A successful training program should be built around a core group of key exercises which you rotate through several phases of training. Your exercise variation shouldn’t be random, haphazard, based on the latest fitness fad, or left to guesswork.
Instead, it should fit into your overall plan, compliment what has gone before, potentiate what follows, and have a specific purpose. You need to have a logical strategy in place which guides how you vary exercises.
This is variation. It is not to be mistaken for muscle confusion. You have probably heard the term muscle confusion or that you need to keep your muscles guessing to trick them into extra growth. This is nonsense. Muscles don’t get confused. You do, however, need to strategically vary your exercises to maximize your growth.
You might be thinking, “Why do I need to vary exercises? Aren’t there a few best exercises we should all do?”
While some exercises are more efficient than others it does not mean you should disregard others. Nobody is debating that squats are more effective on a rep for rep basis than leg extensions. Focusing on the biggest bang for your buck exercises makes sense.
However, only ever doing squats will limit your overall quad size. Incorporating, front squats, hack squats, leg presses, and even leg extensions will allow for more complete development.
To further answer the question of why we need exercise variation, let me also cite some research, Chris Beardsley, Strength and Conditioning Research:
“Training the same muscle with multiple exercises is more effective than training the same muscle with a single exercise, even when the overall volume is the same. This is probably because the different exercises target different regions of the same muscle to different extents, causing regional hypertrophy.”
Furthermore, research indicates that even at equivalent training volumes, using multiple exercises is more effective than a single exercise at stimulating a muscle.
Based on the above, it is clear that, to fully stimulate a muscle it needs to be worked across its full contractile range and from different angles. This is only possible if you incorporate multiple exercises into your training.
The above statement probably has you thinking that your training should resemble a full-on bro-fest, smashing each muscle from every available angle, using every imaginable exercise. This is, of course, not the way to go.
The Point of Diminishing Returns
As I covered in my effective volume article, there is a point at which training a muscle more in a session has diminishing returns. In fact, doing too much can be detrimental.
Once you have trained a muscle sufficiently to maximally stimulate the anabolic machinery, any extra work for that muscle group can be described as junk volume. It is a waste of time. You don’t grow anymore, but you do increase your fatigue levels needlessly.
So, I’m hoping to have persuaded you now that some variety in your exercise selection is required for maximal progress. I’m also hoping you realize this variety doesn’t have to be crammed into just one session. Instead, it should be achieved over the medium term.
Over the course of a training week, you would likely benefit from some variety. For example, using chin-ups and bent rows on one day, and dumbbell rows and lat pulldowns on another, to train your back across the course of a week.
Think Big Picture
While variety within a week is good, thinking bigger picture and strategically varying exercises over multiple phases of training is where the real magic happens.
Some level of variation from one phase of training to the next will almost certainly cause more muscle growth than rigidly adhering to a select few exercises ad infinitum. Periodically rotating exercises for a specific movement pattern or muscle group helps to minimize the ‘staleness’ that occurs from always hitting the exact same exercises over and over.
To illustrate why this approach is so beneficial, let’s consider the lifecycle of an exercise within your program.
- A new movement is added or changed in execution.
- This then creates a new stimulus.
- Over the next few weeks, you gain strength and neural efficiency in that movement.
- As you adapt, efficiency becomes maximized and strength gains slow down.
- Once efficiency is maximized and the stimulus decreases, fatigue increases in relation to those factors.
Note. The above 5 points are taken from Christian Thibaudeau and Paul Carter’s book, The Max Muscle Bible.
Thus, once stage five is reached and continued for a few weeks, the return on investment for that exercise is constantly diminishing. Meanwhile, the fatigue generated from performing it is constantly increasing.
Because of this, you would be best served strategically changing the exercise to provide a novel and effective muscle building stimulus. You will also improve your chances of avoiding an injury.
So, to some extent variety is the spice of life when it comes to smart muscle building.
Just to reiterate this has nothing to do with confusing muscles. Simply, planning your training to target different regions of a muscle, at different muscle lengths, with different force curves, and in different motor patterns.
Strategic Variation Is the Art of Rotating Exercises
While you cannot trick or confuse your muscles you can provide a varied stimulus which maximizes your gains in strength and size. This is where strategic variation comes in.
Strategic variation is the art of rotating the exercises in your program to yield the best results.
Just in case you are not sold on strategic variation yet, consider these benefits. Strategic variation can:
- Maximize strength gains
- Optimize muscle building
- Reduce your risk of injury
- Help you peak for competitive performance
- Allow you to bring up lagging body parts
Right, variation is good. You’re sold on that, but now you probably have a bunch of other questions in mind.
Namely, “how often should I vary exercises?”
I’ve made my case that varying exercises is important for muscle growth but, doing it too frequently can be counterproductive. To get the most form an exercise you need to allow long enough for you to master the requisite motor pattern.
