Variations – What are you doing and why?

Outcomes matter – use your tools with a purpose

Whether you’re a powerlifter, bodybuilder, or just training for general strength, every exercise that you perform SHOULD have a distinct purpose, whether that happens to be very complicated or simple.

In general I think structuring your program around the development of key lifts or movements is a good idea.

For powerlifters, obviously, this is a necessity – you compete in the three powerlifts so to the degree that you actually take training seriously, your efforts need be directed at improving the squat, bench press and deadlift.

For general strength trainees, even if your benchmarks aren’t the powerlifts in a competition setting, you likely still have some objective outcome that you are trying to achieve.

For bodybuilders this is a little more tenous, but maybe still valuable. Consider that each joint movement in each line of pull has requisite muscular demands, and so development of your physique entails training a variety of movement patterns. Whilst load progression (and therefore 1rm strength) is much less important, the ability to progressively impose greater total tension demands over time should still be the purpose of your training and so structuring your training to develop the movements that you’ve chosen to address each muscle group IS important. (For more on that stuff I have an article coming soon). Said in brief – if you’re trying especially hard to develop the clavicular head of the pecs, you’re probably doing some incline pressing and should be structuring your chest programming otherwise to compliment developing that movement.

In all circumstances, though, your exercises OUGHT to be targeted and therefore your programing and execution of them OUGHT to reflect their purpose, and that’s the point of this article.

Variations vs “main” lifts

From hereon in I will be talking more or less in powerlifting terms. It’s very easy to extrapolate these lessons to general strength training and I’ll try in summary to explain how you can apply it in a bodybuilding sense at the end, too. For the most part just consider the conceptual lesson and you can apply it in your own programming depending on the structures you’re currently following.

What is a main lift –

In powerlifting, the main lifts are the competition squat, bench press and deadlift. In the strictest sense the competition lifts SHOULD just be singles performed in full supportive equipment with near maximal loads to competition standards, but for the sake of this article we’ll consider any training of the competition style lift as a “main” lift.

Again – conceptually you could extend what I’m going to say to considering all variations in rep range etc. Likewise, if you follow some sort of “conjugate” program where your “builder” lifts aren’t the actual powerlifts or are strategically trying to develop non-competition lifts, there’s no reasons these concepts don’t apply.

In short, though – the main lifts are your outcome measures. They’re what you are MOST invested in getting better.

What is a variation –

A variation is any …. variation on a main lift/outcome measure. That’s why in the most semantic sense a set of 3 competition style squats is sort of a variation. But for the sake of this article, again, let’s just consider variations otherwise similar/transferable movement patterns with deliberate changes in execution whose primary purpose is to drive development of the outcome measure.

Common examples include

  • Tempo squats, pause squats, pin squats, squats with different stance widths/bar placements/bars
  • Tempo bench presses, long pause bench presses, pin presses, floor presses, presses on different angles or with different grip widths
  • Opposite stance deadlifts, pause deadlifts, deadlifts from blocks, touch and go deadlifts, stiff legged deadlifts

Etc ad infinitum, with a million possible combinations of each

Why do we do variations

 A few reasons, of which any given variation might serve any or all. As it happens (and this is part of the point of the article), the SAME variation can serve different purposes, so having a handle on why you are doing it is extra important.

Reasons

1 – For a training effect that is distinct from the main lift. Whilst the competition squat obviously trains the competition squat pattern MOST transferably, variations may allow you to target portions of the lift or particular muscles more directly.

If you have lagging quad strength, for instance, you may choose to train a squat variation where the quads are taxed proportionately more.

2 – For technical emphasis. It’s actually hard to distinguish “technical” targeting from targeting muscles and mobility, as technical error can arise from an intersection between relative strengths and weaknesses, poor motor learning/awareness, fatigue, or immobility (which is also related to strength and motor learning). However, variations that mimic or emphasise positional demands in a way that plugs a gap in your execution of the competition lift are commonly used.

3 – For fatigue management. For the most part the variations we use in powerlifting reduce the absolute load lifted by an athlete in a given session which reduces the overall stress. For a given relative loading (eg 5×5@80%) front squats are much less fatiguing than low bar back squats. The ability to target specific muscles/technical demands without inducing as much overall fatigue makes them a very valuable tool.

4 – To allow development of general strength qualities without interfering with motor learning. This may seem in opposition to number 2, but if near-perfect execution of most competition style lifts is an ideal, then occasionally doing highly transferable grunt work where a tiny bit of technical breakdown is less of an issue is also valuable, particularly in hypertrophy blocks where you need to get a lot of work done.

5 – To reduce the risk of overuse injury.

There’s a multititude of other reasons, or more subtle ways of considering them, but that should be enough to get the cogs whirring – the point is that not only do we need to have a reason to use variations, but those reasons can be diverse.

That leads to the next logical step – if the reasons for our use of variations are diverse, that has implications for our programming and execution of them.

If you like this content and want to learn more from me, check out Fitness Fundamentals – a website providing the most up to date, applicable fitness information, run by my colleague Luke Tulloch and with content written by me.

How do we program and execute variations

Variations are used for a specific training effect – their execution MUST reflect that. What’s more, because their training effect is (usually) as distinct from the main lifts, to actually have a meaningfully distinct stimulus they need to have a meaningfully distinct method of execution.

What’s more, failing to execute your variations differently from the main lifts is also a great way to have them interfere with the development of your main lifts (ie your outcome measure).

