When you start training for strength everything seems to work, you could be doing handstand push-ups and somehow your squat will improve. After a while these strength increases stall and you wonder why you were doomed by “terrible genetics.” More than likely it’s not your genetics that is holding you back, but rather it is a lack of knowledge in terms of how to get strong/swole/sexy/other adjectives. In the fifth installment of this series we’re going to talk about the opposite of specificity, that’s right we’re going to talk about variation.
Variety has been called the spice of life, and it is definitely the spice of training if you don’t want to kill yourself after squatting for 5 straight years. There are a lot of ways that one can vary their training such as volume, intensity, rep ranges, exercise selection, frequency and velocity. These are all tools that we should be able to understand and apply fairly easily, so I’ll let you figure that one out. The reason that variation is important in lifting is because our musculature operates on a negative feedback system, which means that the more we do something the less effective it becomes. Take your most piss-poor movement and think about how you train it, I bet you only do that movement and don’t do anything else to build the lift. This is where variation can come into play in order to boost your strength by adding in a new tool.
Our bodies adapt to the resistance we provide them fairly quickly, so the volume that got you strong initially will not get you strong later. Therefore, over time we require more and more stimulus to spark change, so how do we do this? Refer back to my list at the top of page, or just follow me down this path. In strength training we must improve technique, hypertrophy and power production. We improve technique by practicing the movement in question at light enough weights to demonstrate complete control, then we get progressively heavier which is a variation in itself. When this stops working we can take a step back and look at options like volume, intensity, etc. Along with this we can improve the size of muscle through higher rep ranges and different exercises that tax the muscle in a different way, which is another variation. Finally we need to change up the phases we work in so that we may avoid staleness (plateau, bored as fuck, whatever) in our training.
For powerlifting purposes we must look at properly timing our variations first. During your hypertrophy phase/off season the goal is to put on muscle mass that we can make stronger in a later phase. Therefore, we are the least worried about specificity and can use a wide range of variety. More than likely this is the phase you will use a front squat, high bar squat or SSB squat as your main movement. However, the closer you get to peaking the more specific you will need to be. You normally want at least a couple months of the main movements if you’ve been off of them for a while. The reason for this is because the competition lifts will now respond at a faster rate than they would have before you varied the movements, which means we want to capitalize on those neural gains as much as we can.
Next we need to look at strategic variation, which is essentially switching variations and intensity to keep the lifter from getting stale. We do this through two pathways
- Adaptive Proclivity Training- which means make your strengths stronger. As a beginner or intermediate lifter you don’t need to worry about weak points too much because you just aren’t very strong in the first place. If your back is super strong naturally then make that son of a bitch as strong as you can. You don’t have weak points if you’re just weak, all that means is that your body as a whole is weak.
- Limiting Factor Training- this is more commonly known as weak point training. While this is very important most lifters don’t need to worry about it just yet, simply because they aren’t strong enough to be weak anywhere. Therefore, we will focus mainly on getting stronger as a whole. However, once a lifter becomes advanced they learn what their weak points are, which means they need to fix them. This is very individual and if you were an advanced lifter you wouldn’t be reading this anyways.
Finally we come to how much variation is enough. Get ready to want to burn me alive because we don’t really know… It needs to be different enough to engage different neural circuits to make sure that we give the competition lifts a break. Therefore, an incline bench is probably varied enough to use, but one finger wider than normal on flat bench probably isn’t. Play around with it and if it feels a lot different than what you normally do then it could be a good variation for you. Super flimsy I know but hey not everything in life is cut and dry. I find it funny that the topic of variety gives so many different options, but that could just be me.
Until Next Time,
Change it up
Israetel, M., & Smith, C. (n.d.). Scientific Principles of Strength Training.