Exercise variation for strength: All you need to know
By Coach Hunter Bennett
I have previously explained how you can optimise exercise variation for hypertrophy – but for the development of strength, it is a little different.
Exercise variation for strength: Strength is a skill
Expressing strength is a skill.
To become strong, you need become competent at a given movement. This comes from repetition.
And once you have got a movement down pat, you need to train it regularly to get the neural adaptations that maximise strength.
For example, if you want a stronger bench press, then you need to perform the bench press regularly.
For the first 4-8 weeks, you will be able to add weight to the bar. However, this is mostly due to the movement becoming more comfortable. In short, your “movement skill” has increased.
After this period, if you continue to train the movement, you will start to see “real” adaptations occurring.
- An increase in muscle fibre recruitment
- More synchronised recruitment of muscle fibres
- Downregulation of antagonistic muscles
All of which increases force output – or in simple terms – lets you lift more weight.
However, these adaptations are specific to the exercise trained, and somewhat transient. This means that if you stop training a specific movement for a time, you will lose some of these strength adaptations.
With this in mind, if you goal is to maximise strength development for specific exercises, it is in your best interest to keep those exercises (or close variations of) in your training on a near-permanent basis.
You might change the rep ranges you use for those exercises regularly, but they will remain in your program.
It is for this reason that powerlifters train the squat, bench, and deadlift, for 12 months of the year (or close to it) – because it is required to maximise strength in those movements.
Exercise variation for strength: Training weak links
Now, even if you are training to maximise strength on a few specific movements, that doesn’t mean that you only perform those movements.
Everybody has slightly different leverages. This means that the way they perform a given a movement will also be slightly different.
For example, some people are strongest benching with a wide grip and a very large arch. Others might find a closer grip and using a lot of “bounce” when the bar hits their chest strongest for them.
Because these slight variations in technique, if they were to only perform the bench press, some portions of the lift will become comparatively weaker than others.
As such, there is merit training specific variations that target those weak links to ensure strength does not become handicapped by the “weakest” portion of the lift.
So, how might this look in practice?
- Weak lockout in the bench? Include close grip variations
- Weak off the chest in the bench? Use paused bench.
- Weak off the floor in the deadlift? Use deficits or paused deadlifts.
- Weak at lockout in the deadlift? Use banded/chain deadlifts.
- Weak in the bottom of a squat? Use paused squats.
You get the picture.
By using training variations that target the portion of the lift where you are weakest, you can help improve your overall strength for that lift.
Exercise variation for strength: muscle growth
I firmly believe that a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle – and there is good evidence to support this statement.
However, often those exercises used to maximise strength are not optimal for the development of size. This creates the need to include hypertrophy specific variations into your program to ensure the long-term development of strength.
For example, while the low bar squat great for expressing strength, it limits movement at the knee. As a result, it is likely less effective at simulating muscle growth than things like high bar squats and hack squats.
Similarly, the bench press limits range of motion at the shoulder joint. This makes it less superior for pectoral growth than the dumbbell bench and incline bench.
And while the deadlift taxes practically every muscle in the body, it doesn’t take the hip through enough range of motion to maximise hamstring growth. The solution here would be something like RDLs or hamstring curls.
If your goal is to maximise strength, these variations won’t need to be in your program all the time. But they should make an appearance during more “hypertrophy-focused” blocks that prime you for future strength gains.
Take home points
Maximising strength can be easier said than done. Especially when you consider the need to balance specific strength work, with exercises that target weak links and maximise hypertrophy.
However, it can be done – and hopefully this article helps.
And if you want to read about a cool training message that can improve strength, read this article on accommodating resistance.