Variation in exercises, just like variation in training volume and intensity, is a way to provide the body with new training stimuli. But your muscles don’t get bored as quickly as you might think. And switching exercises too often can backfire.
Variation is a means, not a target. Yet we see many people constantly switching exercises, supposedly to make continuous progress. But is there actually progress if you constantly do other exercises?
THE NEUROLOGICAL FACTOR
As soon as you do a new exercise, you quickly get better at that particular exercise. That improvement in your technical skills – because it is in fact – ensures that you can perform the exercise heavier and heavier. That improved ability is a matter of neurological factors.
In the initial phase of a new training program these neurological factors make a greater contribution to your strength gain than the increase in muscle mass [ i ] . In fact, if your progress comes to an abrupt halt after a few weeks, that means nothing more than that you’ve mastered the exercise ‘nicely’.
BACK TO START
At this point, it’s tempting to switch to another exercise, where you can progress for the same number of weeks. In fact, this is a fake progression [ ii ] . Because as you get better and stronger in this exercise, you are actually unlearning your old exercise. You’ll find out when you implement it back into your training program and have to start practically from scratch again.
You can switch exercises every few weeks for a while, and get better at that new exercise every time. But if you look in the mirror after half a year, or if you test yourself on a reference exercise such as the squat, bench press or deadlift, you hardly notice any progress.
What you’ve actually done is pick the low-hanging fruit. A favorite method of many personal trainers to give the appearance of progress. In fact, you have mainly trained your central nervous system. Now it’s time to let your muscles reap the benefits of that improved neural efficiency. If you don’t, you undermine the training principle of overload, a prerequisite for muscle growth.
Frequently doing new exercises has another disadvantage. New exercises cause more muscle damage and that undermines your overall recovery capacity [ iii ] .
Coach Menno Henselmans therefore concludes:
Implementing variety in your training just for the sake of it is more likely to be harmful than helpful. [ iii ]
It is better to give an exercise a chance for a while for maximum strength and muscle growth. After all, progressive overload is the key to muscle growth in the long term.
Do you end up on a training plateau after a while? Then don’t change exercises right away, but increase your volume (so do more sets), as your body may have become used to your current workload and no longer sees a challenge in it. And training courses must be challenging if they are to create a growth stimulus.
When adjusting training variables, always check whether you are recovering sufficiently, whereby non-training-related factors, in particular nutrition, sleep and stress level, also play an important role.
WHEN YOU CAN (OR SHOULD) VARY
Are your training program and recovery in order? And are you hardly making any progress anymore? Then there may be some training staleness, which is a good time to introduce some variation: different exercises, different technique and/or different rep ranges.
In intermediate and advanced bodybuilders, training staleness usually occurs after a few mesocycles of unchanged training, i.e. after about three or four months. Even then you don’t have to change your entire training program, but only where necessary. After all, if your entire schedule stops working, the cause probably lies in your overall recovery. You can read about how you can vary ‘smartly’ in another article.
There may be other valid reasons to switch exercises, for example if you don’t think an exercise is effective enough, if you don’t like it (it doesn’t have to be just no pain, no gain), if you are struggling with an injury or if the programming of your training – for any reason – changes drastically (for example, full body instead of split, forcing you to do more compound exercises).
If you like variation, make sure your training program includes a wide range of exercises, but try to stick to those exercises as much as possible: variation should never be at the expense of the principle of overload.