Variety for variety’s sake? The how and why of variety within a training program

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Specificity is one of the most important principles in training. Simply put, to get better at the activity, the athlete must perform that activity. The event or sport itself is the most specific type of training that you can possibly do. The caveat, though, is that performing the full event is not always the best way to develop the qualities needed to perform the event at a higher level. But, of course, the event itself is the most specific and will have the most transfer.

This begs the question, if the event itself transfers the most, why wouldn’t we do this year round. Well, it may be appropriate to have the activity in the training plan from day one, just constrained versions of the event (more on this later). A soccer player wouldn’t only play full 90 minute matches to prepare for a 90 minute match. A 100m sprinter wouldn’t only run 100m in training. A weightlifter wouldn’t only perform the Snatch and Clean & Jerk – you get the point. Even though their event calls for the best performance in each of those activities, doing the event alone is not enough. This is where variety and varying levels of specificity come into play.

dart board finalI liken the idea of specificity to a dart board. The entire dart board represents all of the exercises and drills that transfer to the event. The bulls-eye represents the event – the most specific. As we move further away from the bulls-eye, exercises would become relatively less specific and provide less transfer to the event with the outer ring of the dart board comprised of the most general exercises relative to the event. Just because the exercise is less specific (i.e. more general) doesn’t mean we should scrap it and never use the exercise, we may just need to figure out where it fits in the entire training plan.

When designing training plans, figure out what exercises and activities are most applicable to the event and build the dart board based on your own training philosophies and ideas. More importantly, shoot at your dart board. Don’t wonder off and shoot at another dart board. If you’re a speed power athlete, the last thing you need to do is build a base of long distance running, cycling, or any other activity that is not directly contributing to your success in the event or recovery.

This dart board is where you pull variety from. In general you will pull exercises from the outer rings early in the training year and work your way in toward the bulls-eye as the year moves toward competition (the concept of moving from less specific to more specific). If you work with in team sports this may be a little more difficult because the competition seasons tend to be longer – you may have to flirt around the bulls-eye a little more than other sports that follow a true GPP – SPP – Competition model.

The main goal of training should be to increase performance and reduce likelihood of injury. Variety allows us to tackle both of those goals head on.

What happens when we don’t have enough variety in training:

  • Adaptation slows or halts – this is the point that is typically called the point of diminishing returns. Essentially, we’re investing valuable time and energy in something that will ultimately provide us with smaller and smaller yields as time progresses.
  • Overuse injuries from repetitive movements. Sprinters sprint year round in some capacity, but if they sprinted on the track year round they might find overuse injuries creep in. Rather, some sprint on grass, sand, uphill, etc. early in the year to combat this idea of overuse.
  • Staleness – athletes may become bored and uninterested in training.

What happens when we have too much variety in training:

  • Soreness – we’ve all added in brand new exercises to programs and whether loaded light or heavy, athletes will almost always be sore the next day. Soreness isn’t something we need to necessarily avoid or be scared of, but it is something we need to be aware of. Soreness can decrease force output. In terms of variety, if we’re always switching the exercise, athletes may be sore more often than not, therefore achieving less than desired force outputs in the weight room.
  • Secondly, if there is too much variety, there isn’t much time to actually learn and load the exercise. Athletes may never be proficient enough in the exercise to reach a true loading stage if variety is provided too soon and too often.

What happens when variety is perfected:

  • Decrease overuse injuries.
  • Variety is provided in the optimal adaptation window (typically 3-6 weeks).
  • Decrease in potential staleness.
  • Provides the ability to constrain intensity in yearly plan.

Let’s touch on that very last point – constraining intensity. This is what I would urge you to try to do when providing variety. Rather than providing variety by switching the exercises wholeheartedly every 3-6 weeks, slowly transition to more specific versions of a given exercise. Take squatting for example and some potential variations:

  • Deep Squat
  • Pause Squat
  • Pins Up Squat
  • Slow Eccentric Squat
  • Quarter Squat
  • Pins Up Quarter Squat
  • Half Squat
  • Deep Jump Squat
  • Quarter Jump Squat
  • Split Squat
  • Supramaximal Eccentric Squat
  • Wide Stance Squat
  • Fast Eccentric Squat (Drop Squat)

With this list of squat variations we know which variations can be loaded heavier than others, which ones hit the CNS harder, which ones will provide more time under tension, which ones provide more favorable or specific joint angles to the event. Depending on the event or sport, the goal would be to place these order in of relative specificity and transfer to the event from less specific to more specific.

This is only a Back Squat variation list, but the idea is to use this concept for the Olympic lifts, plyometric activities, sprints, and any other activities that are deemed necessary or specific to the event.

If we can constrain intensity early in the year, it provides some room to ramp up the intensity to full throttle later in the year. For a quick example, lets take a look at two squat variations and how this idea would apply.

Pins Up squats are something we could use early in a training year if our goal is to pair with acceleration. The joint angles, albeit not the same, are acute. We’re starting from zero velocity, and it is concentric dominant. I would bet to say no one can Pins Up Squat 100% of their Back Squat max and challenging working percentages for this exercise would be around 70-85% of a 1RM Back Squat.

Quarter Squats (heavily/supramaximally loaded) are an exercise we could pair with maximal velocity sprinting due to the demands on the CNS, joint angles, and the eccentric dominant demands on the body. While there isn’t anything in the weight room that can match maximal velocity characteristics, we can at least try. We can overload a quarter squat quite a bit – anywhere up to 120% of a true 1RM Back Squat.

While each exercise is relatively heavy in their own right, we have a huge range of intensities that we can use when providing variety while being able to make it difficult and providing overload on the body. This allows us to constrain intensity, provide variety, and be specific all at the same time.

In closing, variety for variety’s sake isn’t needed, nor is there a big place for it in athletic development. Variety should come from within an exercise rather than trying to invent new exercises every week. Always stay on target and keep the bulls-eye in sight.

John Grace

John Grace

Sport Performance Coach at Athletic Lab
John is a Sport Performance Coach at Athletic Lab. He earned his Master's degree from Ohio University in Coaching & Sport Science. John holds his CSCS, USAW-L1, and USATF-L1. He is the former Assistant Fitness Coach of the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
John Grace

@john_r_grace

Head Fitness Coach of the Orlando Pride. I tweet about all things sport science, coaching, training, and athlete development.
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