When it comes to working out, most of us have no shortage of options. Most cities now have countless boutique fitness studios with services like ClassPass to let you sample as many workouts as you can squeeze into a month. Group-training gyms like CrossFit introduce new workouts daily, with very little repetition in routine. And if you happen to do most of your exercising outside, the options are unlimited.
But like all good things, it is possible to have too much exercise, or at least too many options. Though it’s true, having variety in your training can help prevent injuries and provide your body with what’s known as "muscle confusion," which keeps you from hitting an eventual plateau as your body adapts to the same physical stresses day after day. But according to exercise physiologist and personal trainer Tom Holland, constantly changing your workouts may not actually be the smartest way to train because without consistency, it’s harder to make daily exercise a habit—and harder to make measurable progress in strength or skill.
With that in mind, here’s how to switch up your routine intelligently, with a few tips on what to avoid.
Set Benchmarks for Your Goals
"If all you want to do is lose weight or stay in decent cardiovascular shape, then any kind of physical activity is going to be good for you," says Holland. "But if your goal is to build muscle or to get better at one specific sport or skill, then mixing things up too frequently is not going to be good for you."
That's because your body needs a little bit of consistency to continually improve, and you’ll also need to repeat some of the same workouts at least every couple of weeks in order to chart your progress. Put the simplest way possible, you'll never get better at doing pull-ups if you don't regularly practice doing pull-ups—and you'll never know if you're getting better if you don't test yourself on occasion.
Plus, when you're repeating a workout with a goal of improving every time, it reminds you of why you're doing it in the first place. "Most people want to see results," says Holland, "and if you're not running the same loop and getting faster or doing the same routine and getting stronger, it can be hard to stay motivated."
Maintain Some Type of Constant
An all-over-the-place fitness routine can also prevent you from forming regular habits or getting passionate about any one activity. And that's fine, if you really don't need those things—but research shows that we're much more likely to stick to an exercise routine that we do build into our daily schedule and follow with some degree of consistency.
We're also more likely to stick to workouts that we do with friends. If you're always trying out new workouts on your own, or jumping in and out of team sports or running groups or group fitness classes, you may not be forming those bonds and making those connections that make fitness so addicting to so many people.
To get the best of both worlds, Holland suggests trying to keep some constant thread between your varied workouts: Maybe you take a different fitness class every day, but you do it at roughly the same time of day. Or maybe you switch up your routine with a buddy or a group of friends, so no matter what workout you're doing, you're always doing it together.
Choose Activities That Compliment Each Other
When examined as a whole, your workouts each week should touch on strength building, cardiovascular conditioning, and proactive recovery. "You can stay well-rounded and injury-free by finding three or four workouts that balance each other out and help you eliminate the weak links," says Holland. (That weak link for most people, he says—the one most people skip or don't do enough of—is the active recovery and proactive body maintenance.)
The problems start, he says, when you're doing too many activities back to back that all target the same thing, or that work against each other—doing several days of high-intensity cardio in a row, for example. "I have one client who is always finding new workouts he loves—but he just keeps adding them in without getting rid of anything," says Holland. "There has to be some method to the madness or it's easy to quickly burn yourself out, even with different workouts."
To avoid exercise overkill, alternate lifting days and cardio days and make time for restorative work like yoga or Pilates a few times a week as well. Take a gentle yoga class after your weight-room sessions, for example, or foam roll before you run. Just avoid the temptation to squeeze in extra sessions as fun and accessible as they might be.