How small training variations can be the difference between progress and stagnation
There has been much written on the subject of periodization and variation in resistance training. I'm a very strong advocate of these principles, both from my own experience and the results others have achieved (and are continuing to achieve) using these principles.
There are literally an infinite number of ways you can structure a program, and more training variables than I can probably think of off hand. Everybody knows the basics like intensity, rep range, and split, right? Well to give you a quick run-down there are also variables like rep tempo, rest interval, volume, density, and frequency to name a few.
Not only this but there are also training techniques like supersets, giant sets, trisets, circuits, pre/post-exhaust, drop sets, and wave loading that you can incorporate into your lifting schedule. And in the grand scheme of things all this is barely scratching the surface. See what I mean about infinite program variation?
The problem is though, while some people take all this into account (and those that don't, may you wallow in the pit of the so-called "hard-gainer" for eternity) there's one thing they invariably end up missing - the movements.
Exercise selection is something that far too many people, myself included, tend to forget about. You get comfortable with a set of movements and you do them program in, program out, no matter what else you change - and for some people I'm betting that its the factor that has got them stuck in a rut.
Things like split and rep range your body will adapt to relatively quickly which is why they are probably the most varied parameters from program to program - more often than not the rep range will change many times even in the same program. Though your body might take a lot longer to adapt to the selection of exercises you are using, more-so if you frequently change the other program variables, make no mistake - IT WILL ADAPT.
Your body is like some sort of Borg warrior from Star Trek, no matter how advanced your technology is your body will find a way to adapt and then BANG - your progress is assimilated into the hive mind of the supplement-junkies. For the love of god don't end up like Picard.
I'm guilty of it myself, learning new movements can be annoying because for a week or two your form is kinda shaky and you're not really sure what sort of weight you should be using and aww to hell with it I'm just gonna bench some more.
The truth of the matter is that for a little extra effort you can get out of that rut, sometimes not even by changing movements altogether. Even a slight variation in the same movement you are using could be enough to get some more progress going. I've come across some good examples of both that I thought I'd share in this article alongside their more "regular" counterparts, as well as a short list of exercises these movements can replace in your program if you aren't even doing them to start with.
Keep in mind, if these variations sound simple and obvious to you - why the hell aren't you doing them already?
Replaces - Pec Deck, Flys, Triceps Extensions and Lateral Raises, or Push-ups.
Everybody's favorite movement. I've come to the conclusion that the bench press is so prevalent that its going to evoke an evolutionary response in the next few generations. If you know nothing else chances are you know at least what the bench press looks like. Unfortunately this is a movement that almost never gets substituted save for a shoulder injury, and this is generally why people "cant improve my bench, bro".
Do me a favor, next program try one of these:
- Dumbbell Bench Press - Bench press, just done with two Dumbbells. Allows greater depth and ROM than the regular barbell press.
- Uni-Lateral Dumbbell Bench Press - Like above, but you only use one arm at a time. Can be deceptively difficult due to the need to stabilize.
- Floor Press - Either with a barbell or dumbbells, press the weight while lying on the floor. Trust me, its not as easy as it sounds!
Replaces - Leg Press, Leg Extensions.
Not that the squat isn't a fantastic movement - it is. Its one of the few movements that is so effective that I'm betting you could do it exclusively and still see total body strength and size gains. They don't call it the "king of movements" for nothing, you know. However, like anything else you can throw at your body even the mighty squat can be adapted to.
But not if I can help it:
- Split Squats -Simply get the bar on your back, get into the forward lunge position, and squat from there on the one leg. A BRUTAL movement.
- Goblet Squats - Instead of a barbell, hold a dumbbell vertically in front of your chest and squat keeping it there. Really works the core hard.
- Stance Change - Sounds like a non-point, but if you use a wide stance switch to a close Olympic stance, and vice-versa. The difference will shock you.
Replaces - Leg Curls and Shrugs.
