If you are to believe Instagram, the key to training progression is coming up with as many weird exercises as possible. Every day it seems like there is one more crazy movement popping up on my feed. Maybe t’s because I’m following too many Instababes who try to turn every single machine in the gym into a glutes movement, who knows.
Yet when you look at the other end of the spectrum, the stronger guys in history seem to be those who stick to a much narrower exercise list but really put their time into mastering them. And that narrowness in exercise variation becomes even more pronounced when you look at the training of the fastest and most explosive athletes in history: the sprinters, throwers, and weightlifters who often use as little as 3-5 total movements in their whole training plan.
Who is right?
Should you try to include as much variation in your programs as possible or should you stick to a few bread-and-butter lifts? The answer, as always, is an underwhelming “it depends”!
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Defining Exercise Variation
There are two main types of exercise variations.
Type 1 – Intra-workout exercise number
This refers to the number of exercises in a session. I’ve seen it range from as low as 1 and as high as 12, but it normally falls between 3 and 8. This is often influenced by the structure of the workout. A bodybuilding program including 3 muscle groups in a workout will include a lot more exercise than an athletic plan.
Type 2 – Frequency and amount of exercise changes
Here we are talking about how often we change exercises in a program and how many of them we are changing at the same time. Both will have impacts on the nervous system as well as on the muscles themselves.
Let’s dive into it.
Neurological Impact Of Exercise Variation
To understand the impact of exercise variation we must first look into the connection between cortisol, adrenaline and brain activation. Brain activation (neuronal activation) refers to “speeding up” the brain by having the neurons fire faster. When you do that you brain is obviously more capable. You think faster, react faster plan movements better, learn them more efficiently, can produce more force and more speed, etc. It also makes you more motivated, driven and competitive.
Adrenaline is the main neurotransmitter that does that. When it is released it binds to the beta-adrenergic receptors and activates/excites the tissue it binds to (brain, muscles, heart, etc.). The more “brain power” you require, the more adrenaline you need to release to have the neurons firing at the adequate speed. Adrenaline is in large part regulated by cortisol. Yes, the hormone often seen by training addicts as the big bad wolf that will eat your muscle away.
The main function of cortisol is to put your body in a physiological state to be able to face any danger. Specifically, it increases adrenaline (to be more aware, driven, motivated, aggressive, stronger, faster, etc.) and it mobilizes stored energy, so you don’t run out of fuel while fighting a tiger or running away from it. This later function is what can lead to muscle catabolism as cortisol is non-specific and breaks down any potential energy source, including muscle into amino acids which can be transformed into glucose by the liver.
When it comes to adrenaline, cortisol will increase the conversion of noradrenaline into adrenaline. Which is why cortisol can be said to increase adrenaline. We could say that when your body needs to produce more force, more speed or have the brain power to perform more complex tasks or learn new things you release more cortisol and adrenaline to amp the nervous system up.
This is where the first impact of exercise variation can be seen.
1) The more complex a motor task is, the more brain activation you need, the more adrenaline and cortisol you produce. A snatch is more complex than a squat, which is more complex than a bench which is more complex than a curl.
2) The more automatic or “mastered” a movement is, the less activation it requires. This means less adrenaline and cortisol. When you are inefficient at a movement, you need a lot more voluntary control and micro-adjustments which challenges the nervous system a lot more.
3) When learning a new task, you need a lot more brain activation. Especially if the movement is complex.
4) The more different tasks you have in a session (read exercises), the more activation you need.
5) If you combine various tasks together (for example alternating two exercises, doing supersets or circuits) you also increase neurological demands and the need for brain activation because constantly switching from one movement pattern to another is more complicated than repeating the same one over and over.
Those of you who are familiar with the A1/A2 system popularized by Charles Poliquin (Doing a set of A1, resting, doing a set of A2, resting, back to A1, etc.) it was promoted as “giving you a neurological advantage that increases performance”. That advantage is simply that the more complex task (alternating two different movement patterns) increases adrenaline level more than straight sets.
