They say that variety is the spice of life...
Unless, of course, that spice is a tablespoon of cinnamon straight to the dome.
Switching things up can certainly be a great way to pull yourself out of a rut (in fitness as well as in life), but injecting variability too often, and without considering the trade-offs, can be a one-way street to chaos (in fitness as well as in life).
But how should we apply variation strategically within our training to not only optimize performance and preserve motivation but also prevent injury, stagnation, and burnout?
Though variation in itself can apply to a wide spectrum of levers, we’re going to focus more specifically on variation within exercises (or patterns) here.
Exercise variability, as the name suggests, refers to systematic and purposeful alterations to the movements being performed. This can be subtle, as in changing a Front Squat to a SSB Squat, or aggressive, as in altering entire movement patterns, sequences, or even training splits. The latter is certainly applicable on a high-level, but more people tend to get confused with the former.
In other words, why are certain variations within the same class perferred over others at certain times, and contraindicated at others?
Why do we revolve variations instead of just finding one that feels good and running with it forever?
And how is this rotation done optimally?
These are questions that need to be answered, but first, let’s step back and talk about why the majority of training should actually be NON variable…
Training Should Be Mostly Consistent and Predictable
While strategic exercise variability is essential for optimizing performance, injury prevention, and general health outcomes, it is equally important to maintain a certain level of consistency and predictability in your training.
Consistency, in this context, refers to the regular execution of specific exercises or training variables, enabling trainees to develop mastery and skill in those movements.
Predictability, on the other hand, refers to the ability to anticipate the demands of a given training session, which can help foster adherence, confidence, and sustainable long-term progress.
There are several reasons why maintaining a mostly consistent and predictable training program is a good idea:
- Skill Development: Continuous practice of specific exercises allows trainees to develop and refine their technique, which can lead to improved efficiency and performance. This is particularly important for complex movements, such as Olympic lifts, which require extremely precise coordination and timing.
- Progressive Overload: Consistent training enables trainees to overload more effectively over longer periods of time. By gradually increasing the training stress week-to-week or month-to-month using known parameters, we can build anabolic momentum to stimulate adaptations and improvements in strength, hypertrophy, and other correlated performance-related factors.
- Adherence: Predictability can lead to greater adherence by allowing trainees to mentally prepare for their workouts and develop habits/routines around those expectations. Not everyone lives, eats, and breathes going to the gym—most people have normal lives that must be prioritized before fitness. Being able to anticipate and plan for next week’s workouts can remove some of the unknown stress that comes with training to balance a busy life.
- Monitoring Progress: In conjunction with a greater ability to progressively overload, programming consistency allows for more accurate tracking of progress, as the same exercise variations under the same conditions, can be compared 1-to-1 across time. This data can help trainees (and coaches) make well-informed decisions about when and how to adjust their future protocols in order to maximize progress.
Having said that, it is important to acknowledge that there is such a thing as excessive consistency and predictability in training. Though the pros outweight the cons, rigidity and unwillingness to implement sufficient variety can have serious drawbacks, such as increased risk of overuse injuries, motivational lulls, and plateaus in performance.
And those who have ever read or listened to a single thing I’ve ever said shouldn’t be surprised to hear that…The key lies in striking a balance between stability and variability, with regularity forming the base of the pyramid and strategic modifications providing the finishing touches.
Why Vary Exercises?
So why exactly does this exercise variation even matter?
Well to start—By targeting slightly different muscle groups, energy systems, and movement patterns, exercise variability can help you become a more well-rounded athlete. For example, if you’ve been hammering away on traditional compound movements like Squats and Deadlifts, switching it up to incorporate unilateral exercises like Split Squats and Single Leg RDLs can help you develop stability, balance, and coordination in a slightly different way. In a similar vein, if you’ve been utilizing HIIT sessions as your sole source of cardio, shifting to MISS for a bit can improve your aerobic capacity/endurance while allowing your body to recover from the demands of HIIT.
