Do you have clients who seem to follow every exercise trend? You’ve watched them switch from body-weight training to high-intensity interval training to yoga to indoor cycling to strength training. And that doesn’t even take into account all of the fitness products they probably have laying around in the garage or the back of a closet. These “program hoppers” are easily distracted, so they’re always looking for the newest and latest greatest fitness trend that promises quick results. It’s well-established that for an exercise routine to be effective it needs to be performed consistently for a period of time. Changing exercise programs too frequently does not allow the body to adapt to the physical stimuli and could reduce the chance of experiencing the desired results. This leads to two important questions:

  1. Is changing exercise programs or methods too frequently effective or ineffective?
  2. How can you help a program-hopping client find an exercise program that will keep them engaged long enough to experience results?

Program hoppers are at least making an effort to exercise and, of course, any exercise provides benefits. But changing programs too often may not help these individuals achieve the results they desire. If you see this program-hopping trait in some of your clients, the first thing to do is to determine what exactly they are wanting to achieve with an exercise program. If a client’s goal is to increase muscle mass to create a leaner, sculpted appearance (a strength-based goal), this is best achieved with resistance training. If a client’s goal is to improve cardiorespiratory fitness for activities like running or cycling, a focused approach to develop activity-specific endurance would be most appropriate.

Basic Principles of Exercise Program Design

Exercise is physical stress applied to the body. Repeated applications of exercise stress cause physiological adaptations so the body can become more effective at handling and overcoming these stresses. The SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands), which is one of the foundational principles of exercise, states that the body adapts to the specific physiological demands imposed by the exercise program. The other two basic principles of exercise program design—progression and overload—dictate that to be effective, exercise needs to challenge the body to work harder by gradually increasing the intensity or complexity of the applied stimulus (Baechle and Earle, 2008).

According to these principles, if the goal of exercise is to improve cardiorespiratory fitness, progressively increasing the intensity or volume of metabolic stress using cardiorespiratory exercise is the most effective way to achieve that goal. Metabolic conditioning helps the body become more efficient at converting carbohydrates and fats into energy, with or without the presence of oxygen. If the goal is to increase strength, add lean muscle or enhance muscular definition, the focus needs to be on a progressive mechanical overload. A mechanical overload of resistance training recruits more motor units and their attached muscle fibers, while gradually increasing their size and ability to generate force when activated.

It’s important to note that to ensure optimal adaptations to exercise, you must avoid applying too much metabolic or mechanical stress too quickly. Mechanical and metabolic overloads are not mutually exclusive; cardiorespiratory exercise provides some mechanical stimulus to the involved muscle fibers, while resistance training increases the demand on the body’s metabolism to provide energy for muscle activation. As a health and exercise professional, you need to know how much of each to apply, and when, in order to help your clients achieve their desired goals.

Exercise Programming for Results

The late Dr. Mel C. Siff described exercise as “a problem-solving task to perform a movement in the most efficient manner possible” (Siff and Verkoshansky, 2009). The application of this theory means that a client’s desire for results becomes the “problem” that the exercise program is attempting to solve. When working with a program hopper it’s important to explain the need for a specific training goal, as exercising to “lose weight and get stronger,” for example, is too vague and doesn’t provide much direction for a workout program. Once a client defines a specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound goal, your job is to work backwards to develop a program that gradually progresses the exercise intensity to achieve the goal.

Designing an exercise program that applies the SAID, overload and progression principles is the most effective way to help a client achieve their goals. This approach, however, requires six to 12 weeks or longer of progressively challenging training intensity before the exercise program delivers lasting results. If you’re working with a program hopper, the challenge is further complicated by the fact that you likely have a client who wants results but lacks the ability to commit to a program for the length of time it might take to create the physiological changes desired. When working with individuals who are always looking for the next “big thing” in fitness, Jonathan Ross, a two-time Personal Trainer of the Year award winner (ACE and IDEA), spends time educating them about the benefits of consistency. “If you bring enough consistency and the right intensity to the workout, almost any program can get results, especially for [individuals] with modest fitness goals.”

