How much variation you need in your training is one of the most hotly debated topics in the training world. Right up there with what’s the best way to use a smith machine; as a coat rack or as fuel for a bonfire.
On the hypertrophy side of things you’ve got the “muscle confusion” bros who believe that your body completely adapts to an exercise after the first time you perform it and then the second time you do it your body gets no stimulus and gets rid of all your gains. Then you have the “old boys” who have been using the exact same routine since they bought their matching khaki sweat pants and headband back in the early 90’s in fear of any other exercise/program being inferior.
In the strength world you have the same dichotomy. We have Westside Barbell and the Conjugate method where you continually rotate your max effort lifts and assistance work. The competition lifts are sometimes ONLY performed on the dynamic effort days for speed work (and even then it is done with some form of accommodating resistance). Then we have the Russian and Norwegian powerlifters, along with other countries/organisations who have adopted a Bulgarian-esque approach, who believe in absolutely minimal variation. The competition lifts are performed multiple times per week (often with some form of undulating periodization) and if variation is added it will often only be in the form adding pauses/tempos or altering ROM.
So we get back to the question…. How much variation do YOU need??
The answer to this question, is the same as the answer to so many pertinent questions relating to performance and training.
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So how much variation do you REALLY need?
How much variation you need in your training is dependent on a wide variety of factors, some of which I will discuss below. It’s important to remember that this is a very individual thing and that even to a specific individual the optimal amount of variation will change over time as they progress or as they transition through different phases of training. This is where good and open communication with your coach, or good analysis of your own performance if you self-coach, becomes very important.
This is probably the most important factor in determining how much variation you need in your training. As a beginner your biggest limiting factor is your SKILL and motor learning. Basically, you can’t perform your lifts proficiently enough to get the physiological response we want (at least optimally). So, as I’ve said before, regardless of what your goal is with your training, as a beginner your priority is becoming technically proficient at some big, basic lifts.
Pick 4-6 lifts that cover the whole body and perform them frequently. Your training loads will be low enough that you can perform these lifts regularly, even for a reasonably high volume, without over-taxing your nervous system. What should determine your volume more here is your ability to maintain good technique more than anything. Here, you essentially need ZERO variation.
As you progress variation becomes more important. First off, doing the same big lifts over and over again (likely) won’t allow you to progress forever. You will inherently have weak points within the main lifts caused by: the nature of the lifts themselves, your body’s proportions and a bunch of other factors. For example, if your quads are what are letting you down in your back squat, at some point back squatting more isn’t going to solve it. Once you are strong enough to have weak points you will need more variation in your training to address this. Likewise, at this point your technique will be dialled in and stable enough that you don’t need to be performing the main lifts as regularly to maintain a respectable skill level with them.
This may seem the same as experience level, but it is not, strength level doesn’t always correlate with experience level. First off, genetics plays a huge role in your upper ceiling for strength in a multitude of ways. Despite what your grandma told you, you weren’t born for greatness and you likely won’t be elite at everything that you do. Most of us will end up in the scenario at some point where someone who has been lifting for half the time that we have is lifting twice as much.
I like to refer to this as the Universe’s way of saying “It’s time to focus on being a coach”. Then you get to vicariously live through the success of your athletes to make up for your own shortcomings (definitely NOT speaking from experience…).
Not only that, but you can train for a long time in a manner which doesn’t favour strength development and end up being a very experienced lifter with modest strength levels. I mean, just check out most bodybuilding gyms.
Both of these scenarios can leave you with a high experience level and low-moderate strength level.
On the other end of the spectrum you could be someone who has been training a long time but recently changed goals/sports, i.e. a powerlifter who has transitioned to Olympic lifting. Here your strength level would be high and your experience level would be very low (ask most Olympic lifting coaches and they’ll tell you that coaching strong beginners is often the hardest as they have enough strength to “cheat” with bad form).
If strength level is high then training is more demanding. You may be stronger and more efficient but you still have the same nervous, lymphatic, muscular system that you started with (to a degree). So if you’re now lifting twice the loads for the same volume then this is going to impose a bigger stress on your recovery ability. For example, squatting 5 sets of 5 @ 80% when your 1RM is 100kg is a totally different workout to doing it when your 1RM is 270kg.
So if an athlete is at an advanced level, variation can be a very useful way of reducing training stress while keeping intensity high. Using lifts the athlete is less skilful at does increase training stress a little (reduced coordination/skill means more muscle damage and more strain on motor learning) but this increase will be more than counteracted by the reduction in load. In fact, you WANT the athlete to be limited by skill because then it means they can’t push to 100% of their muscular or nervous system’s potential.
When working with elite (or even advanced intermediate) athletes introducing more variation is a great tool for avoiding training burn out while still allowing them to push hard. The better, or faster, the motor learning of the athlete the more frequently you will need to vary the exercises (or methods/means).
Your current training goal is also really important in determining how much variation you need.