Once you have dialed in your technique then, you can train it hard enough to provide a robust growth stimulus. This allows you to supply a sufficient overload to force adaptation. That adaptation manifests as bigger, stronger muscles.
Switching exercises every week doesn’t allow you to do this. You never refine your technique sufficiently to really milk an exercise for all its growth potential. Instead, you constantly flip-flop from one exercise to another without mastering any of them.
Tricked Into Thinking You’re Progressing
This approach gives the illusion of progress because each time you use a new exercise you are a relative novice to that lift. So, for a few weeks, you make rapid increases in the weights you can handle.
Then, as things begin to get hard and you are in a position to actually reap some benefits from the exercise you switch it out. Big mistake. This tricks you into thinking you are constantly progressing when in reality, you have just been spinning your wheels and will have little, to no genuine progress to show.
For the avoidance of doubt, too much variation is a bad thing. It takes time for you to optimize your form on complex compound movements. It also takes time for your body to adapt to a stimulus. This isn’t on the scale of days, or even weeks, but rather several months.
Thus, rotating exercises every 4-12 weeks or so is a good idea. My personal preference is to retain your big foundational exercise selections for the duration of a block of training (12-16 weeks on average). To provide a novel stimulus to the muscle, and keep your training interesting, rotate accessory exercises every 4-6 weeks.
The indicator lifts should be compound movements. Squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, pull-ups and their variants. These exercises have higher skill demands than machine-based isolation work. It, therefore, takes longer to get really good at them. So, it makes sense to utilize them for longer periods of time.
Most of us enjoy some variety in our programming though. Accessory lifts offer the perfect opportunity to provide a novel training and satisfy our needs for a new psychological stimulus. This helps to keep your motivation high. In practice, this would look something like this for back training:
When planning your training I suggest you pick 2-3 exercise per body part like I have in the above back training example. Train these with sufficient volume to grow and then rotate them when you transition into your next training phase.
Strategic Variation’s Place in Periodization – aka Phase Potentiation
The term phase potentiation is used by sports scientists to describe the process by which one phase of training potentiates the next. Strategic variation should be considered an important component of this process.
By varying your exercises strategically not only will you gain strength and muscle faster, but you lay the platform for continued long-term progress over successive phases.
For those of you with a strength focused goal like a powerlifting meet, I would suggest you progress in a linear fashion from lighter weights and higher reps to, heavier weights and lower reps.
Over the course of several phases, your training intensity (% of 1-rep max) would increase while training volume decreases. When speaking for a pure strength sport this is an excellent method of periodization.
While your sets and reps should change over time so to should your exercise selection. Continuing our powerlifting example, they should go from less specific exercise variants to more competition specific lifts.
Beginning with a focus on lifts that build the completion lifts before transitioning towards honing their technique and ability to display their strength on the competitive lifts. A practical example of how this might go for the bench press is as follows:
An alternative strategy based on the same overarching principle is to manipulate the range of motion of exercises to progress. Doing so allows you to target specific portions of the range and fix weak links. For example, a lifter who is weak off the floor in the deadlift might sequence their deadlifting to emphasize strength in the start of the lift as follows:
In both the bench press and deadlift examples, the lifter uses exercises which build the lift in the outset and transitions towards more and more competition specific lifts. This sequence maximizes their results by developing a base of strength and muscle mass in the key body parts for each lift.
Building a bigger engine if you will. Then, they transition to displaying their strength by practicing the specific skill required in competition. This skill acquisition is akin to having a better driver behind the wheel. So, in the end, you have the perfect combo of a more powerful car and a better driver. Win, win!
For Muscle Gain
For muscle gain, this phase potentiation should look a little different. As I have outlined in previous articles on reverse linear periodization for hypertrophy, you should accumulate more volume and do more total work overtime if the maximum muscle is your goal.
For example, you might aim to increase ROM from one phase to the next to increase total time under tension (TUT). This could go:
To provide another example this could go as follows for the triceps:
Strategic Variation Allows You to Do More Total Training Volume
Research is pretty clear that doing more training volume causes more growth. Increasing this volume over time can become problematic if you insist on only doing compound lifts.
Adding volume on these lifts can become unsustainable.
Constantly adding in extra sets of squats is brutal. If you follow this path long enough every session becomes killer. Eventually, you can only muster the energy to train by concocting an exotic pre-workout blend and psych-up routine. Up to your eyeballs in stimulants and loud music you can crank out another workout, but this is not sustainable. Nor is it optimal.
Adding in leg presses or leg extensions are a better choice in this situation. They add training volume for the quads, save the lower back, and reduce the amount of psychological arousal required to get a training effect. There will come a time when you will welcome these benefits.
You Don’t Get Bonus Points for Suffering
Use this fact to your advantage during particularly high-volume blocks. You don’t get bonus points for suffering more. Nobody cares how hard-core you are.
