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Exercise Variety - Is it necessary? - by Matthew Romans

I've written in previous posts about the fads, trends, and buzzwords that are prevalent in the mainstream fitness industry. One subject that is endlessly debated, particularly in the bodybuilding subculture, is exercise variety. Do we really need variety in our strength training routine? Will our muscles get stale if we don't "shake it up" a bit? Is it necessary to participate in a wide selection of different physical activities to achieve optimal health and fitness? More confusion arises when terms like "muscle confusion" and "shock the muscles" are thrown into the mix. What are we supposed to believe?

The concept of "cross training" first came into vogue in the middle to late 1980s, and it largely coincided with an ad campaign designed by Nike to promote a new line of shoes (then-NFL stars Bo Jackson and Howie Long were prominently featured). The idea put forth was that elite athletes in one sport could benefit and improve by performing a variety of other sports as part of their conditioning program. In other words, Bo Jackson (already an amazing running back) would become even better at football by participating in cycling, basketball, long distance running, and tennis in his free time. While this seems like a great idea, and probably helped Nike sell a lot of shoes, it's also very misleading. Skills are very specific to the nature of the sport you are performing; in other words, being great at cycling has nothing to do with being great at football. The bottom line is that if you're a football player and want to participate in other activities outside of your sport, do so because you enjoy doing them, not because you think it will improve your abilities as a football player.

Is variety a necessary component of a comprehensive strength training routine? From a biological standpoint, the answer is no. In fact, there is actually a chapter in the Super Slow technical manual (required reading for instructors in our field) titled "The Need for Non-Variation in Exercise." You can make excellent gains in strength, metabolic, and cardiovascular conditioning by performing the exact same selection and sequence of exercises for long periods of time, provided you progress your resistance levels and satisfy other necessary requirements (proper sleep, proper nutrition, stress management, hydration, etc). The above-mentioned buzzwords "muscle confusion" and "shock the muscles" have no scientific basis at all! They were most likely invented by fitness magazine writers or hucksters trying to sell you a bill of goods (a good example of this is the pseudoscientific word "tone", a bastardized form of the word "tonus", which is the amount of residual tension in a muscle when it is at rest. It was coined to encourage women to strength train without the fear of bulking up or growing large muscles).

While some variety in one's strength training routine is perfectly acceptable, too much variety inhibits learning and progress, and makes record keeping virtually impossible. Some "experts" claim that performing the same sequence and selection of exercises is boring; I completely disagree. While the mind may become bored, the skeletal muscles do not. Muscles are either contracted or not. Your workout is not designed to be a source of entertainment. To quote Ken Hutchins, the founder of our exercise protocol, "Do you consider diversion a critical ingredient of your exercise program? If so, you need to have a stern talk with yourself." In order to learn proper form, speed of movement, and achieve the requisite level of intensity, novice clients need to perform the same selection and order of exercises.

At Total Results, we do utilize some variety in terms of exercise selection. Occasionally we will modify the selection and order of exercises, but that often occurs if we are working around an injury or a client is experiencing a recurring exercise-induced headache. While we tend to stick with the same selection and sequence of exercises with novice clients for the first several sessions, as they become more proficient and learn to work more intensely we will introduce some new exercises. Many of our twice per week clients perform an "A" and "B" routine (both are full body workouts); while each of these routines contains a different set of exercises, the exercises are generally performed in the same order (unless there are extenuating circumstances). Once per week clients generally have less variety than twice per week clients, but we still do alter their exercise selection somewhat. We often alternate which upper body exercises they do, as well as exercises for the lower back and neck. This way all the bases are covered.

Participating in a variety of activities can be a form of recreation that provides some mental benefit. While it's not a biological requirement in one's exercise program, a little variety can be a good thing; however, it can easily be taken too far. The most important things to consider when evaluating an exercise program are safety, efficiency, and effectiveness. If a need for variety is getting in the way of those three things, it's time to reevaluate your priorities. Let Total Results get you to where you want to go in the safest and most efficient manner possible.

Posted April 09, 2019 by Tim Rankin