How Important is Exercise Variety?
People often comment and ask me why my routines are fairly simplistic and lower volume than what others recommend. Trainees often come to me with workouts they've been doing and show me their workouts. In many cases the first thing I have them do is cut their exercise list in half. Here is why:
The Shortest Distance Between 2 Points.....
I like to start with the end goal in mind and work backwards from there. The shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line. when I get a new trainee the first thing I do is ask myself, "If I could wave a magic wand what sort of controllable measurables would I give this individual?" When I talk about controllable measurables, realize as a performance coach there are things that I can control and things I can't. There are qualities that are in your hands and qualities that are not. We can program and train qualities like strength, body composition, and flexibility to a large degree. Those are easy to influence thru training. However, qualities like speed and performance measurables (vertical jump, running speed, throwing speed) are not as directly in our control. All we can do is influence what we can and hope for the best. The fortunate thing is the performance measurables do correlate with the controllable measurables. It's called dynamic correspondence. If we can boost the things we can control to the best of our ability then chances are the things dynamically corresponded with those will also come along for the ride.
So my initial goal for a trainee might be to:
A: Have the ankle and hip mobility to perform a proper back squat and overhead squat and pass a range of other low level mobility assessments such as the Thomas test.
B: Develop the strength to perform a legal squat to at least 1.5 times bodyweight. Have the strength and balance to perform a single leg squat (aka pistol) and single leg deadlift.
C: Have enough upper body strength to perform a set of 8 bodyweight pullups
D: Develop enough plyometric ability/movement efficiency to perform various low level plyometric drills (like ankle jumps, tuck jumps, lateral barrier jumps) at a smooth tempo without unnecessary pause between repetitions.
Those are all things that most people can easily develop with proper training.
I know that if I can get those things accomplished the things I can't control (the performance measurables) will come along for the ride.
So what I like to do is lay out a list of programmable goals for each individual and get them accomplished as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Progression Trumps Volume and Exercise Number
In my experience it's not about how many exercises you do it's about using effective and efficient exercises for a particular goal (or muscle group or strength quality), being consistent and dedicated with your training, and progressing those exercises over time. In my observations the more complicated and esoteric a routine is the more it tends to take away from the main goal of progression. The more conflicting demands you throw on a system the less the system will adapt to any one of those demands. What I've noticed with athletes over the years is the less I throw at them in a particular workout or training cycle the better the chance of progression on what I do give them.
Listen To The Master
This is summed up nicely by one of my favorite Bruce Lee quotes. Lee said, "As one advances one does not accumulate but eliminate.The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity. Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just a punch, a kick just a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum. Jeet Kune-Do is basically a sophisticated fighting style stripped to its essentials. The more complicated and restricted the method, the less the opportunity for expression of one's original sense of freedom. Though they play an important role in the early stage, the techniques should not be too mechanical, complex or restrictive. If we cling blindly to them, we shall eventually become bound by their limitations. Remember, you are expressing the techniques and not doing the techniques. If somebody attacks you, your response is not Technique No.1, Stance No. 2, Section 4, Paragraph 5, etc. Instead you simply move in like sound and echo, without any deliberation. It is as though when I call you, you answer me, or when I throw you something, you catch it. It's as simple as that - no fuss, no mess. In other words, when someone grabs you, punch him."
Let me give you a few more reasons why in my opinion exercise variety is over-rated:
There is a thought that exercise variety is really important since each exercise recruits motor units in a slightly different way. The theory is once you adapt to an exercise that exercise is no longer effective and keeping the muscles confused is key, so you need to frequently change exercises. This myth primarily came about for 3 reasons:
1. The new exercise effect: If you've never done a particular exercise before and you begin doing it you'll initially make big strength gains on it due to gains in coordination. Lots of trainers use this to their benefit. They have their clients switch up exercises every month so the client sees strength gains on a more regular basis. There's nothing wrong with this and you can make good gains with this approach but those gains may not be as real as they seem since a lot of the gains will be due to increases in coordination on the new exercise(s).
