How Often Should You Vary Your Exercise?

STACK Expert John Cissik explains how varying the exercises you perform can have a big impact on your training gains.

Exercise variation is a great tool for advanced athletes. Changing up the exercises you perform in training—and making them progressively more difficult as your body adapts—are powerful ways to continue making gains until you fulfill your potential.

Ways to introduce variation include:

  • Making your workout more intense—more weight, faster speeds, etc. This tends to work better for less advanced athletes, since you can only increase intensity until you've reached your physical potential, and if you overdo it, you risk injury.
  • Do more work—more reps, more sets, etc.
  • Change how much you rest.
  • Change your training frequency.

The variations you choose depend on your goal. For example, if you want to increase the amount of weight you can Squat, performing sets of 30 reps is more challenging than performing sets of six, but it won't improve your Squat strength any more than sets of six. You made the workout more difficult, but you trained the wrong attributes.

In addition, you need to choose specific exercises that relate to the movement pattern you want to improve. A lot of exercises train the same movement patterns. Let's say you want to become more explosive vertically. You can do variations of the Power Clean to train that movement pattern. These include:

  • Power Clean from the Hang
  • Power Clean from Blocks
  • Power Clean from multiple positions (perform a rep with the bar above your knees, then one with the bar at knee height, then one with the bar below the knee, then one with the bar on the floor)
  • Clean Pulls
  • Any Power Clean exercise with dumbbells
  • Any Power Clean exercise with kettlebells
  • Any Power Clean exercise with sandbags

Change up your exercises when you can no longer make gains that pertain to your goal. With my athletes, I have a repetition range in mind. For the Power Clean, the goal might be to perform three to six reps with good form. Within that range, the goal is to increase the number of reps by one each workout until we reach sets of six. When we get to sets of six, it's time to increase the weight.

Below is an example of what this might look like with an athlete whose maximum Power Clean is 300 pounds. We'd like him to do sets of three to six reps in his workouts. He increases the volume of his Power Clean until the fourth workout, then he changes the exercise when his volume tops out.

  • Workout 1: 3x3 @ 210 pounds (total volume: 9 lifts)
  • Workout 2: 1x4 @ 210, 2x3 @ 210 (total volume: 10 lifts)
  • Workout 3: 2x4 @ 210, 1x3 @ 210 (total volume: 11 lifts)
  • Workout 4: 2x4 @ 210, 1x3 @ 210 (total volume: 11 lifts)
  • Workout 5: Change the exercise to the Power Clean from the Hang, 3x3 @ 180 pounds (total volume: 9 lifts)

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock