Your Strength Routine: 7 Tips to Shake It Up

Once you establish a strength-training routine, you need to learn how to progress.

By + More

If you haven't already done so, check out our 10-week workout routine. Those of you already following our calendar are beginning the strength-training element this week. If you've never done resistance training or a strength routine before, simply learning the exercises is plenty. But once you've mastered the basic moves, you'll need to shake things up in order to progress. Here are seven tips for doing that from Rachel Cosgrove, a personal fitness coach and owner (with her husband) of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif. Her first book, The Fit Chick Body, will be published by Rodale in October.

Accept that you can't just go on autopilot. It would be nice to be able to memorize one strength routine and simply repeat it with the same set of dumbbells, three times a week, for the rest of your life. But the key to getting stronger, says Cosgrove, is to vary and change things on a regular basis.

Keep a program for four to six weeks. "You don't want to change too often, because then your body can't conquer things," says Cosgrove. Take the first week to master the workout. In the second week, add a second set of each exercise. By the third week, maybe add some more weight or add a third set. By the fourth week, add enough weight to make it really challenging. "We usually say to change one variable at a time," says Cosgrove.

Your program doesn't have to be totally new every time. If you can only do a pushup against a wall, try that for four to six weeks. The next time, you can do the move on your knees, and in your next four- to six-week period, try a regular pushup. (But don't be afraid to try new equipment, too—I've recently discovered the medicine ball, and my abs and arms are thanking me for it.)

Play around with reps and weight. The number of reps is the first thing your body gets used to, says Cosgrove. One way to mix it up is to use heavier weight than you're used to, fewer reps (six to eight), and more rest in between sets for a four- to six-week period. During another period you could focus on slightly lighter weights, but with 10 to 15 reps and less rest in between sets.

Don't be afraid to increase the weight. This isn't usually a problem for men, but women tend to be scared to lift more, afraid they're going to get huge. The fact is, most women are probably already hoisting a lot more than 10 pounds at a time during the course of their day (starting with their purse). "Women are lifting 30-pound kids and 20-pound grocery bags. And then they get to the gym and think, 'I don't want to bulk up,' " says Cosgrove. Women simply aren't built to develop massive, shirt-busting muscles; the ones who do are specifically trying to do it (and it's really hard).

[Check out 8 Strength Training Tips for Women.]

Soreness is not a sign of success. A little soreness is to be expected the first time you do a new program, says Cosgrove, but it shouldn't persist. If you're chronically sore, you're probably not recovering correctly.

[Read Aches and Pains: Sizing Up Soreness After Exercising.]

Get help. It's entirely possible to create your own progressive routines, but it can be helpful to have instruction, too. If regular coaching or training is not within your budget, do what a lot of Cosgrove's clients do and schedule a session every four to six weeks to get a new program. Or turn to books or magazines. (I got my own latest workout from Cosgrove, via Women's Health.)

[For more on exercising on a budget, read 8 Ideas for Building a $100 Home Gym and 5 Ways Your Workout Can Weather the Recession.]