Exercise is based on movement, and movement is a skill that must be properly developed. When it comes to exercise, some variability and change is good and keeps the workouts engaging and interesting. However, changing the exercises too frequently does not allow the neuromuscular system to learn the movements or, more importantly, develop the skill to master them as a subconscious reflex. The best way to help clients learn exercise movement patterns and develop the skill to be able to execute them at a subconscious, reflexive level requires an appropriate progression of the three stages of motor learning (Schmidt and Wrisberg, 2004). These are:

  • Verbal-Cognitive: This initial stage of learning requiring conscious thought of movement. In this stage, clients gain information and understanding of the exercise movement through kinesthetic, visual and auditory senses. It is important to provide the proper verbal instructions, visual demonstrations and specific feedback to help facilitate the learning process.
  • Motor: The second stage is where clients develop an understanding of how individual parts of the movement relate to one another. Movements become more efficient, but errors still exist, as clients are learning how to self-correct any deviations from the optimal path of motion. In this phase of learning, quality practice produces refinement of the learned skill. As clients learn the movement, you provide minimal feedback to help the individual refine their skills.
  • Autonomous: This final stage is when the movement becomes automatic, efficient and somewhat effortless. The goal of teaching any exercise or movement is for it to become a reflex so the client does not have to think about what they are doing during the movement. As a result, the client can increase the challenge by adding intensity (heavier load) or increasing volume (more repetitions). Your job during the learning process is to provide the guidance and feedback to ensure optimal motor learning and automation. Once a client has reached this phase, it is up to you to determine how to safely increase the intensity or volume to help them continue to experience results.

So, the answer to whether changing exercise programs or methods too frequently is effective or ineffective is that it is overwhelmingly ineffective. Consistency in exercise selection allows clients to develop and enhance their motor skills related to the movement tasks required by the workout program. Many people might think that constantly changing workouts will keep challenging their bodies (which it can), but the frequent changes mean that the body does not have the opportunity to learn and improve upon its existing movement skill. We can compare exercise to studying a language—if you study Mandarin one semester and then Farsi the next semester, you won’t learn either very well. Mastering the ability to speak a language requires constant learning and refinement of proper pronunciation, tonality and grammar skills, which doesn’t happen in a short period of time.

Just as learning a language requires knowing the fundamentals before becoming fluent, maintaining consistency of exercise selection can help clients experience continuous improvement. This, in turn, helps them develop greater levels of self-efficacy, which can lead to better long-term results. In addition, mastering the foundational movement skills involved is essential before increasing the intensity or challenge of an exercise. Changing exercise programs frequently before an individual has a chance to automate the involved movements means the client won’t be able to progress the intensity to the highest level they might be capable of achieving.

“When jumping around, you are not necessarily allowing yourself to fully adapt to any one modality,” Chris McGrath, owner of Movement First in New York City, tells his clients. “This makes ‘mastering’ a single modality unlikely, which ultimately interferes with maximizing results.”

The Science and Art of Exercise Program Design

So, returning to the second question we posed earlier, if program hopping is not an effective way for your clients to meet their goals, how can you help them find an exercise program that will keep them engaged long enough to experience results? Answering this question is a little more complicated.  If there is a not a specific goal other than to be healthy and have fun with exercise, then changing programs frequently is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the changes should be applied in a way that is consistent with what the research tells us about how the body adapts to exercise. This is where the science of exercise program design merges with the art of how to successfully engage your client and help them find enjoyment in physical activity.

Traditional periodization models apply a gradually increasing training intensity, with workouts becoming progressively challenging over a period of weeks or months (Figure 1). In linear periodization models, as exercise intensity increases, the amount of work or volume (the number of repetitions and sets performed) should decrease to allow for optimal recovery and adaptation. Rest periods with minimal activity (i.e., active rest) are essential to allow for recovery from the stress of exercise and optimal adaptation to the training stimulus. Exercising at a high intensity or volume for too long or too frequently could lead to overuse injuries or overtraining syndrome, both of which can be major impediments for achieving desired results. By starting with lower-intensity exercises before progressing to more challenging workouts, the application of linear periodization can help some clients stick with their programs. Likewise, using linear periodization to gradually increase intensity or volume can be an effective way to train for a specific athletic competition, but it might not provide the stimulus or change a program hopper needs to stay engaged.

