Should Your Workout Routine Become Routine?
The truth about whether doing the same exercise(s) over and over—but expecting different results—is actually insane.
Chances are you've heard of workout streaks, even if you haven't actually tried one yet. Doing the same activity day after day for a set period of time has been popular for years—30 days of squats, a month-long plank push, a 5K-a-day challenge—but the popularity of streaks soared during the pandemic as a way to unlock fitness motivation during lockdown. One piece of evidence? The #runstreak2020 tag on Instagram has almost 20,000 posts, versus around 6,000 for #runstreak2019 (and 9,000 and growing for 2021).
Maybe streaking made up for lost time at the squat rack, or it was a chance to slay guilt over one too many Netflix binges. But either way, the ironic message was clear: To beat the monotony of pandemic life, do the same workout. Every. Single. Day.
"A set challenge can give you the motivation to kickstart being more physically active".
The Sweet Side of Streaking
One thing the streak's got going for it is accountability. A short-term, time-based challenge takes the guesswork out of what you'll do, giving you one less thing to think about. And, crucially, it has a hard stop. For Jim Afremow, PhD, a sports psychology specialist and the author of The Champion's Mind, that deadline offers a big mental focus. "Many gyms use these finite programmes because, as with any goal, part of making it measurable and achievable is having a defined end point", he says. "You then create milestones and process goals along the way". And, as that running hashtag proves, a streak is also a pretty perfect opportunity for a regular social media flex to keep you good and honest till the end.
If you're new to working out, a streak could be just the routine for you. "A set challenge can give you the motivation to kickstart being more physically active", says Tom Cowan, an exercise physiologist in London. And your new motivational push will likely bring a host of extra benefits along with it. "Streaks can quickly build momentum and help you get into the habit of making exercise in general a daily part of your schedule", explains Cowan. "And by performing the same move for several weeks, you're able to see an improvement in your ability at performing it". Consistency, people … it works.
The Downsides to Doing It Daily
While your body gets better at your skill of choice, it's also bearing the brunt of a lot of repetitive work. You can easily fall foul of the "terrible too's": too much, too hard, too fast. And not taking a day to recover is only going to add to that, increasing your chances of fatigue and injury, says Cowan. You also up that injury risk if your body isn't properly equipped to start (say, you jump into 30 push-ups a day for 30 days before you've even dialled in your form). Then there's the plateau: Your body figures out what you're doing (pretty easy when you're not switching things up), no longer feels challenged by it, and stops adapting. Conventional wisdom suggests you've probably got between three to five weeks before this kicks in, so it's something to consider if you're doing a month-long commitment, a common time goal for a streak.
Beyond the physical hurdles, there's the mental fatigue. Doing the same workout each day could eventually zap your motivation to get out there in the first place, says Afremow. We all have different tolerance levels, he notes, but pushing your mind to exhaustion is never a good idea in the long run (and you sure don't want to break up with push-ups, squats or running forever).
How to Streak Happy
You've heard the good and the bad. Now, if you're going to go for the challenge, at least do it right. Follow these strategies to help dodge the potential problems above.
- Start simple.
While a streak might sound like a great idea when you discover the challenge on your IG feed at 12am, be honest with yourself about how likely you are to actually complete it. "Start at the level that you are used to performing comfortably", advises Cowan. "If the streak is to run 5K per day but your usual distance is only 2K, then start there and gradually build up to the level set for the challenge, slowly increasing your daily distance as your cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance improve".
Your fitness level isn't the only thing to consider. "Do you have the time to do it, and what injuries do you have or have had that might flare up somewhere down the line?" he adds.
- Think full body.
Don't let the streak be the alpha and omega of your workout plan. This is particularly true for a one-move challenge. "Performing the same resistance exercises each day might encourage strength improvements in certain muscle groups but not others", says Cowan. "This can lead to imbalances and postural changes", which could potentially contribute to injuries down the road.
From a strength-training perspective, make sure that your overall plan hits all of the major muscle groups. If you want to do a 30-day squat challenge, do it. But at least a few days a week, also "perform single-leg deadlifts and calf raises alongside squats to make a more rounded lower-body workout", says Cowan. Add in strength exercises to hit your upper body and core too. The same holistic approach applies whether your move of the month is a pull-up, push-up, lunge etc.
- Keep reframing the focus.
Same move, different mental approach. "One day you might run a 5K with the intention of really crushing it. The next it might become more of an active recovery, where you focus on being fully present with the sun on your back and the wind on your cheeks", says Afremow. What's great about this is that it means you can introduce a spot of mindfulness—and novelty—to your otherwise redundant streak.
You can do this with a one-move challenge too. Simply take your burpee/plank/push-up to a shady spot under a tree or a different room in your house, suggests Afremow. Sometimes all it takes is a change of scenery to keep things feeling fresh.
- Don't be afraid to streak a little easier.
Let's be clear on this: You don't have to pick the biggest, baddest move out there and bolt it on to your daily life. You could try a stretching or yoga streak to add flexibility training and complement challenging cardio or heavy-set strength-training sessions. Or go for a brisk walk each day, which "promotes daily exercise and movement, but without heaping pressure and high workloads on the body", says Cowan.
- Up the ante.
Whatever your activity of choice, to continue getting results from it, you'll have to tweak your streak once it becomes comfortable. "Success will come by gradually progressing the exercise to elicit further improvements in strength and fitness", says Cowan. This is called progressive overload. "I once heard a strength coach say that you can do the same thing every day as long as you don't do the same thing every day", adds Afremow. "What he meant was that you can alter different variables in your workout so you don't get physically and mentally burnt out".
Take squats, for example. Once you've got the mechanics down, start to switch up how fast you do them, how many you do or how heavy you go. The possibilities are endless, from air squats to split squats, squat jumps to pistol squats. Heck, even a burpee has a squat in it if you break it down. Becoming an om-obsessed yogi two weeks in? Try faster classes, slower ones and longer ones, and play with the more advanced poses that intimidate you (like crow) when you feel even remotely ready. As long as you're listening to your body, you're doing things right.
The point is to continuously challenge yourself, not just pick a challenge and let it rip. If there's one thing the pandemic gave us besides streaks, it's proof that you're stronger than you think.
Words: Andrew Nagy
Illustration: Gracia Lam