Small Changes, Big Gains: Why Program Hopping Can Be Your Worst Enemy

This is the year you’re finally going to break through that bench plateau you’ve been struggling with for the past 18 months. You’re going to gain 15 pounds of muscle, easy. You’re going to be smashing PRs left and right, and you’re going to be doing it all because you’ve got this brand-new program that’s perfect.

It’s got daily undulating periodization, lots of specificity, every percentage is laid out for the next decade, and you’re psyched.

Does Any of This Sound Familiar?

I can’t tell you how many people I talk to who are virtually obsessed with finding the perfect program. They’re convinced that knowing the right exercises to choose, the right sets and reps, the right days to train – all those things are what will make them successful.

They’re wrong. The key to success has nothing to do with a particular program. The key to success lies in understanding how your body responds to training so that you can program accordingly. And if you want to understand how your body responds to training, the worst thing you can do is hop from program to program hoping that you’ll stumble upon the answer.

Here’s what I mean by that. Let’s say you start a program like 5/3/1, and it works pretty darn well for a full year. Then, at the end of that year, you start to plateau. You’re training just as hard, your recovery is great, but you can’t add any weight to the bar, so you get frustrated. Maybe you decide the program is the problem, and so you switch to another popular one, like the Juggernaut Method, and that works for maybe six months. And so you switch again, to the Cube, but this time you only make six weeks of progress, and when you look back at where you were eighteen months ago, you’re not all that satisfied by your progress.

Even worse, you have absolutely no idea what worked well for you and what didn’t. What was it about 5/3/1 that helped you to progress for a year? What was it about the Juggernaut Method that made your bench stall? There’s no way to know, because those programs are so different from each other.

A Better Answer

There’s a better way. Instead of choosing a program, waiting until it stops working, and then moving on to the next, take the approach of continuous improvement. By stepping out of the wild goose chase for the perfect program, here you have the space to focus on making incremental gains in your current program. After all, you probably don’t try to go out and hit a 50-pound PR on your squat – you try to add 5 pounds, week after week, until you’re 50 pounds stronger. Why should programming be any different?

Of course, that’s easier said than done. There are so many different variables involved in programming that it can be difficult to identify how to make those gains. That’s why I advocate the “small changes” approach. Let’s revisit our earlier example to understand how small changes work.

You’re running 5/3/1, cruising along, and finally, your gains dry out. This time, instead of moving on to Juggernaut, you made one small change: you decide you’re going to try benching three times per week instead of two. And when you do that, you find that hey – your bench press starts to creep up again. Then, after a couple of months, it stalls, and so you switch one of your existing bench days to a close-grip bench day. And when that stops working, you add some supplemental upper-back exercises after your deadlifts. This time, when you look back on your training over the past year, not only will you have made more progress, but you’ll also understand that you needed to train more frequently and bring up your upper back and triceps in order to improve your bench.

Obviously, that’s a pretty simple example, and in practice you might find that benching three times a week doesn’t help. That’s okay – you’ve still made progress, because you know that higher bench frequency doesn’t work, at least not in the context of your current training program. That last bit is really important, because it explains why hopping from program to program is a waste of time: everything in your program works together, not in isolation. So when you change programs entirely, you no longer have a useful frame of reference for how your body is responding to any one individual programming variable.

There’s one more important caveat here.

When you make a change to your program, you must give your body time to adjust before you judge its effectiveness.

If I go out and decide I’m going to bench three times a week instead of two, I might feel awfully sore for a week or two and not see any progress right away. But usually, your body can adjust to these types of changes (if they’re small enough) over the course of 4-6 weeks.

Implementing Small Changes in Your Own Training

It’s still kind of tough to know which changes to make, and when. That knowledge comes from experience, and through trial-and-error. It can be frustrating! In fact, the frustration is exactly why many people hop from program to program looking for the magic one. But in reality, the trial-and-error process is absolutely necessary if you want to progress from the beginner or intermediate level to the advanced one.

If you have questions about making small changes, please, shoot them my way, and I’ll do my best to help you out. In the meantime, resolve this year that you won’t waste time program hopping, and instead find the discipline to really learn what works for you.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.