Sunday, March 7, 2010

Principles of Variation

The past seven days has to rank as one of my best training weeks in a long while, despite unexpected gym closures on Monday and Wednesday night. At first, this conclusion was more of a gut feeling, like “I really feel like I hit on all cylinders this week.” Then, as I looked back, I realized my week had inadvertently adhered to a few essential programming principles of variation better than in weeks past, giving it a more productive and enjoyable feel. Discovering this fact made me think it was time to revisit those principles in the hopes of building some programming momentum as I head towards the European Regionals in May. This list isn't revolutionary (in fact I think I wrote a post about most of it last fall), but I need to reinforce them for myself, so you are subjected to it as well. Sorry. Hopefully you all can think of some things that I didn't and improve upon these basics.

Principle 1: Vary movement patterns and joints.

Every functional movement involves the shoulder, hip, or a combination of the two. (I sincerely hope nobody is still doing single joint exercises, apart from rehab. If you are, check yourself). Even when different muscle groups are doing the lion’s share of the labor, one of these two joints is inevitably activated in some capacity (think dips and pullups--different muscles, same joint chain). It is therefore essential to be cogniscent of over-working one type of motion or one set of joints. For example, cleans, snatches, and deadlifts all require approximately the same type of hip extension in moving the weight from the ground to each of their respective finishing positions (full depth Olympics also involve a squatting component, so think of that example as well). For the majority of people, doing these exercises on three consecutive days is completely unnecessary and will lead to over-training these movement patterns. The same can be said for doing thrusters, back squats, and pistols on consecutive days. Don't do it.

Even more problematic is over-using your shoulders. Pullups, handstands, OH squats, push jerks, bench press; these all heavily engage and tax the shoulder joint. Sometimes it’s hard to think outside the “push/pull” box that bodybuilders tend to live in, but the fact is, regardless if you’re pulling the weight towards you or pushing it away, your shoulder joint is where the torque is. Programming days that don’t require it to do either will pay off big time in recovery time and injury prevention. Example: The two weeks before I tweaked my shoulder, every day involved some form of active engagement of the shoulder joint. I laid off it a few days, then Monday I did a sandbag run that only required my shoulders to secure the weight rather than press or pull it. Tuesday I tied a PR on Clean and Jerk and Thursday I PR’d my strict press by 5 kg. Definitely a coincidence…

Principle 2: Vary energy pathways.

If you want to be good at everything, you have to do everything. Monday’s sandbag run tested stamina and core stability; Tuesday’s C&J’s required strength and power; Wednesday’s climbing focused on upper body strength and body control; Friday was strength (strict press singles) and work capacity (two metcons: a heavy couplet early and a light triplet late); Saturday was a 30 minute AMRAP testing guts and long range endurance. This type of balance is a big reason why I felt so good about my week. I tested myself in just about every way. Important note: don't test all of these every day. I read a lot of programs that try to do heavy strength followed by a metcon in every session. News flash: this is not varied. It also means you will not spend enough time on the heavy stuff and that your body will never be fresh for the metcon. I'm not saying you shouldn't do heavy strength sets and metcons in the same day. You should. But taxing every energy pathway every day is a burnout waiting to happen, and you won't tap your potential in any discipline. Sometimes less is more.

Principle 3: Vary intensities.

Some people may balk at this, so let me explain. Every session should be met with the same level of concentration, focus, and determination. But every session should not see you on the floor in a puddle of your own sweat and vomit. Many mistake a post-workout MASH unit of bodies scattered across the gym as proof of the WOD’s intensity. Undeniably, those workouts are intense, and you have to do them. But so are technical snatches, max height box jumps, and handstand holds, and you have to do those too. If you push your body to the brink of collapse every day you train, you will eventually get what you ask for. I wrote a post about Wednesday’s climbing excursion, describing it as such a nice deviation from the norm. This is precisely because it required a different kind of intensity than a 2K row, a 21, 15, 9, or a max effort back squat. I was just as focused and determined to overcome the challenge, but I walked away with gas in the tank. I am completely convinced that I had the mental and physical energy to tackle Friday’s enormous workload in large part because of Wednesday’s more technical focus.

Principle 4: Vary environments (see picture).

These means location and instruments. Getting out is something I am forced to do because of my circumstances, but it’s something everyone should do at least once during a given training week to disassociate “fitness” from any particular locale or any particular instrument. Getting outside your gym stimulates creativity, forces interaction with nature, and is genuinely rejuvenating. Using bags, hammers, blocks, or ropes instead of barbells and kettlebells challenges your strength, control, and concentration in ways impossible to explain. Not to mention, they’re much less boring. Being strong in every situation means testing yourself in every environment with every tool. And there are plenty in supply. This past week, I trained in 5 different “gyms,” using at least 6 different types of apparatus, while still managing to adhere to principles 1-3. I think this could be THE biggest reason why this week felt so much better than so many others.

That's all I got for now. I’m writing next week’s program now with an eye towards building an even better lineup… If anybody knows other principles of variation I’ve overlooked, please share.


  1. First, I have to say how inspiring your blog is! Since I´m reading it a few times a week, my motivation for training harder (and smarter) has gone through the roof. A big thank you for that!

    I have a few suggestions for the topic of variation:
    - try a certain exercise or wod in different shoes, e.g. squats in indoor shoes, running shoes or barefoot or fivefingers.
    - try to work out at different times of the day.
    - try a new approach for well know excercises. e.g. try front squats with 32kg on a barbell, then try front squats with one 32kg kettlebell in rack position and then try it with a 20kg kettlebell in one hand and a 12kg kettlebell in the other hand also in rack position. you will notice a big difference between those sets.
    or try uneven push-ups. just play around and find new ways for "old" exercises.

    Have fun and keep working out hard!
    Regards from cold Munich, Marco

  2. Thanks Marco, great suggestions. I really love the idea of separating the weight into different denominations like in your front squat example. I will try it soon.

    Stay Warm!


  3. Hi Blair, if your journey brings to Munich someday (hopefully not now, we have a lot of snow again ;-) ), just contact me (, than we can have work-out together. Keep on variating! Marco