Exercise variation — the ultimate guide.
When it comes to strength training, there are literally thousands of exercises you can use to achieve your goals.
To make it more complicated, many of these are barely different from one another. In fact, to the untrained eye, they may look exactly the same.
All of which begs the questions: should you vary your exercises?
And if so, why?
Exercise Variation: The Good
In my humble opinion, there are a few key reasons why you should vary your exercise selection on a semi-regular basis.
1.Target Weak Spots
Most of your training should be built around the core barbell movements (i.e. squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows).
These exercises help you shift the most amount of weight, build the most strength, improve athletic performance, and have the greatest carryover to body composition related goals.
However, they are not flawless.
Because of your individual anatomy, the way in which you perform these movements is completely individual to you. Yes, it will look similar to someone else — but it won’t be exactly the same.
This means that a specific exercise will engage your muscles differently to someone else. Consequently, where and how you develop strength will also be different.
For example, if you have long femurs (dem thigh bones), you will back squat with more forward lean. This is going to engage your glutes more than someone who can squat with an upright torso (who gets more quad involvement).
Over time, there is a possibility that your glutes will become stronger than your quads. If unaddressed, this can lead to muscular imbalances, which may slow down your progress.
Sporadically implementing variations like front squats and safety bar squats (among many others) into your training. These exercises will promote quad development alongside your glute development, maximising your progress..
Another simple example is the bench press.
If you keep failing a couple of inches from your chest, there is a good chance that your triceps are your weakest link. You could then train using something like a board press or a floor press to develop tricep strength — which will lead to a bigger bench.
Remember you are only as strong as your weakest link — which is why choosing the right exercise variation is key.
2. Improve Technique
Something I also want to point out is that the traditional barbell movements are complex. To put it simply, they have a lot of moving parts.
As a result, it is quite common for technical deficiencies to develop.
And one way to address them? You guessed it — exercise variation.
Using the deadlift as an example, as the weight gets heavier it is common to see your hips ‘shoot up’ when you initiate the movement.
See, your body is smart.
When it is faced with adversity, it will find the path of least resistance. In this example, when your hips shoot up, it places your glutes and hamstrings under stretch, which allows them to produce more force — making the movement easier.
It also puts your back in a slightly more compromising position, increasing your risk of injury.
While you could drop the weight and try and ‘fix’ this habit, it will take some time. Alternatively, you could implement a four week block of deficit deadlifts which will force you to keep your hips down (otherwise you won’t be able to perform the movement).
After the four weeks I can guarantee that your technique will look a lot better, and as a bonus, it will probably be stranger too.
3. Reduce Injury Risk
Finally, regularly varying exercises offers a way to reduce injury risk.
This whole ‘lifting weights’ thing is hard. It places your body under load. Now, this is not a bad thing. I mean, this load is what forces your body to adapt, becoming stronger and more resilient.
However, while your muscles adapt quickly to this load, your joints don’t.
In fact, if they are exposed to repeated stress over a prolonged period of time, they become susceptible to small injuries — nothing major mind you — you know that niggly shoulder you’ve been dealing with for 12 months?
Yeah, things like that.
But if you vary your exercises regularly, you alleviate this joint stress. This reduces the risk of these issues occurring, allowing you to keep making long-term (and pain free) progress.
Exercise Variation: The Bad
If some exercise variation is good, more is better — right?
Although exercise variation can be extremely beneficial, it is not something that needs to be done all the time.
What many people fail to realize is that strength training is a skill. It takes time to learn how to squat, bench, deadlift, and row, with solid technique — and that these movements are actually less effective until you can perform them well.
With this in mind, you want to spend at least 4 weeks on a single variation before moving onto another. This will provide you with enough time to become competent at the movement, allowing you to overload your muscular and nervous systems appropriately.
It is this process of overload that builds strength and muscle mass.
On the other hand, if you vary your exercises too frequently, you don’t get enough time to learn the movement. As a result, you never see any real progression — and subsequently, don’t actually get any stronger.
So, if you ever hear someone use the term ‘muscle confusion’ (or say something about ‘confusing the body’) you can safely assume they don’t know what they are talking about.
Strength is a skill, and it needs time to develop.
Strategically implementing different exercise variations into your training offers a great way to improve technique, strengthen weak points, and take your lifts to the next level. As an added bonus, it can also reduce your risk of overuse injuries.
However, they should be used sparingly — because too much variation will blunt your progress.
Like alcohol, caffeine, and ammonia, exercise variation should be used in moderation (well, maybe not caffeine…).