A common debate among both exercise professionals and enthusiasts alike is the need for variability in an exercise program. Some believe that to be effective, an exercise program must offer a constantly rotating array of exercises that challenges the individual.
Others argue that, outside of a few staple exercises, most of the other stuff is fluff that distracts from the core principles that make a strength training program successful.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that some individuals crave that constantly rotating array of exercises. For them, a program that features the same exercises on a weekly basis resembles a scene from Groundhog Day, and they would sooner drive off a cliff than execute it consistently.
A few weeks ago in my "Random Thoughts" article I wrote the following:
"I understand that people like variety, however there also has to be some consistency. Too much variety can lead to us feeling lost, because with so many choices, it's hard to focus on a single direction."
I firmly believe that some staple exercises should be included on a weekly basis.
So, in some way, shape or form my exercise programs almost always include squats, deadlifts, push-ups and pull-ups to name a few. The manner in which these are incorporated might look different, depending upon the individual, but these are fundamental movements that help people improve both strength and movement quality. By having a set of staple movements, we also create structure.
Along those same lines, if your goal is to increase strength, power or add muscle exercise variety can become the enemy. To see gains in these areas we must progressively overload those core movements and perform them on a weekly basis. If you're squatting one week, but not again for 2 weeks, you'll struggle to hit your target.
With that said, individual preferences also matter. If you prefer to focus on general fitness and maintaining a base level of activity, then exercise variation might be more important if it keeps you engaged.
When we're working toward a specific goal we can still have variety within the program – but it may not come from exercise selection.
For example, we might vary the sets, reps and weight utilized. In some weeks we opt for higher intensity (fewer sets/reps, heavier weight), while in others we opt for greater volume (more sets/reps). We can even play around with how we arrange the exercises, the tempo at which they're performed or the time constraints of the workout.
The two programs below illustrate this point. These programs are for a client who was just getting started on a strength training program with me. Initially, we followed a circuit based approach, designed to get him used to strength training:
Over several weeks, as his confidence grew and skill-set improved, the program evolved accordingly. While the exercise selection is similar, the objective of the program has changed. We're introducing barbell exercises. The rep scheme is also similar, allowing him to ease into heavier weights. We're using tri-sets to slow him down and introduce a strength-based focus. He's progressed to doing unassisted pull-ups instead of assisted pull-ups and increasing the weight on his auxillary exercises. As he continues to adapt, the program will grow to reflect that. In the coming weeks we might opt for heavier weights with more sets and less reps per set. All of which create a new challenge for him, even if the exercise is the same.
We can also incorporate variety by training movements, not muscles.
Identify the movement you want to train, then rotate the exercises that train it. For example, to train anti-extension I might choose a TRX Tall Kneeling Fall-out one week and a Slide Body Saw the next. Different implement, different stimulus but I still get to train the movement without sacrificing my goals for the sake of variety.
I also love to incorporate variety by changing up my finishers. I usually program an auxiliary block of exercises to augment my main training. On one day I might perform that block of exercises as many times as possible within a given time period. On another, I might select additional exercises, like a Sled Push and Medicine Ball Slam and perform them at the end of the workout. In either case, I'm adding variety to the workout without sacrificing quality.
Lastly, I constantly rotate my conditioning workouts. One week, I might do my conditioning workouts on the bike. The next, I'll use the rowing machine. Another might be a track workout or hill sprints. Not only do I get the benefit of variety, but the cross-training challenges my cardiovascular capacity and prevents overuse.
In each of these cases, I'm using a different methodology to keep my workout fresh, without sacrificing my ability to reach my goals.
The most important component of any exercise program is CONSISTENCY! If your goal is to measurably improve performance then the exercise program must lead you toward that outcome.
Here's the rub. IF you cannot or will not execute a program consistently, it's utterly worthless.
This is where you, as the individual, have to decide what you are willing to do. Plenty of people prefer that rotating block of exercises. For them, general fitness is the goal, and a program that is constantly changing will keep them coming back. As I mentioned above, there's nothing wrong with that – they stay active and engaged week by week.
For others, consistency is found in establishing a routine and hammering away to elicit a specific response. Like my client above, they will show up every day, knowing that their goal is to get 1% better during each workout. A growing and evolving program presents all the variety they need.
Either way, the objective of the individual is placed at the forefront and the program reflects their interests, desires and goals. It's what they will do consistently.
With experience, you may not even want a "program". It may be more enjoyable to show up with a rough outline of the movements you'd like to do, then fit the exercises to the outline. Regardless, your workout strategy should be a reflection of not just what you like to do, but what you're willing to do. If it's not, the likelihood that you adhere to regular exercise will be dramatically reduced.
At Vitalifit, we create programs that are tailored to your specific needs. We organize them according to your goals, while helping to create a logical path for you to follow. Ultimately, we're going to figure out, together, what the right course of action is for you, and then get after it!