How to Keep Your Training Constantly Varied and Interesting

By on February 10, 2022

If you find your training boring, you shouldn’t be doing it. Full stop.

And I don’t just mean because it’s hard to be consistent with something you don’t enjoy doing. I don’t just mean because it’s no fun.

I mean that you won’t progress as quickly if you aren’t engaged with what you’re doing.

Kettlebell Jump Squat

Unfortunately, a lot of people think of working out as being terrible boring. Perhaps you’re picturing standing on the spot curling something. Or doing a regular squat for the 1,000th time this year.

I mean, yeah, that’s pretty meh.

But training should NOT be boring. Training is the most action most of us will get in our day-to-day lives. It should be challenging and adrenaline-pumping.

Moreover, if your training is dull and boring, then you aren’t going to get the most from it. That’s because, as Andrew Huberman often explains, attention is key to plasticity. Our brains are wired to learn from events that we deem important: without attention, none of the important chemicals that are supposed to stimulate neuroplasticity will be produced.

Plasticity

So, just why is your training boring? And what can you do about it?

A Simple Trick to Reduce Repetition

The first reason training is boring for many, is that it can be highly repetitive. Three sets of 10 is 30 repetitions of the precise same movement. Doing anything 30 times is pretty boring!

When training for cardio or conditioning, we need even longer sets. That can be even more mind-numbing!

But here’s the thing: you don’t need to be doing three sets of anything. You can easily get by performing just a single set of an exercise and still have it be highly valuable.

I know what some people are already thinking: studies suggest that performing three sets of an exercise is superior to performing one or two. That way, you get more volume, but it’s not enough to cause excessive fatigue.

Rope climbs

Here’s the problem with studies: they tend to look at black and white scenarios. Three sets versus two sets, with all else being equal. They don’t necessary look at the way you can mitigate against the drawbacks of one method or another. They don’t always consider 3rd options.

The reason you don’t need three sets is that you can get the same results by carefully selecting exercises that offer similar benefits. By choosing exercises that overlap.

See also: It’s Time to Reconsider the Three Set Approach – The Bioneer

For example: rather than performing three sets of bicep curls, you could instead perform one set of bicep curls, one set of bodyweight curls, and one set of hands-only rope climbs. Each of these will slightly alter the angle of resistance and the position of your hand/grip. However, they are similar enough that they will still offer compounding benefits. You’re still going to cause a large amount of muscle damage, mechanical tension, and metabolic stress within the muscle.

Ergo: you will still trigger a lot of growth.

Only now, you’ll also be strengthening a wider number of movement patterns, you’ll be getting additional benefits such as grip strength and core strength… and you’ll be making your workouts FAR more interesting.

Perceptual motor landscape

There are still arguments for performing the precise same movement if your only interest is growth and you want to truly isolate and fatigue a specific muscle group. Likewise, if you’re trying to learn a specific technique then there’s not much better than rote repetition.

But for most of us looking to look and feel a little bit stronger, while also becoming more functional and mobile… one set of three similar exercises is perfect! Or, if you want to sit on the fence, you can perform two sets of exercises instead. This is what I do, as it would happen. I almost always use two sets.

Change Tempo, Difficulty, and Structure

It’s not just the movement itself that you can vary though: it’s also the difficulty, the tempo, and the structure.

For example, even when I do do multiple sets of a single exercise, I’ll often mix it up with a drop set. Or I’ll add an incline. Or I’ll include an isometric hold at the end. Perhaps one set is fast and heavy, one set is slow and light.

Use Your Whole Body and Senses

Of the three bicep exercise examples I just gave, the rope climb is likely to be the most exciting for most people. Why is that?

Firstly: the rope climb uses far more of the body and far more complex movement patterns. You’ll be moving hand-over-hand, bracing your core, and engaging your grip. Then there’s the slight element of risk: get this wrong and you could fall off the rope.