Here’s the thing with adrenaline, and listen very carefully:
How Variation Can Lead To Training Burnout
While adrenaline is necessary to perform, getting too much of it is like taking up a loan at bank. It’s cool in the short term because you have more money to spend, and you feel great. But eventually you will need to pay the loan back, with interest. And that can hurt. And when it comes to adrenaline the issue when you produce too much of it, too often or for too long is that you can downregulate/desensitize the beta-adrenergic receptors. Essentially you make yourself resistant to your own adrenaline.
When that happens, it becomes harder and harder for adrenaline to activate the various tissues. From a brain/CNS perspective it means less motivation, lower drive, less competitiveness and belief in yourself, being lazier, less focus and concentration, slower learning, impaired coordination, etc. At the muscle level it means a decrease in muscle tone, lower strength and speed production.
It also affects your cardiovascular capacity by decreasing heart contraction strength and rate, delivering less oxygen to the muscle during an effort and having a harder time clearing out metabolites like lactate and hydrogen ions. So, endurance and resistance also go down. What we call “overtraining” really is, most of the time, a downregulation of the beta-adrenergic receptors.
That’s why I personally call it “training burnout”. And it can happen quickly. In as little as one workout. We all had an experience where we did a monster workout one day only to wake up feeling like crap, almost depressed, the very next day. That’s a downregulation of the beta-adrenergic receptors.
All that diatribe is to show you that one of the potential effects of variation, especially when it means variation in big complex movements, is to spike adrenaline.
You know how some people need variation to be motivated to train and how they quickly lose motivation when they always do the same thing? That’s because they need the excitement from adrenaline to be motivated to train. The more efficient they become on their exercises, the less activation they provide and the less “exciting” the workout feels due to lower adrenaline production. But on the other hand, variation increases the risk of “training burnout”.
I will come back to this later when I will discuss variation in performance training.
Exercise Variation And Movement Efficency
If you want to maximize performance on an exercise, you must practice that exercise. Related movements can also improve performance on the main lift, and the closer they are in structure, the greater the positive impact will be. For example, a front squat will improve the back squat more than a leg extension. But the best way to improve performance on a lift is to practice that lift often and for a long time.
That’s why competitive Olympic lifters never stray away from the snatch, clean & jerk and squat. And why a lot of powerlifters (from the East European countries mostly) rely heavily on the competition lifts, year-round.
Now, some people are genetically more gifted than others to transfer strength gains from one movement to a related one. Others can’t do it efficiently. This is highly dependent on acetylcholine levels. But generally speaking, if you stick to the same big compound movements for a long time rather than change them every 3-6 weeks, you will get better, faster on those movements.
The reason is that with more practice comes better intra and intermuscular coordination. Basically, your nervous system fine-tunes the motor pattern it uses to do the movement and the various muscles involved in the lift are better coordinated and muscles fibers withing these muscles work better together to maximize force production.
And I’m not talking about technique. Someone could have perfect technique but poor intra and intermuscular coordination and performance wouldn’t be good. Similarly, some have seemingly poor technique but can have a great performance because they intra and intermuscular coordination is so good that your body can still use a high percentage of its potential.
That’s why if performance is my goal, I prefer to avoid varying the main lifts.
Exercise Variation And Muscle Growth
Changing exercises has long been a common way to spark new growth. We know that the body adapts to the stimulus you place on it. And as it adapts and grow it becomes better suited to face the same training stress. This means that, over time, the same workout becomes less and less effective as your body becomes more and more adapted to it.
A common way of forcing the body to keep adapting is to add training volume or load more weight to the bar. However, both of these are finite in their application: we cannot add weight to the bar forever. If we could, we’d all be bench pressing 700lbs after 2-3 years of training. Normally when you introduce an exercise in your plan you can fairly rapidly increase the amount of weight you use, but after a few weeks it becomes increasingly hard to add even 5lbs. I will tackle that phenomenon shortly.
