Many people think they need exercise variation to make progress. They swap out their main lifts during each training cycle, or they include numerous movements in their program. This is necessary because sooner or later, the body will adapt to a movement and stop improving, right?
Not so fast. Upon further review, this thinking could be halting your progress.
Three Things You Need to Know About Exercise Variation
- After repeated exposure to an exercise, your body becomes accustomed to it. This is called adaptation.
- Adaptation is a great thing.
- Exercise variation limits the time you devote to each movement and stalls adaptation.
When you adapt to a movement, you perform it more effectively. You keep better form, which is important for activating the intended muscles and reducing injuries. Proper form allows you to safely use more resistance. More resistance (e.g., more weight) yields strength and muscle gains.
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Performing a movement less frequently can limit you to lighter weights and hinder your exercise technique.
Technique is a skill, and as with all skills, the more you practice, the more you improve. Altering your program limits the time you work on technique for each movement. Olympic weightlifters and raw powerlifters make strength gains with no changes in body weight, because they practice the same lifts multiple times a week. They improve technique; they improve their skill. Who do you think will Deadlift more effectively: a lifter who Deadlifts twice a week, or someone who does it every few months? The less often you perform a lift, the less you practice and the more you leave to chance.
Exercise Variation Is Inefficient
Changing exercises can have you spending too much time learning new ones and less time getting big and strong. This is detrimental for athletes who have limited time in the weight room and need the most bang for their buck. Take the example of an athlete who’s made great gains using Front Squats and Trap Bar Deadlifts. Why should he spend weeks learning to perfect other variations, like a Back Squat or conventional Deadlift? Do the benefits they add to his athletic performance outweigh the time he must spend learning the movements? He doesn’t perform those lifts on the field, so probably not.
Even if you’re not an athlete, chances are you don’t have an endless block of time you can devote to the gym. Your time is precious; use it efficiently.
Too much change in programming is also inefficient because it distracts from specificity of training. If you want to increase your Bench Press, you need to bench press. If you want a bigger Back Squat, you have to back squat. Some of the top drug-tested raw powerlifters in the country, such as Ben Rice and Layne Norton, have popularized their workout regimens on YouTube. If you watch their channels, you know they perform their competition lifts multiple times a week throughout the year.
If you’re an athlete and there’s a particular exercise that has great carryover to your sport, perform it often. Don’t remove it from your workout every 4 to 8 weeks because a popular fitness guru said you need to confuse your muscles.
If you haven’t made strength gains in the gym in several months, or your athletic performance is suffering, make modifications to your lifestyle rather than your weight training. Get 7-8 hours of sleep each night, eat enough calories to supply you with sufficient energy, and try to reduce stress in your life. Address areas of your life outside the gym. If these components are dialed in, make sure you consistently get to the gym each week, and keep good exercise form before introducing new movements. Don’t eliminate your favorite exercises when making other alterations will be more efficient.
You can also experiment with other training variables, such as:
- Frequency: Increase how often you perform an exercise each week. If you squat once a week, squat twice a week. If you already squat twice a week, try three times!
- Total volume: Add more volume to your training. Volume is the reps x sets x weight used. If you squat 225 pounds for 3 sets of 5, the total volume (225x3x5) is 3,375 pounds. Try lowering the weight but adding more sets to increase the volume. Squat 205 pounds for 5 sets of 5 to increase the volume (205x5x5) to 5,125 pounds.
- Tempo: Vary the speed at which you lift the weight. If it normally takes you 2 seconds to ascend from the bottom of the Squat, decrease the weight and lift explosively so that it only takes 1 second. You can also slow down part of the range of motion. Try Paused Squats, in which you hold still at the bottom of the movement for 3 seconds before coming up.
These methods are your first line of defense when you hit a plateau. Exercise selection might not be the problem, and using completely different movements should be your last resort.
It’s important to have some variety in your training program to hone different skills and fix weaknesses. But once you identify the movements that fill those needs, more variation could get in the way. Find the exercises that give you the best results, master them, and never look back.