Balance and proprioception

You’ll be swinging around as you climb, too, which will activate the vestibular system.

All this signals to the brain that something interesting is going on, and it forces you to pay attention. And because each movement is slightly different, owing to the way the rope moves and your body swings, you will need to pay attention each time.

Another way to put this, is that the activity is stimulus rich.

Compare this to simply standing in place, curling dumbbells. The difference is stark! You can do this with your eyes closed, but you can’t climb a rope with your eyes closed!

The act of curling a dumbbell isn’t even challenging. Maybe curling a heavy dumbbell lots of times is, but the actual action you take to complete those movements is still painfully simple. There’s very little to teach.

So, when training, try to involve more of your body, more of your senses… and ideally: your brain!

We are most engaged when we are learning. Computer games hold our attention so well because they are a form of learning. Through trial and error you learn to jump over that Piranha Plant and not into it. The sound effects and colourful graphics reinforce this process.

Oculus Quest 2 Brain Training

Take away the challenge, take away the sensory stimulation… and you’re left with a boring beep test.

Try to take the same approach to your training. Whether that means giving yourself challenges to complete, playing music, combining exercises into a longer flow (hybrid exercises), or training with more varied tools and locations. This is a reason that calisthenics can be so effective: the handstand push up isn’t just a strength move, it’s also a skill.

So is the squat, of course. The problem comes when ALL you do is squat with more weight, without introducing any new variables.

That’s like trying to complete the first level of Sonic faster and faster. Rather than playing the next level or Sonic 2.

Go Somewhere New

Another option is to go somewhere entirely new.

I’ve spoken in a few videos about the power of training outdoors and in stunning natural environments. Simply doing the same exercise in the woods will introduce new variables (uneven terrain, wind, mud) and it will flood your senses with interesting things to look at.

Go somewhere new

You may find that you need to lighten the weights you use and you may find that you don’t get stronger as quickly as you otherwise would… but the result is that your training is no longer boring, and you’ll also be building more “robust” movement patterns and strengthening yourself at slightly different angles.

That said, I recommend first learning the movement in a controlled environment and then taking it outside to “field test” it.

You’ve got the basic movement down… now how does it hold up in a real, chaotic environment?

Multitask

Another strategy you can use to keep your workouts more varied and interesting, is to multitask. This is something that often gets derided. Often we are told we should be focusing on our training 100% or not at all. Arnold Schwarzenegger says that looking at your phone when you’re meant to be training is “Mickey Mouse Stuff.”

Indeed, my previous argument about making your workouts more engaging so as to increase learning may make it sound like I concur with that sentiment!

See also: Doing Other Stuff While Working Out is Okay! – The Bioneer

But here’s the thing: sometimes workouts will be a little boring. While you should definitely climb and jump and swing… sometimes you will need to pump out reps of something fairly dull. When that happens, using some form of distraction such as a good film or an ebook, can make all the difference.

Or why not clean the house or wash the dishes while you’re also training? This also solves the problem of just not having enough time to train.

Incidental Training at Home

And sometimes it does make the workouts better. I love training with Dragon Ball Z on, or while playing a bit of Streets of Rage!

I won’t harp on, as I’ve talked about this before. But, ultimately, while being focused would be better, if this is the difference between actually completing the workout and not… then it’s definitely preferable.

Consider What You’re Doing And Why

Finally, think about what you’re doing and why.

A lot of people train to look good, then they wonder why their workouts are boring. Looking good doesn’t require much movement.

But if you train to be an action hero… things get interesting. Training to jump higher means your workouts will involve explosive leaping. If you train to be faster, you’ll be moving quickly. If you train for complex skills, you’ll be balancing.

Variety is the spice of life, so by training cross-modally, you get to experience all these things at once. A typical week of training could include a run through the hills, rock climbing, swimming, throwing around a sandbag, and leaping onto a box.

If you train to be able to do awesome, fun stuff… then your workouts will be awesome and fun!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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