Although “variety is the spice of life,” it can quickly become the enemy of progress in the weight room when it’s overemphasized at the expense of other strength training principles.
You can’t get strong if you’re performing brand new exercises every time you step inside the weight room.
Our strength training programs should accomplish two overarching goals: engagement and efficacy. We certainly want to keep our kids engaged—that helps with consistency. A workout program must also deliver results, otherwise why do it? Lastly, any program done inconsistently will also be ineffective. So to be effective, the program must elicit improvement week over week and be engaging enough to be done consistently.
Exercises like Squats, Deadlifts, Presses, Rows, Push-ups and Pull-ups will always form the core of my workout programs. They are my “bang for buck” exercises and it’s critical that I program them on a weekly basis. With that in mind, I have to find ways to consistently train these core movements and keep my athletes coming back for more.
Here are three strategies that have worked for me when creating effective and engaging programs.
1. Vary the Implements, Sets and Reps
When an athlete first begins a strength training program, they usually begin with a bodyweight plan to emphasize quality movement. As they progress, we begin loading those movement patterns. So a new trainee might start out with Bodyweight Squats in the fall and progress to Kettlebell Goblet Squats. By the spring, that freshman will likely be performing Barbell Front Squats with great technique. With a simple progression and change in implements, we create an engaging, improvement-based process that allows the athlete to learn, grow and develop.
For the older athletes, we use higher volume workouts earlier in the offseason. That means more sets and reps of the bigger lifts. As we move through the program, we’ll increase the intensity. Now they’ll be lifting heavier to increase and maintain strength. Kids tend to get fired up when the heavier weight prescriptions start appearing on their sheet. As long as they’re working smartly, it provides a great change of pace.
The program changes again as we shift to in-season workouts. Because practice and competition take center stage, the focus shifts to keeping our athletes strong without ruining their ability to perform. Where offseason workouts might be longer and more frequent, my goal in season is to get kids in and out of the weight room quickly. If you have the ability, as some schools do, to build your workouts into the school day, then your athletes will have plenty of recovery time. However, if your athletes have to double up on practice and weight room time, you’ll probably have to watch your workout volume even more closely.
Despite these changes to the program, the core movements never change, only how we use them.
2. Rotate Accessory Exercises
We can also incorporate variety by training movements, not muscles.
To make this easy, create a list of movements that you would like to utilize that complement the bigger lifts. Once you have your list, rotate your exercises on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. For example, to train anti-extension, I might choose a TRX Tall Kneeling Fall-out one week and a Slide Body Saw the next. Different implement and different challenge, but I still get to train the movement without sacrificing training goals for the sake of variety.
Another approach I’ve seen coaches implement is to create “buckets.” Here, the auxiliary exercises will be organized into groups of similar exercises (e.g., 4 exercises that train rotation). The athlete will have the option to pick one from that bucket, one from another bucket that trains a different movement, and so on. Not only does this concept provide variety, but it allows the athlete a little bit of autonomy in creating their workout. Essentially, it’s “choose your own adventure” for workouts, which is great for promoting engagement.
3. Get Creative With Your Finishers and Conditioning
My decision to use finishers as part of a workout is predicated upon the time of the year, needs of the athlete and their overall training volume. With that in mind, the offseason tends to be a great time to include them. At the same time, I want the finishers or conditioning workouts I choose to provide a respite from the traditional strength training workout and also introduce a little fun into the session.
As I discussed above, I usually program an auxiliary block of exercises to augment my main training. Where that block might follow a traditional 3 x 8 programming format, I can change things up by creating groups of 3-4 athletes and performing that block of exercises as many times as possible within a given time period. On another, I might select an additional exercise, like a heavy Sled Push/Pull, and perform it at the end of the workout. In either case, I’m adding variety to the workout without sacrificing quality.
We also have the added advantage of using this time for a fun team-building exercise. A post-workout relay race, tag game, tug-of-war competition or dodgeball are all excellent choices. I’ve even used an entire speed/agility period to incorporate the movements we train into a best of three “obstacle course” race.
The kids absolutely love these sessions and it shows in way they compete. The losers usually have weight room pick-up duty and the winners appreciate the fact that they’re not resetting the racks and wiping down benches after a hard day’s work! There’s also a sense of disappointment on the part of those who missed the session. No one likes to feel left out, especially on a day when we got to play a little bit.
Regardless of how you structure it, you’ll find that your athletes look will forward to the workout a bit more if there’s time left over for the occasional fun event.
Ultimately, we want our workout sessions to be engaging and effective. Try employing these strategies to keep your workouts fresh and interesting while continuing to move the needle toward weekly improvement.
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