Where does variety fit into your program? by Stuart MacEwan
Having a regular program to follow is vital to making steady progress in a gym. It can be a little boring sometimes to do the same exercises week after week, but for the vast majority of athletes and fitness enthusiasts following the same program for a good while is the only way to attain significant lasting results. To avoid hitting prolonged plateaus however it is important to have variety and change in your program as well. Muscles and organs thrive by responding to both repeated and varied exertion. So the answer is to have certain exercises that you do every week without fail, and to compliment those exercises with variety to keep your body responding to changing stimuli. Sound confusing? Lets explore…
For example, my goal is overall strength and athleticism. I want to control my weight and not get too fat, but that’s secondary to attaining maximal strength and durability. That’s why I squat one day and deadlift another for at least 1 hour 1x a week. Every week. Every month. Every year. No exceptions for 16 years. My body needs to get under or over a heavy bar to maintain or gain any kind of real strength. If I don’t squat or deadlift, I begin to get wimpy and weak. No leg press or hack squat can challenge my body the way a bar on my back can… I’ll wilt. Even a heavy goblet squat with a kettlebell doesn’t effect me like a squat. The point is that if I want to become and remain strong, I’ll squat and deadlift every week until my body can’t anymore. So this illustrates that certain exercises are here to stay in my program. If you look at your program, you can probably identify certain irreplaceable movements that need to be done weekly without fail. Those exercises remain and never change. Get used to it. You might even learn to love them.
What about all those other days when you aren’t squatting or deadlifting (or jogging, swimming, rolling or doing the thing you just absolutely cannot replace)? Those days are made for variety and experimentation. I would call those days prime opportunities to play around with accessory exercises that compliment your goals and main ‘irreplaceable’ exercises. For example, if I have an entire day set aside for barbell squats for an hour then I will rest my legs for 2 days and then have a day where I will work on leg accessory movements like large step ups, single leg presses, walking lunges, box jumps and kettlebell movements. The variety of these movements can hit my legs from a multitude of angles and types of muscle stimulations ranging from balanced movements to sustained exertion exercises. If my separate deadlift and pullup days are irreplaceable, I can certainly do another day of variety rows and pullovers to compliment my deadlift and pullup day. I might play with barbell bent over rows one week and the use dumbbells to do bench supported rows the next. You might have hammerstrength row machines and cable row machines at your gym to add further variety to your upper back day. The purpose of having days that are built on variety is to give your body something new to respond to.
When looking at your program, you need to find the exercises that you just can’t seem to live without. Those exercises require weekly effort and attention to really make progress over time. Then look at the remaining workout time you have available in the week and start to select exercises that you either find that keep you interested and mentally stimulated and also compliment your otherwise irreplaceable mainstay exercises. Allocate your remaining exercise days to exploring and experimenting with those other variety movements and try to master them as well. Experimentation is key with finding your mainstay irreplaceable exercises and the various complimentary movements that accompany them. Be patient, be curious, and most of all pay attention to what seems to work best for you.