You should definitely rotate your workouts

No, we’re not telling you to spin in circles.
a gym full of exercise equipment
So many options! Use them. Humphrey Muleba/Unsplash

Even with gyms reopening at limited capacity, it’s still safer to exercise at home or outdoors. So, we’re dubbing this September Muscle Month to help you keep up your fitness, power, and health in socially distant times.

Run. Run, run, run, run, run. Run (run)… run. Phew, that was boring. If this whole story were just that word 1,000 times, you’d stop pretty quickly. Even if you did power through, you’d benefit less and less. Now imagine an exercise regime that’s just as repetitive and you’ll start to see why you should be rotating your workouts.

In some cases, monotonous muscle movement isn’t bad. Professional athletes, for example, need to focus on exercises that will improve their performance in their chosen sports. And if you’re training for a marathon, there’s no way around it—you’re going to have to run. A lot. But for most of us, changing things up makes it easier to stay active, healthy, and achieve our goals.

How rotating workouts helps you

Simply put, physical activity changes your body. The more varied your fitness approach, the more comprehensive those changes will be. If you do only one exercise repeatedly, the muscles involved will benefit, but others will not. The neglected ones might even get smaller, says James Pivarnik, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health at Michigan State University.

“If I was king, I would invent two exercises: one that uses 50 percent of your body’s muscles, while the other uses the other 50 percent,” he says. “And I would rotate them daily.”

Variety also helps you avoid the dreaded plateau—the bane of all those looking for solid gains. When you stop seeing changes, it’s usually a sign that your body has adapted to your approach and it’s time to form a new strategy. By exercising differently each day, you give your body less opportunity to get used to one type of activity.

“If you’re constantly changing up your workouts, it’s going to make sure you don’t plateau,” says Ashtain Rothchild, a fitness trainer based in New York City. “It keeps your muscles guessing.”

And if you’re still unconvinced, rotating workouts is simply more fun. Yes, there are people who enjoy running miles every day, but even that group will change their plan for each run to keep things interesting, varying elements such as intensity, distance, or terrain. When you have a range of exercises to choose from, you don’t have to settle for something you hate, no matter how effective you think it is.

Create a workout plan

The most important things to consider when developing a varied workout plan are your personal goals. Everyone we talked to for this story said the exercises you do and the frequency with which you rotate through them will depend heavily on what you want to achieve. If you want to dominate your local softball league, for example, focus on workouts that will help you accelerate quickly and increase your rotational power.

Once you have your goals, make sure they’re realistic. Training seven days a week, for 90 minutes a day, might not be in the cards if you’ve got a full-time job and kids to take care of, so really be honest with yourself. If you do have a sizable, albeit reachable, target, it might be useful to identify checkpoints along the way so you don’t get discouraged. Achievements always feel good, even if they’re small.

It’s also important to schedule rest days into your plan. “You need that rest day,” Rothchild says. “If you’re not taking that rest day, eventually you’re going to burn out, and we don’t want that to happen.”

Resting doesn’t mean you’re slacking off, or that you have to just sit on the couch all day. You’re letting your body recover and lowering your risk of injury. You can still be at least somewhat active, just don’t go as hard as you normally would. Rothchild’s rest days, for example, may involve skipping the subway to take a long walk to her destination, and spending time stretching and using a foam roller.

Exercises to consider

What you do will be truly dependent on your goals, abilities, and training experience, but you should generally try to include running, jumping, pressing, pulling, and hinging, to whatever extent you can, says David VanDyke, assistant athletics director at Rutgers University.

Running seems pretty straightforward, but not everyone needs to be sprinting, and some people need to start with long walks, he says. There are also running programs available online that you can use or build off of if your goals involve endurance.

Jumping rope is one way to incorporate, well, jumping, into your workout, and VanDyke says the quick movements trained by getting some ups can help your body come out healthy if you slip on ice or suddenly have to move quickly for another reason.

Rothchild always recommends cardio for her clients, though this doesn’t have to include running—you can get your heart rate up by doing strength work. “Lifting weights will do wonders for your body,” she says.

That’s where pressing, pulling, and hinging (any time your upper body moves and you bend at the hip) come into play. You may be familiar with squats, lunges, overhead presses, bench presses, rows, and deadlifts, but you don’t need a gym to do these exercises. You can do them with small weights at home, too.

If you don’t have any dumbbells at home, you can amp up the intensity of bodyweight exercises by using one limb instead of two, says Ken Look, club sports athletic trainer at Stanford University. Single-leg deadlifts and pistol squats, for instance, can be difficult no matter how much weight you’re moving.

You could also center your workouts around aerobic, anaerobic, resistance, and flexibility training, says Yuri Feito, an associate professor of exercise science at Kennesaw State University. In layman’s terms, aerobic exercise is anything that lasts a long time, like swimming, while anaerobic movements are short and fast—near maximum effort. Resistance training involves anything that loads your muscles, from barbells to kettlebells, and flexibility could be yoga, pilates, or barre.

No matter what you do, spend some time thinking about proper form. This is particularly important if you’re new to an exercise. Just because you’re a good weightlifter doesn’t mean you’re going to immediately excel at agility drills.

Seriously, stick to it

If you haven’t worked out for a while, ease into it—don’t try to jump right into running three miles, even if that’s what you used to be able to do. It’s just not good for your body. “You can’t just go from being a couch potato on Day 1 to doing all this stuff on Day 2,” Feito says. “There’s a risk of injury.”

And don’t be afraid to keep things a little bit fluid. You’re training your body to adapt to different types of movement, so get your mind used to adaptation as well. Just because you woke up to pouring rain on a day you planned a 30-minute run doesn’t mean you should give up and sit around—it’s better to shift gears and do something inside instead.

Success isn’t going to happen overnight—it’s a long process. “Consistency is key,” Rothchild says. “No goal is easy to attain. You have to work at it.”