
If you just did the same number of sets per major mouse group per week, and you worked in the same rep ranges by changing rep ranges, for example, you can gain strength faster. In particular, that’s been shown in research and because we know that. Gaining strength leads to gaining muscle, especially in intermediate and advanced weightlifters.
It is reasonable to assume that setting up your training like that if you are an experienced weightlifter, is going to be better for building muscle. So I think all of that serves as a useful preamble for just directly answering the question now of how often you should switch exercises. So I’m gonna say, Every month to four months, depending on where you’re at in your training and what your programming looks like and what you’re trying to accomplish.
For example, I’m following my Beyond bigger, leaner, stronger program, and you do the same exercises every week for four months. And what does change over the four months is the intensity and the volume. So for example, in the beginning of the program, your first month starts with. 70% of one rep max on primary exercises.
On the squat, deadlift, bench press overhead press four sets of 10, and that’s very hard. That is almost cardio sets of 10 of deadlifts, for example, with one or two good reps left in the tank. And same thing for squats, which I have to do tomorrow. Yay. And then the following week, you add some weight to the bar, you go up to 75% and now you’re doing sets of.
Eight, and then you go up to 80%, you’re doing sets of six, and the program progressively goes then from the 10 reps in the beginning of a macro cycle. And if we fast forward to the end of this four month macro cycle, now you’re doing sets of four sets of. Two, and you’re ending with 95% on the bar and doing amrap as many reps as possible sets.
So you start with higher volume in the sense of the number of reps you’re doing to lower volume, but the volume in terms of total hard sets. Per major muscle group per week does not change at all. You’re still doing the same number, which is 12 to 15, maybe as much as 18. Actually in the case of a couple of smaller muscle groups, hard sets per major muscle group per week, that stays the same, but your total reps are higher.
At the beginning of the macro cycle and then lower at the end of the macro cycle. And conversely, the load is lower at the beginning and higher at the end. And in the book, I explain why I set it up like that and why I think that is a very productive way to train. Now that doesn’t mean that you have to do the same exercises for four months on end.
Like I. Said a few minutes ago, you can change your exercises every month, two months, three or four months. I mean, I suppose you could actually go even longer. Like for example, when you’re new to training, there’s no real need to change anything much in your routine for the first three to six months probably, unless you run into some problems, unless an exercise is causing you pain, or if you’re feeling pain or strange when you are training, heed that because that can proceed.
An injury or minimally just proceed, a nagging problem that gets in the way of progress. But so long as there are no issues, you can do the same thing in the gym, same exercises, and of course you want to be working to add weight to those exercises, but same number of sets, a very structured routine. You can do that.
For, again, six months. I mean, I, I’ve come across people over the years who have done the same basic, like bigger, leaner, stronger routine. I give people a year of bigger, leaner, stronger workouts with the book, and they’re split up into different phases. I’ve heard from many people over the years who just really liked the first phase, and so they never bothered with.
The second, third, or beyond, they just did the first phase again and again and again for their first year and they were thrilled with it. Uh, I’ve heard from many guys that were able to gain 15, 20, 25 pounds of muscle, lose a bunch of fat doing that, and that’s fantastic, right? Because why make something.
Harder than it needs to be. Why make something more work than it needs to be? Now, as you get more experienced and weights get heavier, I think it makes sense to make changes to your exercises every eight to 10 weeks or so, and that includes the big compound lifts. Now, what I don’t recommend is that you replace a compound.
Exercise like a, let’s say you’re doing the back squat, the barbell back squat for eight weeks. I don’t recommend that you replace that with an accessory exercise or even a pair of accessory exercises, for example, I would not recommend that you then start doing leg extensions and leg curls to start your lower body workout and don’t do any squatting.
What I would recommend instead is that you use a variation of that squat, so maybe you go from the back squat to the front squat. That’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time. Or to the safety bar squat. That’s what I’m gonna be doing in this macro cycle. And many gyms don’t have a safety bar, but if your gym does give it a try, it’s a very back friendly and quadriceps dominant form of the barbell squat.
And so then if you’re going from, let’s say, the back squat for eight weeks to the front squat, that’s good. And then you should also be doing a hip hinge. You should be doing some sort of big pole, a big deadlift. It could be a conventional deadlift. To a trap bar deadlift or maybe to a sumo deadlift if that works for your body.
The sumo deadlift doesn’t play nicely with my anatomy. It’s just uncomfortable. It’s just awkward. So I don’t do it at all, but I do alternate between conventional pulling and trap bar pulling. And as far as the bench press goes, you can go from the flat barbell bench press to the incline barbell bench press.
