The old saying goes that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” In this article we’re going to be covering the importance of variation in your training, what kinds of variation you can use, and where some people go wrong when practically applying this principle.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Why is Variation Important in Your Training
In previous parts of this series, we’ve already touched on the concept of ‘adaptive resistance,‘ which is basically the idea that if you do the same thing over and over again your body gets used to it and stops responding.
For example, if you’re strength training and perform deadlifts for 3 sets of 5 once a week, you’ll probably find that in 6-12 weeks you stop getting stronger and stop being able to add weight to the bar.
Or if you’re training to achieve a sub-4-minute mile by running one mile as fast as you can every week, you’ll probably find that after 6-12 weeks you stop being able to run your mile any faster.
This is where variation is key, because it allows us to overcome adaptive resistance and continue making progress over the long term.
What Kinds of Variation Can You Use In Your Training?
The types of variation that you can use will vary depending on the type of training that you’re doing.
In strength training, you might vary the number of repetitions, or perhaps the exercise that you’re performing. So to continue our deadlift example from above, you could potentially…
- Vary your training by performing 3 sets of 10 reps
- Vary your training by performing 3 sets of 5 Romanian Deadlifts
In endurance training, you might vary the length or the time of the run, or perhaps (in some rarer circumstances) vary the exercise. So to continue our 1 mile run example from above, you could potentially…
- Vary your training by running 1000m as fast as possible
- Vary your training by cycling 3k as fast as possible
Now, these are just very simple examples to illustrate the principle of variation in action. Realistically we would be applying variation to multiple exercises across multiple sessions, in a manner that depends hugely on the level of the athlete.
Where Some People Go Wrong When Applying the Principle of Variation
As you’ve probably already figured out (especially if you’ve read part 1 of this series) it’s very easy for variation to come at the cost of specificity. By varying the nature of the session we’re able to continue making progress, but the progress that we make is less relevant to our primary goal.
This is why we have to consider the specificity of any variation that we make to our training.
Continuing with our strength training example. Swapping Deadlifts to Romanian Deadlifts is still very specific as the movement pattern is very similar, but if we swapped deadlifts for something like leg press then the training would be much less specific.
Similarly with our endurance training example, swapping a 1 mile (1600m) run for a 1k run is still very specific, but swapping it for a 10k run would be much less specific.
Last but not least, you need to consider that the frequency of variation can also be an important factor in your training. If you vary exercises too often you might not actually allow yourself enough time to get used to new movements and see a positive adaptation. In the strength training world, this is where things like the westside barbell approach fall short.
A good rule of thumb is to vary training as often as needed (i.e. when progress plateaus) but never more than that.
That’s it for today. If you want to learn about the principles of training feel free to check out my other articles…
Part 1 – Specificity
Part 2 – Overload
Part 3 – Fatigue Management
Part 4 – Variation (You’re here)
Part 5 – Individualisation
Part 6 – Reversibility
And as always, if you want high-quality coaching and programming from a coach you can trust, you can book a call with me here to discuss your training in more detail.
‘Til Next Time
MSc Strength & Conditioning
British Weightlifting Tutor/Educator