You have probably heard it already: If you want to achieve progress in muscle building in the long term, you have to vary your workouts in order to set new stimuli.
That is also completely obvious, because the entire muscle building is actually based on this: You set new stimuli that are a threat to the body represent, so bring him to the edge of its capabilities.
what happens? The muscles suffer micro-injuries during training and in order to be better equipped in the future, these are not only repaired by the body, but also strengthened.
The body adapts to the specific stimuli!
As soon as this has happened, the development of the muscle system stagnates unless “new” stimuli are applied.
So far, so well known. As a result of these findings, however, a counterproductive variation hype sets in with many. Some change their training systems and exercises almost more often than their underpants.
No coincidence: These are the ones who are not making any progress. Because variation has its limits and you should already know what you are doing in order to be able to design your progressive training plans in the long term.
In this article you will find out what almost everyone does WRONG when they vary their training plan and workouts and how you can vary your training stimuli correctly in order to build muscles properly!
In order to understand how to vary correctly and what many are doing wrong, we first have to look at what get stronger actually means and what is important!
The strength that you can develop in training is primarily determined by two factors: Muscular potential and Mind-Muscle-Connection .
The muscular potential refers, as the name suggests, to the available muscle fibers – the thicker these are, the greater the tension we can expose them to and the more strength they can develop.
The mind-muscle connection relates to the control of the muscles – the more muscle fibers we can address and the better the individual muscle fibers and muscle groups work together, the more strength we can develop.
So if you want to get stronger, there are two options:
- You improve your muscular potential
- You improve your mind-muscle connection
Most of them want to concentrate on their muscular potential, i.e. build muscles or thicken the existing fibers – this is called hypertrophy .
The problem is: The human body does not like to build muscle mass, because this process itself and the permanent maintenance of the muscles costs a lot of energy (which is why muscles are also an important factor in following weight loss)!
Good to know: Why strength is more than just muscles
We have just reduced the development of force on the muscles themselves and on the control of the muscles, because this is targeted and sufficiently precise for the subject of“ variation ” is.
However, it is also useful to know that the development of strength is not only determined by the muscles – the other structures of the musculoskeletal system (joints, tendons, ligaments, bones) also play a role here!
The weaker these are in comparison to the muscles, the less force you can develop.
Responsible for this are the so-called “Golgi tendon organ” and our body’s efforts to avoid structural damage.
The Golgi tendon organ measures muscle tension and forwards this information to the nervous system. These are processed by the brain and should, in simple terms, turn out to be that the tension in the muscles is so high that there is a greater risk of injury, then it is reduced.
This is a simple self-protection mechanism: If the muscles do not work together properly or the structures involved, such as the tendons, are not strong enough, the tension in the muscles is inhibited to avoid injuries .
In contrast to building muscles, the improved interaction between muscles and brain, i.e. better coordination of muscles, is energetically beneficial.
If you regularly expose your body to the threatening situation mentioned at the beginning through training, it will work on countering this better in the future – i.e. building strength and, ideally, muscles.
This always happens in this order:
- Improve coordination
- Increase muscle potential (hypertrophy)
In practice, both processes run in parallel, but with different weighting:
The greater the coordination deficit, the less muscle mass is built!
That simply means:
As long as you only do the exercises improperly or are not yet able to control your muscles properly, you will hardly build muscles.
You can see this well with absolute training beginners who can increase the training weights very quickly, but still hardly build muscle mass.
By the way, differences arise mainly due to different body types and the sporty background – those who have already done a lot of sport adapt faster and learn the muscles for to coordinate the individual exercises more quickly and therefore build muscle faster.
The variation in workouts and training plans is undoubtedly important to build muscles – we noticed that at the very beginning of the article. But with the background knowledge we have now acquired, we can also understand what is often done wrong here.
Here is the mistake many people make when building muscle:
The exercises are exchanged too often!
Because what actually happens when you replace one exercise with another?
You are confronting your muscles with a new, unknown movement – your coordination is consequently suboptimal. So you are almost at the starting point, have a lot of room for improvement in terms of coordination and therefore hardly build muscle mass .
Through the training you improve this coordination over weeks and thus get your body to increasingly build muscles in response to the workouts.
The problem: Many people change the exercises again after 8 or 10 weeks.
That’s a well-known basic rule, isn’t it: After 2-3 months, a new training plan should be created to set new stimuli.
Whoever swaps the exercises again and again in this interval is always working primarily on coordination and muscle building creeps along.
First of all, I would like to state: 2-3 months is actually a good amount of time to effectively train a training plan. Then a new one should be here.
I will now show you step by step how exactly you can and should (or should not) vary.
Step # 1: Find a solid core of exercises
For the reasons just mentioned, it is not a good idea to switch exercises wildly. Every successful athlete has a set core of exercises!
This can of course be supplemented with varying exercises (more on that later), but the core remains.
For muscle building, this core should consist of the most effective basic exercises. These include:
These are classic examples – the practice core itself is of course an individual matter. For some, it also includes exercises such as thruster, snatching, pushing or muscle-ups.
