Strategic Variation® is the planned, calculated alteration in the stimulus or stimuli of an exercise without altering any factor in such a manner that would constitute a change in goal.
The primary reasons for which variation must be strategically employed are:
- Progression: all too often an attempt at making an exercise more difficult is just for difficulty’s sake, not necessarily because it is ideal for the individual or goal
- No single exercise offers a complete, full-spectrum challenge relative to any specific context. Complementary exercises are required in order to produce context specific comprehensive stimulation (and the context must be specified!)
- To alter the mechanical wear on joints
The prerequisites to decision making for strategic variation are:
Clearly defining the Goal of This Exercise as determined by goal of this specific workout (or a portion of the workout), and how they relate to the overall, macro-goal are vital. Without goal clarity, stimulus accuracy and relevance is unlikely and efficiency are likely reduced.
All exercises and forms of exercise are comprised of the following factors:
- Motion: specific joint motions and ranges
- Position Maintenance: specific joint positions to be maintained during execution
- Resistance profile: Specific variations in load throughout the range of motion
- Support: specific foundation
- Intention: degree of control, direction of push/pull, degree and type of focus, etc.
- Effort: degree or percentage of momentary ability expended
- Time: tempo, reps (set duration/effort), rest duration, workout duration, workout frequency, etc.
The understanding of and strategic manipulation of these factors is the key to the safe and efficient achievement of a goal and the creation of purposeful variation.
Control and tolerance are measurements for appropriateness in any change in stimuli for variation or progression.
Importance in Exercise
Historically, variation is and has been utilized as a means to “shock the body” into change or to “keep the body guessing”. Variation is often considered to be anything and everything that is different – a somewhat haphazard approach which can actually undermine a specific goal. If any degree of goal-oriented strategy was/is employed it is commonly devised around a variety of magical, mystical, misguided, myth-oriented, gym-science based rationales often inspired by misinterpreted sensation or the deception of gross movement in terms of accurately identifying a stimulus-response relationship.
In general variation can be created for the following reasons:
- Change for the sake of change (alleviate boredom)
- Change in stimuli thereby affecting a different goal (knowingly or unknowingly)
- Progression in order to generate a specific adaptation or response.
- To complete the stimuli required to satisfy a specific goal
- “Rotate your tires”
Strategy is not required to alleviate boredom.
Changing anything without knowing or caring about the goal doesn’t require strategy. Progression, context specific comprehensive stimulation, and altering joint forces do require considerably understanding and strategy.
Without a somewhat detailed understanding of the factors that comprise any exercise, and make each exercise and form of exercise both different and similar, strategic manipulation is impossible. Furthermore, if the specific Goal of the Exercise is not clearly defined then strategy is virtually impossible.
All too often an exercise is made more difficult for no other reason than to make it “harder to do”, or an attempt at making an exercise harder will lead to a change in stimulation that is not optimal for or conducive to achieving the original goal. The reason to increase any specific aspect of challenge in an exercise should be to stimulate a very specific response, outcome, or adaptation. Progression is the blending of science and the skills of observation and delivery. It requires the constant and continuous assessment of tolerance, ability, and control as well as an unwavering eye on the goal. The typical “harder must be better” approach has seemingly worked for many people, and failed many more… that never return to exercise. Strategies in dosage (increments of change) as well as exactly which factors are to be manipulated require constant experimentation not only to identify appropriateness and effectiveness, but also experiential influence.
Complementary Exercises are required to create full-spectrum stimuli with regard to following goals:
- Full Range of Joint Motion
- The available range in certain joints
- Full Range Contraction
- Full shortening and/or lengthening of single vs. multi-joint muscles
- Full Range Challenge
- Moving full range is very different from being appropriately challenged full range
- Output vs. Skill
- The stimuli for the improving strength is reduced as support is reduced
- “Doing algebra during exercise makes it harder, but that doesn’t mean it’s improving anything.”
Complementary Resistance (From an Otherwise Poor Resistance Profile)
A full range squat, no matter how low one goes, is not a full range challenge. The Resistance Profile is that of constant increase on the way down and constant decrease on the way up, both due to the associated changes in the moment arms to each joint. Typically, it is the load that one can control at the bottom that determines the load chosen for the entire range, but if it’s a challenge at the bottom it is not a challenge at or near the top due to the loss of moments at the top.
