How much exercise variety do you actually need?

We’ve all heard the concept of “muscle confusion” before. To dumb it down to it’s lowest possible dumbness (because, you know, it’s dumb): it can be watered down to the idea that we need to constantly “confuse” the body in order to make progress in the gym.

We need to go out of our way to change up our exercises every so often so that we don’t stagnate and/or lose all our gainzz.

Now before I get buried under the tide of hate mail no doubt coming my way, I’m not saying exercise variety is a waste of everyones time and effort, just that there is an optimal amount of variety for every individual based on training experience, physiological and mental factors (hell I get it variety is fun, sometimes we just need a bit of fun!), but you probably don’t need as much variety as you think to progress optimally.

Specificity principle

“the hack for performance is mind-numbing monotony”

I love this quote because it sums up perfectly the effort and sacrifice it takes to be really good at anything. In other words to be good you need to practice over and over again, this intuitively makes sense. The same is true for strength, if you want to get stronger you must practice. Practice a few basic strength movements and become really good at them.

There is a continuum of exercises available to us, ranging from the most beneficial tho the least beneficial for your goals. Given the constraints of time and energy this means that there are only really a handful of exercises that you should always be doing. For golfers on my programming this means deadlifts, squats, presses, pull-ups, med-ball throws or jump work for power and rotational movements.

So if there are certain movements so beneficial that we pretty much always need to be doing them, then why do we need any variety at all?

The most salient argument is probably that doing the same thing time after time is catastrophically boring and most people simply won’t adhere well to a program like that. However there are also physiological reasons why

Variability and the repeated bouts effect

When exposed to the same stimulus repeatedly, your body will eventually habituate to that stressor, meaning your training results will eventually come to a halt. One obvious solution is to create variety via ever changing loading parameters, exercise selection, etc.

However, ‘changing up’ your routine every 4-6 weeks completely ignores the principle of specificity discussed earlier.

People have got strong for hundreds of years with just a barbell. You can’t tell me if you back squat for 10 weeks straight – being cognisant of progressive overload – you will somehow stop getting stronger. For many variety can simply be achieved by progressive overload and by constantly adding weight. Small alterations to sets, reps, load can also be used to achieve variety.

That said, when most people talk of exercise variety they mean exercise selections so lets take a further look at that. Conjugate periodisation is a method periodisation that uses weekly variation in exercise selection to provide periodisation for the program and has produced some of the strongest lifters in the world. It’s so successful pro muscle confusion guys like to cite it as an argument against the need for specificity to be really good at something.

What conjugate periodisation is doing is not muscle confusion or ‘changing it up’ though, the workouts stay pretty much the same sets and reps wise, the assistance work stays the same for a long period of time typically, all that is changing is exercise selection of the primary exercise of the day. I use a coined by Charles Staley to refer to this in my programming; the same but different.

For example: Week 1 you will perform conventional deadlift, week 2 sumo deadlift, and week 3 rack pulls or trap bar deadlift. Whilst these movements are all slightly different they are still training a hip extension movement in a manner conducive to increasing strength.

Models of variety

Chad Wesley Smith recently proposed his pyramid of training variety, in which variety decreases as the athlete becomes more expert. To me this model is a great fit for an athlete and their primary sport. The topic of early specialisation in youth sports is huge and way beyond the scope of this article (c’mon man we’re over 700 words already, wrap it up!) but in short we want you athletes to play as many sports as possible, be competent in as many movement patterns as possible, and have as rich a proprioceptive environment as possible, as the reach and intermediate and expert level they will specialise more and more (the mind numbing monotony I talked about earlier).

That said for an athletes strength and conditioning training I don’t think the pyramid is a great fit. Beginners to strength training need to learn to squat, hip hinge, push, pull and carry like a  boss and really don’t need any variety  beyond these basic movement patterns. Whilst intermediates who have sound movement mechanics already, can stand to increase to mitigate repeated bouts effect.

In my opinion the diamond theory is a better fit, beginners have very little variety, intermediates utilise
greater variety, before it reduces again as we reach expert level. By this point expert performers have learnt what works for them and complete technical mastery becomes more important to progress.

Note here that almost all athletes (actually every athlete every seen) using strength training to supplement their primary sport will never get to an advanced strength training level, and will spend all but the first few months of their training career in the intermediate spectrum.

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