Figure 1: An Example of Linear Periodization

Linear Periodization: As the intensity of training increases, the volume decreases. Or, as the volume (distance, repetitions, sets, etc.) increases, the intensity of the stimulus (amount of weight, running speed, etc.) should decrease.

Instead, one of the best options for applying exercise science to engage program hoppers is to follow a model of non-linear periodization (sometimes called undulating periodization), in which workout intensity and volume change on a much more frequent basis, either from day to day or week to week (Figure 2). Non-linear periodization models feature consistent exercise movements, which allows for optimal motor learning, but constantly alternate volume and intensity among high, moderate and low. The benefit is that the body develops the skill to execute the movements reflexively but is constantly challenged with frequently changing intensity.

Constantly changing the exercise stimulus while maintaining consistency in the mode or type of exercise can help program hoppers stay engaged. When designing a program based on non-linear periodization, remember to allow at least 48 hours between high-intensity training sessions for optimal protein resynthesis, muscle glycogen replenishment and recovery from neuromuscular fatigue. 

Figure 2: Non-Linear Periodization

Non-Linear Periodization: Training intensity and volume

In non-linear periodization, training intensity and volume change frequently. Alternate high intensity (heavy loads or explosive sprinting) with an appropriate level of volume (repetitions and sets) to allow for optimal recovery and adaptation.

If you work with program hoppers or clients who are always interested in doing something different, using non-linear periodization to constantly change the structure of the program could be an effective strategy. This approach allows you to stay consistent with exercise selection to facilitate optimal motor learning, while providing a way to change the other variables of an exercise program (intensity, repetitions, sets and rest interval) to create a different workout experience for each training session. Table 1 identifies a variety of different methods for creatively organizing the variables of program design to keep workouts interesting for program hoppers.

Table 1: Various Methods of Organizing Workouts for Engaging Program Hoppers

Organizing Method



Physiologic Effect

Circuit training

A series of exercises featuring alternate movement patterns and body parts; exercises could be performed for a specific amount of time or number of repetitions per station.


The same exercises can be organized in a variety of different circuits to keep program hoppers engaged.


Use weights that allow 8 to 15 repetitions of each exercise with no rest between exercises.        


Barbell deadlifts → standing barbell shoulder press barbell bent-over row push-ups dumbbell step-ups dumbbell front raises pull-ups → planks 


Rest for two minutes.

The resistance exercises provide a mechanical overload while the circuit format creates a metabolic overload.

Sets for time

Instead of a specific number of reps, perform continuous repetitions for a specific period of time. This challenges the client to do more repetitions in a specific time period; it’s also an effective way to measure progress by showing an increase in the number of repetitions performed in a certain time. 


A great option for program hoppers, the timing format allows clients to push themselves without being limited by a repetition count. 

Barbell deadlifts for 45 seconds, then rest for 45 seconds.


Barbell bent-over rows for 45 seconds, then rest for 45 seconds.


Standing barbell shoulder presses, as many as possible in 45 seconds.

Depending on the amount of weight used and the length of time this format can create both metabolic and mechanical overload of the involved muscles.



Two sequential exercises that target opposing movements; for example, push-ups followed by pull-ups.


Performing two exercises back to back may be an effective and challenging way to engage program hoppers while delivering results. 

Barbell shoulder press → barbell bent-over rows


Push-ups pull-ups

Executing two lifts back to back provides primarily a mechanical overload of the involved muscle fibers, but the metabolism is challenged to fuel the sequential exercises. 

Compound sets

Two (or more) exercises in a row that target the same movement pattern or muscle groups.             


This would be an effective method for a program hopper who has tried a number of different ways to focus on the same body part.  

Barbell deadlift dumbbell step-ups dumbbell Romanian deadlift


Standing barbell shoulder press dumbbell front raises plank-ups 

Performing multiple exercises for the same muscle groups will provide a mechanical overload to the involved fibers while simultaneously creating a significant metabolic overload. 

AMRAP: As Many Rounds as Possible


Perform a circuit of exercises for as many times as possible during a set period of time.