Maximal hypertrophy – here you want SOME level of proficiency in the exercises or methods you are performing. Otherwise your training loads will be too low to have any significant effect. However, as I alluded to above, having “too high” of a skill level can actually decrease the training stress and lead to less muscle damage. Less muscle damage will generally mean less of a hypertrophy stimulus (unless you were causing too much muscle damage previously and over-reaching your recovery ability). So if maximal hypertrophy is your current goal then you want to use exercises that you have some degree of skill with, but have not “mastered”. Likewise, you want to vary things often enough that you stay in that middle ground.
Fat Loss – here we are primarily addressing cardio/conditioning methods. While you could also apply these principles to your resistance work, it’s rarely ideal as during a fat loss phase you want to do everything in your power to preserve as much muscle/strength as possible (except maybe for a brief “blitz” phase towards the end of the diet).
If you are using a method to simply burn extra calories for fat loss purposes then we need to take the approach off doing things we absolutely suck at. It’s simple, the worse you are at something, the more calories you will burn doing it. Less co-ordination will lead to more energy expenditure and a higher heart rate, both of which are perfect for this purpose.
So for fat loss do whatever you like, juggle dumbbells while riding a Unicycle for all I care, just don’t do it for long enough to get good at it. Or you’ll have to do more of it to get the same results, which could ultimately lead you to accidentally becoming a scrawny marathon runner.
For fat loss, vary things as much as you like, it’ll help you burn calories quicker and might stop you getting so bored (unlikely). Just don’t do the same with your resistance/strength training.
Strength/Sports Performance – this one should be fairly obvious. If you have an upcoming event or competition then you need to maximise you proficiency in the specific skills needed. So if you want to hit a PB on a lift or perform well at an event you need to be training the exact skills needed regularly.
Improving your physical capacities is the role of the off-season. This is where you put your time and effort in to improving the attributes that are holding back your performance (power, agility, muscle mass, anaerobic/aerobic fitness etc.), often using means that are quite detached from your end goal. Here a wide variety of methods and exercises can be used, so long as they train the target attribute.
But the closer your in-season becomes the more streamlined your training will become and more it will mimic your specific end goal. For example, if you are a competitive powerlifter then from 4-8 weeks out (depending on the experience of the athlete) you want more of your training volume to be made up of the competition lifts so that you have chance to maximise technique and confidence in the lifts.
A good example of this approach is our Lift Specific Program, which has a “built-in” 3 week peaking block to line you up for hitting PBs at the end of the program:
Your psychology also plays a big role in how much variation is optimal for you. At the end of the day, a training program can be theoretically perfect or optimal, but if it bores the crap out of the client you are giving it to, then the results are going to be poor. I’ve seen plenty of people get good results from some truly abysmal training plans. How? They applied maximal effort to them. There is simply no substitute for hard work. Likewise, even the most hardworking athlete may be able to push hard on a program they hate but their compliance will only last so long.
Some people need to constantly seek out novel stimuli to stay motivated and others are motivated by structure and predictability/repetition. So it’s very important to discover where you or your athletes are on this spectrum. In most cases you will need to compromise between how much variation is physiologically optimal and how much variation they want/need. If you can find this middle ground then you will generally get the best results as the individual will be motivated enough to work hard but will also be close to what is truly optimal. Begrudgingly (as an anti-people person) this is where even I have to admit that having good people skills and being able to read people is an incredibly important part of being a good coach. It’s not about what the textbook says is optimal; it’s about what is optimal for THAT PERSON (or yourself if you self-coach).
What we also need to address here is your Acetylecholine level (herein Ach). Having a high level of Ach basically makes you a better athlete, it comes with: faster motor learning, higher capacity for “multi-tasking” (or rather, the ability to switch between tasks quickly), higher tolerance for volume/workload (Ach spares adrenaline) and a more powerful stretch reflex. I like to refer athletes who have naturally high Ach as….. bastards, not that I’m bitter or anything.
So why is this relevant when it comes to training variation? Firstly, improved motor skills mean you don’t need to practice a skill as often to stay competent at it. More importantly, the increased motor learning ability from having high Ach also gives you better TRANSFERABILITY. This means it’s easier for you to transfer the gains from one lift (or method) to another. For example, a person with very high Ach may spend 3 months doing front squat to bring up their lagging quads and then hit a PB on back squat on their first or second session back doing them. Compare them with someone like me (who has 1, maybe 2, molecules of Ach) who would drop 10% in strength because you turned the squat rack around to face the other way. So you can see how this can play a big role in someone’s programming.
If you want to learn more Ach and how neurotransmitter levels (and therefore personality/psychology) effect your training requirements then check out our Neurotyping training courses for more awesome info:
So as you can see, there are a huge number of variables that affect how much variability ones needs in their training (more than I can address in a single article without killing you of boredom). But I’ve covered what I believe to be the most pertinent factors that you can work with here. But don’t forget this is something that is fluid over time so as you progress, then so must your programming to match. What got you from A to B rarely, if ever, gets you from B to C.
If you enjoyed this article then join me next week for my final Will and Testament….