Additionally, the strategic implementation of exercise variability can help prevent overuse injuries (e.g. tendinitis) and reduce the risk of burnout. By minimizing excessive repetition and making subtle changes to the exercise you’re performing, you can reduce the specific stress on joints, tendons, and ligaments. The modifications don’t need to be drastic either—just switching from a barbell to dumbbells, or machine to cables, or bilateral to unilateral, can create significant downstream impacts. Thought of another way, if you're a marathoner, it would be smart to break your training year up, so you can switch to low-impact cross-training activities like swimming/cycling when further out from competitions to maintain base levels of cardiovascular fitness without placing excessive stress on your “running” structures.
Zooming in, the mechanisms underlying the benefits of exercise variability are multifaceted. Of particular concern is the prevention of adaptive resistance, which occurs when your body becomes accustomed to a particular exercise (or pattern) and stops responding as effectively. Not to go all “confuse the muscles” on you, but there is something to be said about continually challenging your muscles in new-ish ways to avoid stagnation and down-regulation of anabolic mechanisms. Our bodies can’t tell what is happening in the external world. I’ve talked about this before, but our muscle cells and support structures only know magnitude of tension. And with that, even very subtle changes to the variations we’re performing can significantly affect the torque that is perceived on this microscopic level. The tangible biomechanical differences between a Barbell Curl, EZ Curl, and Straight Bar Cable Curl are clearly small, yet even just rotating between these 3 movements can provide sufficient exercise variability to prevent adaptive resistance.
Another mechanism we need to look at is the enhancement of neuromuscular coordination—in other words, the ability of your muscles and nervous system to work together efficiently. By shifting between variations that challenge your coordination and balance in slightly different ways, you can drastically improve your overall movement quality and reduce your acute risk of injury. A great example of this effect is represented by Barbell Back Squats and SSB Squats. With the former, the load is directly over your center of mass, there is very little intra-rep change in load displacement, and your upper body mobility is a variable. But with the latter, the load is more forward and on a camber which creates instability and more quad bias, as well as removing the upper body mobility from the equation while allowing more direct manipulation of the intra-rep loading variance (through pushing up on, or pulling down on, the handles).
Though secondary to the main premise of this article (which, in case you need a mid-essay refresher, is the subtle variance of exercises within the same patterns and while controlling for all other variables), there are multiple (actually, more like infinite) ways that we can achieve variance without even needing to modify an existing, effective pattern. Varying the order in which you perform specific exercises is a massively impactful way to mix things up, though this introduces a lot of other, potentially unintended, consequences as well. We can tinker with the tempo, volume, and/or rest periods to create a novel stimulus without ever touching the exercise selection itself. We can even introduce accommodating resistance, intentionally increase or restrict ROMs, and/or modify execution parameters (i.e. grip width, feet placement, degree of shoulder abduction, etc) in order to extend the benefits of exercise variability without actually having to change the exercise (though I would argue that changing the AR, ROM, or EP as mentioned would inherently be a different exercise, but I digress).
It's also very important to note that my “why” underlying the reasons I might change exercises is probably going to be different than your “why”, and as such, the implementation of variability should be tailored to the specific needs and goals of the individual trainee. If you're a beginner, it's important to focus on developing a foundation of basic movements before worrying too much about changing shit up all the time. On the other hand, if you're an experienced athlete, incorporating more advanced movements and substituting variations in and out more frequently, can help you to avoid stagnation and overuse injuries while continuing to make unimpeded progress. There are obviously a million and one exceptions to these general statements so please don’t screenshot this and try to dunk on me on social media.
All I’m getting at is that circumstances need to be evaluated carefully before deciding on the rate and magnitude of change that is applicable to an individual’s program. Once the specific “why” is determined, strategic use of exercise variability can be one of the most impactful programming tools towards long-term success.
When To Change Exercises?
Determining the “when” is just as crucial for achieving optimal results as is understanding the “why”.
And there are several key factors to take into consideration when deciding when to vary exercises: the individual's goals, fitness level, experience, the periodization models being used, and even the specific patterns/exercises being evaluated.
Let’s start at a high level with how a trainee’s goals affect the approach...This one is pretty intuitive. For example, if your goals are more strength-oriented, exercise variation should be introduced less frequently to allow for adequate adaptation and skill development. In contrast, training for hypertrophy may require more frequent changes to the program due to the sheer number of muscles (and subdivisions of muscles) that require more specific execution parameters to target optimally. An aspiring bodybuilder may benefit from a program that varies exercises every 4 to 6 weeks to stimulate novel muscle growth and take advantage of the higher priority placed on accessory movements. However, a powerlifter may require 8 to 12 to 16 weeks of exercise consistency in order to facilitate adequate neural adaptations and resilient technique.
