A Case For Exercise Variety: 21 Reasons
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
When it comes exercise variety, particularly in regards to strength and resistance training, you’ll often see opposite ends of the spectrum in the fitness industry. Some trainers and coaches will emphasize little if any variety suggesting that simply performing the bare basic movements while continuing to progressively overload them is the most effective training strategy.
On the other end of the spectrum we have “functional trainers” who will opt for incredibly high levels of exercise variety suggesting that the need to “confuse the body” is paramount to one’s success while also suggesting that consistently performing traditional compound movements and foundational lifts are not only overrated but potentially dangerous.
With that said I receive many inquires regarding my stance on exercise variety particularly because I post many unique exercises on my website and social media pages. So what’s my stance?
Essentially I fall somewhere in the middle, perhaps with a slight favoritism towards including more variety than less, provided such variety is implemented strategically with sound modifications. However, it should be noted that approximately 80% of everything I do with my clients and athletes revolves around the basic foundational movements and traditional variations while the other 20% involves unique modifications and advanced variations. Yes, I post many unique exercises but those don’t make up the bulk of the training programs. Additionally, I make sure to include some form of barbell squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and weighted pullup in just about every weekly program for my athletes thereby never neglecting the basics.
In fact my entire training methodology is based on mastering the basic foundational movement patterns with eccentric isometrics and keeping things relatively simple especially during the early stages of training. Once body mechanics are mastered by adhering to the basics, then the individual will be capable of performing a wide variety of unique and highly challenging drills under strict control as they’ll have ingrained very strong and efficient neural blueprints of each movement pattern not to mention every variation and combination that falls within each of those patterns. However, these unique variations are never meant to replace the basics but simply be performed in addition to.
So if mastering the basics are so critical and effective, why even include any unique variations in your training? Here are 21 reasons why I recommend periodically implementing a low to moderate level of variety in your strength training regimen.
21 Reasons for Exercise Variety
Many of these exercises I post aren’t necessarily movements that need to be included in one’s routine on a consistent basis. Most of them represent unique challenges that also happen to expose a variety of weaknesses, compensation patterns, imbalances, energy leaks, and dysfunctional movement patterns. With that said, most of these exercises have a variety of benefits that when periodically implemented into one’s routine can actually help correct and address these aforementioned issues. However, focusing on mastering the basics particularly with eccentric isometrics is the true key to successfully completing these unique and advanced movements. Including some degree of variety in your program simply allows the lifter to repeatedly test themselves with various movements that both expose and address various underlying weaknesses.
One of the easiest ways to hit a plateau in your training is to keep chasing heavier and heavier weights. Unfortunately, this is often exactly what occurs when minimal exercise variety is presented and progressive overload is over emphasized. In fact, I’ve seen this occur numerous times in my 16+ years of training regardless of whether linear or undulating periodization models are used. When the lifter feels overly compelled to reach higher numbers at all costs simply because their training routine calls for an increase in load (i.e. beat your previous best) inevitably form breaks down.
Once form deteriorates the lifter is no longer adequately stimulating their muscles to produce significant strength or growth as the reps are simply demonstrating their strength with poor form rather than building it. This is a surefire recipe for stagnation not to mention injury. Performing basic compound movements using subtle modifications (i.e. slight variety) allows the lifter to perform the same exercises that build functional strength and size however they’re less compelled to target PR’s since they have less of a benchmark to compare their numbers to.
Over the years of training I’ve noticed a very unique trend in just about every athlete in that they actually have a more difficult time breaking bad habits on basic foundational barbell lifts. In fact, this issue has become so prevalent that I’ve given it its own title “dysfunctional specificity of movement transferability” or DSMT. Here’s why DSMT likely occurs.
When most individuals first begin lifting weights oftentimes in high school or early college years, they’re typically exposed to the barbell squat, bench press, deadlifts, cleans, and overhead barbell press. Unfortunately, these are also the same years where most technique aberrations are etched into their CNS likely due to a number of factors including poor coaching and instruction as well as ego and 1RM maxing not to mention the general nature of learning a new skill. Although these form aberrations often seep into just about every aspect of their movement including in the weight room, playing field, and everyday life, oftentimes their bad habits are most strongly linked to the specific lifts and activities they so frequently practiced with poor form. In other words, their movement aberrations are most closely tied and most specific to the exact exercises they learned those bad habits on. This describes DSMT in a nutshell.
