When you first start lifting weights, every exercise you do is a shock to your muscles and strength gains occur quickly, but as you do the same routine over and over, those movements become “old news” and growth and strength gains slow. You can increase the challenge using progressive overload, but after a while, even that isn’t necessarily enough. You may notice your gains start to plateau. Don’t worry – it happens to everyone. When it does, it’s time to add more variety to your workout. The “same old, same old” doesn’t cut it anymore. You hear a lot about progressive overload, how it leads to muscle gains, but what about exercise variety? How important is it to make gains?
The Importance of Exercise Variety
What does research say about exercise variety? In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers assigned untrained participants to various training groups. Each group did mostly compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges involving the lower body, but there were some differences. One group used a consistent load and didn’t vary the exercises they did. A second group varied the load but not the exercises while a third group varied the exercises they performed and kept the load constant. Yet another group varied the load AND the types of exercises they did. At the end of the study, the group that varied the exercises, both with a constant load and a varying one made greater gains in quadriceps muscle size and strength. Variety counts!
Another advantage to workout variety – it helps you stay motivated. The human brain thrives on novelty and becomes bored when forced to do the same thing over and over. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that exercise variety increased the enjoyment among participants, and, more importantly, increased the likelihood they would continue to exercise. One reason people are reluctant to work out is that they find it “boring.” That’s why it’s important to change things up.
Adding Variety to Your Workout
There are SO many ways to add novelty to a workout that there’s no reason to ever get bored or stop improving your fitness level – and the changes don’t have to be drastic. Change can be as subtle as working your muscles at a different angle or slightly changing your approach, for example, doing Romanian deadlifts instead of standard deadlifts. Changing the position of your feet or hands is another way to subtly change the stimulus you place on a muscle. When doing push-ups or squats, vary your hand placement.
Switching dumbbells for barbells or resistance bands is another approach you can take to stimulate your muscles differently and add an element of novelty. Don’t assume because resistance bands are light in weight that you can’t build strength and muscle size with them. Resistance bands are unique in that they offer resistance when you exercise in the horizontal plane, whereas dumbbells and barbells only provide resistance in the vertical plane.
Another advantage is resistance bands provide constant tension through the entire movement, unlike dumbbells and barbells where the tension drops during certain points during the exercise. For example, when you do biceps curls, the tension drops at the top of the movement as your hands approach your shoulders. That doesn’t happen with resistance bands. Plus, you can’t use momentum to cheat when you’re working with bands.
You can also add variety by introducing pauses and isometric holds when you do reps and use advanced training strategies like drop sets and supersets. Even changing the speed at which you do a rep alters the amount of tension on the muscle – for more tension, slow things down. To build power, speed the movement up and add an explosive component. Another approach – drop the weights and use your own bodyweight as resistance.
Add more variety to your ab workouts too. Hold a dumbbell when doing crunches to force your abs to work harder. Bring out the stability ball and use it to do ab exercises you normally do lying flat on the mat. Try a new plank variation every workout to target your core muscles. Adding variety doesn’t mean you have to completely overhaul your exercise program.
Another way to add variety is to periodize your workouts. Work on muscle endurance, using lighter loads and higher reps. Then transition to moderate intensity and a moderate number of reps followed by a few weeks of low reps using a high load to work on strength. A number of studies show periodized workouts lead to greater gains and reduce the risk of overtraining.
Variety and Progressive Overload
Keep in mind that when you add variety you still need to challenge yourself and use progressive overload when you train if you’re trying to build muscle strength and size. You should feel the burn or you’re not using enough resistance.
The Bottom Line
Exercise variety matters. Your body is an adaptation machine. In other words, it adjusts to whatever you throw at it. That’s a good thing because it makes you fitter and stronger, but bad in the sense that you won’t continue to grow without adding new challenges. Varying your exercises, even if it only means changing hand or foot position, keeps your muscles guessing, and when you combine it with progressive overload, growing.
Remember, a training program that works for you in the beginning probably won’t work for you 6 months down the line. Even if it did, you would become mentally bored if you continually did the same exercises in the same sequence. Fitness routines should never become TOO routine. It’s a recipe for stagnation and boredom. In general, think about adding variety every three weeks or so. You don’t want to vary things so often that you’re all over the place.
Keep in mind – this is relevant only if you’ve been lifting for a while. If you’re a beginner, spend at least 6 to 8 weeks learning how to do basic weight training exercises using good form and gradually increase the volume and intensity. Become consistent with the basics before adding variety.
Variety doesn’t just apply to resistance training. When you do HIIT training, vary the exercises you do during the active intervals. Work on power by adding plyometric exercises into the mix. Vary the length of the active and rest intervals to more closely target aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.
The Bottom Line
Exercise variety is important. Add variations to the current exercises you’re doing or add new exercises over time. It’ll keep it interesting too!
Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: January 2013 – Volume 27 – Issue 1 – p 244-251 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182518010.
On Fitness. July/August 2015. “Variety Matters”
Periodization: Latest Studies and Practical Applications. Christopher C. Frankel and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
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