Good programming involves a delicate dance between focused efforts and exposure to a variety of movement challenges. The topic of training variety seems to confuse both beginners and veterans alike. When should I introduce more variety into my program? Do I have to change my workouts all the time to avoid plateauing? The idea of muscle confusion and using variety to overcome training plateaus is so pervasive in the fitness world, but is variety always better?
As usual, I’ll be taking a “movement skills” approach to answering this question, because I firmly believe that’s what this topic boils down to: have you earned the right to mix it up?
Focus – Concentrating your Training Efforts
Focus in training is most critical when new skills are being introduced. If I am teaching a new client to deadlift, we will probably spend the entire workout training that skill and working on drills that emphasize the elements of deadlifting. Repetition is the mother of skill, as they say, and I want my new client to earn some skill with deadlifting so she can begin implementing the movement as a safe and effective training tool. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to practice until she can do it in her sleep.
The idea of going into the gym and working on only one movement may very well seem foreign to you. After all, who does that? The short and sweet of it, however, is that if you want to work hard you have to earn it. It may seem tedious in the beginning, but it’s a whole lot less tedious than trying to undo your lousy motor pattern after the fact or spending months rehabbing a serious injury.
Beginners in the fitness world are fed this notion of “muscle confusion”, and led to believe that failing to scramble their workouts day after day will cost them their results. Listen, forget muscle confusion. Your muscles don’t get confused, YOU get confused. You muscles are slabs of meat that do what your brain tells them to do (ideally); they don’t have the capacity to be confused. And you know what? If YOU’RE confused, you’re probably not having a very good workout.
Becoming a well-rounded athlete requires that you expose yourself to new challenges, whether that’s learning how to swim with good technique for the first time or deadlifting with a thicker bar once in a while. The point is that you have to be good at something in the first place before you need to put a spin on it. Developing as an athlete is all about pushing the boundaries of your athletic skill, not blazing by that boundary into an abyss of motor confusion.
Variety – Putting Your Skills to the Test
Variety within a workout is introduced when an athlete has gained enough proficiency in a particular movement to perform it under more challenging mental and physical conditions, such as performing it with speed coupled with another movement. Now the coach and athlete can begin to observe how movements influence one another, and the athlete has the opportunity to advance their skill and capacity for movement. If these demanding conditions are placed on the athlete too soon, either the intensity or quality of the workout (or both) is going to be severely compromised.
Variety within a program is also something that has to be earned. It comes back to the importance of focus when learning new skills. If you aren’t exposed to the new skill regularly, your progress will be slow. Program variety ties in with workout variety, as being able to introduce more elements into a given workout gives you the opportunity to practice a wider variety of training options more often (to maintain proficiency that you have already earned in those movements).
It’s also worth mentioning here that if you’re an athlete trying to excel in a particular sport or fitness domain, more variety may not necessarily be what you need. You efforts in general should be more focused around the qualities and skills that help you succeed at your given sport. (Keep in mind that formal strength and conditioning is something all athletes should engage in.) With that said, cross-training to some degree is both appropriate and beneficial towards your overall athletic development. You might even be surprised when a unique skill from one activity suddenly lends itself to your main sport.
The main idea I’m trying to get across here is that if you can’t perform a movement consistently well (read: near-perfectly), it has no place in your super intense workout. You need to take a few sessions, or however long it takes, to dial in the technique, and progressively weed out any errors, restrictions, or other issues you have with that movement. Only then have you earned the right to challenge it. Similarly, focus your overall program as necessary to allow the time you need to practice those problematic elements.
You have to be consistent if you want to improve, and that goes beyond just showing up and doing some work. Focus your efforts, focus your mind, and earn some real skill in what you’re doing. You will be a much better athlete for it.