You also can’t keep adding volume forever. Strictly from a practical standpoint it is not possible unless you have unlimited time to train. And even if you did, your body has a limited capacity to handle physical stress and repair muscle damage. There is definitely a limit to how much volume you can use.
So, if increases in training load (volume and weighs) is limited, we must find other ways to force the body to adapt and that is by introducing training variation. By changing the way you train, you change the stimulus and since the stimulus is new the body has, once again, the need to adapt to it (grow). Changing exercise is the simplest way to introduce variation.
Regarding muscle growth and exercise variation, here is why changing exercises actually stimulates new growth once you have hit a plateau with your previous movements. Saying that the body is better adapted to the training is just the general way of putting it, we need to understand what is actually going on.
For example, ever notice how the first time you do an exercise you will be sore the next day but every subsequent time you do the same exercise you get less and less sore? Or how you might have not had any soreness in months and simply by changing movements you get sore again? I can also point out that beginners get a lot more sore than intermediate lifters and that advanced lifters rarely get sore.
Why is that?
It’s a matter on intra-muscular coordination. Intra-muscular coordination is the reason why it is effective to change exercises when trying to maximize muscle growth.
The first time you do an exercise. Or when you do an exercise that you haven’t done in a while, the motor pattern is inefficient. The nervous system is not good at making the recruited muscle fibers work together. This means that at any given time in your rep some fibers will fire while others will not, it constantly changes and is done in an inefficient fashion.
The more often you practice an exercise the better your motor pattern becomes and the more the muscle fibers within a muscle work together to make the muscle contraction more efficient. That’s why you can rapidly increase strength during the first few workouts of using a new movement.
What does that have to do with growth?
The poor intramuscular coordination that you have at first also means that at any given time the muscle fibers recruited, and firing will have to work a lot harder. Why? Because since the fibers are not working well together each individual fiber has to face a lot more loading. More loading equals more tension in the muscle fiber, which means more muscle damage and mTOR activation during the eccentric phase. This leads to a larger growth stimulus and also more soreness. As your intramuscular coordination improves, each fiber has to produce less force and is under less tension because the load to lift is divided into more fibers.
The only way to keep the same growth stimulus on the individual fibers is to add weight to the bar. But you’ll reach a point where you can no longer do that (you no longer get a rapid improvement in intra-muscular coordination). From that point on every session actually gets you less and less muscle damage and thus very little growth.
If you change exercise, your motor pattern is once again inefficient and as a result you will create more damage.
The simplest way to keep progressing in muscle growth is to stick to the same exercises, trying to add weight at every workout. And when you can’t add weight for a few sessions in a row, you change exercise and start the process over again.
IMPORTANT: This is just a broad recommendation and it applies mostly to bigger exercises. Take a DB lateral raise for example, you will not be able to add weight at every workout. Even adding only 5lbs would represent a 20%+ increase in weight for most. In the case of isolation exercise you might need to use a timeframe instead, changing them every 4-6 workouts.
I want to point out that it is not necessary to change exercise to keep progressing. You could change methods to increase the training stimulus or change the way you are doing you repetitions.
For example, if you accentuate the eccentric phase (going more slowly) or include isometric holds within each repetition, you change the way the muscles must contract (eccentrics and isometrics have different recruitment patterns) which can act a lot like changing exercises. But for the sake of this article let’s say that changing exercises can renew the growth stimulus and make the workouts effective again.
By the way, the reason why beginners get sore more easily is that their motor patterns for each exercise they do is poor. By contrast, an advanced lifter has likely done most exercises already and as such his motor patterns will be a lot more efficient, which makes it less likely that they get sore.
Exercise Variation Within A Session
The number of exercises used in a workout will obviously vary depending on your goal. A bodybuilder who needs to maximize every muscle group will require more exercises than an athlete who just needs to maximize strength and power in the key muscles and have a good performance (strength and power) level in the basic movement patterns.
