Varying the Variables – When, Why & How
How often should you change stuff in a training program, and why?
First, before reading this, I want you to approach this article with no preconceived notions of the correct answer.
How often should you change the variables in your training program?
I know there is a lot of theories, ideas and programs out there based SOLELY on this concept. Westside is about changing your max lift every 1 or 2 weeks, and keeping the dynamic lift close to the competition lift. 5-3-1 Essentially never changes the exercise or sets and reps, just cycles intensity in a cyclical fashion. Most programs use the same main lifts, while varying intensity, sets and reps. Nearly all programs rely on varying the accessory exercise selection more than the main lifts, seeing them as secondary, maybe even inferior.
But here is the correct answer: you should “vary the variables” only when they stop working, or when the desired outcome is different then what the current protocol delivers. Lets look further at each.
First, look at your population. If you squat 830lbs at 198, your threshold of adaptation is likely very high. In order to further stimulate the desired increase, you will need to “vary the variables” frequently, because you have likely tapped the resources of lesser training protocols. That includes volume, intensity, frequency and optionally, exercise variations.
If you are training a 15 year old who is in her second year of training, her training age is very low, her resistance to adaptation is low and she will require very little “variation of variables” (sorry, I love that).
I think all of the frequent changing comes back to one very obvious, glaring reason: adaptation is a slow process, and people are looking for a fast track. However, by making changes too strongly or frequently, you actually slow the long process of adaptation even further.
You have to change stuff over time to continue to create progress, and doing it in an optimal way will help spur long term athletic development in lieu of short term gainz. Lets look at each option individually, and discuss how to choose the appropriate variables.
Intensity / Volume / Load
First, intensity is hugely important. I strongly, strongly believe the level of intensity you use should be directly correlated with the level of athlete you are training. And I don’t mean whether they are high school or professional athletes. I am referring to the trainedness level of the athlete, how long and consistently they have been training and their resistance to further adaptation.
Fact: higher intensity programs, in general, get you stronger in 1RM testing than lower intensity programs.
Fact: no one has ever won a team sport championship event because of their 1RM.
That is a single variable in a whole HOST of variables. We also have to consider motor control and learning, skill acquisition, conditioning, speed, accelerative strength, joint integrity, not to mention consider the time of year and athletic training schedule and goals. When programming, we have to factor in all of these individual variables, and essentially decide what is important and at what time. When is maximal strength for a young athlete important? And way more importantly, what other training variables are we sacrificing to acquire it? Can we get a similar return (strength) with less of an intense program, and the other consequences that come from using a highly intense program?
Bottom line with intensity, give an athlete what is needed with very slow small jumps, and only change when that stops working, not just to arbitrarily change. Sets of 10-20 reps will get athletes many of the qualities they need for a very long time. More importantly, consistency. Make a plan, stick to it relentlessly and only adjust based on unexpected warning signs. Rapidly increasing intensity over the course of an offseason, or an athletes career, will not rapidly increase results – it will, however, rapidly decrease motor learning potential, training volume and fatigue!
Volume and load are usually a direct correlation to intensity. If you tell an athlete 10 reps, you will get a whole host of autoregulated intensity ranges. If you give an athlete a % range, you are indirectly choosing volume and load based on universal rules of intensity based training (90% = 2-4 reps).
When dictating %, volume and load within a training program, opportunity cost comes into play. Is doing 5 sets of squats overkill if it doesn’t contribute greatly to further progress, and eats at training time I could be doing other, more productive work? For a young athlete, absolutely. For a 1st round prospect middle linebacker, they may need that level of volume-load to get better. Or they may need speed training because they can squat the house and getting stronger won’t contribute to further on field success.
It all comes back to having a large arsenal of tools in your toolbox, and an understanding that strength only kinda-sorta equals speed. Train what is important to that athlete at that time. Bottom line with volume: it is the number one predictor of injury and fatigue for athletes (and also a great predictor of hypertrophy and strength), and excessive total volume rapidly increases fatigue. Use it wisely!
Personally, for clients and athletes of all ages, I am a big fan of varying exercises on a relatively frequent basis. In fact, I would always vary the actual exercise before varying the intensity range too much.
Training variations of exercises has a whole host of benefits:
- Artificially increase perceived intensity due to small alteration of movement pattern. You can actually train at a lower intensity and still make it feel difficult.
- Increased exposure to movement patterns will increase learning potential
- Exercise variation by its very nature is corrective
- Training multiple similar patterns can further improve long term retention of all related patterns
However, like all things, the trained level of the athlete is the major key, which determines the exercise variation biggy: how many exposures to a certain movement can an athlete do before progress plateaus?
The answer: a lot, actually. But diminishing returns takes effect rather quickly.
The longer answer relies on everyones favorite rule: the 80/20 rule. 80% of your progress from training an exercise will result from the first 20% of the actual work. “Pick the low hanging fruit” as some may say, before switching to a similar but different exercise to stimulate further progress.
At a conference, Boo Schexnayder made a statement that resounded with me regarding the injury protective effects of exercise variations. By rotating stances, bars, bar placements, widths and other variables of an exercise, you are going to train both strengths AND weaknesses. Hammering away at the same type of squat, with same stance and bar placement, incessantly, with variations only in sets and reps, will simply strengthen your strengths and reinforce your weaknesses.
Second is the motor learning aspect: rotating exercises when an athlete cannot accurately perform the “base” variation is likely not a good idea from a motor control. In fact, using the same exercise and set and rep scheme, every day, will build familiarity and mastery of an exercise more than anything else. This is the method behind the 5×5 and 1×20 programs, and it is massively effective for elementary strength gains. At the point that progress slows, keeping the same set and rep scheme and switching the exercise is my preference for athletes and general population clients. For powerlifters, who need ultimate mastery of an exercise rather than just the physiological benefits that exercise produces, continuing to improve the lift would be the goal, and using more advanced set and rep schemes becomes ideal.
Bottom line: exercise variations of the main lifts provide a great stimulus for learning, keeping weaknesses minimized, keeping the nervous system fresh and keeping the athlete engaged.
So the end answer becomes: you should only change the variables when you NEED to. When progress slows, when weaknesses or strengths become apparent, or when the training goal of that particular time of year changes, you should “vary the variables”. Note: purely from a training perspective, novelty never plays an effect. From a mental and athlete buy-in perspective, novelty is required! Remember, athletes who are having fun are far more likely to work hard at the important stuff. A set of curls never hurt anyone J.
Relevance is the name of the game: understanding that training athletes is a “long game”, you typically have years to increase results and your programming should reflect that. Remember that highly trained athletes are rare: they are athletes who simply will not have a physiological response from a more “simple” program, require more volume and intensity to elicit any response and typically have been training for many years. They need more volume and greater frequency of exercise variation changes.
And no, a high school football athlete who can squat 495 is not highly trained: they just have a nervous system and musculature that is made to adapt quickly to training! Imagine what they COULD do if they trained that sport. What should then change is the training EMPHASIS: focus on what will translate, which is bar speed and specific exercises. Do not misclassify based on strength, classify based on potential and where they sit on that continuum.
Untrained or low trained athletes (the vast, vast majority of athletes training today), do not need highly intense or complicated programs to improve rapidly. Use simply set and rep schemes, slowly increase intensity and volume, and emphasize motor learning principles to maximize the response of their training program!