“The best program is the one you’re not doing.” - Random Guy on the Internet
The above statement is a gross over-simplification, but there is a grain of truth to it. You need some variation in your training to progress optimally. When applied logically, variation in your training helps you build more muscle and strength by overriding your body’s in-built protective mechanisms. When done randomly, it’s a recipe for disaster.
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The SAID Principle
The body is a phenomenal adaptive mechanism, and the key driver of this adaptive ability is self-preservation. The body’s number one priority is to keep you alive. It will adapt to stressors to better tolerate them and become resistant to the disruption these stressors cause. This fact is showcased by the SAID principle. SAID stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand.
Let's look at an example. If you decide to escape the rat race and take a job as a woodcutter, your hands will develop calluses over the first few weeks. These calluses will toughen your skin, and you can better handle the hard, manual labor. The calluses don’t grow forever, though. They toughen your skin sufficiently to resist the workload and then maintain that level.
When it comes to weight training, this same process occurs as you build bigger and stronger muscles. So far so good. If this continued uninterrupted, we would all be big and jacked in no time. Sadly, this does not happen because like the woodcutting example, the body only adapts as much as is needed to withstand a given demand. This is known as adaptive resistance.
Adaptive Resistance Not Muscle Confusion
The theory of adaptive resistance is linked to the repeated bout effect. This states that the more the body is exposed to a given stress the less disruptive that stress is. Each time the same stimulus is provided, the less the body needs to adapt. In time, it stops making noticeable adaptations to this stimulus. This helps us from an evolutionary standpoint. The body adapts quickly to a given stimulus and then is resistant to this stress. This makes us more robust as a species and means we have an adaptation “reservoir” for potential new stresses that might appear in the future.
When it comes to building muscle and strength, your body loves you, but it hates you. It loves you and wants to keep you safe so, it makes rapid adaptations initially.
Remember those newbie gains you got when you first started lifting weights? Because the body loves you, it wants to protect you and keep as much of its adaptive capacity in reserve for future threats. Once the initial adaptations have taken place, it becomes resistant to undergoing further adaptations. Constantly adapting to the same or very similar stimulus does not make sense. It adapts just enough to survive and little more. This is why it hates you - well it hates making the non-stop gains you’d so love to achieve.
To overcome this adaptive resistance, you must alter the stimulus you provide in order to force the body to keep adapting. This can be achieved by varying many factors within your training program, ie. the numbers of sets, reps, or frequency of your training. Another obvious variable is the exercise you perform.
Changing exercises to “shock” the muscles into new growth has long been known as muscle confusion. The idea behind muscle confusion makes some sense but the name does not. Muscles do not get confused. When challenged with a novel stimulus, they are forced to adapt. That’s why I prefer the term strategic variation to describe changes in exercise selection.
Strategic Variation is Not Random
You will not make optimal progress by switching exercises in and out of your program randomly based on what your favorite Instagram model is doing. Strategic variation is the art of rotating the exercises in your program to yield the best results. When you utilize strategic variation, there are multiple benefits.
Strategic variation can:
- Maximize strength gains
- Optimize muscle building
- Reduce your risk of injury
- Help you peak for competitive performance
- Allow you to bring up lagging body parts
To fully stimulate a muscle, it needs to be worked across its full contractile range and from different angles. Research indicates that even when performing equivalent training workloads, using multiple exercises is more effective than a single exercise at stimulating a muscle.
Whilst variety in your training is a powerful muscle-building stimulus, it doesn’t mean you have to include dozens of different exercises per session. Instead, you should provide a varied training stimulus over the course of a training week and from one phase of training to the next. When you rotate exercises for a specific movement pattern or muscle group you minimize the ‘staleness’ that occurs from always hitting the exact same exercises over and over. This helps to navigate a path around the adaptive resistance that would otherwise set in.
A good training plan should be built around a core group of key exercises that you rotate over several phases of training. Your exercise variation shouldn’t be haphazard or based on the latest fad exercise some guru is promoting. Instead, it should fit into your overall plan, compliment what has gone before, facilitate what follows, and have a specific purpose.
