Do you need to follow an exercise plan? In defence of doing whatever you want in the gym
You don’t have to stick to one structured workout routine to get fitter and enjoy training.
Following a workout programme is a well-established way of sticking with your training. If you know you have set exercises on set days and can see yourself progressing, it’s motivating. But that doesn’t mean that this is the only way to train.
I’m someone who’s had a lot of structure to their training for years now. I strength trained a certain number of times a week with a certain workout split and would have an overall pattern of progress. I loved it – and still do. Yet I’ve also started discovering the joy of diversifying my training, and I don’t think that we pay enough respect to mixing up our workouts.
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“Random workouts get random results” is a phrase I’ve seen used more and more on social media. My eyes roll when I see it. Not because it’s not true – it certainly is accurate that if you want to progress at a certain skill then you need to focus your training on it, rather than doing a selection of different things that don’t build the necessary foundation. The issue with the phrase is that it suggests all workouts need to be structured, programmed and progressive.
Lucy Mountain, a non-diet focused personal trainer agrees. In a live interview on the Strong Women’s Instagram account, she said: “there’s a narrative of, ‘you can’t get a good workout if you follow random workouts on Instagram’. If that’s all you have, then that’s great. Not everyone is looking to follow a 12-week progressive programme that’s going to increase their squat by whatever. Some people just want to sweat and feel nice for an hour.”
I’ve found more joy in spreading a mix of disciplines, like boxing classes, yoga flows, heavy strength training workouts, long hikes and HIIT sessions across my week than I have sticking with four very similar weight-based sessions. Perhaps it’s the excitement of coming out of lockdown and suddenly having access to studios and PTs again. Maybe it’s just a desire to mix up the same routine I’ve had for years. But the ‘randomness’ of my workouts is what gets me excited now – and isn’t that the best way to approach our training?
“The benefit of being flexible with our training is that we’re more likely to enjoy it, and we are more likely to continue with exercise if we enjoy what we’re doing,” says Dr Emilia Thompson, a specialist in physiology and nutrition, with a focus on building good relationships with training and food. “So many of us get into something, have a short burst of consistency then drop off again when we get bored or feel unmotivated, but it’s crucial for our health that we exercise consistently and long-term where possible.”
That’s why allowing myself to train without a proper structure isn’t just about throwing all the rules out of the window. I still try to ensure that I schedule my workouts for the same time in the morning, that I do a certain number of workouts a week, that I progress within those individual sessions. It just doesn’t mean that I have to go in to the same place with the same goal every session.
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Thompson reminds us that some progress is important, “specifically when it comes to resistance training, we do want to aim for some progress in volume over time, however small. It’s easy to assume that if you don’t want to build muscle for aesthetic reasons then this is not important. But muscle mass is directly correlated with long term health outcomes, so it’s crucial to include resistance training in our overall exercise programming.”
Ironically, I’ve felt like my resistance training – and other markers of fitness – have progressed more since allowing myself a ‘random’ schedule that isn’t so goal or numbers-specific. I’ve noticed that my lifts are progressing at a faster rate, and I’m still developing skills – I’m just becoming a jack of all workouts rather than a master of one. That’s not celebrated enough in the success-driven fitness world.
Strong Women’s editor Miranda Larbi is a champion of variation in training, too. “I ran my fastest marathon on a cycle in which I did just one long run a week, and the rest of my training was a mixture of boxing, cycling and Bikram yoga. I was so much generally fitter, which I think helped my running without even needing to run that much,” she says.
Thompson agrees that “it’s a good idea to challenge various facets of fitness and health, muscle mass, aerobic fitness and flexibility for example, and including various types of exercise will support that. Ultimately, although we might not be motivated all the time, training is supposed to be enjoyable on the whole, so find an exercise routine that supports that.”
Maybe one day I’ll feel like I really want to dedicate myself to a programme, but right now I’m enjoying the diversity of doing whatever I feel like that week. Here’s to the random workout crews.
Images: Pexels / Getty
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