There are many things I wish I would have known sooner in both my own pursuit of health and fitness AND as an individual trying to "make it" as a personal trainer. One thing I was not totally sure of was how much variety you need. There was this whole "muscle confusion" camp at the time I was beginning my career and fitness journey that claimed the more you "confuse" your muscles the more gains you will make because you are constantly throwing new stimuli at your body. This when we started seeing all kinds of... interesting exercises popping up at the gym like standing on a BOSU ball while trying to do bicep curls, odd plyometric, things where I honestly was not sure what the purpose and goal of the exercises were.
So Is Exercise Variety Important?
Yes - to a point of course.
OK - So How Much Variety Do You Need?
First of all, you want to have some consistency - it is well known that if you focus on improving specific exercises by practicing them regularly you will get better at that particular movement. This includes increases in muscle activation, stability, mobility, strength etc. when you are doing that specific movement. This will then result in hypertrophy (muscle size) of the muscles used during that specific exercise (IF you are able to adequately activate them - but that is a discussion for another time). It is no different than practicing any other skill like a basketball lay-up or an over hand serve in volleyball. The muscles used for those skills improve!
Your Body Adapts To Specific Demands Placed On It
However... it is shown that when you expose the body to a new stimulus (ie. a new exercise) the learning curve is quick, and your body will adapt to this new stimulus similar to how it did when you first started your fitness journey (ie. "newbie gains"). Think back to when you first started exercising. Strength increases fairly quick, muscle mass comes after that (and grows quicker than later on in your pursuit of fitness). You feel awkward at first, movements do not feel coordinated - in fact they feel choppy! You do not feel confident, not sure if you are moving correctly or even using the right muscles! You may not be aware of where your body is in space or even where you limbs are in relation to your body! FRUSTRATING! This is similar to when you attempt to learn a new skill like dribbling a soccer ball or learning to juggle. (In a university kinesiology class that was an actual thing we got graded on - whether or not we could learn to juggle. I did not. I am still bitter. But... moving on.) At first you are slow, uncoordinated, it takes a lot of brain power and concentration but you advance quickly with practice! Your brain and muscles involved in the skill adapt quickly to the demands we place on them!
So I Should Switch Up Exercises All The Time?
No. Well that's a little contradictory isn't it?!
It is good to make sure that you add variety into your workouts but not all the time! To add variety you do NOT need to introduce new fancy exercises all the time or reinvent the wheel! There are many ways to add variety and introduce a new stimulus without always adding new exercises! Below are variables you can manipulate to create variety into your workouts!
Frequency - how often you go to the gym or how often you are hitting a muscle group per week or within a session
Load - progressive increasing the weights you are moving (this will plateau though so you will have to introduce a new way to add variety eventually)
Volume - how many reps x sets x weight you are moving in a session (or per week) per muscle group you are targeting
Rest Periods - how long you are resting between sets and in between training muscle groups
Equipment - changing up what equipment you use for exercises (barbells, TRX, kettlebells etc.)
Energy System Used - which metabolic pathway you are using (more on this another day)
Tempo - how quickly or slowly you move the weights (this includes things like pauses versus plyometrics etc.)
Workout Focus - changing up what you are focusing on improving, strength, performance etc.
Sets - how many sets per session or week per muscle group
Reps - how many repetitions per set per muscle group or exercise
Stance - how you set your stance in a particular exercise (split stance, single leg, single arm, tripod etc.)
Stability - making it easier or harder to stabilize the body by utilizing different types of equipment or stances
Range of Motion - increasing the useable range of motion of an exercise will typically result in great muscle activation and growth (it becomes novel)
This means if you like the program you are following or specific exercises you do not necessarily have to change it completely. You can change it up by planning with any of the above 13 variables! Some are better than others, some bodies will respond better to different types of variations. I always suggest sticking to the staple main lifts but play around with them using the variations listed above and then try switching up different accessory exercises.
Important Take Aways:
1) Consistency is very important and is the number one way to see improvements and track the progress you are making. It will also let you know when you need to change things up as you will stop seeing improvements (strength, mobility, muscle size etc.)
2) You do need to introduce some variety in order to keep progressing but you do not want to change too many things at once! You need to be able to know what exactly your body adapts well too. If you introduce too much change at once you will have no idea what works!
- Stephanie Fusnik