Results are what matter so, pick exercises strategically to get the job done as efficiently as possible. If that means doing some fluffier exercises swallow your pride and enjoy the rewards.
Training Across the Full Contractile Range
To maximize muscle growth, you should challenge muscles in their fully lengthened, shortened, and mid-ranges.
By rotating exercises from one phase to the next, you can achieve this. To provide an example with the biceps you could do the following:
The same can be done for the hamstrings when training hip-extension:
Play the Long-Game with Variation
As you can see from my examples, I am not suggesting a vast array of variety at any given time. There is a good reason for this. We know some level of variety is good and that per unit of time it would probably yield fractionally more growth. There is a downside to chasing the most muscle today. It comes at the expense of long-term gains.
If you have a school reunion in 12 weeks and you just want to look as big as possible at that event then, having a few more than the 2-3 exercises per body part I suggest might be better. If, however, your goal is to build the biggest, strongest, most impressive physique you are capable of then, you are shooting yourself in the foot having too much variety.
If you use every possible variation you can think of in one phase it leaves you nowhere to go in subsequent phases. For example, if every hamstring session you do deadlifts, RDLs, leg curls, GHRs, 45-degree back extensions, and lunges then what do you have for variation down the road?
Taking this scattergun approach to exercise selection means you hit the muscle from every possible angle (positive), but you have adapted to all these variations and the next phase of training will provide little, to no stimulus (negative). If you are not providing an overload stimulus to the body, then you are not growing. The only real option at this point is to do more. More of more will eventually lead to burnout, injury, or overtraining.
Utilizing strategic variation from phase to phase allows you to continually present a new stimulus to the body. So, rather than emptying your exercise toolbox all at once, use some restraint and position yourself for months of progress rather than a short-term blitz followed by stagnation.
If you have hit a muscle from every conceivable angle during a phase of training, there is only one place to go in the next phase to provide an overload. More training volume at every single angle. Doing this massively increases the chance of exceeding your ability to recover and you will either overtrain and/or break down with an injury.
Long story short, delay instant gratification for sustained long-term success. Muscle growth doesn’t happen overnight. Instead of letting your emotional desire for results now lead you to train every fiber from every angle, realize that hitting them all over the course of several months will be far superior for your results. The latter approach will keep you progressing indefinitely, and help you to avoid injury.
Strategic Variation Reduces Injury Risk
Avoiding injury is one of the best ways to keep getting bigger and stronger. If you cannot train you cannot grow. Sensible exercise variation can help you to avoid injury. Especially overuse type injuries.
- How many lifters do you know that have the bad knees and lower back who insist on squatting every week?
- How about the gym rat who says that bench presses hurt is shoulders, yet every Monday, there is he blasting out sets of heavy bench presses?
- I’m sure you have met your fair share of guys and girls like this. Sooner or later they are going to end up injured and out of the gym for a considerable length of time.
Instead of incessantly grinding away at these lifts (and their joints) they’d be better served rotating through other exercises. For example, front squats, box squats, hack squats or even leg press to train their quads.
Floor presses, dumbbell bench, or incline presses for their chest. All of these exercises will target the muscles they want to stimulate while allowing some relief from the persistent pain caused by back squatting or benching.
Avoiding Repetitive Strain Injuries
While muscles are very plastic and adapt quickly, our tendons and ligaments have far longer recovery curves. By always doing the same exercises, with the exact same technique we constantly beat on these structures. Inevitably, they will break down at some point.
- Small changes in exercise selection can sufficiently change the movement pattern, loading sequence, and muscle recruitment to spare you an injury.
- Switching from 45 degrees to 30-degree incline bench press
- Barbell to dumbbell shoulder presses
- High bar to low bar squats or
- Neutral to supinated pulldowns will reduce the chance of an overuse injury.
The Weakest Link
In every movement pattern, you will have a weak link. Left unattended these will have consequences. The weakest muscle in the chain will either get hurt or cause you to compensate and cause an injury elsewhere.
Strategic variation can help you to fix weak links before they become an issue. Doing so will keep you injury free and avoid a specific muscle becoming a limiting factor to your progress.
Use Every Tactic at Your Disposal
With any endeavor, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Training is no different. Don’t just consider switching sets and reps or your training split. Utilize exercise variation to magnify your results.
By using strategic variation to your advantage, you can achieve more in a way more efficient manner than blindly following the same old stuff. If you want to reach your potential you must use every tactic at your disposal. Understanding strategic variation means you are armed with one more powerful programming tool. Enjoy the benefits.
Hey, I hope you are enjoying this article and find value in utilizing these concepts to build lean muscle. Writing about this stuff is a hobby for me. What I do all day, every day is coaching people. Both in-person and online. Evaluating, researching, and refining my craft to provide more value to my clients. If you’d like to work with me then, please get in touch here to find out about my coaching services.