2. The magazine effect: All training related magazines and informational resources need constant new information so they love to promote variety. That tends to promote a natural tendency amongt trainees that "more is better". True story: Several years ago I was contacted by a popular print magazine to write an article on arm training. I sat down and wrote an informative article on arm training that involved strength assessments and everything. If a person couldn't do 8 chinups or dips they were to focus on those first then begin basic exercises like barbell curls, barbell tricep extensions and other common movements. The editor wrote me back and said, "Kelly this is good but what we're really looking for is a workout involving unique exercises people have never seen before...fancy exercises with cables and the like." I declined the offer since I really don't even know more than a couple of cable exercises that I consider effective. What I care about is how well a particular workout or approach works for achieving a particular goal and in my opinion basing an entire arm workout around cables isn't an efficient means of training.
3. The soreness effect: Bodybuilders often use soreness as a gauge of training effectiveness. A popular belief in bodybuilding circles is you're not stimulating growth unless you get sore. Knowing this, Joe Bodybuilder follows a particular routine for a few weeks and over a period of time he find he gets less and less sore after each workout. He decides his body has adapted to his routine so he decides to change all his exercises, he gets sore again, and now he thinks he's onto something. The reality is soreness occurs due to the stretching of connective tissue within a muscle and has little bearing on actual growth stimulation. It is related to muscle microtrauma but isn't caused by the same processes.
Having said that, although soreness has little to do with effectiveness, having a bigger variety of exercises is useful for one whose goal is hypertrophy because it does allow you to zero in on smaller muscles within a group and the goal of bodybuilding is full muscular development. For example, your quadriceps consist of 4 distinct muscles, the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris. Changes in your foot position or choice of exercise can cause more or less stress to shift to a particular muscle within the group. For example, close stance upright deep squats and leg extensions both target the vastus medialis to a greater extent.
The same is true for other muscle groups: Using the triceps as an example, they consist of 3 heads, exercises with your arms overhead or above your head (overhead extensions or decline extensions) target more of the long head, exercises with your arms by your sides (tricep extensions or dips) target more of the lateral (outer) head.
For biceps, exercises with your elbows in front of you and grip neutral or pronated grip (hammer curls, reverse curls) target more of the brachialis. Exercises with your arms overhead target more of the short head (overhead cable curls), and exercises with your elbows behind you target more of the long head (incline dumbell curls)
However, for strength purposes we're not tryin to get sore and wer're not trying to target individual muscles within a group we're trying to target and strengthen basic movement patterns (pushing, pulling, squatting, twisting, lunging etc.) Do you intentionally contract your vastus medialis when you do a vertical jump or sprint? No, of course not. So there's no reason to do leg extensions with peak contraction in your training either. The reality is once you find an exercise that optimally recruits the right motor units in the right order and the right tempo that exercise can continue to work indefinitely because the primary factor for progression is load, volume, and frequency.
Even in bodybuilding once you find exercises that target all the particular parts of a muscle group those exercises will continue to be effective indefinitely so there's really little need to rotate or switch exercises, outside of avoiding boredom.
What About Strength Athletes?
If you're a strength athlete pushing the limits of what's possible there might also be some validity to using a variety of exercises for a particular movement pattern or lift. For example, a powerlifter might use bench presses, dumbell presses, board presses, floor presses AND rack lockouts. They all involve horizontal pressing but each strengthens a slightly different part of the lift. However, for them, the bench press IS a big part of their sport. For most athletes strength is not the prime area of focus, it is supplementary. Most athletes are not pushing their performance to the realm where overcomplication is even necessary. In other words, there's a big difference between a guy who benches 600 lbs and wants to get to 700 than a guy who benches 180 and wnats to get to 315. There's a big difference between a guy squatting 800 lbs and a guy trying to get to 400.
The key thing involves finding a list of "money" movements for every goal or strength category and focusing on making gains on those exercises over time. By "money" I mean exercises that get the job done physiologically and psychologically for a particular goal. That list may vary slightly due to body structure, experience, and injury history and people do have their favorites, which is why psychology is somewhat important. For example, front squats are a very effective exercise for me but I hate doing them. They always tear my wrist and shoulders up and I've never been able to do them longer than a few workouts before burning out mentally, so they don't fit me psychologically.