Besides re-educating these athletes and lifters on how to properly perform those movements, one of the best ways to eliminate these form issues is to provide a slightly different yet similar stimulus (i.e. slightly altering the lift). For instance it’s often easier to teach high level athletes how to perform Olympic lifts with dumbbells simply because they’ve never performed these drills. Therefore the form aberrations they developed are less likely to manifest themselves compared to a scenario where we try to re-educate them on the barbell versions they’ve become so accustomed to performing with aberrant mechanics.
Trying to re-educate them on the same barbell movements oftentimes becomes quite frustrating and inefficient as the old habits are more likely to re-occur since the lifter is more prone to reverting back to old habits. However, once the athlete has mastered the dumbbell variations we can then take the same technique and re-apply it successfully to barbell Olympic lifts as the new and improved habits will effectively replace the prior flawed ones. During this time period we may even provide several different dumbbell or kettlebell cleans and snatches as a means of exposing them to more variations that are foreign to their body since these specific motor programs essentially resemble a blank slate rather than ones that have repeatedly been tarnished. This is a process I’ve used on many exercises and movement patterns particularly in athletes who’ve strongly etched flawed motor programs into their CNS and need extra attention to resolve these issues.
This is also why I periodically like to program unique variations into my athlete’s routines. Yes, they may have re-educated their CNS with proper form on the basic barbell lifts using the above process. However, old habits die hard and oftentimes trace elements will often remain for years if not decades after the movement aberration has been addressed. Performing unique variations periodically will help to ensure that these old forms of dysfunction stay at bay and never re-occur.
As previously alluded to, using subtle modifications of basic compound movements (i.e. grip, stance, loading or leverage adjustments) allows the lifter to focus more on form, technique, and the muscle mind connection rather than beating prior PR’s. Yes, you may not necessarily have more weight on the bar. However, your muscles are likely to think the stimulus is more than adequate to trigger functional strength and hypertrophy gains simply because proper activation and ample stimulation were achieved while focusing on locking in the new variation with textbook mechanics.
Research shows that training to failure or close to failure i.e. muscle fatigue may be just as, if not more important than the actual load that’s used particularly when it comes to gaining size (read more in this research study here). Just because you’re not beating your prior numbers doesn’t mean you’re not stimulating hypertrophy. In fact, taking a unique movement that you’ve never performed (which in and of itself is likely to recruit new motor units) and taking it close to failure with controlled reps is just as, if not more likely to stimulate hypertrophy than chasing heavier loads on traditional lifts with lousy form. Read more in another research study here.
Yes, progression within reason is still very important particularly for strength athletes such as powerlifters. However, forcing the issue is never optimal as this simply sets the individual up for injuries and joint trauma. Programming low to moderate levels of variety while also employing eccentric isometrics helps minimize this potential issue.
When it comes to mastering movement, the name of the game is frequency of practice. Essentially the more you practice a movement pattern such as a squat, the more you’ll master it. Programming in low to moderate levels of variety allows the athlete to train the basic movement patterns more frequently without running into the issue of over training the same exact exercise. As an added bonus, higher frequency of training is associated with greater muscle hypertrophy particularly in natural lifters due to more frequent spikes in protein synthesis.
Besides frequency of practice, research in the field of motor learning shows that a high level of mental engagement is critical for movement mastery or skill acquisition. When you perform the same movements week after week with little if any variety you’re much more likely to train on “autopilot” as you’ve become somewhat accustomed to the subtle cues and activation patterns associated with that movement. In other words it’s second nature.
Unfortunately, this also means there’s little if any improvement in mastering the exercise or movement pattern any further due to minimal levels of mental engagement. When you implement new or unique movements, the lifter is required to use greater focus and mental concentration which inevitably enhances movement mastery, neural grooving, and skill acquisition associated with that particular movement pattern.
Similar to the above point, performing only one or two variations of an exercise won’t get you very far in terms of mastering that movement pattern. For instance performing only back squats might get you more efficient at back squats but won’t likely help you master the squat pattern as a whole. Simply, you might become somewhat more efficient at the exercise but in terms of mastering the foundational elements of that entire movement pattern (i.e. the basic squat) pattern, you’ll need some variety in order to force your body to apply the basic neural blueprints of that movement pattern to other variations.
This is why after several months of training a client I can literally throw nearly any and all variations at them and they’ll be able to successfully complete those exercises. That’s because they’ve become efficient at applying the neural blueprints associated with that movement pattern to a number of variations not just one or two exercises. In other words if you want to master a single exercise then performing that exercise will likely suffice although it won’t be optimal. If you want to master a movement pattern you’ll need to practice and perform a number of variations within that pattern.
