As a newly-minted personal trainer, I was always very concerned about what my clients were thinking. Are they having a good time? Are they entertained? Am I progressing them fast enough?
Fast forward to today and I'm still concerned about my clients, but in different ways. I care much less about novelty, especially if they are still mastering the basics (and to some degree, aren't we all?). As such, I often hear a variant of this phrase: "We tend to do the same things over and over and over again."
As I usually respond, "Yeah. That's the point."
After all, I wouldn't describe myself as an exciting guy. I like my Bachelor/Bachelorette/Bachelor in Paradise on Monday nights, deadlifts on Wednesdays, and Chipotle on Fridays. (*The risk of foodborne illness from Chipotle is probably the most excitement I have in my life.)
But one thing I've learned from this boring approach is that in order to make substantial progress in the gym, you need to be exactly that - boring.
That doesn't mean you can't have fun. Because making progress is crazy fun. But many times we look to be entertained rather than making progress. It's not necessarily our fault, as we often don't realize how little we need to succeed.
So in blunt terms, most people only need 4-5 large, compound exercises to really see measurable results. Not more and sometimes even less. The underlying need to "switch it up" will often only confuse our brains and impede us from getting good at anything. After all, you can't get better at deadlifting if you don't spend dedicated years deadlifting.
This means that get-ups, deadlifts, some type of squat, some type of push-up, and a pull-up/chin-up should do for most people. Stick with these movements for at least 3-4 months and then switch to a variation - e.g. sumo instead of conventional deadlifts. How you plan them is up to you, but you should hit those movements at least once or twice a week.
As long as you're following a simple program that systematically increases the weight every few weeks, you're making progress. I like the method of adding 2.5 to 5 pounds every week which adds up over time. And if you're deadlifting something that used to feel heavy and now feels light? You're getting stronger.
If you think you should be doing more, I'll use myself as an example. I credit most of my progress over the past three years to sticking with the same program and mostly the same exercises. I just missed becoming the 41st Beast Tamer last month, and I'm knocking on the door of deadlifting three times my bodyweight before the end of the year - all while being at a lighter scale weight than I was in college. So while the plural of anecdote isn't data, there's something to be said about the boring mixture of consistency and high expectations that yields pretty good results.
Once you've set your main course - those 4-5 large exercises - feel free to sprinkle in whatever else you like. An explosive movement like jumping or kettlebell swings, single leg work, and some core work make the most sense. You can change these much more frequently, but it's still about consistency.
Be aware that if anyone tells you differently, they may have their own agenda. And if they use the term "muscle confusion," know that I just vomited a lil' bit.