To review the lifecycle of exercise variation let’s use these points identified by Paul Carter and Christian Thibaudeau in their excellent book, the Maximum Muscle Bible:
- A new movement is added or changed in execution.
- This then creates a new stimulus.
- Over the next few weeks, you gain strength and neural efficiency in that movement.
- As you adapt, efficiency becomes maximized and strength gains slow down.
- Once efficiency is maximized and the stimulus decreases, fatigue increases in relation to those factors.
Thus, once you hit stage five, the return on investment of that exercise is constantly diminishing while the toll it is taking on your body is escalating. At this stage, you should strategically change the exercise to avoid injury and to continue effective muscle building training.
How Often Should You Vary Exercises?
The old adage, you can have too much of a good thing, holds true for exercise variety. While hanging exercises are good for muscle growth, doing it too much can be counterproductive.
You should allow enough time for you to master the movement pattern of a specific exercise to be able to sufficiently overload it and provide a growth stimulus. You want to reach stage 5 from the above list, but not get stuck in stage 5. This doesn't happen in a few days, or even weeks, but rather over several months. Switching exercises every week will sabotage your progress because it doesn’t allow enough time for your body to adapt to a stimulus.
Rotating exercises every 4-12 weeks or so is a good rule of thumb. My personal preference is to retain a few key “main” lifts for the duration of a block of training (12-16 weeks on average). To provide a novel stimulus to your muscles and keep your training fresh, rotate accessory exercises every 4-6 weeks. In practice, this would look something like this for back training:
- Pull Ups (adjust set/rep scheme to provide some novelty)
- DB Single Arm Rows
- Supinated Grip Lat Pulldowns
- Pull Ups (adjust set/rep scheme again)
- Cable Low Rows
- Neutral Grip Lat Pulldowns
When planning your training I suggest you pick 2-3 exercise per body part like I have in the above back training example. Train these with sufficient volume to grow and then rotate them when you transition into your next training phase.
The term phase potentiation has been coined by sports scientists to describe the process by which one block of training improves the results of the next. Strategic variation is a component of this process. If you vary exercises in an intelligent fashion then, you will gain strength and muscle faster.
When it comes to strength, you would tend to progress your program in a linear fashion from lighter weights and higher reps to, heavier weights and lower reps across a series of phases. Likewise, your exercise selection should change in this timeframe. For example, a powerlifter you would go from less specific exercise variants (which build the muscles that drive each competition lift) to more competition-specific lifts.
A practical example of how this might go for the bench press is as follows:
- Bench Variation - DB Bench Press
- Triceps Assistance – DB Skullcrushers
- Bench Variation – Touch n’ go Bench
- Triceps Assistance – Dips
- Bench Variation – Competition-style Paused Bench
- Triceps Assistance – Close Grip Bench Press
You might also consider using range of motion changes to progress a lift by targeting specific portions of the range. For example, if a lifter was weak off the floor with deadlifts they might sequence their deadlifting as follows:
- Phase 1: Snatch Grip Deadlift
- Phase 2: Deficit Deadlifts
- Phase 3: Conventional Deadlifts
In both the bench press and deadlift examples, the lifter uses exercises that build the lift in the outset and transitions towards more and more competition-specific lifts. This sequence maximizes their results by developing a base of strength and muscle mass in the key body parts for each lift. Then, they transition to displaying their strength by practicing the specific skill required in competition.
For muscle gain, this phase potentiation should look a little different. You should strive to accumulate more volume and do more total work overtime. For example, you might aim to increase range of motion (ROM) from one phase to the next to increase total time under tension (TUT).
Here is a two-phase example for triceps:
- Phase 1: Partial Close Grip Bench Press from Pins
- Phase 2: Close Grip Bench Press
And a three-phase plan for deadlifts:
- Phase 1: Rack Pulls
- Phase 2: Deadlift
- Phase 3: Deficit Deadlift
Training Across the Full Contractile Range
To maximize muscle growth, you should challenge muscles in their fully lengthened, shortened, and mid-ranges. Rotating exercises to achieve this is an example of an extremely effective strategic variation for muscle gain.
