The Importance of Variety in Creating Your Exercise Program

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exercise variation

Exercise variation is an important factor when designing an exercise program, with many benefits when you change exercises every so often, such as increased performance and decreased injury risk. However, it is important to apply variation correctly to maximize results.

Adaptive Resistance

If you are an exercise enthusiast, weekend warrior or athlete, you are always looking to improve your performance. But a phenomenon called adaptive resistance can stand in the way of improved performance. Adaptive resistance is when you have done an exercise over a long period of time, and your body no longer responds to it.

Worse, adaptive resistance can result in injury. This happens because if you do the same exercise for a prolonged period of time, you use the same muscles in the same pattern/angle, which causes more wear and tear on the same soft tissue structures.

By creating variation and changing exercises in your routine, you can create a new stimulus, which creates more progress over time. And if you rotate exercises or activity every so often, your injury risk will decrease. Examples include adding bench pressing every Monday or continuously adding mileage when running or biking on a weekly basis.

How Much Variation?

Variation is important, but too much variation can become an issue. When choosing exercises in a program, two to three variations should be chosen for each muscle or movement. If more exercises are performed, it becomes more difficult to adapt because you are always doing something different and waking up the system!

For the general, recreational fitness enthusiast, the act of training and pursuing goals is just as much of an experience as it is a means to an end. If adding in more exercise variation allows fitness enthusiasts to stay motivated and adhere to programs better, then it may be worth considering how much variation is enough.

For most recreational lifters, it is important to establish a few compound lifts to track variables like strength, power and workload capacity, while integrating enough variation to keep excitement and adherence to a program.

Try These Exercise Variations

Here are some exercise variations:

Straight sets are the most common. These are sets performed with a chosen number or reps, then you rest, and after a brief rest period of 90 to 120 seconds, you repeat the same number of reps again. Example with three sets of 10 reps: 10 reps -- rest -- 10 reps -- rest -- 10 reps.

Pyramid sets are slightly more advanced and are for when you want to increase the weight lifted from set to set. Perform the sets so that reps decrease as weight increases after each rest period as you move up the pyramid, and then decrease the weight again and add more reps as you go down the pyramid. Example: 10 reps at 50 lbs. -- rest -- 8 reps at 60 lbs. -- rest -- 6 reps at 70 lbs. -- rest -- 8 reps at 60 lbs. -- rest -- 10 reps at 50 lbs.

Supersets (agonist/antagonist) are sets performed in either straight or pyramid fashion. However, two exercises are used to work opposing muscle groups like the biceps and triceps, or the quadriceps and hamstrings, for example. Supersets work on a principle called reciprocal inhibition, the phenomenon that occurs when one muscle contracts, and its opposite must relax. Example: biceps curls immediately followed by triceps extensions -- rest -- repeat; or chest press or push-ups immediately followed by seated row -- rest -- repeat.

Compound sets are exercises that require the entire body to perform, such as squats/push- ups/deadlifts. This may be accomplished by performing three or four exercises in succession with the same muscle group, opposing muscle groups or total body exercises performed in succession, such as shoulder presses immediately followed by squats, then lunges with biceps curls with little or no recovery in-between.

Giant sets are four different exercises used either on one muscle group to thoroughly exhaust it, on an agonist/antagonistic group, or on a joint complex to work the various muscles that surround that body part. Example for hips and knees: leg presses + squats + leg extensions + leg curls -- rest -- repeat.

Try these different set variations in your workout for variety.  But remember, they become more intense as you move down the list, so use straight sets and pyramid sets as the norm, but throw in some of the others from time to time.

Brian Magat, PT, is a physical therapist at UH Parma Medical Center.

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University Hospitals Sports Medicine takes a multidisciplinary approach that integrates care from medical experts who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment for athletes of all ages and abilities. Our fellowship-trained sports medicine specialists, primary care doctors, nutritionists, sleep experts and other healthcare professionals ensure the very best in health and medical care for athletes. Learn more about sports medicine at University Hospitals.

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