We make a big deal about “variety” in exercise programming. Typically, this means using many different exercises to target the same muscle groups. The common belief is that variety is good - more variety equals more muscle and more strength built when we train.
In general, exercise programs are designed around the principle of specificity. This means that you get the best results in improving any particular movement by training that specific movement. If you want to get better at your bench press, you bench press. If you want to get better at your squat, you squat.
However, it’s also a given that some degree of variety is necessary. No one would recommend only the bench press if the goal is to improve your bench press as much as possible. Yes, the barbell bench press should make up the majority of your chest training, but you’d also use other variations as well.
What purpose does variety serve? Why can’t we simply train using the primary lifts we want to improve (squat, bench, overhead, deadlift, and row)?
Chances are that you’ve heard of the principle of muscle confusion - which states that if you target the muscles with a wide variety of different exercises, you “confuse” the muscles, leading to greater muscle damage and greater results.
So, a program designed around muscle confusion might use a barbell bench press one day, a dumbbell bench another, then incline variants, decline variants, different kinds of push ups, experimenting with different kinds of resistance, and so on.
Muscle confusion is used to sell high intensity programs like P90X, and I’ve seen more than a few gyms where people believed in the idea of muscle confusion because they had heard it from a trainer or from a popular program.
The problem is, it’s based on literally no science. There's nothing that justifies such a high amount of variety. It also violates a few basic exercise science principles.
For example, it violates the principle of specificity if the goal is to improve strength. If you want to improve your barbell bench press, you have to practice the barbell bench press quite a bit. The more time you waste on training other kinds of chest exercises, the less time you have to devote to it. You’d get some results in terms of building chest size and strength, but not as much as you’d build by sticking to one primary exercise and practicing it regularly.
Then there’s the principle of progressive overload. This principle states that you improve over time by doing more work - more sets, more reps, or using more weight over time. But this just can’t happen if you keep switching up the exercises, because the whole concept of progressive overload requires you to stick to the same exercise regularly. You can’t actually progress.
Yes, maybe you can progress a little bit - if you’re really pushing yourself hard on each of the exercises each time you switch to a new one, you'll still test your limits a bit. But it’s very hard to measure effort if you’re constantly switching up exercises, and that means that your results are going to be inconsistent. You’ll build some level of muscle and strength, but it won’t do anything long term.
Now there’s one thing muscle confusion is good for, and that’s making you sore. The body gets most sore in response to new kinds of exercise, and as it adapts to a consistent exercise program, soreness tends to decrease. When you’re on a good program and training your major lifts regularly, you’re seeing less and less soreness over time. But when you’re practicing the principle of muscle confusion, you’re generating a lot of different kinds of stress on the body, and that means a lot of soreness.
Soreness isn’t a good marker of workout quality. Yeah, you can get really sore from a particularly hard workout or one with exercises you haven’t trained in a while, but this doesn’t really mean it’s really better than any of your other workouts.
Doing a lot of workouts over time leads to results, and we shouldn't rely on the individual value of any one workout. A workout program which purposefully provokes a lot of soreness is a bad thing because it can compromise your ability to recover effectively between workouts and get more work done over time.
Interestingly, research also shows that it’s possible that extreme soreness is actually the opposite of good, and that you see the greatest adaptations after the initial high-soreness phase of a workout plan is over. This is simply because this soreness may reflect incomplete recovery and an inability for your body to adapt to the stress. As you get more used to it, soreness decreases and your results improve. Funny, huh?
So, extreme variety, also called muscle confusion, simply isn’t a smart way of organizing your workouts. It violates basic principles of exercise science, and isn’t based on any meaningful method of results. You’ll still get some results, but they won’t be anywhere near optimal.
One reason to implement variety is the possibility of overuse. If you’re doing the exact same motion over and over again in the exact same way for a long time, you can get overuse injuries. Tennis elbow, for example, is caused by the repetitive motion of swinging a racket and hitting a ball over and over again. Likewise, doing the exact same exercises over and over can potentially cause issues.