What does this mean? In short

  • If you are using a variation targeted at technique, it ought be loaded in such a way that facilitates this (think lowish reps, low difficulty), performed in a way that emphasises the technique that you are trying to develop (ie, your tempo squats should look EXACTLY like your ideal normal squat, but slow – if they look different you aren’t training technique) and placed in your program in a place that compliments this (eg as a light day between heavy loading days, or as supplementary work after hard squats).
  • If you are using a variation to target a specific muscle, it ought be loaded such that you induce a meaningful training effect and executed in a manner technically that focuses stimulus on those muscles. If you use high bar squats to target the quads, but all of your sets involve your hips kicking back out of the hole, chances are you could get a similar quad stimulus with lighter loads executed correctly without inducing as much fatigue. Also, consider placing these variations in your program in a place where their execution is not compromised by prior fatigue of the target muscles and also where the extra fatigue they induce on said target muscle is not likely to interfere with the training of the main lift.
  • If you are using a variation specifically for fatigue management, it must be loaded in a way that reflects this (similar to above re technique – these are usually close to synonymous) and placed in your program in a logical manner.

Again, I could probably go on and on and use a lot of specific examples, but this should all be an exercise in logic at this point.

Quickly – given I’ve emphasised that variations need to be distinct from main lifts, the astute amongst you might conclude that I think very close variations have limited use (such as mild alterations to stance width in the squat or very mild grip width changes in the bench press).

I don’t think this is the case, but I DO think that such variations DO need a point of distinction. What’s more, they probably have particularly good places in a phasic plan, my reasons for which will be much more obvious in a few paragraphs’ time.

Where the risk for interference in motor learning is higher (eg the examples above), I think these variations are BEST used early in training cycles/away from competition and then phased out as competition approaches. For powerlifting purposes you only have to be at your absolute best on comp day, so a small tradeoff in the perfection of your groove early in a cycle might be a worthwhile exchange for a useful training effect. In the case of novices/intermediate lifters I think that is less the case, though, and you’re probably better using your main lifts to refine technique and reducing the chance for technical interference by choosing more distinct variations.

Intermission – a video of John Paul Cauchi doing his variations correctly. 
Note the deliberate, replicable nature of each rep. Also notice that these weren’t very hard – they weren’t meant to be.

What are the drawbacks of loading and performing variations inappropriately

1 – If your variations aren’t ACTUALLY distinct from the main lifts, you don’t benefit from the varied, targeted stimulus. For instance, if your tempo descent squats aren’t slow enough, you won’t have the chance to develop as much positional awareness during the descent, or develop as much eccentric strength.

Similarly, if you’re doing pin squats and don’t pause on the pins, tighten and attempt to drive up in your groove, you’re trading off on the unique benefit of that exercise. (Likewise if you (don’t) pause your paused deadlifts a la Rob Flett).

2 – If your loading is inappropriate you don’t get the same fatigue management benefits. Consider that a close variation (such as a pause squat) might be performed on a lighter, “technique” day in a program. If it is loaded to facilitate perfect execution, you might perform 5×3 @ 65% of your comp squat. If you chase a heavier load but execute poorly, you might perform 5×3 @ 75% of your comp squat, which is suddenly much more stressful. So not only are you less likely to benefit from them in a technical sense (in that your pauses and positioning will likely suffer), but you won’t have the same fatigue-reducing benefits of a light day. What’s more, your subsequent competition squat sessions might be compromised by the extra fatigue, which hampers motor learning further.

Putting the two together – if you are performing something that is SUPPOSED to be different to your main lift, but in practice it isn’t, what you’re really doing is just practicing suboptimal technique. If two motor tasks are sufficiently similar, your brain won’t treat them as distinct, and when it comes to skill in the competition lift, that increases the risk of automating errors. That’s bad.

So what’s my point:

Variations are kind of like tools in the toolbox – you’ve seen a problem to fix or a role to fulfil in the context of your program and so you need to choose a tool appropriate to the purpose. Once you’ve a defined purpose and tool, you need to program and load the variation in a way that allows you to execute them in a manner that actually achieves their purpose.

So keep your eyes on the prize and do the lifts you’re doing for the reason that they’re chosen.

Postscript – I said I’d explain how this matters for bodybuilding

In a couple of senses

  • If you are emphasising a bodypart/muscle, you might choose to develop a lift that imposes stress on that (my example earlier was the clavicular head in incline bench).
  • Your execution of the main lift should reflect its purpose – ie whilst technical alterations might help you handle more weight in your incline bench, it’s a fool’s errand to do so if those alterations remove stress from the target bodypart.
  • In more advanced trainees you might have your main lift that targets the bodypart you want to develop (incline bench) and then strategically pick secondary pressing exercises or variations of that lift (such as high incline DB press, close grip incline press or similar) to facilitate the development of that lift. Whilst hammering the bodypart you’re emphasising with volume is good and helps, you can also structure your program to facilitate the overload of that bodypart through the tool you’ve chosen (incline bench).
  • In summary you should have bread and butter movements that you use to hit a given boydpart (eg many people high bar squat for their quads) and whilst hammering leg work generally will help develop the high bar squat, giving some consideration to structuring your program to continue developing the bread and butter movements and executing them such that you target the muscles is a good idea.
  • More tentatively – technical proficiency in your lifts MIGHT help, and so some strength/skill-emphasised blocks MIGHT be worthwhile. Being able to handle heavier loads due to some neural adaptations (such as antagonist inhibition, improved rate coding etc) and technical improvements increases the tension stimulus you can impose on your muscles for a given set/rep scheme. If your “failure” or performance ceiling is way below your actual capacity to produce force you might be leaving gains on the table.
    The reason I am little more tentative in saying this is that you could feasibly be producing similar tension on a per fibre basis for less joint torque if you’re not as neuromuscularly coordinated, and because it’s really tension per fiber that matters, and because there’s heaps of pretty jacked people who are pretty shit at lifting, maybe that matters less. But it’s still worth considering.

So that’s it – have a purpose for doing what you’re doing and do what you’re doing with a purpose.

Happy lifting x

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