Exercises variation: how much do you really need?
I often get asked how important it is to vary your training. For example: should you change your exercises often?
Here are my thoughts on training variation:
1. It depends on the goal or purpose of your training. For strength performance on a few specific lifts (Olympic lifting, powerlifting, KB sport), too much variety can definitely hinder progress.
For strictly hypertrophy, variation is likely not a problem especially if using muscle fatigue or metabolite accumulation methods to stimulate growth. So long as you are creating maximum fibre fatigue and are releasing local growth factors by producing a lot of lactic acid, any program will work. It’s more about finding exercises on which you have a good mind-muscle connection than about lifting more weight.
For fat loss purposes, more variety might help both for physiological and psychological reasons. First because the less efficient you are at something the more energy you waste doing it. For that reason, changing exercises often might be a good thing for fat loss since you will be using more energy (“burning” more fuel) because of that lack of efficiency. Also, psychologically when you are on a fat loss plan your motivation might be harder to maintain because you will be more tired due to the caloric deficit you are on. For some people (not all of them), changing things around might give them a mental boost that keeps them motivated.
When you are building a house, every tool is used differently. The body is no different. Each exercise category serves a specific purpose and works best via certain mechanisms. As such, an Olympic lift should not be trained the same way as a big basic strength lift which should not be trained the same way as an isolation movement which should not be trained like a KB exercise.
By the way, I do not believe that changing the exercises is that important (you can prevent accommodation by changing loading parameters, lifting speed/tempo, order of exercises, density, etc.). What I think is important is staying motivated. The harder and more focused you can train, the more you’ll progress. And when your program doesn’t motivate you, it’s not possible to maintain that max effort and focus over the long run. Variation can be a tool to keep some people motivated; not all of them. I personally prefer to stick to the same exercises but vary loading parameters, tempo and techniques, changing exercises decrease my motivation. But some people do need it.
2. It also depends on the person: some psychological profiles do need more variety to stay motivated while others have the opposite response; variation can make them anxious, kill their motivation and hinder their performance. People who are natural risk-takers, competitive, all-or-nothing kind of people tend to need more variation to stay motivated. Introverts who are well organized and avoid conflicts at all cost are more motivated and confident when things stay the same, excessive variation will hurt their performance and progress.
3. Variety is the enemy of skill perfection, most of the time. The exception is that some people need to fragment more complex skills to be able to learn them more rapidly; while others learn more quickly. Hence the need to understand the person. I have two girls that I train on the Olympic lifts at the same time. They are both the same level and are training partners. With one I must use a hyper fragmented approach, doing as many as 4 drills before getting to a snatch during a session. Her partner must start right away with the snatch because drills mess up her technique.
Once you have learned the basic technique of an exercise, changing it in and out of your program will greatly hinder your progress on that movement. As a rule of thumb: the more complex and exercise is, the longer it needs to stay in your program.
People who are naturally attracted to more skilled exercises (Olympic lifting, KB sport, bodyweight training) are those who instinctively like to stick to the same exercises and really master them. In fact, it is likely more satisfying for them to improve the quality of their execution rather than the actual “performance”/weight they are lifting or reps they are doing. That’s why they are naturally attracted by a style of training where the focus is on precision and motor skill learning.
That also why personally even when I train more for hypertrophy and looks I tend to stick to the same isolation exercises because even though they are “low skill” my mindset is to become better at contracting my muscle when doing the exercise. I don’t focus on weight at all, I just want to improve local muscle control. In fact, I don’t even count reps! I close my eyes and just focus on feeling the muscles. But not everybody is like me. Some people are more driven by improving “measurable” outcomes: doing more reps, moving more weight. In the grand scheme of things, the more motivated and focused you are over the long run, the more you will progress. You should pick a type of training that fits what drives you.
4. Variety can be a tool to help you achieve your goal/workout objective if you seek new stimuli. Some people simply get bored doing the same thing over and over. Some people get more motivated by staying with the same exercises for longer to really perfect them and some others are actually anxious when they change exercises which increases the stress response and decrease their potential gains.
To recap, it is my belief that the number one most important element to have success with your training is to be highly motivated by your workouts. That will make you train harder while being more focused. This will bring in more results and will help you become even more motivated.
If you need to include more variation to stay motivated, do so, but remember that the higher the skill component of an exercise is, the longer you should stick with it. For movements like the Olympic lifts, complex bodyweight skills, big strength lifts and KB exercises you should include variation more in the form of loading parameters, tempo, training methods rather than changing the movements themselves. With low-skill work aimed mostly at building muscle, anything goes!