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The Principle of Variation: How to Change Workouts

The Principle of Variation is the reason for changing workout regimens and grouping your weight training activities into purpose-driven phases of training.

Weightlifting exercises are motor skills. Practice variation for motor skill learning is grounded in Schema Theory.

Schema Theory

The theory suggests that varying similar weight lifting activities (e.g., the bench press) promotes learning the “rules” necessary to produce different versions of it (e.g., a new maximum repetition). Variation in weight training programs is the basis for periodization training.1,2,3

The Principle of Variation promotes more consistent improvements over time. It minimizes plateaus and prevents boredom. In addition, you can avoid overtraining by varying your program. Breaks from the stress of high intensity, high volume training can be built into the design of the weight training program.

What can be varied? Repetitions, sets, exercises, order, rest periods, weight load, speed of execution, width of the grip, and more. There’s enough room for variation that you never have to do the same routine twice!
Examples of How to Apply the Principle of Variation to Weight Training
1. Rather than 3 sets of 10 reps only for any exercise, vary with 1 set of 8 reps, 1 set of 10 reps, and 1 set of 12 reps. Vary the weightload, too.

2. To increase explosiveness for jumping, alternate power cleans with speed squats and back squats, and vary the speed and intensity of lifts.

3. Rather than bench press only, vary the angle with inclined and declined presses, vary the grip width, and add dumbbell presses. See Arm Exercises

4. When training to achieve long-term goals, plan the training program for extended periods (e.g., a year or more) and establish long-term variation in cycles. See Setting Goals

Don’t confuse the Principle of Variation (a learning-based principle) with the Principle of Specificity (a physiologically-based principle).

Specificity means you design weightlifting programs and strength fitness that work the muscles to stimulate growth in the direction you want (e.g., greater strength in the biceps, muscular endurance in the legs).

Variation means change your weight loads, sets, reps, etc. for those same exercises within a range (depending on the phase of training) so you learn and improve more quickly.

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