This format offers a unique and challenging way to engage program hoppers who do not like the traditional method of doing an exercise and then resting before the next one.


Complete a body-weight circuit consisting of:

10 squats

10 push-ups

10 step-ups

10 burpees

Pull-ups to failure

10 ice skaters


Continue for as many times as possible in 10 minutes

This format provides a significant metabolic overload. Depending on the exercises and weights used, it could also fatigue the involved muscle fibers and create a mechanical overload.

Complex sets (post-activation potentiation)

Perform two sequential exercises for the same movement. The first exercise follows the guidelines for strength—a weight heavy enough that it allows for only 3 to 6 repetitions (which increases muscle motor unit activation) followed by a rest interval (1 to 3 minutes). The second exercise follows the guidelines for power—a lighter weight for 6 to 8 explosive repetitions (which increases the rate of motor unit activation).


This is an advanced and challenging exercise technique but one that could produce the results that program hoppers seek.

Barbell deadlifts box jumps


Barbell bent-over rows  medicine ball slams   


Barbell chest presses explosive push-ups

The purpose of complex sets is to use heavy resistance and explosive movements to engage as many type II motor units and muscle fibers as possible in the involved movement. Therefore, it provides a considerable mechanical overload. To facilitate optimal explosion in the second exercise, it is necessary to rest between sets so there is not an overwhelming metabolic overload. 

Drop sets

Perform an exercise for as many repetitions as possible until momentary fatigue, remove some weight and continue doing repetitions until another fatigue point. Remove more weight and keep going.


This is another effective option for a program hopper who wants to focus on muscular development for one specific body part. 

Use a selectorized weight machine (a weight stack machine).


Rope triceps push-downs—keep dropping the weight until muscle failure occurs.

Reducing the weight and continuing with the exercise creates a mechanical overload that engages all of the type II muscle fibers (responsible for definition) as the muscle fatigues. The continuing repetitions provide a challenging metabolic overload as well. 


The examples of program design provided in Table 1 make it relatively easy to structure an engaging and varied program for a client. For example, the focus could be on circuit training for one workout, a combination of supersets with compound sets for the next workout, followed by an AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) workout. Each workout could use the same basic exercises to allow the client to continually improve movement skill but apply a different amount of training intensity and volume to keep the program-hopping client constantly challenged.

Don't Forget to Make it Fun

Another reason why a client might be a program hopper is that they may be extremely competitive, with a history of either playing team sports or training for individual competitions. Athletes might spend hours on the court or field practicing, but often dread being in the weight room because of the limited amount of stimulation or competition. These clients may not be interested in traditional methods of doing a bench press for the sake of doing a bench press, for example, but may be properly stimulated by making the exercise a competitive game. Using the bench press as an example, you can use the same weight for three different types of bench press—barbell, dumbbell or plate-loaded machine—and challenge the client to see the highest number of repetitions they can perform while on each piece of equipment.

Because they require focus and provide a sense of challenge, games are also an effective option for program hoppers who become easily distracted while exercising. Using games shifts the focus of a training session from exercise to play, which may be a key strategy for helping a program-hopping client learn how to find an activity that they enjoy. Jonathan Ross, who created a program called Funtensity that combines physical activity with cognitive challenges, has long used games to make exercise fun and more engaging to reduce the perception of physical activity as “work.” 

Using non-linear periodization with all the options for organizing sets or playing exercise-based games are just two examples of how you can create workouts to engage clients who are easily distracted and always looking for the next exercise trend. Helping clients identify specific goals, combined with understanding how to use the science of exercise to make working out fun and engaging, can be an effective way to help clients achieve lasting results. If your clients see results, they will be more likely to not only continue on as clients, but to refer you to their friends who are seeking the same results for themselves.


Baechle, T. and Earle, R. (2008). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, (3rd
ed.). Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics.

Bompa, T. (1999). Periodization: Theory and Methodlogy of Training, (4th ed.).
Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics.

Schmidt, R. and Wrisberg, C. (2004). Motor Learning and Performance, (3rd ed.).
Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics.

Siff, M. and Verkoshansky, Y. (2009). Supertraining, (6th ed.). Denver, Colo.: Supertraining Institute.