That can help also make sure that the upper part of your chest develops nicely if you. Only do flat pressing and decline pressing. Like many guys, particularly in the gym, what you may find, and I once had this problem, is that you build a big chest, but it’s very bottom heavy. A lot of the mass is in the lower portion of the pecks, and the upper portion looks almost like you don’t even lift.
Well, a simple way to make sure that it doesn’t happen to you or fix it if it does happen to you is to include regular. Incline, pressing close, grip pressing and or reverse grip pressing in your routine. Most people can do one or two, if not all three of those comfortably. Some people, for example, can’t get the reverse grip bench press in particular to feel good for them, and that’s okay.
If you’re one of those people, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to do it. You can get all of the upper chest development you want. Out of really just incline pressing. But you might as well also do some close grip pressing, because that’s great for your triceps as well. And so that would be how you could change your horizontal pressing.
And now for vertical pressing, you could go from a standing press, it could be a standing military to maybe a push press or just a traditional overhead press. And then you could go to a seated, like a seated military press. That’s what I’m doing for this macro cycle. And I like that the seated press allows you to really overload your shoulders in particular, whereas a standing press is more of a whole body exercise, which is great.
But again, I just like to alternate between these exercises. Now, as far as the accessory exercises go, the exercises that you use to rack up additional volume in the muscle groups that just aren’t adequately trained by primary, by compound exercises alone, you have more leeway. There. So, whereas I’m recommending that you switch between really just a handful of exercises for these key movements, for your pressing, you know, your horizontal and your vertical pressing for your squatting, for your hip, hinging, you know, your big pulling, your dead lifting with accessory exercises, let’s say with, uh, Something for the biceps.
You could go from an easybar curl to a barbell curl, to a cable curl, to a dumbbell curl, to a hammer curl, to a machine curl, and on and on. And the same thing goes for really any other accessory. Exercise anything that you do to directly train your triceps or to train your delts aside from your front delts, which of course are trained in your pressing, but if you’re doing side raises or rear raises, you could do them with dumbbells.
You can do them on machines. You can do them with cables and you should be doing more pulling than just deadlifting to make sure that your pressing volume isn’t way more than your pulling volume. Ideally, on a weekly basis, they are comparable. They don’t have to be exactly the same, but if you’re doing twice as much pressing as.
Pulling that’s not good for your shoulders, and that may cause problems in time. And so you have a lot of options there. You could do a barbell row, you could do a dumbbell row, you could do a cable row, you could do a lap pull down, you could do a chin up, you could do a pull up, and so on and so forth. And so then what you would do is every eight to 10 weeks, let’s say, or maybe longer, if you have a good reason to stick with exercises longer, like with my Beyond Bigger leader, stronger program, you are changing.
Everything but you’re following the rules that I just gave you. You are still starting your at your workouts with big compound movements, which require the most energy and the most focus, and you are just alternating between a few variations of those big movements, and then you’re moving into your isolation or accessory work, and you may want to change up those exercises in such a way that you don’t repeat a single accessory exercise for.
Months, it could be four or six, eight or even 10 months. Now, what most people do though, is they find the accessory exercises that work best for them, and there is individual variation in terms of how well our muscles respond to a given exercise. How much of a. Pump, do we get from that exercise? How much of a drop in performance from set to set do we see?
Which is a good sign? It’s showing that it’s stimulating that muscle group. How much do we feel the target muscle group working? How much muscle soreness do we get from the exercise? Those are all things to consider when you’re finding the exercises that work. Best for you and particularly the accessory exercises.
So what many people who are relatively new to this do is they will rotate through quite a few different accessory exercises and they’ll just make notes of the ones that seem to work best for them, and then alternate between those. For most of us, we find. Four to six exercises for each major muscle group that really seem to stimulate those muscles best.
And we just stick to those and we don’t go back to the ones that are just clearly inferior. And if you wanna learn more about that in particular, listen to the interview I did with Dr. Mike is Rael. It got posted a few months ago now, and it’s all on that. Topic, finding the best exercises for you. Just go over to legion athletics.com.
Search for Israel, I S R A E T E L, and it will pop up. Now, one more thing I want to mention, an exception to the rules I just gave, I suppose, is if you want to change accessory exercises more often than every eight to 10 weeks. That’s okay. For example, if you just like variety, and some people really find that it keeps them interested in their training when they’re doing new things, at least every month or two, and that then helps them have better workouts and look forward to their workouts, then I say, great.
Do that. But I would not recommend making changes more than once every four weeks. And if you are gonna make changes every month or so, stick to the accessory exercises. Try to do just one type of compound movement for at least eight, 10 weeks before making a change. All right. Well, that’s it for this episode.
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