When it comes to strength progression, increasing the load and or reps are only 2 of many ways to make progress. In fact, one of the most effective ways to gain strength and size is to become more efficient at technique by improving your body mechanics. Using low to moderate levels of variety with eccentric isometrics allows the athlete to focus more so on form, technique, and intramuscular tension rather than chasing numbers, which oftentimes does very little for overall progress other than to stall it.
Performing new exercises and unique moves oftentimes exposes and addresses issues that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. For instance I recently had an athlete perform a single arm front curled eccentric isometric dumbbell squat jump during their workout, a fairly simple yet unique variation. Immediately we noticed a slight weakness on the left side not so much on the jump phase but during the landing. Essentially this showed that force absorption and deceleration capabilities throughout the entire left side of the lumbopelvic hip complex needed improving. Simply, performing several sets of that exercise and programming it 1-2x per week for the next several weeks was all that was needed to address this issue. Had it not been for the implementation of periodic unique exercises we may have never discovered such a small yet significant weakness.
Physiology is incredibly unpredictable. Trying to adhere to a very systematic progression scheme on basic lifts can only last so long, as the body is likely to have days where it feels weaker. Attempting to force heavy loads on the muscles during such periods is a recipe for disaster. Including more flexibility in one’s training by periodically incorporating unique movements particularly on days such as these will do wonders for ensuring you deal with the unpredictable nature of our physiological makeup while still providing an ample training stimulus to make improvements.
Improving motor control is perhaps one of the most critical yet undervalued physiological benefits of resistance training. Besides enhancing stability, balance, symmetrical loading, precision of movement, and overall athleticism, knowing how to control one’s movement is essential for injury prevention. The more unique movements and advanced variations an athlete mixes into their routine (without having those movements be the mainstay of his or her routine) the more likely he or she is to improve his or her motor control and movement efficiency.
Including a moderate amount of exercise variety in your training routine allows for deloading periods (reduced loading phases) to occur without having to actually program them in. This is also accomplished while maintaining a fairly high exercise intensity and training effort. For instance, one question I’m often asked is how does one maintain a high exercise intensity level in terms of effort while also deloading the body with less weight and reduced loading percentages? The answer is simple: include more unique movements.
Because the individual will be less efficient with a new exercise or foreign stimulus they’ll be unable to use the same loads since much of the effort and intensity will be produced from learning to dial in the new variation rather than loading it with maximal weight. For instance, using the hanging band technique on chest presses inevitably feels quite difficult for most folks especially if they’re unaccustomed to it. As a result they often have to reduce the total load by anywhere from 25-50%. However, the sensation and training effect to their targeted musculature is quite significant while also deloading their joints and central nervous system at the same time.
The best powerlifters and strongest lifters rarely train with their heaviest loads and often times simply allow progression to naturally occur. Additionally, they always leave several reps in the tank particularly on heavy compound movements. Fortunately, when performing new or novel exercises this is essentially what you’re required to do as you can train hard without having to chase your heaviest weights or reach for new PR’s. Simply put, the need to constantly progress and beat your old numbers on the same lifts week after week and month after month is likely somewhat unnecessary.
Powerlifters and many strongmen competitors allocate quite a bit of time to accessory exercises. Yes they typically include a heavy squat, deadlift, and press, but other than that, the movements are typically accessory movements. Fortunately, when it comes to accessory movements you don’t always have to try to progress the load or use heavier weights. You simply have to provide an adequate and intense training stimulus, not a brutal stimulus. Incorporating new or novel movements as your accessory exercises reinforces this concept while also allowing the lifter to work on the basic compound movements throughout their training program. In other words as long as the basic movements are in place, the accessory drills can be as unique or as simple as you desire.
Including a low to moderate level of exercise variety does wonders for the mind as it psychologically helps eliminate training boredom. Perhaps for beginners this is something that should not be of great concern however for those who’ve been training consistently for several years straight or longer such an issue is all too common.
Although improving your technique is the most vital component for avoiding overuse injuries, incorporating new or novel exercise variations also helps prevent overuse injuries associated with performing the exact same variations too repetitively. Simply altering the stimulus just slightly from week to week or every several weeks is often all that’s needed to provide relief to inflamed tissues and joints.