Tools in a toolbox
Exercises are really just tools in a toolbox. Your body is really a vehicle, the trainer is the mechanic, and the gym is a set of wrenches (tools). What wrench do you use for a particular job? You want to use exercises that optimally engage the correct muscles and movement patterns. If you find a tool that fits a particular job why mess with it? A 1/4 inch wrench that fits a 1/4 inch nut today will fit that same 1/4 nut a year from now. There is some subjectivity in finding the right tool but some are more universal than others. You have movement patterns and you have maximum strength, explosive strength, and reactive strength. The key things for you (the mechanic) to ask are:
A: What movement patterns are primarily involved in your sport?
B: What strength qualities do you need to emphasize?
C: What exercises strengthen those movement patterns and strength qualities?
The next logical questions is, "Ok what are the best exercises for each task?" Here is my A list for each common movement quality separated into strength, strength/speed and speed/reactivity:
knee/hip extension: squat or lunge variation (squat, front squat, bulgarian split squat, or lunge)
hip extension: romanian deadlift, reverse hyperextension or barbell hip thrust
ankle extension: calf raise
vertical pressing: barbell or dumbell overhead press
horizontal pressing: barbell or dumbell bench press
vertical pulling: pullup variation
horizontal pulling: row variation
hip flexion: leg raise variation
trunk stabilization/flexion: planks and most other common core exercises
knee/hip/ankle extension: jump squat, hang snatch, hang clean
hip extension/hyperextension: sled pull or push
vertical pressing: push press or jerk
horizontal pressing: bench throw
Knee/ankle extension: common bilateral plyometric variations (depth jumps)
hip/ankle extension: sprinting, bounding, or skipping variation
Not all those are necessary and you obviously could take that list and expand on it as much as you want to and add an infinite number of other movements and exercises such as elbow flexion, elbow extension, twisting, lunging, etc. This could easily turn into a lengthy book. Keep in mind these are the common "money" movements and exercises I feel are most valuable. From that you have a pretty good baseline template to work from for most people.
A jumper primarily needs hip, knee, and ankle extension power. Therefore, he might primarily use a squat and romanian deadlift for maximum strength, a jump squat for explosive strength, and a depth jump for reactive strength. Let's say he takes his squat from 150 to 300 lbs, his jump squat from 45 lbs x 20 inches to 95 lbs x 20 inches, and his depth jump from 12 inches x 20 inch jump to 30 inches x 20 inch jump. Is he gonna jump higher? Of course. Now, not to say he couldn't add in other movements, but let's say those were the ONLY EXERCISES HE EVER DID. Each one of them gets the job done effectively for the particular strength quality. Why wouldn't he make gains? There are plenty of people who have made similar improvements using nothing but those exact exercises.
A general rule of thumb is only worry about emphasizing multiple strength qualities if the movement you encounter is heavily emphasized in your sport. For example, if you're a high jumper you might do some bench presses, pullups, and other upper body training but your need for upper body specialization need not be a big emphasis so you have little need for exercises like bench throws and the like.
A shotputter might primarily use incline benches and squats for maximum strength, snatches and bench throws for explosive strength, and a depth jump variation for reactive strength.
All this isn't to say that I oppose variety. if you like doing a variety of exercises feel free to do so, just make sure your focus on strengthening a particular movement pattern (or patterns) is there long term. If you're the type that gets bored easily variety is also essential. I just don't believe in doing every exercise under the sun just for the sake of doing so. I prefer to find the "money list" of exercises that suit a particular goal or individual, focus on those, and manipulate my workouts thru alterations in frequency, volume, and loading parameters.
Now, there's another important reason why using a smorgasboard of exercises can be counterproductive:
4. Training hard is a learned skill
This might be the most important point of all: Just like any other skill training hard Is a skill. Like any other skill the more you focus on a singular task the better you get at it. It's a lot easier to teach a person how to do a few different things and have them excel on those than it is to give them every exercise under the sun and expect them to excel. Look at Mark Rippetoe the author of Starting Strenth and Practical Programming. He wrote an entire book and formed an entire support group on how to perform 4 basic lifts, the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press. He wrote the book over 3 years ago and he still gets enough questions on a daily basis to occupy a significant amount of time.
