Welcome to Part 3 of our Writing your own Program series. If you haven’t dug through Parts 1 (here) and 2 (here), do so before getting any further into this one. This series builds on itself and it’s important to read these in order so you’re not left wondering what the heck we’re talking about in certain parts.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the topic at hand. In Part 3 of this series, we’re going to discuss two major components of a training program – variation and progressive overload. Now, we’ve already gone into extremely thorough detail on these topics in other articles (Variation here) (Progressive Overload here), but we’ll rehash the main points in this piece to keep the entire series cohesive.
And away we go.
We talk about variation and progressive overload in the same piece because they’re pretty close relatives. As we discuss in the longer Exercise Variation article here, changing exercises is actually a form of progressive overload. There are a few reasons why this is the case:
- Changing exercises can impose a different mechanical stimulus. Since our muscles are essentially big chunks of individual neuromuscular compartments, swapping out a new pressing or pulling angle, for example, can affect different regions of the muscle in different ways. For the bodybuilder or physique athlete, changing exercises is a key component of your long-term training plan.
- Changing exercises is a great form of progressive overload for beginners. When someone starts training, you probably wouldn’t have them squat, bench, and deadlift right away. Rather, you’ll start them on more simple variations and work your way up as they improve their technique.
- Lastly, changing exercises can be an indirect form of overload because, for many people, this keeps training fresh and interesting. Knowing that you have a new set of exercises to hit the next time you go to the gym can be the little push you need to take your workout to the next level. Every time I uncover a new exercise or machine, I’m pumped. It’s pretty rare these days, but it boosts my motivation and I look forward to performing that exercise. Heck, I work at a state-of-the-art training facility and still have a commercial gym membership on the side for this very reason – I get to use different stuff!
So, this begs the ultimate question, how often do you need to change exercises? Well, it depends (got ‘em again!). What’s your training level? Injury history? Motivation level? Training frequency? All of these factors can influence how often you should vary your exercises:
Training Level: For the most part, the more training experience you have, the more variation you’ll need – up to a point. For beginners, you’ll probably be fine doing the same exercises for, shoot, 12-16 weeks. That will give you plenty of time to progress each exercise while still perfecting your form and technique. This, of course, is referring to the period after your initial exercise progression where you might have moved up exercises every two weeks or so. Once you get to the big basics (squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows), you’ll want to stick with them for a while.
If you’re a gym veteran, most folks are fine changing exercises every 4-weeks or so. This is the cycle I use with most of our clients at ASPI as well as the collegiate athletes I’ve worked with in the past. This allows for a good familiarization workout (week 1) then 3-weeks of progressive overload (weeks 2-4) before moving onto the next variation.
Injury History: From personal experience working with myself and clients, someone with extensive injury history might have to change exercises more often. Performing the same exercises week in and week out for 3-4 weeks in a row might aggravate some previously existing wear and tear and could even lead to a re-injury. I’m at the point where I can only bench press about once or twice a month – anything more than that and my shoulder flares up and my pec threatens to tear again – not recommended. If you or a client have an injury history in a particular muscle group or joint, I’d try switching up exercises every week or two and see if that helps stave off aches and pains. If your injury history is that severe, being pain free during training might be your top goal anyways, so plenty of variation should support that.
Motivation Level: Like I discussed above, some folks just need more variation in their training to stay motivated. This depends on the type of person you are – some people need to have a plan whereas others just like to wing it. As long as you understand how to institute progressive overload in your training, both methods can work.
I find that changing “exercises” can be beneficial for cardio training with clients. Some clients at ASPI are doing cardio up to 3x/week. To keep them motivated, we rotate cardio efforts – some days are steady state, others are intervals, and some days are more CrossFit style with EMOMs and AMRAPs. This variation keeps people motivated for cardio while also being a great mix for improving endurance.
Ultimately, if fresh and new workouts keep you motivated to keep training, then you need more variation in your training. Whatever keeps you going back to the gym is what’s important. You can’t make gains when you get bored and give up!
Training Frequency: The more often you train, the more variation you’ll need. Again, this is a little dependent on experience level as a beginner could probably train every muscle group 1x/week and still make plenty of progress – which also means they won’t need as much variation. However, a more experienced bodybuilder could be training each muscle group 2-4x/week. If that’s the case, you’ll want a little more variation in your program so you’re not constantly hitting the same exercises week in and week out. Not only would constantly repeating exercises not optimize hypertrophy, but it could increase injury risk if you’re still sore/fatigued from your previous session.
