LESS VARIETY = MORE PROGRESS?
We’ve all heard the concept of “muscle confusion” before. To dumb it down to it’s lowest possible dumbness (because, you know, it’s dumb): it can be watered down to the idea that we need to constantly “confuse” the body in order to make progress in the gym.
We need to go out of our way to change up our exercises every so often so that we don’t stagnate and/or lose all our gainzzz.
Now before I get buried under the tide of hate mail no doubt coming my way, I’m not saying exercise variety is a waste of everyones time and effort, just that there is an optimal amount of variety for every individual based on training experience, physiological and mental factors (hell I get it variety is fun, sometimes we just need a bit of fun!), but you probably don’t need as much variety as you think to progress optimally.
One of the problems with training for golf is there are a lot of things to work on; lumbo-pelvic control, stability, balance, rotational mechanics, core, strength, power, and a myriad of other fitness qualities. This often leads to lots of variety in training and a lack of repetition of certain movements and physical quality development. However, as one of my favourite mantra's goes:
"The hack for performance is mind numbing monotony"
I love this quote because it sums up perfectly the effort and sacrifice it takes to be really good at anything. In other words to be good you need to practice over and over again, this intuitively makes sense. The same is true for strength, if you want to get stronger you must practice. Practice a few basic strength movements and become really good at them.
Without going into too much detail strength is the most basic physical adaptation and increases in strength will carryover to almost all other physical qualities. There is a continuum of exercises available to us, ranging from the most beneficial to the least beneficial for your sports performance. Given the constraints of time and energy this means that there are only really a handful of exercises that you should always be doing. For golfers on my programming this means 5 to 7 movements a workout:
1. Hip hinge pattern (deadlift)
2. squat pattern
3. Vertical or horizontal press
4. Vertical or horizontal pull
5. A core strength/ positioning exercise
6. Typically some rotational stability movement (hip, ankle or scapular)
7. A power/speed element if the athlete has progressed far enough
That's it! And we typically repeat these patterns each workout so the athlete gets these patterns down and mastered. This approach gives great improvements in strength due to increased intra and intermuscular coordination. It'll also make your movement and nervous system much more efficient.
So, if there are certain movements so beneficial that we pretty much always need to be doing them, then why do we need any variety at all?
The most salient argument is probably that doing the same thing time after time is catastrophically boring and most people simply won’t adhere well to a program like that. However there are also physiological reasons why, namely the repeated bouts effect.
The repeated bouts effect states that: when exposed to the same stimulus repeatedly, your body will eventually habituate to that stressor, meaning your training results will eventually come to a halt.
One solution is to create variety via ever changing exercise selection utilising a method of periodisation called conjugate periodisation.
Conjugate periodisation is a method of periodisation that uses weekly variation in exercise selection to provide periodisation for the program and has produced some of the strongest lifters in the world. It’s so successful pro muscle confusion guys like to cite it as an argument against the need for specificity to be really good at something.
In reality what conjugate periodisation is doing is not muscle confusion or randomly ‘changing it up’ though, the workouts stay pretty much the same sets and reps wise, the assistance work stays the same for a long period of time typically, all that is changing is exercise selection of the primary exercise of the day. I like to use a term coined by strength and conditioning coach Charles Staley to refer to this - the same but different. The advantage of this is by rotating exercises every 2 to 4 weeks, the stress on the nervous system is lower than if you always maxed out on the same lifts.
For example: Week 1-2 you will perform a sumo deadlift or hip thrust, week 3 a cable pull through and week 4-5 bar elevated or trap bar deadlift. Whilst these movements are all slightly different they are still training a hip extension movement in a manner conducive to increasing strength.
How much variety do I need?
So we've covered the need for a lack of variety and we've covered the need for variety, so how do we know the amount of variety necessary for the individual.
I like the diamond model of variety; beginners have very little variety, intermediates utilise greater variety, before it reduces again as we reach expert level.
Beginners are not very neurally efficient and will benefit from increased movement and central nervous system efficiency as well as intra and intermuscular co-ordination. They also can't lift as much load relative to their strength potential, and as such cannot lift enough load to significantly eat into their recovery capacity so can get away with this reduced amount of volume.
Intermediates utilise greater variety as the repeated bouts effect becomes more of an issue as they have simply been training for a longer period of time. By this point they have also got significantly stronger and can therefore create a greater amount of central nervous system fatigue each workout, by rotating exercises every 2 to 4 weeks, the stress on the nervous system is lower than if you always maxed out on the same lifts. Additionally, the low variety in the beginner phase has brought great movement efficiency in a small handful of movements, and now is the time to broaden that movement efficiency by bringing in new and more complex movements.
Once the expert stage has been reached the athlete has learnt what works for them and therefore variety in exercise selection losses some of it's value (after all why do an exercise that is less effective for you). However, the athlete is also approaching their genetic potential so can create significant stress on their central nervous system in a session, as such we need to manage this and the repeated bouts effect by adding variety in terms of loading parameters or intensity.
Something to note here is that almost all athletes using strength training to supplement their primary sport will never get to an advanced strength training level, and will spend all but the first few months of their training career in the intermediate spectrum.
All these strategies can be seen in our online coaching programs, so if you want know more take a look here and apply for your free consultation.