Ask the Professional: Exercise Variables

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by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

Are you stuck in a routine of doing the exact same workouts from week to week? Whether you are a creature of habit or just don’t know any better, chances are any adaptations you may have noticed early on have slowed significantly and have maybe even come to a complete halt. This is because the human body is very adaptable and once you reach a certain point of adaptation, the exact same stimulus will not continue to cause those continued adaptations. “Muscle confusion” and “shock the body” may be buzz phrases that you’ve heard around the gym and while these phrases are probably overused and often misconstrued, there is a certain degree of merit to them. The training stimulus needs to be routinely adjusted and there are a number of different variables you can address to do so. Some of those variables include exercise selection, training frequency, training load, repetitions, and rest/recovery.

Probably the most obvious variable that you can adjust is exercise selection. While it can be advantageous when done correctly and even necessary to a certain point to get bigger or stronger, doing the exact same exercises every time you train can potentially stunt development. Let’s say your routine consists of a “push day" and a “pull day”. If every single push day you only do dumbbell flat bench press and barbell back squats, you are potentially missing out on additional and different types of stimuli that can increase your strength for those movement patterns. Using the barbell back squat as an example, it's beneficial to occasionally work front squats into your routine because the change of bar placement forces you to maintain a more upright posture which shifts some muscle activation to the quadriceps. Working an overhead squat into your routine can also be beneficial because it forces your core and stabilizing muscles to work significantly harder than a back squat at the same load. Bulgarian split squats would also be a great variation to incorporate to isolate one leg at a time. By incorporating a variety of different exercises, you can actually work to benefit your back squat without even training it directly.

Another variable you can adjust is training frequency. This variable can have a great effect on the quality of your workout and even help increase your maximum recoverable volume. This one can be tricky though because it can be different for everybody based on your recovery rate, how often you train which muscle groups, and how much weight you are using/volume you are accumulating during a given workout. You can increase your training frequency and overall workout stimulus if you have good recovery habits including sleep, proper nutrition and supplementation. These will allow for you to train at a higher frequency. You may want to decrease training intensity if you notice that you aren’t recovering very quickly and soreness seems to be sticking with you for longer periods of time. This could be the case if your nutrition habits are poor or if you are not getting enough sleep or water. If you train at a very high intensity with a high volume you also might need to train at a slightly lower frequency. So while this is an easy variable to change, it takes some time to figure out how you should manipulate it.

A few training variables that go hand in hand with each other that you can also manipulate to train your stimulus are your training load (weight), sets, and repetitions. These three variables make up your total training volume and intensity. This is very easy to manipulate but you should know how and why you are manipulating them. Generally, people stuck in a routine are probably also stuck somewhere in the range of 3-5 sets of 10-15 repetitions and probably using the same weight every time. You may start seeing increased hypertrophy and muscular endurance and possibly some initial strength gains but they will subside quickly. You need to ask yourself what you're looking to accomplish and adjust these three variables accordingly. If you want to get stronger, you will want to begin a strength phase and utilize a lower rep scheme such as the 5x5 method (5 sets of 5 reps) with heavier weights that will make you work harder than your normal routine. This will cause greater stress on your muscles and central nervous system and start to induce greater strength adaptations. If you are trying to train for hypertrophy, you will probably want to spread out your muscle specific volume over the course of a week rather than doing it all in one day. For example, two sets of back squats on Monday, Wednesday and Friday rather than 6 sets on Monday. If you want to train more for muscular endurance, then you would probably want to try to accumulate all of those 6 sets in a single day. 

The last and arguably most important training variable that you can manipulate is your rest and recovery. DO NOT ignore this variable. You can be doing everything right, but if your rest and recovery is out of whack it can negate any progress you could be making. There are many elements that affect your recovery but the beautiful thing is that you can control all of these elements! First, you need to make sure that you are getting proper sleep. You need this time for your body to recover properly and if you are having trouble sleeping be sure to address it! Next is hydration. Drink water even when you are not training. It is very important for your energy, recovery, and performance. Then we have nutrition; this is a piece that will not only affect your post-workout muscular recovery but also how you feel during a workout. Be sure you are fueling your body for the work it's about to do during the workout and fueling it for the work it will undergo to recover and replenish your muscles, providing yourself with carbs and protein following a workout! Stretching and foam rolling are also going to be a large part of aiding your recovery. This will help your flexibility, mobility, and assist with tissue repair and recovery. These pieces are all largely important to your body recovering from training and are very easy for you to manipulate. 

Even if you just REALLY loving what you are doing and are scared of change, there are a lot of small changes you can make that will make a huge difference in how you train. Either way, you can and should adjust a number of different variables in your training to help make sure your training continues to be as effective as possible. No adjustment is insignificant.