Don't Be a Specialist: Your Routine Needs Variety

Andrew Read

Contributor - Master RKC, Athletic Adventurer

Melbourne, Australia

Endurance Sports, Kettlebells, Strength and Conditioning


The human body craves variety. No matter how disciplined someone is, sooner or later he or she will need a change. For some reason, instead of embracing the fact we need variety and understanding it, many instead seek to stamp it out. They say you needn’t engage in mindless acts of variety.


movement, planche



The Case for Variety

Minimalist plans can be a great tool. I won’t argue that many people mindlessly add more and more to their exercise routine until they’re at the point where they have two dozen exercises to get through and need three hours per session to hit everything. That’s probably going too far.


But if you’re in the opposite camp, where you’ve whittled your selection down to just a few things for a prolonged period, you’ll find that a lot of your adaptability has gone, as well.


"Most people aren’t training for a sport. They don’t have special needs that require a targeted focus."

Most people aren’t training for a sport. They don’t have special needs that require a targeted focus. What most people need is a little bit more strength, a bit more mobility and flexibility, a strong and healthy heart, and to drop a few pounds. In other words their training plan needs a bit of everything.


As my friend Brandon Hetzler says, “Specialization equals extinction.” Read that bit again and remember that we got to where we are right now because of our ability to do lots of things. If you focus only on a few things, then you lose the key driver of our species’ evolution. I’m not ready to give up being a homo sapiens just yet, and I don’t think I’ve suddenly evolved a tail or any other special adaptation and I’m guessing you haven’t either.



Lower Body Training

As much as the goal of functional training is to teach the body to work as a cohesive unit, there are clearly exercises that are upper- or lower-body dominant. While variety is important in both halves of the body, it is difficult to get variety for the lower body in the gym using resistance training.


"To get variety in the lower body, we need to introduce gait patterns both low and high (crawling and running) as well as various jumps."

The lower body can be split into three positions of our feet:


  1. Bilateral (squat stance)
  2. Split stance (lunges)
  3. Single-leg patterns



These can be covered further by splitting them into hip- or quad-dominant movements:

graph, lower body


To get variety in the lower body, we need to introduce gait patterns both low and high (crawling and running) as well as various jumps. In my head, the best lower body training you could have would be weightlifting plus parkour. Powerful, yet athletic.


Upper Body Training

The upper body is far more complex. With the upper body we don’t just have flexion and extension to deal with, but we also have rotation. This is where many trainees start to take a wrong turn. They try to treat upper-body training like the lower body - they seek intensity. While we do want to lift with intensity, it’s not the only measuring stick we need to use for the upper body.


A lift like the get up teaches the shoulder to move and stabilize through many different angles. It’s a great example of a lift that requires variety and versatility to master. But the upper body can also work via pushing and pulling movements. This is where most get stuck. A few venture past this point to much harder straight arm strength work such as levers, planches, or handstands, like in this video:



But these skills take time to develop - in many cases, they require daily training for a year or two. And that is difficult to convince people to do when the average person believes that health and fitness is attainable in three hour-long sessions per week. There is a tool that allows you to achieve all this at a slightly lower level and that has a much lower entry cost - the kettlebell.




Using Kettlebells

Of course, we can push and pull a kettlebell and work on flexion and extension. We can work on some basic straight-arm strength via exercises like the get up. And we can develop the strange combination of stability and flexibility needed for more advanced movements like the planche or lever, via exercises like the armbar or the crooked armbar.



There is an additional type of movement that can be done with a kettlebell that is difficult to achieve with any other tool - a ballistic action. Kettlebell ballistics start with the swing before moving to cleans and snatches. But there are also push presses and jerks to consider. So our kettlebell exercise library can include every possible movement type there is for the shoulder and upper body and can be learned quite quickly (provided the basic mobility is in place first).


I believe that using kettlebells to do straight sets is almost a waste of their biggest asset - their use in complexes. Here are some great movement-based complexes for the upper body using a single kettlebell:



Potentially poor shoulder mobility and not much experience with kettlebells or strength training.


  1. Armbar for 5 breaths followed by a get up.
  2. At the top of the get up perform 2 presses and 2 push presses.
  3. On the second push press leave the bell in the fully extended position and finish the get up by returning to the floor.
  4. Repeat on the other side.




A score of 2 on each side on the FMS shoulder mobility test, reasonable experience.


  1. Armbar for 5 breaths
  2. Get up
  3. Windmill
  4. Press
  5. Snatch
  6. Finish the get up by returning to the floor
  7. Repeat on the other side




Score of 3/3 for shoulder mobility and a 3/3 for active straight leg raise on the FMS.


  1. Armbar for 5 breaths
  2. Crooked armbar for 5 breaths
  3. Get up
  4. Windmill
  5. Bent press
  6. Press
  7. Snatch
  8. Overhead squat
  9. Finish get up by returning to the floor
  10. Repeat on the other side



You’ll find that even if you do go on to master advanced bodyweight movements like Ido’s students, these kettlebell complexes serve as fantastic warm ups for the shoulders before moving on to your harder skills. From a movement point of view, if you can do the final complex with good form with a 32kg for men or a 20kg for women, then you are in a very small group of people who possess great mobility and strength.


Introduce New Movement

Don’t lock yourself into single patterns or exercises. The body does well with variety - and training in this way isn’t needless in any way. But remember: the lower body craves intensity as well as running and jumping, while the upper body craves variety.


Check out these related articles:


Photo 1 courtesy of Breaking Muscle.

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