As an example of how this works in the real world I have a 15 year old nephew that will be running track this year. He lives away from me and I'm not able to train him every day but about a month back he asked me what he could do over the next few months for his sprint speed and jumps. The kid has some limited experience with training thru a class at school but could still be considered a relative beginner. I met with him once and I assessed what he could do and what his form was like on common exercises. One thing he had going in his favor is he knew how to do a basic hang clean so I decided that was something we could work with. I also taught him how to do a correct squat and a couple of other movements.
There were about 10 or 15 other things that I'd like to do with him but I intentionally kept his program very basic because I know he already has a propensity towards training ADD and the more I gave him the more it would interfere with his focus and the more likely he would fail to concentrate on the important stuff. His exercise list is very basic. He only focuses on 5 or 6 movements. A depth jump, hang clean, squat, 20 yard sprint, bench press, and pullup. I told him to do 3 sets of 5 on squats and 3 sets of 5 on cleans 2 or 3 days a week after school. He has a bench press in his room and I had him put 90% of his max on there and hit a set before bed whenever he feels like it and go up in weight when he gets more than 5 reps. A couple of days a week he does a short 15-20 minute plyo/speed workout: depth jumps, sprints, and a few dynamic warmup sprint drills. I restricted him to 20 yards because when it gets colder that's all the distance he'll have available indoors.
As for his goals, I laid out a list for him to work for over the next few months. The goals are also extremely basic. The kid has good genetics but they are entirely dormant. He broad jumped 8.5 feet when he was 12 or 13 years old but has done little in the way of activity since then and had actually regressed athletically the last few years. It's hard to totally kill good genes though. A little more than a month ago he squatted 155 x 5 and had a hang clean of 135 with a vert of around 25 inches. His goal is a 300 pound squat, 200 pound hang clean, gain of 10 lbs muscular bodyweight, and a rim grab off an 18 inch box (around 30 inches) by March 1st. After a little more than a month on this routine he's already up to a 215 x 5 squat and 175 x 3 hang power clean. He's already just about hit his depth jump goal. Now this kid definitely has genetics on his side but these type of grains aren't all that uncommon for people that work hard and basic. I KNOW without a doubt he would not have achieved those type of results if I had not made his program so basic because the focus wouldn't be there.
Gains can be easy or they can be hard. The basic idea is make the "easy" gains as easy as possible, which is a lot easier to do if you keep your programs basic and focus on the primary goals as long as you can.
5. Workout out vs training
Along these same lines, beginner trainees don't really experience their workouts they just try to get thru them. This is one of the big differences between working out and training. The mindset of a beginner is focused on trying to get thru each workout and being able to cross each exercise and set off their "to do" list. They go in with a list of exercises, sets, and reps and they do every set of every exercise with the objective of getting thru to the end. To that end they usually go too fast and don't fully benefit from each movement. Nothing wrong with this - it's a process most people go thru and one I went thru as a young trainee. I used to write up my workouts ahead of time with a blank square beneath each exercise denoting each set. After each set I'd check the square. For each completed workout I'd have a complete page full of checked squares. I did that for over a year and made some gains but I really never had a single true "training" session.
There's a world of difference between doing this and really getting into a workout and fully experiencing the workout and experiencing every rep of every set of every exercise. When you reach this point your focus isn't on completing the workout, it's on fully benefitting from each exercise. Some people train for years and never reach this point. They've been training for 5 years and they're still just going thru the motions and crossing sets off their list. Advanced trainees can sometimes go thru a smorgasboard of exercises with this mindset but one of the best ways for newere trainees to get in this mindset is to keep your workouts shorter as far as exercise number. Remember earlier when I said that the first thing I often have trainees do is cut down on their exericse number? Well, the degree to which the list is cut is usually inversely related to the level of the trainee. Beginner trainees are typically doing more exercises than advanced trainees and they're typically just wasting a lot of time and effort. If you really want to get into it try basing an entire workout around a single exercise. Pick one exercise and go and get after it. It could be any exercise: squats, cleans, deadlifts, depth jumps, box jumps, bench press. Don't count sets. Just go in and have fun with the exercise. You'll know when you've had enough. In fact if you get creative it's possible to base an entire mesocycle based on this principle:
To sum it up, feel free to use a variety of exercises but DON'T FEEL YOU HAVE TO. If in doubt remember the Bruce Lee quote: "The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity."
Hope that helps!