A question I receive fairly often from people starting a new program is, “Why am I doing ‘x’ exercise?” Or, sometimes I’ll hear comments like, “Wow, this program looks a lot different!” Now, if it’s not a program I wrote, but was written by the one and only Nick Rosencutter, I’ll usually just give my default explanation of: he is crazy and wants you to suffer. If, on the other hand, I wrote the program, I will give them my rationale behind why I have them doing…oh I don’t know…hanging single-leg lateral calf raises with a chain for time.
Okay, so maybe it doesn’t get that crazy. However, statements and questions like the two mentioned are valid, and the exercises and sets and reps you are performing do deserve justification and should have meaning behind them. That is an article for a different time.
With this article I want to focus on the importance of variety in a training program and the benefits that changing up your exercises, sets, reps, etc.can have for you both on your performance and simply your overall well being.
Now, before I go any further, I need to state that I am not advocating for a Crossfit-style workout and simply throwing a random combination of exercises/sets/reps/time/etc. together without structure and no end goal in mind and calling it a workout. I am, however, going to argue the following:
Doing the same exact thing day after day for years on end is stupid and will leave you worse off in all areas, as compared to changing up your training, trying out some new stuff, and deviating from your beloved 3×10 rep scheme. I believe that strength, hypertrophy, joint health, body fat percentage, longevity, and overall health and wellness will all be better off if you give some new stuff a try and take a more open-minded approach to training.
Geez Tyler get on with it! I know I know, but first a baseline must be established and that is this: I strongly believe that all training programs, no matter who you are or what your goal is, should be based around a few basic movement patterns (not exercises) and they are as follows: squat, hinge, upper body push, upper body pull, and carry (locomotion…aka walking).
I also believe and know (because there are about 1.73 million research articles, and years of anecdotal evidence tells us) that the best way for most people to get big and strong and more fit is a few basic exercises (if they are able to perform them). Back squatting, bench pressing, deadlifting, chin-ups, rows, and overhead presses have long been staples in programs for people wanting to achieve any and all fitness goals. And for good reason – THEY WORK!
So you’re telling me that’s all I have to do and my lifting doesn’t have to be more complicated than that?!
Certainly those staple exercises work and are extremely effective. When warranted, I program them for myself and my clients. However, simply because they work and may be the best for some does not mean they are optimal for you. I also am not saying that just because they work, doesn’t mean other things won’t work just as well, if not better!
So, while keeping those two points in mind, consider the following reasons for spicing up your training.
1. Your body will adapt to the stimulus that you provide for it
The above statement is a simple explanation for the fancy science acronym SAID: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. AKA: Your body will adapt and change based on the imposed demand (stimulus) that you give it.
This is both good news and bad news. Good, because if you give your body a training stimulus, it then has to recover from that and it rebuilds itself up back stronger to withstand it better the next time. Sounds great! The bad news is that this only works for so long. Eventually, your body will realize, “Hey, I don’t have to work that hard anymore to recover from “x” stimulus because that’s all you’ve been giving it, and it knows what to expect.
You may have heard of something called beginner gains or newbie gains. It typically goes something like this.
Someone new begins working out and they are doing back squats and bench press. Twice a week they do 3×5 for both lifts. Each week they add 5lb to the bar per lift. They continue in this manner for three months until eventually they notice they don’t get all five reps anymore and the weight just seems too heavy. Did they get stronger? Sure they did! Unbeknownst to them, however, is most, if not all, of those strength gains are likely only neurological improvements. This means they simply got better at performing the movements, and their efficiency improved at both lifts.
Think of it in terms of throwing a baseball. The first time a child does it, it probably isn’t very good. But with some consistent practice and a little coaching, it won’t take too long for the movement to get better. Did they get stronger? Maybe a little. Did their throwing technique and form improve and become more efficient? I guarantee it.
Take home point: Your body will eventually get used to what you are doing and not improve the way it has been. Vary your sets and reps and/or change up exercises every 4-8 weeks (depending on experience level) to continue to spark new and increased gains. If you’ve been doing 3×10 back squats for a while now, changing it up to 5×5 front squats may spark some new gains for you. It will hit different muscles, in different ways, give your nervous system a fresh stimulus for growth, all while still training that fundamental squat pattern.
2. Variety helps bring up the weak points of other lifts
Whether it is your initial goal when you begin training or not, everyone likes to be stronger. We have people who come into the gym all the time, and their initial goal is to lose weight, get out of pain, etc. And those are fantastic goals. But a cool thing happens the more they come and the longer they are here.
People discover they like training to be stronger.
