If you have been following myself and Natalie at any point over the past 3 years, I am sure you have heard us use the term movement “variability” when describing some of the techniques we post on social media. While you may already have an understanding of what the term variability means, we want to provide a clearer definition of variability within our own context of human health & performance. In order for us to describe the benefits of variability and how to apply this principle into your daily lifestyle of workout routine, we must understand how our body interprets and adapts to the stimuli we expose ourselves to on a daily basis, otherwise known as “SAID”.
The SAID principle stands for: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands; this principle translates into whatever stimulus we expose our body to. Our body then receives the stimuli and learns how to become more efficient at handling the stimulus during its next encounter. For example, maybe the first time you went inside the gym to lift weights, you started out by lifting 95lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps during your back squats. It was probably quite challenging to complete the first time, but the next time you encountered the same movement with the same weight and reps, it felt a bit easier. Subsequently, each time began to feel a lot easier, not only the completion of reps at that same weight but also over the next month, you were able to lift more weights for more reps.
What happened was that your body was exposed to the stimulus of the back squat and your system had to utilize a lot of energy to complete the workouts. After the workout, your body felt tired and beat down, and because our body does not like to be in this fatigued state, your body then decided to adapt to become stronger and more equipped to complete the back squat for that certain amount of weight and reps. This means your muscles and connective tissues adapted to become more stiff. Additionally, the amount of energy available for use during your workouts also started to increase in order to meet the same stimulus next time and not feel so fatigued.
With this understanding of the SAID principle, we can now understand how our training and our daily lifestyle habits are not just simple, mere moments of life, but they dictate and determine how we evolve and what we adapt into. For example, if we lift heavy weights 4-6 times a week, our body will interpret this stimulus as a need to adapt into a stiff, tight body in order to withstand the heavy loads you expose yourself to at the gym.
Although this can be beneficial for powerlifters who need to be stiff when lifting heavy loads on a daily basis, for the everyday person this stiffening of tissues can be detrimental to your everyday function and leave you in pain or discomfort. From a lifestyle perspective, if we spend long amounts of time inside, around artificial lights, our bodies will begin to adapt by increasing the amount of stress-hormones known as Cortisol. This is not at all beneficial for us as it can affect how we go to sleep at night or even when it comes to digesting a meal appropriately. Whatever we expose our body to, our body will adapt to (or get better with) that one exposure and this is not always beneficial for our health.
VARIABILITY INSIDE THE GYM
Let’s now shift our perspective of variability towards the context of the gym and fitness training. Staying with the back squat example above, let's say that for 3 months, you continued to expose yourself to the back squat with increasingly more weight each time and kept the sets and reps the same ( 3 sets. 5 reps). The skill that you are asking your body to get better at is simply being able to squat with a weighted barbell on your back for 5 reps, in 3 consecutive bouts. Many people think that because they are going to the gym and completing their squats with heavier loads each time that they would be able to keep up in an activity or hobby of their choice, such as a 5 on 5 pick up basketball game.
Now, understand that the back squat could benefit a basketball player to achieve higher levels of performance but because the hypothetical person has been sticking to his usual routine of working out in the gym with increasingly heavy weights, this will not translate into that person being equipped to play a pick-up basketball game. Basketball games and weight training are two completely different stimuli that require two completely different energy demands and they ask our body to adapt in two completely different manners. Although this may seem like a simple concept to understand, lets now be more specific as to the everyday gym go-er.
As humans, we are creatures of habit. Once we have experienced a high level of “gains” inside the gym, we tend to stick to a similar routine day in and day out. Although, there comes a time where your body begins to plateau and we will realize that the rate of growth we once experienced inside the gym is now slowing down along with our body’s ability to adapt. This is where adding some movement variability into your routine can help you counteract this stale state of adaptation. For example, every single client we have had the opportunity to work with (inside the gym + virtual) understands how we begin each workout and how we approach each work-set. Let’s discuss how we can throw some variability into our warm-ups to continue to adapt and get stronger on a daily basis.
Everyone sees warm-ups in their own specific context and understanding. Some view it as a time to get their heart rate up, some view it as a way to start sweating before the main phase of the workout. We view the warm up with a similar context as the reasons stated above, but we also use our warm-up as a way to introduce some movement variability to our system.
Remember, our body is always looking to complete an action with the least amount of energy as possible to be efficient; this desire to be efficient does not translate into moving with the most biomechanical efficiency and usually tend to rely on the same muscles to get the job done.
Areas in our body like our quads, knees, lower back and neck tend to be the main culprits of our daily movements and workouts and lack the integration of full body movements. In order to be able to utilize our hips, glutes, lats, and the rest of our body as whole, we must incorporate some practice that will teach our system how to turn-on these dormant areas as well as integrate these sections with the rest of our body during movement. This is where our joint-by-joint mobility comes into play as it is able to teach the body how to maximize the function of each joint before your workout session.
When speaking about adding in variability to one’s workout, it is important to understand that even the slightest change from 8 to 10 reps, or a 2 second pause at the bottom of a movement to a 4 second pause is enough variability to see some change in our system. Our body craves variability in order to keep adapting. When we step back and look at our training career over the past months or years, we must be honest with ourselves in understanding how similar our training has been during these periods.
Oftentimes, we can get away with starting off leg day with back squats and then transitioning into our usual auxiliary movements, but there will be a point where you will realize your body is not feeling as strong or adapting at a rate that you once felt. This is where movement variability and programming variability can come into play to ensure that your body is being challenged with a novel stimuli.
As mentioned above, we can only change the variables of our training (reps, sets, weights, tempo) so much before we need some new movement patterns that force the integration of our full body in order to complete the reps. This integration of our full body ensures that our brain + body is communicating on a deeper level to make the experience of your workout feel more novel, leading to continual positive adaptations.
Not only is providing some new movements challenging the communication of your brain and body, but adding in some new movement patterns to your workout routine ensures that all portions of your muscles are being used and challenged. As mentioned above, our body is a creature of habit and each one of our bodies is very comfortable completing a squat, bench, lunge, deadlift, etc. with only a partial amount of recruited muscles being challenged. Movement variability allows for a more complete movement range of motion which increases the chances of the whole muscle and connective tissues being activated and challenged.
It is one of my passions to help people program their workouts over the week, months and years of their performance careers. I find so much value and reward in helping people realize the importance of movement variability but also progressive overload to ensure that you are reaching your health and fitness goals for not only months but years! If you are someone who wants more insight into your training regime and want to learn how to keep it refreshing, be sure to check out the link below for a mentor call. We have helped numerous people realize how they can add more value and novelty to their workout programs.