If muscle growth (hypertrophy) is your primary training goal, how important is it to vary? Do you have to ‘surprise’, or even ‘shock’ your muscles over and over again?
1. Variation is subordinate to specificity and overload in training theory. This means that with a number of fixed exercises, rep ranges and other training parameters – in the service of your training goal – you try to make progress over a longer period of time and in this way create overload.
2. Varying only becomes important when your body – despite overload – has become somewhat accustomed to certain training stimuli: training staleness. In intermediate and advanced bodybuilders, this steeless often occurs after a few mesocycles, so after roughly three or four months.
3. Nevertheless, only vary if you are sure that you are using an adequate training volume and that your recovery is in order.
4. Other reasons to change your training program are if you want to train a certain muscle group more or less, and if there is an injury.
5. If variety is important to your enjoyment of training, then vary small exercises. For example, do cable curls one time and dumbbell curls the next. Continue to monitor the training principle of overload.
VARIATION AS A TRAINING PRINCIPLE
Variation is one of the principles of strength training and hypertrophy training.
By variation, we do not mean the variety of exercises and training variables that you include in a training program anyway. This diversity is more or less self-evident: it is common to train a muscle group within one microcycle (usually a week) with different exercises (for example squats and leg extensions for the quadriceps) and to apply different repanges (for example 8-10 for squats). and 10-15 for leg extensions).
In training theory, variation does mean that you provide muscles with new training stimuli over time by changing exercises and/or training variables (for example, replacing squats with leg presses, and doing leg extensions no longer within the 10-15, but 15-25 reps reprange).
The purpose of variation is to break through the negative consequences of training staleness. Training staleness means that a certain way of training stimulates fewer and fewer adaptations over time [ vii ] . In that case, a completely new training stimulus could cause new adaptations and progression.
Variation is not the most important training principle. The primary goal of strength training/hypertrophy training is therefore not to ‘surprise’ or ‘shock’ muscles. Below is the hierarchy of training principles, as defined by coach Mike Israetel.
The most important principle in training is specificity: you only get better at what you train. For muscle growth, the programming of your training must be geared to that goal, so with the right exercises, intensity and so on.
The second most important principle is overload: to deliver a growth stimulus, your training must be heavy enough. Because your body constantly adapts to certain training stimuli (adaptation), you will gradually have to train harder, which is why we also speak of progressive overload.
Overload means that your body has to do something that it is not yet used to, for example lifting a certain weight. The fact that it can lift that weight is due to adaptations from the past. In this way, overload is in itself a way to ‘surprise’ your body. Israel therefore says:
Overload is the biggest form of novelty in essence. [ i ]
And about variation versus overload:
Your number one goal in training is NOT to shock the body and change things up. Your number one goal is to keep stable conditions and progressively overload. [ ii ]
Example: you want bigger quadriceps. To that end, do three sets of barbell squats each week. By adding weight your quadriceps will grow, you will become stronger and you can add weight again. That’s how you keep growing. Over time, your body has become accustomed to the workload (the volume) and you will do four sets instead of three. That way you can continue to make progress for a long time – in theory for years.
WHEN VARIETY BECOMES IMPORTANT
Yet you cannot continue to make endless linear progression. Because even if your training, nutrition and recovery are all in order, you often see your progression slow down or even stagnate over time.
Of course, that you will grow less and less quickly over the years is a matter of training status: the closer you get to your natural muscle growth potential, the slower you will grow (and the more intelligent your training must be). However, that is not what is meant by training staleness. It can start much faster, no matter how well you are “working”. Mike Israel:
At some point even just linearly overloading isn’t enough. [ i ]
Training staleness not only has to do with habituation, but sometimes also with overload, namely of tendons and joints. That can also be a reason to make changes in your training program, for example replacing barbell squats for a while with leg presses.
HOW TO VARY
Variation in your training can be done in many different ways, whether or not in combination with each other. Consider variation in:
- absolute intensity (the training weight and therefore the rep range);
- relative intensity (the degree to which you train to muscle failure);
- volume (the number of sets)*;
- exercise selection;
- exercise technique.
* For example, alternating a high volume block with a low volume block. So we don’t mean gradually increasing the number of sets, which after all belongs to overload.
VARIATION AND POSSIBLE LOSS OF ADAPTATIONS
Varying does not mean that you have to say goodbye to a certain training method, unless it did not work well for you.
For example, if you stop doing a certain exercise, you will lose adaptations that you have made with that exercise over time. For example, you train your quadriceps with both barbell squats and leg presses, but both exercises do so in a slightly different way [ iv ] . So if you swap squats for leg presses, do so for a short period of time or keep doing a limited number of sets of squats to maintain the adaptations. It is of course a different story if you can no longer do barbell squats, for example because of a shoulder injury.
Ditto for intensity, for example. If you have been making progress with heavy weights for a long time, for example with sets of six repetitions, it can be refreshing to train in high rep ranges, for example 15-30. You may have experienced that in corona time, if you were suddenly dependent on training with low weights. This may be partly because higher rep ranges (and more metabolic strength training in general) fuel a different type of muscle growth. Nevertheless, you must avoid losing your low rep range adaptations and muscle gains. So don’t throw it completely overboard, but just shift the accent.