Beyond the trainee’s goals, another crucial factor to consider is their fitness level and experience. I already alluded to this above but here I will steelman the prior arguments in order to hammer home just how individual all of this truly is…
Certain beginners may actually require more frequent changes to their training program to accommodate how rapidly they are improving and allow them to get early practice with a broader spectrum of movements, while some advanced lifters might need less variability to allow for slower progressions, momentum to build, and biomechanically-favorable variations to be continued. The fucked up (and confusing) thing is that both arguments have validity depending on the particular trainee being evaluated. In this case, it’s more imprtant to be directionally right than absolutely right (because being absolutely right is impossible when it comes to programming).
Moving on, those adhering to a specific periodization model (i.e. linear, undulating, block, conjugate, etc) can lean into their prescribed method’s intrinsic approach to exercise variability, rate of progression, and ideological nuance (or lack thereof). A trainee following DUP (daily undulating periodization) or 5/3/1 will likely be sticking with the same exercise for longer periods of time than someone who is running Conjugate, which is built around constant exercise variation. And in the realm of hypertrophy, we have the RP (renaissance periodization) method, which utilizes a modified version of block periodization to strategically rotate exercise selection in conjunction with rotating specified phases throughout the macrocycle.
All of these methods, no matter how distinct on the surface, have some degree of in-built dictation of exercise selection to match the overarching model. Those that are more powerlifting focused will naturally congregate more around the Big 3, while those that were build for optimization of hypertrophy will open the doors to more freedom and variability. It’s up to the trainee (or the coach) to assess the current circumstances, weigh that against the principles of the periodization sheme, and try to make the best decisions possible in terms of exercise selection within those specific restraints.
But before any definitive decisions are made, we have to consider one more thing—and it’s probably the most important thing:
That is, the actual exercise variation or pattern that is being considered.
Some exercises may be more complex and require more time (and less volatility) to master, while others may be more straightforward and can be changed more frequently. Some exercises may contribute more aggressively to wear-and-tear injuries accumulating and need to be subbed in-and-out often, while others are joint-friendly with little local or systemic impact and thus, can be continued for longer without needing a break. And some exercises that bias the lengthened aspect of the muscle fibers may contribute to greater amounts of muscle damage, while others are preferential to the shortened/contracted (and less damaging) state. Corollary examples of each case, respectively, would be the Olympic lifts (more complex = less variability), Barbell Overhead Presses (more structural stress = more variability), and Deficit Stiff Leg Deadlifts (more potential for damage = more variability).
These aren’t concrete rules by any means, but the concepts should be resoundingly clear…the specific exercise matters greatly when attempting to optimize variability timelines.
But as much as I’d love to say that we can stop and wrap it all up here, we have to reach a bit further than “why” and “when” in order to solidify our understanding of exercise variability...
How To Use Variation Effectively?
The “how” is what ties this all together. It’s the way in which we effectively apply all that we’ve learned up to this point. And if we don’t make the effort to get this right, everything else will go down with the ship.
There are literally an infinite number of ways in which we can vary our exercise selection. But there are a much more finite number of ways that we can do so effectively within the greater context of the macrocycle goals and the trainee’s individual needs. Applying this variation requires a foundational understanding of how independent qualities interact when exercises change, and how manipulating these levers can create broader effects.
Though we’ve gone over many of the underlying conceptual basics already, I know that this stuff is still somewhat challenging to fully grasp, expecially for those readers without years of experience with modifying actual programs. Nothing is going to replace learning on-the-job when it comes to building intuition around programming (and if you’re wanting more, find an internship!), but let’s jump into some tangible examples from my own clients’ training that may help to hammer our points home:
1. Working Around Injuries
1.1. Problem: Client is experiencing knee pain when performing full ROM Barbell Back Squats.
Solution: Move from Barbell Back Squat to Barbell Box Squats above the pain point. Slowly move the box depth down over time as knee pain subsides.