There is definitely a benefit to using more exercises for a muscle group if your goal is to maximize growth. Because you will be hitting more different muscle fibers within a muscle, leading to a fuller development. However, there is also a drawback to using too many exercises per muscle even if your goals are purely cosmetic.
Remember that I said that once your motor pattern is super-efficient it becomes harder and harder to cause muscle damage and growth.
Well, if you use, let’s say, 5 exercises for a muscle group in your workout after a few weeks these five movements will be made a lot less effective and will stay “burned” for a while. If you use too many exercises, you could quickly run out of effective movements to use. That’s why I recommend using one main compound movement for a muscle group/region and 1-3 smaller isolation movements, when your goal is maximum muscle growth.
I want enough variation to hit as many fibers as possible, but not so many movements that you burn a lot of exercises. I prefer to perform more sets of 3 exercises than fewer sets of 5.
If we are talking about performance the number of total exercises in a workout should be lower than when training for aesthetic reasons. The main reason is, as we saw earlier, the more exercises you have in your workout, the more demanding it is for your brain and the more cortisol and adrenaline you produce.
Too much of both will hurt your progress.
When training for hypertrophy you will likely be using exercises with a lower neurological demand (isolation or machine exercises) which allows you to do more exercises without overloading the nervous system as much.But in high performance training you will be using mostly high demands movements like squats, presses, pull-ups, Olympic lifts, deadlifts, lunges, loaded carries, etc. You can thus not use as many exercises.
Not to mention that when training for performance you will be using loading schemes (heavier weights) or methods (explosive work, clusters, etc.) that are more demanding on the nervous system. Because performance training is more demanding for the nervous system you want to minimize other sources of neurological demands as much as possible. One way of doing this is reducing the number of exercises.
When training for muscle mass it is not unusual or inacceptable to have 6-8 exercises in a workout. But when training for performance it is smarter to keep the number of exercises per workout to 2-5.
The more your goal is dependent on muscle growth, the more often you should change your exercises. The more performance oriented it is, the less often should you change your movements.
Because sticking to the same movements for a long time does have benefits too:
Benefits of very little and infrequent exercise variation
- Favors technical mastery and efficiency
- Better intra and intermuscular coordination
- Diminishes neurological demands: the more automatic and mastered a movement is, the less demanding it is for the nervous system to program and execute it.
- Reduces psychological stress: if you are comfortable and used to a movement it doesn’t stress you out as much, especially when going heavy.
- Lower cortisol for similar volume and intensity: this is due to the lower neurological demands and psychological stress. This allows you to either recover faster from the same workload or be able to use more volume or more demanding methods while still recovering.
And to recap the benefits of using more frequent variation:
Benefits of more frequent exercise variation
- Less efficient intramuscular coordination leads to more muscle damage
- Possibility of hitting more different fibers
- Easier to get balanced development
- Can be more motivating for some
5.Can stimulate progress without having to increase volume or use more advanced methods
So… What Exercise Variation Strategy Should I Use?
More variation can be beneficial for maximizing hypertrophy
Use a progressive overload on the bigger movements and when you can no longer progress, change to a different one to stimulate more growth. The less efficient intramuscular coordination in the new movement will contributes to causing more muscle damage, which helps stimulate more growth. As for smaller isolation exercises you can stick with them for a bit longer, even if you can’t add weight. I’d recommend changing them every 4-6 weeks.
When training for strength i believe in using moderate variation
I recommend sticking to the main lift over the long run but rotating assistance movements to prevent imbalances, fix weaknesses and build muscle in key places. For example, in a 12 weeks training cycle you would use the main lifts (e.g., squat, deadlift, bench, overhead press) for the duration of the cycle and change assistance exercises every 3-4 weeks.
When training for athletic performance
I prefer to use as little variation as I can to keep the nervous system as fresh as possible for other types of training like sprinting and technical/tactical work. I stick to the same movements but include variation in the form of training methods. Also, the less muscle mass we want to gain (e.g., weight class athlete) the less variation we want.