Another exercise that belongs to the royal family of compound movements. Much like the squat, this is another movement that you can literally base an entire training program around and see amazing results. But like its quadricepular counterpart, the body can get used to regular dead lifts and stall your progress.
Nobody puts dead lifts in the corner:
- Romanian Dead lifts - Instead of going through a full ROM, keep your legs stiff with a slight bend in the knee + perform the rest of the movement that way.
- Single Leg RDLs - Like above, but holding a dumbbell in your opposing hand, dead lift the weight on one leg. One of the toughest movements out there.
- Good Mornings - Much like the Romanian Dead lift, but the weight is positioned on your traps like a traditional back squat. Adds a whole new challenge!
Replaces - Lateral Raises, Front Raises, Tricep Kickbacks, and Machine Shoulder Press.
A movement that people invariably do wrong (I.e. - behind the neck) which probably does more harm than good by forcing their shoulders back. If done properly, however, the Overhead Press is a guaranteed hit in the vertical pushing department, and once you get into heavier weights one of the most impressive feats of upper body strength.
- Standing/Seated - That's right. If you do them standing usually, i want you to do them seated and vice-versa. Simple enough?
- Uni-Lateral DB - One of my favorite movements. Just as tough as bilateral, but since you're only using one arm you have to stabilize your torso as well!
- Dips - Another sadly underused movement, most guys who consider themselves strong cant even do 10 of these at full depth.
Replaces - Curls, Lat Pull-downs and Upright Rows.
The legend killer. There's a reason why that pull-up station in your gym is gathering dust, and there's a reason why most people make excuses for why they don't do these. Its because they're goddamned hard. Much like dips, most guys in your local gym who consider themselves pretty strong can barely pull their own bodyweight properly - we're talking full arm extension and flexion here, people.
Fink you're 'ard enuff?:
- Grip Change - Again, so simple but totally changes the movement. If you usually have your palms facing you, pull-up with them facing away and vice-versa.
- One Handed - That's right, you heard right. One hand should grip the bar, the other hand should grip that arm's wrist. Now PULL, maggot.
- Towel Pull-ups - Probably the toughest variation ever. Wrap two towels/straps over the pullup bar, and perform the movement gripping those instead!
Replaces - Curls, Reverse Flys, Seated Machine Rows, and yes, yes, a thousand times yes - CURLS.
I don't know what it is, but what is it about rows that people hate? Everybody loves to bench, but very few people really seem to enjoy rowing? Maybe its too easy? Well if that were the case, the few people I see that DO row would be doing them with non-shitty form. Every sucker in the gym can bench, but personally I think a strong row with good form is far more impressive.
You row sit:
- Equipment - There's so much you can row with! Barbells, dumbbells, sandbags, kettle bells, plates, elastic bands...just pick something up!
- Uni/Bilateral -That's right, if you've been doing the one since the dawn of time switch to the other!
- Supine Rows - This is a great movement. Get underneath a suspended bar (I use a smith machine), put your feet up on a bench, and row YOURSELF up.
No, far from it. Thankfully in the rich tapestry that is the world of physical training if I tried to document every single possible variation that has ever existed id never actually get any training, eating, bathing or sleeping done and probably still wouldn't be finished to see my unconceived daughter's wedding.
Honestly, just because a movement is a little different or unconventional doesn't mean it can't work. A towel pull-up is basically the same as a regular pullup, a floor press isn't different enough from a bench press not to stimulate growth, and as long as you're squatting that's more than most people do.
There's only one thing you really need to be mindful of - the change. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter too much HOW you vary your training parameters, just that you DO vary them. Not only will it keep a fresh stimulus on your muscles to elicit constant adaptation, but it'll be more enjoyable for you. Mental over-training is just as bad as physical.
Hopefully though, this article will spark off your imagination so that you might think of your own "armoury" of lifts for the future. If you come up with anything good, let me know. I could do with a change...
Train safe, everyone.