For this reason, at least some amount of variety is necessary. If you don’t have any variety, you might see issues like this pop up. By stimulating the muscles in slightly different ways, you can help prevent this issue. However, an extreme number of different lifts isn’t necessary for this. Even alternating between two exercises consistently (and progressing each with a consistent plan) will be more than enough to induce variety.
No exercise is perfectly able to train the body. Let’s say that you’re using the barbell bench press to build muscle and strength.
Over time, if you push to the limits of your strength, you start to recognize that you have very noticeable weak points. You tend to fail at the bottom of the lift, with the bar on the chest, or maybe in the middle of the lift, a few inches off the chest.
This implies that the muscles most activated during that part of the lift aren’t being trained as much as you’d like by the standard bench press. You can target this issue directly by using pause reps, partial range of motion reps, and other exercises to help build the individual muscles involved. All of these are a better investment on your time than simply doing a crap ton more bench pressing, because they directly target the wink leaks that are holding you back.
In this case, this variety allows you to specifically target weak points created by the standard barbell bench press. However, they aren’t a replacement for the bench press, but instead a supplement intended to help target your specific weaknesses in order to improve faster. The bulk of your training for the bench press should still revolve around the standard bench press.
Research confirms that a small amount of variety also has the benefit of causing greater muscle growth. You’re simply stressing the muscles in different ways so that you can more completely target all the muscle fibers involved.
But of course, care has to be taken to keep the number of exercises small so that you’re not sacrificing specificity or progression. This is possible when you have just a few exercises, but becomes increasingly difficult as variety continues to increase. I typically recommend using about 2-3 different exercises to target each muscle group per week, instead of just 1 - this way, it’s manageable.
You can do this pretty easily. Say you train the bench press 3x per week. One day you do a standard bench press, another day you do a pause bench press to target your weak point, and the third you might do a higher rep dumbbell bench press or barbell bench press. This is only a small amount of variation, but it’s more than enough to get all the benefits of variety.
Let’s be honest - doing the same stuff over and over again gets boring, no matter what. Even a well structured program will always eventually get tiring.
It’s important to remember that while it’s most convenient to use the five major lifts (bench, squat, overhead press, deadlift, and row) because they cover all major muscle groups, it’s also not necessary to specifically use these lifts. Any lift will provide sustainable growth for the relevant muscles so long as you stick with it and can progress the difficulty. This means that you shouldn’t get hung up on using any one lift specifically to progress if that lift isn’t necessary for some other reason.
For example, powerlifters HAVE to train using the bench press, because getting stronger in the bench press is one of the key skills a powerlifter has to demonstrate in competition. But if you’re training to get better at football, or to build muscle for bodybuilding, why does it matter? Any variation on the flat bench will build just as much muscle and strength for the sport in a general sense. Even machines can be useful.
Likewise, I find it highly useful to swap out certain exercises for similar variants every 2-3 months, particularly with less important lifts like isolation exercises. This is a long enough period of time that it’s not compromising your long term progress or causing too much soreness, but it’s also frequently enough to keep things a bit more interesting and exciting. Swapping out a hammer curl for a bicep curl or a cable curl won’t negtively impact your biceps development much over time, but it’s a huge bonus not to have to do the same old bicep curls day in and day out.
Exercise variety should be used sparingly to avoid compromising specificity or progression. But when used right, sticking to a few limited exercises, it will improve your results both in strength and building muscle. You can target your weak points, develop a more well-rounded physique, and avoid injury.
That being said, you need to avoid the false principle of muscle confusion, and avoid using too many exercises. You also need to avoid swapping out major or minor exercises too soon - only rotate exercises every 2-3 months (or more) as needed when your training gets stale.
This can also have the powerful psychological effect of keeping your workouts fresher and less boring. Regular variety will make those workouts more tolerable in the long term, and help keep you on track.
So - some variety is great, but more variety isn’t necessarily better. Apply the right kind of variety to improve your results, rather than spinning your wheels trying to do too much.
- Periodization For Beginners
- Intermediate Periodization: The Linear Periodization Trap
- When The Leg Press Will Increase Your Squat, And When It Won't
- Standing Presses Alone Won't Cut It
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