8 Ways to Add Variation to Your Strength Training Program

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This blog idea came about as I have recently started working at a local YMCA. I have noticed that members become quickly bored of their gym routines and/or become frustrated due to lack of progress with their current routine. Like athletes, they are continually looking for the next best thing- when sometimes all it takes is a simple little change to break through a training plateau.

In this post I want to teach you how you can increase your training intensity and add variation into your gym routine WITHOUT ripping up your current workout card/program and requesting a new, overhauled weight training program.

Ditch the barbell

If you have been working on dumbbell bench press for a couple of weeks, a simple change to dumbbells is all it takes to create a new stimulus (AKA continued progress). Smaller, stabilizer muscles are required to work harder to control weights when you lift with dumbbells as compared to barbell training. Because of this, you will need to adjust your training weights.

To find an equivalent dumbbell weight – Divide bench press weight by 2, and then take 90% of that weight. Using 85% seems to work best for females.

Example:

225lb bench press

225/2 = 112.5 lbs

112.5 * 0.9 = 101.25 lbs

Round to 100 lb

CHOOSE 100 lb Dumbbells

Perform Drop Sets

Perform a typical exercise in a usual fashion. Then, when you cannot complete any more reps, drop the weight by 20-30% and perform as many reps as possible of the same exercise.

For machine based movements, simply change the pin up two to three notches (dependant on starting weight). For dumbbell based exercises, work your way up the dumbbell rack, and for barbell exercises change the plates.

If you’re feeling really good, work all the way up to the minimum on dumbbells and machine based exercises. Here’s an example: Perform as many Lat Pulldowns as possible. Change the pin to the notch above, perform as many as possible- and then change the pin to the notch above.  Continue the same process until you’ve reached the top of the weight stack. This can get incredibly tough- that’s why I recommend performing drop sets in this manner occasionally.

Invert Sets/Reps

If your typical training session consists of 4 sets of 10 change your set and rep range to 10 sets of 4. As a max of 10 reps equals approximately 75% of a 1-RM, while a max of 4 reps  equals approximately 90% of a 1-RM, it is an incredibly simple way to add intensity to your training session.

I recommend inverting your sets/reps just for your major movements (eg: bench, squat, deadlift, leg press). Performing heavy sets of 4 reps on smaller movements could result in a potential injury.

Perform Single Leg/Arm Movements

Increase balance, coordination and core involvement in your program by switching to single leg and/or single arm exercises. This works well for overhead pressing, squat and hinge type movements, and for pressing movements such as dumbbell press. Switching from two legs/arms to a single leg/arm is much harder than you might think. Don’t be surprised if you have to drop your weights by 10 to 20%.  

Add Accommodating Resistance

This adjustment is best suited for those with a strong background in strength training. Adding bands or chains to bench, squat and deadlifts can help you push through a training plateau. By utilizing bands or chains you will be forced to push through and finish each movement as fast as possible. This is because of the effects of bands. Gravity continues to pull you and your weights down towards to floor.

Change range of Motion

You’re probably most familiar with adjusting the range of motion of an exercise from an exercise called 21’s. For those unfamiliar with 21’s it is an exercise that utilizes the top and bottom ⅓ range of motion of the arm/elbow to mechanically stress the biceps.

Another example is 1.5 rep squats. See the video below! By changing the ROM in this manner you effectively work 50% harder- assuming you can handle the same weights and reps.

 

Add a Pause

At the end range of motion of an exercise simply hold the position from anywhere between 2-5 seconds and then proceed to finish the movement. This eliminates the stretch-reflex and makes an exercise much more difficult.

At Mt. St. Mary’s, we implement pause reps within our beginner programs. For example, an athlete would pull a barbell from the floor to mid-shin and hold for 5 seconds- once 5 seconds has passed they would then drop the bar to the floor. In doing so, they would essentially perform a half rep deadlift. From my experience- this method seems to work wonders. One of our athletes recently completed a 4 week introductory program that involved paused reps and maxed out with a 275 lb deadlift. Prior to this- he had never picked up a weight in his life.

Eccentrics

Thanks to Cal Dietz and his book Triphasic Training, eccentrics seem to have made a resurgence into athletic based strength and conditioning programs. A timed eccentric phase is the slow and controlled lowering of a load as a muscle is stretched/lengthened. Shorter duration eccentrics such as 2-3 seconds work best for movements with a small range of motion. In contrast, longer duration eccentric movements (up to 6-8 seconds) work best for movements involving large muscle groups and larger ranges of motion.

Eccentric training should be minimized in-season as it breaks down muscle and can lead to high levels of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). As a method of increasing intensity, eccentric training is best utilized in the off-season.

Hopefully you can begin to utilize one or more of these eight methods in your training soon!

What’s your favorite method? I’d love to hear from you!