If it is not possible to alter the Resistance Profile then one could consider Strategically Varying the ranges and loads across subsequent sets or workouts by simply performing deeper squats with the appropriate challenge/resistance and shallower “partial” squats with greater resistance that would not have been possible at the greater depth. Although both versions still do not offer an optimal Resistance Profile, at least the top portion of the range does not go completely without the challenge it is inherently capable of incurring.
Full Range Challenge
Even if the complementary squats are performed as described above, two issues remain:
- At the top of a squat the load has a zero moment to the hip so at that point there no resistance to the hip musculature. We can’t call this a full range challenge due to the limitation of the direction of resistance.
- Normal ranges of hip extension continue beyond what is utilized in a squat and if the goal is full-spectrum hip challenge, then hip extension must be loaded in another way that allows an appropriate load/profile through the remaining range. Remember, “use it or lose it.” It’s no wonder than virtually no one over 60 has full hip extension beyond neutral or zero degrees. On a daily basis it is not stimulated, therein one of the many flaws in the “functional training tenet – exercise should mimic life” So no matter how fatigued the hip extensors get from squatting, stimulation is far from complete.
“Full Range of Motion” vs. Full Contractile Range
The motion allowed in any single exercise is never full contractile range due to the limitations in maintaining an appropriate resistance throughout large arcs of motion, and the relationships between single joint and mutli-joint muscles.
Resisted elbow flexion from a position of full extension with the arm by the side (neutral shoulder) allows for full shortening and lengthening of the single joint muscles, but not the biceps. Full elbow flexion would have to be performed in or near full shoulder flexion to create the opportunity for full biceps shortening. Conversely elbow flexion from full elbow extension would have be performed in full shoulder extension in order to create the opportunity to challenge the biceps from their fully lengthened state (assuming the appropriate Resistance Profile has been created to generate optimal challenge at these lengths.)
Ultimately, if full shortening and lengthening of single joint muscles is the goal, then static joints must be strategically positioned such that the antagonistic mutli-joint muscles do not become limiting factors in joint range due to passive insufficiency. Conversely, if full shortening and lengthening of mutli-joint muscles is the goal, then multiple, complementary positions of the static joints must be strategically employed, and the single joint muscles are unlikely to reach their extremes of contraction due again to passive insufficiency. Again, no single exercise is complete in this context.
“Rotate Your Tires”
Minute changes may not seem to be enough to satisfy the normal quest for variation, but may be enough to influence the mechanical wear within a joint.
A virtually unperceivable change in the plane of shoulder motion via a two or three degree alteration abduction (“width”) during a pressing or pulling exercise would typically be considered insignificant and incapable of altering muscular stimulation, and this may be true. But the precise regions of the contact surfaces that are being stressed can be altered enough to “share the wear” if such variations are strategically employed over time.
For joints with fewer degrees of freedom such as knees, motion really can’t be altered beyond simple variations in range on a given exercise, but miniscule alterations in joint forces can be produced not only through understanding the mechanical realities of different exercises (rather than the myths like those associated with leg extensions) but also via the use of intention in employing frictional forces to skew the resultant of resistance ever so slightly across the femoral condyles.
Output vs. “Juggling”
Trends in “functional training,” while still widely popular, have misled trainers and consumers into believing that wobbly devices and exercises without support (back pads, seats, etc.) are the most effective versions of exercise for any and all goals.
While this support-free version of exercise occasionally has its place depending upon the individual, his/her current state of progression, and the goal, there is overwhelming evidence that a) muscular output (strength) is a necessary prerequisite for such activities, and b) these activities are poor ways of improving tension production (acquiring strength).
Full spectrum challenges would include exercises with strategically placed support to provide an opportunity to optimally stimulate increases in tension production and strength in strategic conjunction with exercises that require the juggling many factors and therein create challenges in “coordination” and gross body control at the expense of stimulating muscular output.
“Biceps” vs. Balance
Progressing an arm curl by standing on one leg instead of two (as taught by a leading accredited personal training certification) is certainly variation, but far from strategic. It would be rare that the goal of an arm curl be anything other than elbow flexor stimulation. Standing on one leg would reduce that stimulation by requiring less load due to the orchestrated “down-regulation” of output to allow for the “juggle” of remaining upright. Moving to one leg makes it more difficult, but not in a manner consistent with the original goal of the exercise. The goal has unwittingly been changed.
Sliding filament mechanism
Influences in joint range of motion