Here is a triceps example:
- Phase 1: Pressdowns (Mid-range)
- Phase 2: Overhead French Press (Lengthened)
- Phase 3: Triceps Kickbacks (Shortened)
And here is an example for hamstrings when training hip-extension:
- Phase 1: 45 Degree Back Extension (Mid-range)
- Phase 2: BB Goodmornings (Lengthened)
- Phase 3: Horizontal Back Extension (Shortened)
Strategic Variation Reduces Injury Risk
Avoiding injury is one of the best ways to keep getting bigger and stronger. If you cannot train you cannot grow. Sensible exercise variation can help you to avoid injury - especially overuse type injuries.
How many lifters do you know that have the knees and lower back of a 90-year old ex-rugby player yet they still feel the need to squat every week? How about the dude who complains of shoulder pain and glass elbows, yet insists on heavy benching and dips all the time? Sooner or later these guys are going to end up injured and out of the gym for a considerable length of time.
Instead of incessantly grinding away at these lifts (and their joints) they’d be better served rotating through other exercises. For example, front squats, split squats, box squats, hack squats, or leg presses to train their quads. DB bench, floor presses, or incline presses for their chest. All of these exercises will target the muscles they want to stimulate while allowing some relief from the persistent pain caused by back squatting or benching.
Related: Warming Up for Dummies: A Lifter's Gudie to Injury Prevention
Avoiding Repetitive Strain Injuries
While muscles are very “plastic” and adapt quickly, our tendons and ligaments have far longer recovery curves. By always doing the same exercises with the exact same technique, we constantly stress these structures. Inevitably, they will breakdown at some point.
Even subtle changes in exercise selection can sufficiently change the movement pattern, loading sequence, and muscle recruitment to spare you an injury. Just switching from high bar to low bar squats or wide grip to mid-grip bench presses will reduce the chance of an overuse injury to connective tissue.
Be Patient with Variation
We know some level of variety is good so, why not use loads of variety in every phase of training?
If you use every possible variation you can think of in the first phase it leaves you nowhere to go in subsequent blocks. For example, if in every chest session you do flyes and presses at every conceivable angle using barbells, dumbbells, cables, and machines, you leave yourself with no exercises in your toolbox to provide variety in your next phase of training.
Taking this scattergun approach to exercise selection means you have hit the muscle from every possible angle (positive), but you have adapted to all these variations and the next phase of training will provide little to no stimulus (negative). If you are not providing an overload stimulus to the body, then you are not growing.
Utilizing strategic variation from phase to phase allows you to continually present a new stimulus to the body. So, rather than emptying your exercise toolbox all at once, use some restraint and position yourself for months of progress rather than a short-term blitz followed by a long-term plateau.
Blasting a muscle from every possible angle during a phase of training means there is only one place to go in the next phase to provide an overload. More training volume at every single angle. Doing this massively increases the chance of exceeding your ability to recover and you will either overtrain and/or get injured.
Related: Effective Training Volume: A Scientific Approach to Muscle Growth
Strategic Variation Lets You Do More Volume
Research is pretty clear that doing more training volume causes more growth. Increasing this volume over time can become problematic if you insist on only doing compound lifts.
Adding volume on these lifts can become unsustainable. Adding in extra sets of squats is brutal and will eventually require an exotic pre-training supplement and psych-up routine. Adding in leg presses or leg extensions can, however, add volume for the quads, save the lower back, and reduce the amount of psychological arousal required to get a training effect. Use this to your advantage during particularly high-volume blocks. You don’t get bonus points for suffering more. Nobody cares how hardcore you are. Results are what matter so, pick exercises strategically to get the job done as efficiently as possible.
In any endeavor, you want to succeed in you should have a plan. Training is no different. Use strategic variation to your advantage and sensible plan out how you will vary exercises to reach your potential.