There are other factors than can influence how often you vary exercises, but these are the main ones that most folks will deal with. Now, onto the next component of our discussion: progressive overload.
Really, we might keep our conversation on progressive overload relatively short. We have a full article on progressive overload here that examines the topic in much more detail. Still, we’ll touch on the highlights here and how you can implement certain factors into your training.
First, we must discuss a common misconception of progressive overload. Progressive overload is NOT just adding weight or reps. There are two key terms to understand here:
Progressive Resistance: This is adding weight or reps.
Progressive Overload: This is the practice of overloading an exercise or muscle group through a variety of training variables. Progressive resistance is just one of these factors.
Second, we must also mention the two different types of progressive overload:
Planned Overload: This is when you plan on overloading an exercise – pretty cut and simple, right?
Achieved Overload: This can be a lot more nuanced once you get beyond progressive resistance. Did you actually do more weight or reps? Great! You probably achieved overload. However, what was your form like? Did the target muscle actually experience more tension or stress? This is where it gets a little murky. You see, to truly achieve progressive overload (by way of adding reps or weight), your form has to be perfect. If you compensate for the extra weight or reps, like leaning forward in a squat for example, your quads wouldn’t actually achieve much of an overload. Your glutes and adductors certainly would, though, so keep the nuances of progressive resistance in mind.
So, now that we’ve complicated the topic a little bit, what are the different forms of progressive overload?
- Progressive Resistance
I think we’ve nailed this one down pretty well. Add weight or add reps and keep form perfect. This is best used with machine exercises or exercises with well-defined start and end points – like bench press or deadlift. Something like a squat or bent over row can be cheated rather easily and, thus, doesn’t lend itself well to this method if you’re a bodybuilder looking to overload muscles instead of movements.
- Changing Exercises
We discussed this in depth literally a few minutes ago. Scroll up if you already forgot.
- Changing Repetition Speed
This one is pretty nuanced and more common in strength and conditioning than physique sports. Essentially, instead of progressing weight or reps, you progress speed. There are a few ways to track barbell speed that are outside the scope of this piece, but in short, you simply measure barbell speed on a given exercise. Say you’re squatting 225lbs for sets of 5 and your average velocity was .75m/s. Next week, your goal is to squat 225×5 with an average velocity of .80m/s OR you can squat 230×5 at .75m/s – this is where it gets tricky and requires you to have a defined plan for progression. For most folks, this method isn’t as useful as other forms.
- Range of Motion
This is a pretty similar topic to changing exercises from a standpoint of increasing the mechanical difficulty of a movement. For example, you could squat 225×5 on week 1 and do the same exact weight and rep scheme on week 2, but just squat a little deeper. Assuming your torso angle didn’t change to a large degree, you’ve now overloaded basically every muscle in the squat simply by using more range of motion. We discuss this more in our Range of Motion article here, but this can be a powerful overloading tool, especially for beginners who are getting used to deep squats or touching their chest in a bench press. Work on increasing range of motion, rather than weight.
Alas, there are a few more forms of progressive overload that we mentioned in our Exercise Variation article here, but those extra forms can either be rolled into the ones already mentioned or have to do more so with long-term plans. Speaking of long-term plans, that will be the next installment (and probably last) in this series.
Again, I highly recommend taking the time to read the full versions of the articles we linked (several times) throughout this article. Think about the ideas put forth and how you can institute them into your own training. I try to make these as open-ended as possible so that they can be interpreted multiple ways – everyone is going to have a different training plan and there are so many factors that influence these differences. There’s no way these articles could be in direct “how to” format and I certainly hope that, by now, you understand why that’s the case.
Thanks for reading this far into the series and we’ll have another installment shortly!
From being a mediocre athlete, to professional powerlifter and strength coach, and now to researcher and writer, Charlie combines education and experience in the effort to help Bridge the Gap Between Science and Application. Charlie performs double duty by being the Content Manager for The Muscle PhD as well as the Director of Human Performance at the Applied Science and Performance Institute in Tampa, FL. To appease the nerds, Charlie is a PhD candidate in Human Performance with a master’s degree in Kinesiology and a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science. For more alphabet soup, Charlie is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), an ACSM-certified Exercise Physiologist (ACSM-EP), and a USA Weightlifting-certified performance coach (USAW).