(1) Strength Bite – Vary Your Training

WHAT ARE STRENGTH BITES?

Strength Bites are a new article series with a 2 Main Goals in mind: 

  • Remove complexity
  • Give you practical advice you can implement straight away

Key Lessons

"How Much Variation depends on You

As with everything, it's a matter of context and knowing how you respond to training individually. Skill level is the main thing to consider when deciding how much variation you need. 

What to Consider

"Beginner and Advanced Athletes are remarkably similar"

Beginners = Need Primary and Tertiary Strength Training Exercise Variation

Intermediates = Need Secondary and Tertiary Strength Training Exercise Variation

Advanced = Need Primary Strength Training Exercise Variation

Training Tip

What is a Variation? 

A Strength Training Exercise Variation simply refers to an exercise that differs slightly from the one you’re looking to improve upon. 

If we look at the 9 different movements we break our training down into – the squat, hinge etc.

We decide which exercise we are aiming to improve within, based off the Needs Analysis section of the program. This is typically where we find a baseline (i.e. to establish where you are starting). Say we took a goblet squat as the parameter we’re aiming to improve. 

A variation is similar in nature, but differs enough to incur a favourable adaptation you might not gain from the focused movement. 

How Do We Characterise Exercises and Variations? 

Using Strength Training Exercise Variation allows us to target weaknesses that each individual may inherently possess, or may develop as a result of performing the same motor pattern consistently, with no change. 

We can break  Strength Training Exercise Variation down into 3 main categories: 

  • Primary Variations: These are exercises that are more or less the same as the “tested movement”, but you change the execution of the exercise. For example – A Back Squat can be broken down into a tempo squat, box squat, pause squat, pin squat etc. 
  • Secondary Variations: These are exercises that differ enough to change the kinematics (fancy word for technique or method of movement). For example, a front squat is a fantastic way to improve your back squat strength, a low bar squat tends to involvement more hip involvement than the high bar. 
  • Tertiary Exercises: These are exercises that serve to address the strength of individual muscles that serve to improve the strength of the tested movement. For example body building work to correct muscular imbalances, unilateral exercises to develop your squat etc. 

So What Place is there For Variations? 

Beginners

Skill level will determine the level of variation that is required. 

Some people believe that beginners shouldn’t implement any strength training exercise variation. Others believe you should never repeat the same exercise to avoid stagnation.

Again, this refers to what level/type of variation you are using.

Primary variations are great ways of developing your strength and actually improving your technique.

A classic example of this takes place within the squat. When many people are learning the squat – they often neglect true control within the eccentric phase resulting in a lack of stability – One of the easiest ways to address this issue is to perform a tempo squat. A slight variation that brings awareness to the weakness in their technique. 

Secondary variations often have conflicting teaching points to the original exercise and therefore, are more likely to cause confusion when first learning how to lift. 

Take the notion of the low bar back squat compared to the front squat. It goes without saying that the subtle aspects of the technique are down to the individual, but a lot of coaches agree that the low bar back squat should be initiated by sitting the hips back. Try that to the same degree on the front squat and you’re in for a surprise. 

The movement is similar to create carryover – but too different to be performed with the same technique. 

Because of this, if beginners have too many exercises that differ in nature, it will interrupt the formation of schema (the little memory file in the brain where we store information about tasks we perform). 

When it comes to Tertiary Exercises – it’s important for all skill levels to develop muscle mass in the relevant areas. However it’s particularly important for Beginners. The way we act in society often results in muscle imbalances we aren’t even aware of. 

You can have the best technique in the world – but sometimes, the muscle simply needs to be stronger. 

Intermediate

This is where will implement a higher degree of secondary strength training exercise variation. 

With beginners, a lot of the problems we run into with building strength comes from simple, technical fixes. 

In the early stages a lot of strength is gained from the body learning what muscles not to use, as well as strengthening the ones that are involved. Therefore a simple tweak is often all that’s needed – point your toes out a little more, lift your head up etc. 

With Intermediate Lifters however, it’s a different story. 

By this time – your experience level is sufficient enough that your technique (although not necessarily perfect) is consistent. They have the skill, they simply need to improve the strength. 

Strength is broken down into several categories – Muscular, neurological, psychological. 

For a lot of intermediate lifters, it’s about developing the muscular and psychological components – neurological strength is more important for the beginner and the advanced. 

Perform one specific movement for too long can result in muscular imbalances to occur, no matter how well you perform them. For example, only ever performing a low bar back squat,  might result in limited ankle mobility (due to never being stretched) and underdeveloped quadriceps. In this case, you would implement a high bar back squat, front squat etc. to shift the emphasis onto the thighs to help them catch up. 

You’re skilled enough to use larger exercises to build muscle mass, but that doesn’t mean you neglect tertiary movements. A huge aspect of your training should still include dumbbells, cables and a whole host of other exercises to build muscle mass.  

Advanced

Beginners and Advanced athletes have remarkably similar training. 

It more or less, ends up going full circle – starting with limited variation (only enough to challenge execution) and reinforcing solid technique. 

You expand your horizons when an intermediate. 

And then utilise what you’ve built as an intermediate and channel it into a very refined technique as an advanced. 

Look at the top lifters, across all strength sports. If we look to learn from the best and benefit from all the anecdotal evidence we have – advanced lifters do very little besides the main lifts. 

Final Considerations – Who Are You?

The final (and arguably most important question to ask yourself) is – why are you looking to get strong? 

If you’re wanting to become a competitive athlete, then strength training exercise variation should be used in a calculated manner to elicit the greatest response and (most of all) greatest carryover to your competition technique. 

However, if you’re looking to get stronger to excel in a different sport, such as running, or getting strong to improve your health – variation will be signficantly influenced by logistics and enjoyment.

The key is to have fun. 

The seriousness of physical training is important – I’ve spoken about that before…

But ultimately, strength is a Journey and part of that journey should include progression, learning and enjoyment. 

Not monotony and boredom. 


Make no mistake – it can dangerous to rotate exercises every single week (unless you’re incredibly well versed in the strength training movements), but rotating them every 3-6 weeks is perfectly viable and a great way, not only to develop strength but also enjoy your training.  

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Jon Mallon
 

Jon Mallon has spent every waking moment developing his understanding of the body’s capabilities. He has an undying passion for all things strength, with his extensive knowledge from coaching hundreds of clients, to his 1st Class BSc Sports Science and MSc Strength and Conditioning, paving the way to deliver results directly to you. He has been a strength and conditioning coach for a variety of sports from amateur boxing to professional rugby, providing him with the art of coaching required to deliver the science of training. Jon's current areas of focus involve comprehensive postural analysis, neurological strength and evolutionary biology.

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