Perhaps the most important lesson is: don’t vary for the sake of variation, but do it wisely.
Many coaches are only too happy to prescribe new exercises to their clients, but often this only leads to fake progression. Because yes, as soon as you do a new exercise, you quickly get better at that specific exercise. Yet that’s just an improvement of your technical skills: the improved ability is a matter of neurological factors. And in the initial phase of a new training program, these neurological factors contribute more to your strength gain than the increase in muscle mass [ v ] .
Coach Menno Henselmans about this:
Implementing variety in your training just for the sake of it is more likely to be harmful than helpful. [ vi ]
However, there are three situations in which changing training variables can help you a step further:
- Despite a good training program – including an adequate training volume – plus good nutrition and rest, it becomes increasingly difficult to make progress (whether or not on one specific muscle group);
- You want to highlight a certain muscle group better (why, for example, exchange squats for lunges if you want to train more buttocks);
- A certain training variable (for example an exercise, technique or weight) causes problems, for example in connection with an injury.
Variation is therefore, especially in the first situation, a strategic tool that you have at your disposal. However, you should not use that instrument too quickly/too often. After all, building muscle is a relatively slow process. You must first give your body time to neurologically adapt to a particular training program, then to adapt through muscle growth to an increasing training load. If you change your training program every six weeks, you will disrupt that process and you will not be able to make consistent progress.
Yet there are still countless coaches who saddle their clients with such ‘shock therapy’. In fact, they negate the training principle of overload in favor of that of variation. Remember that overload is dominant over variation.
VARY WITHIN SPECIFICITY
In addition, variation should always occur within the principle of specificity. So, for example, do not exchange your regular strength training for circuit training, while hypertrophy is your (main) goal. Circuit training is, after all, metabolic strength training, which focuses less on muscle growth and more on fat loss.
Specificity is the dominant training principle, to which other principles, such as overload and variation, must conform.
IMPLEMENTING VARIATION IN A MACRO CYCLE: APPROACH
How do you apply variation in a macro cycle, ie over a period of several meseo cycles (for example, half a year or a year)? A plan of action.
1. Put together a training program in which you train all muscle groups with an adequate number of sets (usually 10-20 sets per muscle group per week), with an adequate training frequency (taking into account a maximum of 5-10 sets per muscle group per training) and with sufficient exercises (usually 3 to 4 exercises per muscle group).
2. Make sure you create overload by basically increasing the training load every workout or microcycle (usually doing more weight and/or more reps).
3. As long as you make consistent progress, there is in principle no reason to change anything, except possibly because of specificity (for example to highlight a certain muscle group more) or safety (for example to relieve joints, or because of an injury).
4. Do you make little or no progress at all, or do you even experience a loss of strength? Then your recovery may not be in order. The solution is not to vary, but to deload and perhaps also to put other aspects of your fatigue management in order.
5. If the progression on one or more exercises/muscle groups decreases, add sets if possible to achieve more stimulating repetitions and thus new muscle growth. For example, for a particular exercise, do four instead of three.
6. Adding sets isn’t always a solution, especially if you’re already training around your MAV / MRV. If that is the case and your training program has been more or less unchanged for several months, your body may need new training stimuli. Time for some variation.
7. Do not completely change course, but only adjust your schedule where necessary.
8. There are many points on which you can vary. For example, train in different rep ranges, do different exercises, perform them differently (for example, a different grip width for barbell rows) or train more often. In the latter case, you use the training frequency to spread your volume over more training sessions and thus increase the productivity of the sets.
9. If you’ve had success with a particular training protocol, make sure you don’t lose the resulting adaptations and muscle gains. For example, you don’t necessarily have to delete an exercise completely; you can also keep these on maintenance volume in your schedule. If you do completely remove an exercise or reprange from your schedule, for example to spare your joints and tendons, try to pick it up again within roughly four weeks so as not to lose any adaptations.
Variation has another function within strength training: it is motivating [ iii ] . However, that should not be the primary reason for varying, because that could be at the expense of the overload principle. That you have to constantly ‘surprise’ or ‘shock’ your muscles is a myth, in which the wish (more variation) is often the father of the thought.
If you are addicted to variety in your training, look for it in the smaller exercises. Alternate cable curls with dumbbell curls, dumbbell side raises with a machine variant, bent-over side raises with seated reverse flyes and so on. Nevertheless, monitor the principle of overload by keeping track of your progress on all your exercises. In short, write shit down, Mike Israetel would say.
- [ i ] https://youtu.be/ImqXbJS5SIs?t=511
- [ ii ] https://youtu.be/ImqXbJS5SIs?t=1601
- [ iii ] https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0226989
- [ iv ] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18975260/
- [ v ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17241104/
- [ vi ] https://mennohenselmans.com/effects-exercise-variation-muscle-thickness-maximal-strength/
- [ vii ] https://youtu.be/ImqXbJS5SIs?t=104