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You Shouldn't Stick To The Plan

"Will changing the plan ruin my results, Chris?"


I was in a consultation and a potential client asked me whether changing a planned exercise for one she preferred would negatively effect her results.


I think this question stems from a belief a coach knows EXACTLY what someone needs to do to achieve results and this road map should be followed to the letter.


And I think that is rare.


There is a lot at stake with this question. This is a coach's chance to be open and honest, or a manipulative piece of shit.


And I get it. If you give your client all the tools they need they will leave your services and you'll never pay a bill again, right?


Wrong.


Luckily for me, people train with me for a lot more than knowing which exercise to switch.


You can provide all the tools and education and you'll still have clients working with you for decades if you keep delivering the business.


And if you pretend to know exactly what someone need to do? You can only keep up that facade until results don't go your way.


Don't get me wrong. There are lots of times people need to suck it up and follow the program.


A powerlifting client close to competition? Training is always going to be squat, bench and deadlift. Tough, you decided you wanted to compete.


A bodybuilder approaching a competition? Every minute of every day of the last week and months may be planned and should be followed more or less to the letter.


Athletes need to do as they are told otherwise they aren't making the team.


For most, having the ability to change your plan appropriately on the fly is A STRENGTH. Below, I will explain why.


Why is changing up an exercise a good thing?


Being able to change up an exercise can be a sign of high or good personal autonomy.



Knowing when to change an exercise based on how you feel shows an awareness you are struggling or you know you won't give your all to a movement or you know you'll feel unsafe doing a movement.


This doesn't mean you change an exercise every session.


If your goal is a pull-up you need to suck it up and do your pull ups.


Examples of great times to switch an exercise:


  • When you have an anxiety attacks in crowded areas and an exercise forces you into an extremely busy part of the gym

  • When an exercise is hurting and a different variation feels better

  • When you know you'll push yourself more with a different variation

  • When you know a given exercise will trigger meltdown/shutdown/anxiety attack or other kind of sensory shutdown

  • When a piece of equipment isn't available or you'll have to wait a long time to stick to the plan

  • When the equipment you need to use is broken or faulty


Notice I didn't say "when the exercise is new."


If this makes you uncomfortable I'd start with one or two sets of the new movement which you can increase once you are are over the novelty factor. If you never feel comfortable, that movement isn't for you.


By gradually getting used to a new movement, before long it isn't new anymore. Remember this next time you get that new plan anxiety. You'll hate it and think it's all wrong at first but then you'll settle down and crush it.


Some people hate busy gyms. Your program might require you to train in a busy area of said gym. If you have to do a particular exercise, you might see if you can perform it elsewhere in the gym.


If you don't have to perform a particular exercise, switch it up to something else.


Some examples of switching exercises because of a busy gym:


  • Dumbbell press switch to press up variation

  • Squat switched to leg press

  • Deadlift switched to dumbbell romanian deadlift

  • Barbell overhead press to machine shoulder press

  • Pull up switched to lat pulldown

  • Lat pulldown switched to dumbbell pullover

  • Bench press switched to machine chest press

  • Olympic Lifts switched to dumbbell snatch/ dumbbell clean & jerk

  • Farmers Walk switched to heavy dumbbell shrugs


Switching An Exercise Because Of Pain


This could be a huge series of articles but if you are a regular reader of the blog, you'll know that I don't put out too many articles so I should probably keep this brief.


Here are some commonly switched exercises because of pain:


  • Barbell bench press switched to dumbbell floor press

  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press switched to high incline Neutral Grip Shoulder Press

  • Laying Tricep Extension switched to Tricep Pushdown

  • Low bar squat switched to Safety Bar Squat

  • Deadlift Variation switched to Knee Flexion based hamstring exercise

  • Deadlifting style changed because one of them hurts

  • Squat stance changed as a different foot position results in the movement being pain-free


As a general rule I don't push people through more than 3/10 pain unless someone is perpetually in more pain than this or is really beaten up and shit just hurts. As we age and the injury list grows it can become impossible to train completely pain free. These people still need to train.


But if you are usually pain free? Let's keep you there for as long as possible by changing painful movements appropriately.


Pushing Yourself More With A Different Variation


I've found people don't push themselves when they feel exposed or vulnerable. This might be because they think they look daft because their top keeps riding up or they might not like doing an exercise where they have to bend over in front of a full gym.


You might feel wobbly or unstable. If you are doing a sled pull, yes, you might feel like a dog pulling a sled in Lapland.


