Programming Variety – Lessons From A Mexican Kitchen

By Gregg Slater

 

Taking a sip of his coffee and opening up his laptop Paul had that familiar sense of apprehension. It was once again time to write a new training plan for Jenny. Jenny was great to train and had made tremendous progress since starting with Paul two years ago, so much so she was one of his strongest clients. This long-standing success brought both a sense of pride and apprehension to Paul. He was proud of what they had achieved together but felt lost when it came to Jennys programming. Weve done everything from DUP to metabolic strength training. Each training block I feel the pressure to re-write a completely new plan. Shes going to get bored.

Pauls dilemma is not an uncommon one. As trainers, we are continually battling to balance programme stability (keeping stuff the same) and programme variability or variety. From a physiological standpoint, stability within a training plan allows the opportunity to acquire and perfect skills (like a squat).  It also enables us to track progress and provide progressive overload. Variety, on the other hand, allows us to expand our clients movement vocabulary.  Making their movement reservoir as wide as it is deep while keeping training mentally stimulating and engaging.

However, too much of one can lead to problems. Too much stability, coming and doing the same things over and over, can lead to mental and physical stagnation and potential overuse injuries. For most people, its just dull as F***!  Too much variety, as is most commonly seen, can lead to feelings of incompetence and a lack of progress.  Its hard to figure out if youre making progress if you never see the same movements consistently.

The sweet spot is providing enough stability to drive adaptation but enough variability to keep training mentally stimulating.

Allow me to provide an analogy in the form of nutrition.

As a general rule, we know the vast majority of our clients diets should be made up from lean protein, fruit and veg, some starchy carbs to fuel training and sufficient fats to maintain hormonal health. Now, imagine telling your clients to each chicken, broccoli, rice and olive oil at every, single, meal. Its just not going to happen! While physically it has pretty much everything they need, its about as psychologically appealing as bear-crawling over broken glass. While certain tenants of a diet should be adhered to, we know that clients are far more likely to stick to those diets if its made up of foods they enjoy.

And herein lies the trainers problem. Am I, are you, good enough to deliver what they need in a manner that feels like what they want? How can we continue to provide the “basics” or “fundamentals” of a good resistance programme yet still keep it engaging?

 

When to Change Exercises

While there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to exercise deletion or rotation, one that should be avoided is changing everything every 4-6 weeks.  This not only causes a headache for trainers trying to reinvent the wheel when programming every training block it can also be a fast track to spinning your clients wheels. While there are many nuances to be considered, I have tried to summarise my thoughts in the graphic below as to when more or less variety may be warranted in general when coupled with your clients’ preferences.

 

As you can see, typically the more novice someone is, the more significant their current progress and the more specific their goals on a lift, the more stability is required in their programming.

On a session level, we also have a scope of different amounts of directed variability as can be seen below.

 

Indicator lifts:

These are the 4-8 big lifts you have per movement pattern dependent on the clients goals and skill. Think front squat, back squat, Anderson squat, landmine squat or double KB front squat. Typically, we want to keep these in our plans the longest before replacing with a new variation.  Usually every 6-12 weeks.

Secondary Lifts:

These are the lifts that are typically done after your clients main lift for the day.  Due to density reasons they are often performed in a non-competing paired sets fashion. You have a little more room for flexibility here and I tend to rotate these out every 1-3 training blocks. Thus, each block anywhere between 30-50% of the secondary exercises is in some way altered depending on the clients preferences and rate of progress. We will talk about how to alter these later on.

Finishers:

Here are your greatest options for variety which will often see me replace some isolation or conditioning work each session.  This may be the format in which its performed or the exercises themselves.

As you can see, the later an exercise is performed in a session, the less critical it is, and thus, variety can be programmed more readily.

 

What To Change Making Mexican Food

So, we have a rough thought process on when to provide variety but not HOW to offer variety. Here is where we learn from that Mexican kitchen.

Fajitas, enchiladas, burritos, quesadillas. They are all fundamentally the same ingredients of tortillas, cheese, chicken or beef with spices.  Yet they are made to feel like very different meals as they are cooked and presented differently.

A good chef doesnt just throw random ingredients together and hope it comes out right. (Thats literally a recipe for disaster). They know when to add the right ingredients, in the right amounts, at the right time. There are a purpose and rationale behind what they do and how they do it. Programming variety is no different (directed variability). Every time we make changes to the plan, we should know why we are making changes and that the changes that are implemented still move the client towards their goals. We dont do a variety for the sake of variation.  (95% of the videos that capture peoples attention on Instagram would fall into this category. They are expressions of fitness that look cool on a 20-second training clip. They are not developers of fitness).

Common variety ingredients include;

  1. Loading Position goblet, back, rack, waiters, suitcase, zercher, offset, ipsilateral, contralateral
  2. Loading Implement dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell, slider, band, bodyweight, sandbag
  3. Stance / Grip unilateral, bilateral, staggered stance, offset, supinated, pronated, neutral
  4. Range of Motion
  5. Set and Rep Schemes

Here is an extreme example of variety for 18 blocks of programming a single leg pattern. (This could last over 18 months). Please note: Im not advocating this approach.  I am merely using it to highlight the endless possibilities we have when mixing these various ingredients.

So next time you sit down to programme for your clients think less about reinventing the wheel and more about becoming that Mexican Chef, serving up those tried and tested ingredients in a fresh and engaging manner.

Gregg.

If you are interested in more from Gregg check out the Foundations of General Population Programme Design Course.