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Ways to Make Workouts Harder

Why Your Gym Routine Might Be Getting in the Way of Fitness Gains

People love routines. There is comfort in doing something you know how to do, at the time you like to do it, with the instructors you prefer. But a problem can develop when you are too comfortable in your routine because your body probably is too, and you might unknowingly hit a fitness plateau. If you have fitness goals you are struggling to achieve despite an active schedule, there are ways to alter your workouts in order to see results.

The basic premise is this: our bodies are designed to function efficiently. In evolutionary terms, humans have endured as a species because our bodies have found a way to run on as little energy as possible in order to retain reserves for emergency expenditures. We know it as the fight-or-flight principle: the premise of survival is that you either outrun your predator or fight it off. That takes energy above and beyond what you need for your everyday activities. Now apply this concept to your workouts.

If you do the same thing all the time, your body adapts to that energy requirement. It finds a way to efficiently execute recognized motions and functions. And it learns to do so with as little energy as possible. Over time, your strenuous workout becomes an "everyday activity." The only way to kick your body out of this groove is to add additional stress. That does not mean go running in the woods looking for a bear to chase you.

A safer alternative is called the progressive overload principle, which means changing your workout volume (the amount of work you are doing), intensity (how hard you are working), and/or frequency/time (how long/how often). Strength training follows this approach when you incrementally increase the weight you are lifting over a specific amount of time (a concept called periodization) or more organically, as repetitions begin to seem "manageable." This concept of increasing workout difficulty applies to almost any workout.

For example, if you run 10 miles a week, try adding additional mileage for four to six weeks, then another mile as time goes on. If adding distance isn't practical, try altering your elevation through outside hills or treadmill incline. If that gets stale, what about running the same distance faster each month or putting speed and intensity together and doing interval hill work? Used to running on treadmills or paved surfaces? Why not try a trail run? The unstable surfaces will challenge your core and balance, as well as your ability to maintain speed. You can almost always count on some hill work cropping up outdoors, unless you live in a flatland state (then find some stairs or bleachers).

If you are really ready to step out of your exercise comfort zone, why not try something you have never done? Sometimes the difference is not just altering the activity, but adding something new. New activities access your muscle groups in different ways and affect your neural pathways, which means your brain gets a workout, too.

Need some ideas? Rock climbing builds strength, agility, balance, and grip. Dance fitness adds an element of fun (and possibly slight embarrassment) but also helps increase footwork dexterity, fluidity, and cardio capacity. Even more alternative: adult recreational league sports are on the rise. Remember crushing some dodgeball or kickball as a kid? Why not add a throwback element to your fitness? It's not just for kids anymore, and your body will thank you for the break from the usual grind.

Whatever it takes to move forward, be creative, be courageous, and be careful out in the woods. Because, you know, bears.

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