In these cases I would strongly suggest switching your movements to alternatives where you feel safe enough to push yourself. You may want to try the movement for a set or two in another session or two to see whether the discomfort was being uncomfortable with novelty or something else which loses it's edge the more you perform the movement.


Because there are so many alternatives for every exercise, there is no universal right or wrong answer here. You can gradually get used to a movement until you can push yourself or you can change the movement to something where you feel comfortable exerting yourself.


If you need a few weeks to get used to new movements it's wise to gradually change your plan rather than changing it entirely every few weeks.


Switching Exercises Due To Meltdowns/Shutdowns/Sensory Overload


I have a lot of clients who don't like change. New plan day is always a tough one for them. With some clients, they may be perpetually close to either a meltdown or a shut down so it is very important for me to have options to turn to so they can get some training done in a way which doesn't push them further towards meltdown.


In some cases this means having a safe session within their program which they can revert to in case they are overwhelmed. These sessions look different for everyone, but involves exercises where the person feels safer than when they are doing their normal program.

It's often machine or easy to coordinate exercises which reduce decision making and set up time. It is often a more secluded session, using exercises where the person can hide or do the session at home or somewhere private.


Interestingly, I've found having these sessions in the program results in fewer meltdowns without having to do the safe session. The safe session is rarely done, but the person knows it is there so I assume feels less like they need to stick to a plan it would be impossible to stick to.


If you know an exercise is going to trigger a meltdown , in the moment you should switch it up and discuss options when you aren't close or at nuclear meltdown.



Meltdown caused by chalk being too sensory?

You may want to learn how to use straps


Meltdown caused by not knowing how to set something up?

Get some coaching. I've found this is very common with people who have exclusively online coaches. There is nothing wrong with having a session with an in-person coach to go through an online coach's program.


Meltdowns being caused by the gym being too loud or too busy?

Consider Switching gym, training times or perhaps use things like noise cancelling headphones to help you regulate


Meltdown caused because you trained straight after an incredibly intense, stressful day?

Maybe have a safe session for these days or consider a different training time or do work on your boundary setting so you hit burnout far less often.


When The Equipment Is Broken Or Faulty


The key part to this is knowing as long as your exercises are swapped sensibly, you will not negatively affect your results at all as long as the target muscle groups are hit appropriately and you put enough effort in.


Follow the suggested exercise swaps discussed above and you won't go far wrong!


Other common faulty equipment swaps:

  • Lat pulldown to dumbbell pullover

  • Cable Row to single arm dumbbell row or TRX row

  • Chest press machine to either dumbbell press or press ups

  • Leg press to squats, split squats or leg extensions

  • Laying leg curl to band assisted nordic curls


Shouldn't you toughen up?


In my 15 years as a Personal Trainer, I've learnt people are only unwilling to do movement if it makes them feel degraded or sexualised, they think it will cause pain or when they don't understand the set up.


To use a gym floor example, a client was concerned she wouldn't be able to perform or set up squats with chains. She didn't know how much the chains weighed, how to set them up, where to set them up without making a fuck ton of noise or how to log them in her training app and was unaware that the weight reduces as more chain rests on the floor.


Because of all these unanswered questions, she didn't perform the chained squats for at least a month. Once she'd had these issues explained, she was raring to give this exercise a try.


When you are struggling to do a movement, you should speak to a coach who can answer questions you didn't know you needed to ask, clear up any issues you are having with the movement and if you still can't stick to the plan then your plan needs to change.


So, should you stick to the program?


I'm a big fan of eventually following a program to the letter.


It might take 8-12 weeks to get there but obstacles can be worked through and with each session you may be able to stick to a plan a little more as it evolves, changes and you learn how to navigate it.


Every plan I write contains at least one thing I need to change so if you have a coach and you know a movement has to change speak up because if your coach doesn't know you can't stick to the plan, issues will crop up and you should have a good enough relationship with your coach to be able to communicate what is making you uncomfortable.


If it's their way or the high way? If you aren't in a position where you need to do as you are told I would tentatively suggest changing your fucking coach.


You shouldn't feel guilty for appropriately changing your program, you should be proud.


It is a strength.


Learning how to stick to a program over time is a strength.


Addressing problems is a strength.


Constantly trying (and failing) to stick to a program is silly and will stall your results. Don't be that person.


By Chris Kershaw

The Heavy Metal Strength Coach




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