Above all, it is important that the exercise core can grow with the training experience and frequency.
Beginners should limit themselves to a small core exercise (4-5 exercises) and then gradually expand it.
Step # 2: Vary on a small scale
If you are doing the core exercises all year round, then it is important to vary the performance of these exercises slightly over and over.
The principle is called “small variation”:
Change grip and foot positions to generate new loading angles .
This is not a new exercise, but it is still a different load. This has three advantages:
- You set new stimuli – but without getting into the “coordination dilemma”.
- You make your body more robust for “real world” stresses – naturally you don’t move in a perfectly clean alignment, but also has to cope with less favorable angles. This way, stabilizing muscles are more involved.
- You prevent overloading – whoever trains at almost exactly the same angles becomes more prone to overload. Changed exposure angles prevent this.
Specifically, this means:
- Find your “optimal” position for each exercise – the posture in which you are strongest.
- Practice this pose thoroughly, refine and perfect it as much as possible.
- However, especially when training with moderate and light weights (all over 6 repetitions), deviate from these optimal positions again and again by reaching wider and narrower. With very heavy training weights, you should stick to the optimal position if possible
That makes your body “bulletproof” (figuratively) AND provides valuable variety.
Step # 3: Vary the training parameters
One-dimensional training not only leads to stagnation very quickly, it is also simply boring. Training plans can and should be varied:
- Train in different rep ranges: Lighter weights are good for the endurance of the muscles. Heavy weights are important for central nervous system (CNS) conditioning, strength development, and strengthening of passive structures like bones. Moderate weights offer a good balance between mechanical stress and “time under tension” – so it stimulates muscle building very well, but is not quite as strenuous for the CNS as using heavy weights.
- Use different pause lengths: The shorter, the more metabolic and endurance-intensive the training. The longer, the more you can concentrate on clean movements and maximum power development.
- Play with the tempo: An exercise stresses the body in a completely different way if it is done quickly and explosively or slowly and in a controlled manner. It offers some advantages for building muscle, preferably explosive training – but variety is also good for body and mind. So vary the speed of the repetitions from time to time.
- Use different methods: Circuit training, super sets, clusters, intervals, AMRAP, temporary, EMOM … there is a wide variety of training methods that can and should be alternated. What is hidden behind the individual methods is material for a later article (if you have any questions you can always get in touch).
These parameters help you to create varied training plans as well as to make sensible changes to the training plans after 2-3 months by turning exactly these screws. The three basic parameters of a training plan offer another possibility for variation:
Volume refers to the scope of individual workouts: The more exercises and sets you do in a workout, the greater the volume.
Intensity is self-evident: The closer you go to your performance limit, the more intense the training becomes. Intensity techniques like drop sets, partial repetitions, forced repetitions, and peak contraction can increase the intensity of a workout.
Frequency refers to the training frequency: This refers to both the load on a muscle (how often is a muscle group such as the back or legs loaded?) and the overall training frequency (how often do you train per week?).
Since the body’s ability to regenerate is limited, you cannot of course turn up all three basic parameters – nobody can train very often, very intensively and with a high volume!
There is more of an inverse proportionality:
The more often you train, the lower the intensity and / or volume must be.
The more intensely you train, the lower the frequency and / or volume must be.
The more extensive you train, the lower the intensity and / or frequency must be.
Logical. But this creates exciting opportunities for variety. With each new training plan you can change these three basic parameters, because this also sets completely new stimuli!
Step # 4: Integrate new exercises
You already know why it is important to keep a set of “fundamental exercises”. Nevertheless, these exercises can of course also be supplemented and of course this offers the possibility of integrating new exercises.
Essentially, this has two decisive advantages:
- New exercises pose new challenges for coordination. If you want to build muscles, this is unnecessary. However, if you want to burn body fat, this is very helpful, as lack of coordination inevitably means that an exercise uses up more energy! In addition, it is good for brain development, which is encouraged by movement complexity and learning new movements.
- New exercises freshen up the training. It’s not just about the body, it’s also about the head. Who always wants to do the same? It gets boring quickly! We need variety and new exercises are new challenges that make training more exciting. Never underestimate this effect! It’s one of the reasons so many (myself) love CrossFit.
You can see that a basic understanding of the most important functional and development principles of our body is helpful for effective training. The variation is a good example of this.
You now know what most people ignore when varying and how you can do it better in the future in order to make better progress.
But please don’t get me wrong either: Of course, progression in fitness training is ultimately just a side effect . It is much more about getting a healthy physical balance and having fun doing it. It’s about the enthusiasm for fitness and exercise!
Those who only base their training on success will give up quickly.
Doing something like the variation “wrong” does not mean that the training is then pointless – every movement is better than no movement. On the other hand, it doesn’t cost a lot to heed the basic insights of this article and make better progress with it. The main thing is that you don’t forget that it’s primarily about doing ANYTHING for your body.
I also know that some people develop a real fear of making “mistakes” while exercising. But as long as you use your common sense, the only real mistake you can make is nothing at all to do for your body.