Having been in this industry nearly 2 decades with 16 years of personal training and strength coaching experience under my belt one thing I can claim that most trainers cannot is that I’ve never ever repeated the exact same workout for any of my clients. Yes, there have been many similar workouts. However, even just changing one or two movements or adding in one unique variation is not only a great way to provide a foreign stimulus to the body but it ensures a higher level of sustainability since there’s always a fresh and exciting new challenge to overcome.
One of the beautiful facets of this fitness industry is the incredible versatility that can be included in one’s training as there are literally thousands of unique exercise variations and combinations to explore. To use only a handful of these movements without exploring the myriad of unique drills is in many ways a shame as you may leave much potential untapped and undiscovered. For instance, there are literally dozens of unique eccentric overload exercises I use with my athletes. However, some athletes will find that one or several of these are the most effective for their body and truly induce a strong growth and strength stimulus. Had we never experimented with these variations we never would have discovered unique ways to trigger new growth and overcome training plateaus. In other words including an ample amount of variety in your training while incorporating the basics may represent the very strategy that allows you to train hard without consistently hitting training plateaus.
One of the key arguments for avoiding exercise variety is that you can more consistently employ progressive overload on big movements. Unfortunately as any advanced lifter will attest, progressive overload only works for so long. So how do you continue to train hard without always trying to progressively overload the same movements? Improve your technique and vary your training while periodically returning to your favorite compound movements.
Note About Working Logging & Tracking
While common practice in mainstream lifting circles, the need to track workouts as a means of forcing heavier loads is not only unnecessary but in many ways counterproductive. Research and experiential data indicate that moderately heavy loads that involve high intramuscular tension, perfect form, and more frequent training sessions are all that’s needed to trigger protein synthesis and stimulate the strength and hypertrophy mechanism.
Unfortunately tracking workouts as a means of chasing heavier loads and attempting to “beat” your previous best attempts often results in deterioration of form and mechanics as the lifter feels compelled at all costs to reach their numbers. As a result the lifter ends up simply demonstrating their strength rather than building it since the stimulus to the muscles is relatively low. Unfortunately this is the very process perpetuated from most training programs in the fitness industry since consistent progressive overload is often overly emphasized.
In contrast, with a proper training program, the goal is not to demonstrate your strength at all costs with lousy form but instead to stimulate the functional strength and hypertrophy mechanism each and every workout. This is accomplished by emphasizing form, mechanics, and intramuscular tension with intense eccentric isometrics while also ensuring the concept of “beating your prior numbers” is less emphasized. Simply put, rather than focusing on “beating” your prior numbers (i.e. more weight or reps) the lifter should focus on controlled form with relatively heavy loads and high intensities (RPE of 7 or greater) while also using textbook mechanics, controlled eccentric isometrics, and feeling every component of the movement fully dialed in including a solid muscle mind connection. Consistently implementing these components during one’s workout will be all that’s required to induce steady yet noteworthy strength and hypertrophy gains. In short, progress will naturally occur to a greater extent than had it been forced.
Remember your numbers don’t have eyes and in reality they have no idea how heavy a load is. They only know tension and stress therefore the need to focus on beating your prior numbers is rarely necessary. You can take a relatively light load and make the muscles believe that load was relatively heavy simply from using proper form and optimal body mechanics particularly when using eccentric isometrics. In contrast when using heavy loads with lousy form, the muscles will register this is a weak training stimulus yet the stress to the joints and connective tissue will be significant to say the least. Simply put, focusing on form and body mechanics will often produce greater strength and size gains than attempting to progressively overload with aberrant body mechanics (oftentimes these form aberrations being a direct result of attempting to beat your prior numbers).
With that said, tracking or logging your big complex movements is not necessary although some individuals may chose to track those numbers as a means of examining their overall progress over the extended training program. However if done correctly improvements in numbers should naturally occur rather than being forced. Read more about common training pitfalls here.
Note About Training Intensity With Novel Movements
Yes incorporating a relatively high level of training intensity is oftentimes necessary to induce functional strength and hypertrophy adaptations. However, some individuals struggle to employ this when using new or novel exercises as they have no benchmark for what constitutes “heavy” or “intense” for that specific movement. In reality, the solution is quite simple. Use the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale of 1-10 intensity while also progressively increasing your loads each working set during your workout.
For instance using an RPE of 7 or above is typically all that’s required to produce an ample training stimulus when it comes to gaining strength and size. By simply aiming for such an intensity and effort level on a new movement and taking your time to progress to that intensity during each workout (ramping up each set), the trainee will receive the proper training stimulus regardless of what loads they use.
To learn more about implementing unique movements and exercises into your training routine check out my Complete Templates Program.