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Your Program Sucks

Your Program Sucks: Part 5

10 January, 2020
Sebastian Oreb

Your Program Sucks: Part 5

…because you’ve taken variation too far

When I started this article series, it was just going to be a stand alone article and wasn’t actually going to be a series. Then I wrote Part 1, and realised we needed a Part 2, and now here we are with Part 5. If we’re going to get technical, and you know we are, this is actually Part 2 of the ‘Exercise Selection’ segment, which we first introduced in Part 4. I hope I haven’t lost you before I introduce Part 2 of Part 4, otherwise known as Part 5, the second component of Exercise Selection, and the fifth reason why your program might suck.

Today I’m going to talk to you about training variation- what it is, why it’s important, where people go wrong, and how to apply this training principle correctly.

When I wrote Part 4 I gave you a definition of what specificity is within a sporting and strength context. Now I’d like to define the training principle of variation, but I’m going to start by explaining what well applied variation does not look like. First, variation in your training is not the same as total randomisation. It doesn’t matter if your goal is to lose fat, to get stronger, to be a better rugby player or to be the best in the world at your sport… total randomisation in your training is not an effective way to get you there. The second thing is, training variation is not the same as “shocking your muscles”. Training variation exposes the subject to a broad spectrum of beneficial training adaptations that pure specificity alone won’t provide, but this list of benefits does NOT include “shocking the muscles”. While I’m on this topic, I have to say that the whole notion of shocking your muscles is totally absurd and frankly, incorrect. If you are really interested in “shocking” your muscles, you can try letting them in on our little secret that 3×5 isn’t actually a magic rep scheme. They will be totally gobsmacked, much like most of you were when you first heard this news, but they will not grow from hearing this information (that is, unless you use this information to write yourself a kickass program at the completion of this series… but I digress). There is a myth that is still circulating in the fitness industry which claims that your muscles need to be shocked by constantly changing your exercises and rep schemes in order to grow, but this is simply not true. Adding variation to your training does not mean you are exempt from the rule that you must progressively overload in order to improve, and remember that if you want to overload a movement, you need to consistently train it long enough for these improvements to take place.

Now let’s look at what training variation is. Variation in your training is a way to balance out pure specificity, by training a range of exercises, movement patterns, muscle groups, rep schemes and even energy systems that are not normally targeted in competition or goal specific training protocols. There are many benefits we can gain from adding variety into training, and this diversification can either be generalised for an “all round” balanced result (with the goal of structural balance, overall fitness, good health, and improved training capacity) or it can be very specialised to work towards particular subsections of our primary goal that cannot be targeted through skill specific training, and this should be done according to the athlete or client’s current needs- for example, to rehabilitate a particular injury, improve cardiovascular endurance/conditioning, strengthen lagging/neglected muscle groups, or improve neuromuscular coordination to reinforce particular movement patterns. Another commonly overlooked but very important benefit of variation is improved training morale. The best exercise you can prescribe someone is the one that they will do, and any good coach will know that sometimes you have to sacrifice a more optimal or specific exercise for a less effective or targeted one, but one that will encourage compliance with the client.

The key thing to remember is that when we add variation into training we don’t want to vary everything, every session. When a scientist conducts an experiment they will change only a limited number of variables and once changed these variables will remain constant for the whole study. These scientists understand that changing everything at once and/or constantly varying things week to week will not only limit the results you get, but also make it very hard to track which interventions were the most effective.

If you are constantly changing rep schemes or switching up your exercises each week then you are taking the variation principle too far, and I’m sorry to say it but your program sucks.

Now that we have run through Variation 101, some of you might be wondering where the other principle of specificity fits in to this picture. Well… I’m glad you asked, because this is where the fun begins.

To develop any skill, whether it be in the sporting field, weights room, or anywhere else, it is necessary to take the time to develop the specific skills required for that task. If you don’t practice the specific skills required, you won’t maximise your results- this is where the principle of training specificity comes into play. On the other hand, if the only training you do is skill specific then you are also holding yourself back because you will miss out on all the benefits that can be gained from training variation. The way to get better at a maths test is not by repeatedly sitting maths tests, but rather by practicing a variety of equations (training variation) to expand your knowledge, improve how quickly you can solve questions, and strengthen your weak points, and then performing practice exams (training specificity) to improve your performance under pressure and identify the areas where you need to improve. Similarly, if a powerlifter focusses too heavily on max singles in their training, then they are relying too heavily on specificity and will miss out on a broad spectrum of training adaptions that come from exercise and rep scheme variation (but at the same time they will still need to include heavy singles in their training to get used to handling heavier loads, practice performing under pressure, and identify weaknesses that need to be improved upon).

This brings us to another training commandment, and that is:

If you are not including the right balance of variation and specificity in your training then your program sucks.

In my previous article I introduced the idea that within a sporting context, anything an athlete does that isn’t their exact competitive movement and in a competitive environment is actually a form of variation, and therefore the strength training that any athlete does is technically a form of exercise variation (even if you are a strength athlete). These variation exercises can be said to fall on a specificity-variation spectrum, where pure specificity is on one end, and excessive variation / random madness lies on the other end.

Here’s what this spectrum might look like for a competitive powerlifter who wants to improve their deadlift:

This spectrum is not science or gospel, it’s just a nice tool to demonstrate the idea that I’m trying to get across. The training that someone does at various points along this continuum will be totally different depending on the goal, context and person.

Here’s what it might look like for a rugby player:

And I’m sure you can fill in the gaps for a strongman athlete, sprinter, weight loss client, mathematician… whatever your goal is, this concept still applies.

Another thing to note is that at different points of a program, the focus of your training will favour different ends of this continuum. During an off-season and further out from a competition or goal deadline, variation should take higher priority to allow the athlete or client to work on their weak points, prevent injuries from arising, improve general fitness, balance out their physique and relax in their training a little bit. Coming closer to competition or the goal deadline, training should taper down to include more specificity protocols. During this phase the ratio of specificity to variation will really change to favour specificity, but it’s important that variation is never neglected because of the vital role it plays in any athlete’s training regime. If you do not follow this tapering protocol and focus too much on specificity in the off-season you will increase the athlete’s risk of injury and miss out on a broad spectrum of training adaptations, and if you do the opposite and focus too much on variation coming into competition, you will not be as prepared as you should be for the event.

I’m going to tie this all together with a few guidelines for you to follow when implementing the variation training principle.

  1. Variation needs to be structured and follow the principle of progressive overload.
  2. The purpose of variation is to bring up a particular area of performance that cannot be trained through goal-specific training.
  3. When applying variation you need to have a particular training outcome or goal in mind, so you can structure the training accordingly. This can be either general or specialised to meet the athlete’s individual needs.
  4. Training will shift towards different ends of the specificity-variation spectrum at different points in time, and generally your training should become more specific the closer you get to your goal/competition.
  5. There may be periods of time where you eliminate pure specificity from your training and focus just on variation, and there are a few exceptional circumstances (like very, very few) where people will do the reverse but generally I do not recommend for anyone to totally eliminate variation from their training.
  6. Within each session the more specific exercises should get priority over the less specific exercises
  7. You can vary the exercises, sets/reps, or rest times… but just don’t vary everything at once

There’s one more piece to the Exercise Selection puzzle that I’d like to discuss, but I’m going to save this for the next article. This third principle is one that divides people in every field, and that is the question of how much your HEALTH should be prioritised when your goal is performance. I’ve heard strong opinions from both sides, and I’m looking forward to sharing my perspective on this with you. Stay tuned!!

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