1.2. Problem: Client tweaks low back playing with toddler
Solution: Move all bilateral axial-loaded squat and hinge patterns to unilateral. Modify all movements that place high demands on low back (e.g. Bent Over Rows, Standing OHP, etc) to chest supported or seated versions. Implement trunk stability and anti-rotation work (e.g. Weighted Planks, Pallof Holds, Suitcase Carried, etc), as well as hip/spine mobility drills (e.g. Supine Pelvic Tilting, CatCows, etc). Depending on the severity of the injury, axial loading and low-back intensive work may be have to slowly phased back in over weeks or months.
1.3. Problem: Client has chronic issue with strained pecs when volume gets too high.
Solution: Spend less time with “risky” movements (e.g. Barbell Bench Press, Weighted Dips, etc) and make their use more specific. Rotate in exercises that intentionally reduce the ROM (e.g. Barbell Floor Press, Barbell Pin Press, etc), absolute load used (e.g. DB Press, Tempo Bench Press, etc), increase stability/rep variance (e.g. Machine Presses), utilize accommodating resistance (e.g. Reverse Band Bench Press, Bench Press Against Chains, etc) and/or variations that shift the bias towards shorter muscle lengths (e.g. Swiss Bar Press, Hex Press, Cable Presses, etc).
1.4. Problem: Client has shoulder issues with DB Laterals and OHP variations but needs to bring up delts.
Solution: Remove bilateral OHP variations and replace them with unilateral movements depending on mechanism of injury (e.g. Landmine Presses, Single Arm Machine Press, Single Arm Seated DB OHP, etc). Usually switching from pronated to neutral alleviates most of the issues. And the remaining discomfort is typically removed with Landmine Presses (I’ve very very rarely experienced issues with this movement even for clients with truly shit shoulder joints). Similarly, move from DBs to cables for the lateral raise variations. Cables will be much more easily manipulated intra-rep and the resistance curves are favorable.
1.5. Problem: Client tweaks neck during EZ Upright Rows.
Solution: Switch to cable variation of Upright Rows the following week. If this is still bothersome, switch to Hybrid DB Upright Rows. And if this still doesn’t allow them to work around the issue, have them perform Incline Chest Supported Y Raises with just bodyweight and a very very slow tempo in order to get blood into the surrounding muscles without aggravating the neck. All heavy “grip” work (i.e. movements that rely in some capacity on holding heavy load in hands) may need to be phased out in favor of tempo/ROM restricted work depending on severity of injury.
2. Avoiding Plateau Effect and Stagnation
2.1. Problem: Client needs to bring up glutes for next competition season. We have 18 months of offseason.
Solution: Utilize a 2-3 day/week frequency depending on recovery. Each day should have a main movement that is the primary source of overload. Day 1 can be a Hip Thrust variation and Day 2 a Squat pattern. We will run the exercise variation in 3 month meta-blocks that should rotate through twice over the offseason. So our primary movements might look Machine Hip Thrust and Barbell Back Squats (Months 1-3), Smith Hip Thrusts and Reverse V Squats (Months 4-6), and Barbell Hip Thrusts and Belt Squats (Months 7-9). The goal here being to rotate frequently enough to avoid down-regulation of effect and overuse injuires from arising while also maintaining enough consistency to build momentum and progressively overload.
2.2. Problem: Client has lagging delts compared to pec and traps. He has to be cautious with excessive pressing due to likelihood of pecs taking over.
Solution: Minimize heavy horizontal pressing that doesn’t also stimulate delts (e.g. Flat Bench Press, Weighted Dips, etc) and shift the majority of direct pec work to maintenance volume with low impact movements (e.g. Flyes, Machine Presses, etc). All heavy OHP work should be either machine-based (e.g. Pin/Plate loaded, Smith, etc) or unilateral. Direct the majority of delt volume to lateral raise variations. These movements can vary as often as weekly as long as the intent and general qualities of the variation (i.e. joint stress, angle, resistance curves, etc) are mostly similar. Lateral raise variations can be included as often as every day (yes, that means 7 days a week) as long as there are diligent controls in place for acute recovery. In this case, exercise variability is a feature to be leveraged and can accentuate progress.
