When I first started out in the strength and conditioning field, I was always amazed at how simple the top strength and conditioning coaches made their training programs. Their training programs covered all the basic movements, and prioritized a couple of key physiological objectives. Nowhere is this more evident than the training program design for elite weightlifters and powerlifters. For example, weightlifters for the most part perform cleans, snatches, and squats as the main focus of the training program along with a few assistant movements to work on technical issues or physiological limitations (e.g. maximal strength, hypertrophy etc..). I also observed this first hand when I would travel to shadow Dan Pfaff, one of the world’s leading track and field coaches, who’s training programs were always very simple and devoid of fancy, “flavour of the month”, exercises. Instead of injecting pointless and fluffy exercises into his program that lacked effectiveness, Dan chose to focus his attention on programming the basic movements more effectively, and on understanding the complexity of human movement so that he could coach more effectively.
I am fortunate that my mentors along the way instilled a similar philosophy in me. The fitness industry, however, often seems plagued with flavour of the month trends, exercises, and training programs. Some of this I chalk up to a sincere attempt to improve observed weaknesses and deficits that are observed in the athlete or client. On the other hand, I also see a lot of trainers who mindlessly scour the internet for the latest and greatest exercise in an attempt to win over clients and athletes with bells and whistles that ultimately end up doing a disservice to the person’s physical preparation.
The frustrating part of this reality is that we are training human beings, and any athlete stands to get bored with a seemingly monotonous training program that lacks creativity but is actually tremendously effective. To further highlight this reality, I once had a conversation with a muscle physiologist who told me there is no physiological basis for variety or periodization. In some sense he is absolutely correct. Theoretically, a muscle fibre needs sufficient mechanical and chemical stress for adaptation so other than progressively increasing the training load over time, there should really be nothing else needed in a training program. Despite the fundamental truth in this statement, I think most strength and conditioning coaches would agree that despite what the basic science indicates, the right type of variety is an essential part of the training process. A perfect example of this is the pattern overload that can occur by continually performing maximal effort movements in the same plane or at the same angle.
So, this leads me to the following question: when is variety needed for optimal physiological and biomechanical adaptation, and when is variety counterproductive to training and simply there to appease a client or make a trainer look a heck of lot smarter than he or she really is? This is a huge question so let’s start with a basic component of most if not all effective training programs. If you look at most movements in sport and life, a common factor is often the involvement of the legs and hips as key power generating muscle groups. Simply YouTube Mike Tyson training, watch Federer coming out of a 1/2 squat to complete a forehand, talk to a speed skating coach about the key elements for an effective start, or talk to a researcher studying the effects of aging on muscle power and the incidence of slips, trips and falls, and you will gain an appreciation for how ubiquitous hip and leg power are to life and performance.
There are several extremely effective exercises for developing this quality: the Olympic style lifts (cleans and snatches), the squat, the trap bar dead lift, the jump squat, the single leg squat etc… If you examine the research, there isn’t necessarily one movement that prevails over another. The common thread for obtaining improvement is that the athlete works hard against heavy loads for the appropriate number of repetitions and sets, and with sufficient regularity over a training cycle. It’s really quite simple; as long as an athlete has this basic element, he or she will likely improve. Performing squats with elastic bands or chains, doing box squats instead of an Olympic style squat, or any other subtle exercise variation are really inconsequential to the overall training adaptation providing the athlete works his or her butt off.
Let’s take this a step further. I once had an athlete, who will remain nameless, who decided to seek the assistance of a personal trainer, who shall also remain nameless. In order to appease this particular athlete, who happened to dislike strength training, the trainer gave her a movement that required her to hold onto a pulley with one hand, and perform some sort of awkward twisting squatting motion with light weight and in a rapid fashion. He sold this as a movement that could help her leg and hip power while connecting the core and challenging her balance. Guess what happened? She loved it! She thought it was a novel, creative, and fun exercise. It was so much better than the program I had given her with power cleans and full squats. Guess what else happened? She gained absolutely zero strength and power because that movement was absolutely ineffective and nothing more than a random flavour of the month exercise. Everyone is entitled to his or her own approach to training program design but in my opinion, this guy was way more concerned with whether or not the athlete was happy and liked his program rather than if he was doing the right thing for her physical preparation. Incidentally, I am a strong believe in doing what I think is right for an athlete not what I think will make them happy. If you have conviction in what you are doing and saying, and it’s coming from the right place, you should be able to put it out there to someone and to be at peace whether the other party accepts or rejects what you have said. It is slippery slope if as a trainer or any other professional working with people, you are more motivated by being liked than doing what is in the best interest of the client.
To summarize, regardless of whether you’re talking about improving body composition, upper body strength, core strength or aerobic endurance the general principles outlined above hold true. Most effective training programs are usually quite simple and contain a few essential elements. Work hard with the right intensity and training load, perform the movement with sufficient regularity, and don’t be conned into thinking a subtle variation on an exercise is going to make or break the program. Ultimately it’s a matter of sifting out what really matters and what is absolutely irrelevant. Remember, a lot of variation is often there to do nothing more than fend of boredom or worse yet to entice clients into an ineffective program.