They like seeing more weight put on the bar. They like the sense of accomplishment they have knowing three weeks ago they benched 95lb and this week benched 105lb. They beg me to add “just 10lb more pounds!”
People become even more excited when they realize that they are able to train for the main goal they initially had, while at the same time building strength. So when an exercise comes up again that they had done in the past, they get excited to test themselves and see how they have improved in that lift. And many people begin to ask that their training be programmed in a way that will build up specific lifts, often bench press, squat variations, and deadlift variations.
And how is this done?
By utilizing different variations of lifts to focus on the weak point of their main lift, by training in a different rep range for a couple cycles to spark new growth, and maybe even changing up the tempo and throwing a pause in there.
For people on the other side of the spectrum, whether powerlifters or people who simply love training heavy and pushing their body to the limits, changing up exercises does fantastic things for building up their “main lifts.”
A few examples will help understand this concept better.
For an individual who wants to increase their back squat, but has trouble staying stable in the bottom of the squat and feels like when the weight gets heavy they simply crumple forward, doing yoke/safety-bar squats (SSB) may help. The SSB bar is a great tool to help with these two issues because it pulls the lifter forward in a squat, forcing them to stabilize the load more with their trunk and back extensors. Because of how this bar is held and positioned, it also does not allow the lifter to engage their lats as in a back squat, which (again) forces the lifter to stabilize the load and themselves by utilizing their entire trunk and emphasizing their bracing technique. Once the lifter returns to the back squat after a month or two of yoke squats, they often note how much more stable they feel and how it is “easier” than the yoke.
Let’s take the bench press for another example. For the past few months, you notice your reps feel slower, not as explosive, and as you continue to press the bar up, it gets harder and harder to lock it out. Now these problems could be arising from a multitude of things, but a big one may be your tricep strength. The triceps are a key player in the bench press, especially in locking it out and finishing the rep. So maybe you do close-grip incline bench press for a cycle to focus on them specifically. Or, to deal with your slowness in the press, you add chains or bands for a few weeks, lower the weight, and emphasize moving the bar as fast as you possibly can. The bands and chains add more weight/tension the further you press the bar up, so they force you to continue to press harder as you near lock-out.
Take home point: If you notice that your lifts have stalled out and/or you are not increasing in strength like you may have thought, try this:
- Determine the weakest link in your given lift: triceps, quads, ab strength, etc.
- Pick a variation of your main lift that targets that weakness: front pause squats for quads
- Change your set/rep scheme: Go from 3-4×8 back squats to 3-5×5 front squats.
3. Variety gives your body new stimuli that you may have previously neglected
A trap that everyone who lifts has fallen into at one point or another, whether purposefully or not, is neglecting certain exercises, sets, and/or reps. Maybe you didn’t know to change it up and maybe you simply forgot. What is more likely is that the change was purposefully avoided because it is hard, not fun, or you’re not good at it.
News flash: If you are avoiding a lift or avoiding performing high reps because it seems hard and you’re not good at it, that’s likely a lift and rep scheme you should be doing!
I hate Good Mornings and am not good at them. For the longest time, I actively avoided them for those reasons. Do you think if I was doing them my deadlift and back squat would have gone up like I had wanted? It certainly wouldn’t have hurt!
This third point goes well with our first reason as to why variety is important: your body gets used to what you are giving it. What distinguishes this rule from the first is the emphasis on the things you haven’t done, as opposed to what you are doing.
Let’s use set and reps as an example on this one.
If you are always doing 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps for every single lift (not as uncommon as you’d think) you are missing out on a whole host of benefits that come from performing reps below and above that range.
Dropping the reps to 3-5 for a few heavy sets can do amazing things. Not only does it provide a fresh new stimulus for your Central Nervous System, which will likely spark increased strength and muscle, think about how much heavier you will be going. You are literally performing half of the reps you were before! Think about the mental confidence you get knowing that you are pressing that much more weight.
On the other hand, going lighter on weight and bumping your reps up to 15-20 for your accessory lifts can have a similar effect. Try it for a few weeks, and it may be the spark you need to add some muscle, while also giving your joints a break from the 8-10 work you had been doing. Then, when you return to 3×8, you will be able to go that much heavier because you were previously performing twice as many reps.
Take home point: Varying your rep schemes gives the body a fresh stimulus you have previously neglected. Take whatever set/rep scheme you are currently doing and do something on the other end of the spectrum. If you’re doing 5×5 right now, give 3×12-15 a shot. If you’re doing 4×10, try 3×5, and notice the difference it makes.
Be on the lookout for Part II in this series next month.