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Should We Keep Changing Our Training?

www.ironmanmagazine.comYear’s ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger advised his followers to change their weight-training programs every six weeks. The idea was to shock the muscles, which were becoming acclimated to the current training program. The muscles would become sore when the program was changed, and Arnold liked the feeling of being sore. He believed that meant the workouts were more productive. Arnold has been such an influential character in bodybuilding and fitness that his opinion carried much weight, and the idea of changing routines became commonplace in most gyms. The question is, Does Arnold’s idea have any validity?

When we do any activity we are not accustomed to, we will experience sore muscles in the following days. It’s known as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. If Schwarzenegger were at his seven-time Mr. Olympia peak and we took him bowling, he most likely would have become sore in the back and bowling arm. The DOMS would occur because he was not used to it, not because of the weight of the bowling ball or a lack of fitness or strength on his part. This soreness would not develop more muscle. It would resolve in about 72 hours. [Soreness lasting 96 hours or more is most likely an indicator of muscle damage or injury.]

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Does simply making muscles sore again help development? Today’s athletes perform a great deal of weight and strength training. Most do not change their training programs every six weeks—the last thing they need is sore muscles that are at risk for injury—yet their muscular development is very good.

What about other components of training and fitness?  When I was a professional strength and conditioning coach, I was careful about introducing new exercises slowly to athletes who were in their 30s. The athletes were accustomed to training for their sport and their weight program a certain way. Changes could produce significant muscle soreness at a point when they could not afford to lose time in practice. New ranges of motion and new movement patterns could also expose a weakness that was actually fully functional in their sport.

Recreational trainees can run into the same types of problems.  A friend of mine who has more than 30 years of bodybuilding and weight training experience decided to change his routine and start walking stairs for cardio and leg work. The result? He started limping due to pain. An MRI revealed meniscus tears and another problem in his knee. He had been functional and pain free before walking the stairs. The problem was, he was no longer accustomed to walking stairs repeatedly and most likely aggravated existing meniscus tears that were not causing him any pain previously.

The change in the workout is not always beneficial. There are risks, and it is important to realize that the changes may not be benign.

There are ways to change the emphasis in a workout without shocking the muscle. One famed track coach (who also designed his sprinters strength programs) said he would never add or subtract an exercise during off-season or in-season training. He might, however, reduce the exercise in volume and intensity and have an athlete just perform one set of an exercise with light weight rather than eliminate it. That way, if he wanted the athlete to do more of the exercise, all he had to do was increase the weight and volume. There wouldn’t be any delayed-onset muscle soreness because the athlete had been performing the exercise continuously.

Part of the idea of continually changing routines is to avoid boredom in the gym. If you are a life-long trainee, you may find later in life that aches and pains appear when you try new exercises or some of the new fads. It may be best to alternate exercises that you know have worked for you in the past and use caution when adding brand-new ones after 20 or more years of training.

Train smart, then train hard.

—Joseph M. Horrigan


Editor’s note: Visit for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRON MAN. You can order the books, Strength, Conditioning and Injury Prevention for Hockey by Joseph Horrigan, D.C., and E.J. “Doc” Kreis, D.A., and the 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution by Horrigan and Jerry Robinson from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or at www

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