3. Improving in Different Phases of Muscle Lengths and ROMs
3.1. Problem: Client is a powerlifter who tends to struggle with locking out her deadlift but is powerful off the floor.
Solution: The top of the movement will need to be prioritized while maintaining the competition standard technique for the lift. A good place to start here would be to add accommodating resistance to the deadlifts. Additional variations that could be implemented include Block Pulls and RDLs. So we could set-up a 16 week meet-prep that might start with RDLs (16-13 weeks out) then move to Block Pulls (12-9 weeks out) then move to Banded Deadlifts (8-5 weeks out) and then finish with the comp Deadlifts. Here, we are using the principle of specificity as well as variation to inform the decision making (among others).
3.2 Problem: Client is a professional bodybuilder needing to bring up his biceps.
Solution: We can assume that he has sufficient development elsewhere (hence the PRO part) and doesn’t need to bring up any other muscles by a significant amount. With this knowledge, we can bring the volume for the rest of the muscle groups down to maintenance levels while titrating the frequency and volume of biceps work up. Let’s say that we implement a 3x/wk frequency with each day having one biceps exercise. To start, our movements will be Standing Barbell Curls, Seated DB Curls, and EZ Cable Curls. These are all great movements to target the biceps but the issue that arises (especially for our advanced client here) is that they primarily overload the mid-range of the RO, which corresponds to an intermediate muscle fiber length. For full development of the biceps, we’re going to need variation. And one way to achieve this would be to run with these movements for ~4-6 weeks and then rotate to Incline Supinated DB Curls, Away Facing Low Cable Curls, and Machine Preacher Curls. In this new group, we have a lengthened, lengthened, and shortened fiber bias, respectively.
In an effort to not make this my life’s work, I’m going to end the examples there. But you should get the point…Most other situations or real-life issues that you run into are very easily soluable given the conceptual tools you’re now armed with.
Before we completely wrap this up, I do want to speed run a few other notable points that will inevitably come up in your navigation of exercise variability:
- When introducing novel variations, start with a lower intensity (i.e. RIR or RPE) to allow yourself time to refine your technique/form as well as avoid excessive muscle damage from the unfamiliar stressors. Slowly increase the load and intensity as you become more confident with the movement.
- Don’t jump into a more complex variation if you can’t get the preceding step down. Try to Barbell Back Squat without first being able to perform a perfect Goblet Squat is just really really dumb. Variation should be within the same tier of complexity.
- Try to change one variable at a time to limit the shock to your system and learning curve required to adapt to the new movement. Limiting the magnitude of change also allows momentum to continue and that progress to be more easily tracked/compared. Moving from Barbell Back Squats to SSB Squats to Anderson Squats is a viable strategy. Moving from Barbell Back Squats to Overhead Squats to Belt Squats creates chaos (unless done for other reasons).
- Switching to a different model of machine or cable system is still exercise variability. A Hammer Strength Leg Press is NOT the same as an Arsenal Leg Press. Treat them as different movements.
- If you’re forced to change your exercise due to unforeseen factors (i.e. the equipment is broken, travel, etc), do your best to match the underlying biomechanics of the intended variation but do NOT try to continue the progression. If you’re supposed to hit SSB Squats for 200x3x8 (2RIR) but the SSB is out of commision, please for the love of God do not think that you can just switch to a Barbell Back Squat and perform the same scheme. It’s not the same and nothing good will come from this. The best option is to scale the intensity back just as if you were implementing a new exercise (because you literally are).
- Do not freak out and cry because your program calls for Leg Press and someone is loitering on it for 2 hours. It’s ok I promise. Life will go on.
- If you’re experiencing pain, it’s better to modify to an exercise that doesn’t hurt rather than being a stubborn asshole. The rule here is to minimize the variance to keep the new exercise as close as the original’s intent while relieving the discomfort.
Ok ok, I’m done I promise…
Alright, let’s bring it home now.
We’ve gone over a lot of information in this article, and I have no doubt that most of it will be rehashing of known points for a lot of my readers.
But hopefully, between the word vomit, examples, case studies, and more word vomit, there have been a few (ok…maybe just one) nuggets of practical knowledge that will help you the next time you’re looking at a program.
Exercises are tools—power tools for sure—but still just tools. There are no inherently good or bad exercises just like a hammer or screwdriver isn’t inherently useful or a waste of metal.
What matters is understanding what the job requires, identifying the tool(s) best suited for it, and being able to use those tools to effectively and efficiently complete the task at hand.