Printer Friendly

Variation strategies in strength training.

Variety is the spice of both life and the progressive strength-training program.

The incorporation of systematic change-ups in volume, intensity, exercise selection, set/rep schemes, and frequency will abet the athletes' physical development and keep the workouts fresh and challenging, regardless of training philosophy.

Variation strategies are abundant, and coaches must thoroughly examine each to determine its compatibility with their approach and then tailor it to their needs.

Following are several of the more prominent variation plans and troubleshooting points for each.


One very popular approach is known as periodization, which has its genesis in competitive weightlifting. While there are several distinct modifications on this theme, it basically revolves around the splitting of the program into periods (or "cycles"), with each having a specific blueprint for volume and intensity.

A simplified description of a periodization plan:

Macrocycle -- an overview of the entire training year, complete with the plugged-in percentages, exercises, and volume considerations for each of the following shorter cycles.

Mesocycle -- shorter periods within the macrocycle (usually 3-6 week segments), with ever-changing volume and set/rep protocols.

Microcycle -- the actual training week within a mesocycle.


The guiding principle of periodization is gradually shifting from lower intensity efforts (based upon percentages of 1 repetition maxes), higher reps (e.g., 8-10), and higher volume (total sets) to higher intensity, lower reps (3-5), and lower volume within each mesocycle. Recovery and "active rest" periods are interspersed between training cycles.


The basic premise of the periodization format is to incrementally introduce varying degrees of stress to the neuromuscular system. These increments are tagged as the hypertrophy phase (i.e., muscular growth), strength phase, and power phase. Each of these phases is married to a mesocycle with its own predetermined guidelines for total volume, sets per exercise, reps, weekly training frequency, and intensity--which is based upon a percentage of a 1 rep max.

As stated earlier, this system of training, which has been described in minimal detail--is conjoined with the sports of Power Lifting and Olympic Lifting. The nature of those activities calls for the mastering and execution of a select few maximal lifts at a handful of competitions per year.

Within that context, periodization is unquestionably a very effective and workable model.

Conversely, while most strength-training practitioners believe that variety is a cardinal component for success, not everyone is convinced that the classic periodization approach is appropriate, or necessary, for every sport.

A host of morphological and neuromuscular indices must be taken into consideration when constructing each athlete's training schedule. In short, much more of an individualistic approach is required. A periodization cycle that is too much for one athlete might not prove enough of a stimulus for another.

For those of you interested in learning more about the classic periodization model and its analogues, we suggest an Internet search for some of its more prominent architects and authors. This research will allow you to make an informed decision on whether to implement it.


Another approach is to make periodic changes in sets, reps, exercises, exercise order, intensity, total volume, weekly frequency, etc., while remaining flexible and allowing for individual differences and special needs.

Undulating techniques account for most of the weak links inherent in some of the periodization models that may be necessary underpinnings of competitive lifting, but not conventional sports.

By incorporating undulating, or fluctuating, techniques, you will be able to control and adjust many of the pitfalls of other cycling systems. Change is good--controlled, flexible change is better.

Allow us to offer some of these variation strategies, along with suggestions for implementation and troubleshooting advice for each.

1. Change the order of exercises: This slight manipulation not only relieves some of the mental tedium associated with training, but it also provides a varied stimulus to the musculature.

Considerations: Expect better performance on the exercises performed early in the workout, especially if they involve the same or adjacent musculature. If you have exercises in your program that are considered more important in terms of documentation, they should be placed early in the workout. This simple adjustment can be applied at any point--either in-season or off-season--for as long you choose.

2. Change the set/exercise emphasis: This wrinkle changes the workout emphasis from sets to exercises, or exercises to sets. In other words, if the normal scheme calls for 4 sets of a particular exercise, it is changed by performing one set of 4 different exercises, or 2 sets of 2 different exercises, for the same musculature.

Conversely, if the usual format is to perform single or double sets of varying movements for a targeted area, one exercise is chosen and more sets are performed. The same amount of total work is accomplished in either schematic, with a slight twist.

Considerations: This is an excellent pre-season and/or in-season adjustment, as time constraints, equipment, group size, etc., tend to force you out of the status quo.

3. Change the bilateral/unilateral emphasis: If you check your workout scripts closely, you will probably find that most--if not all--of the exercises are bilateral (both limbs working in unison with the same fixed implement--e.g., a barbell). If the same exercises are performed with dumbbells or a machine that allows for independent limb movement, you are now working unilaterally.

Considerations: This independent action can serve to mitigate strength deficits, a problem not always addressed with bilateral movements. Be sure to track the rep progress for each limb, as it may vary.

4. Manipulate rep schemes on a weekly/bi-weekly basis: The periodization formats can taper the reps over time or on a more frequent basis. We have had success manipulating rep schemes within the same week.

Research has failed to establish a definitive rep management profile that meets everyone's neuromuscular requirements. But the literature indicates that fiber types (percentage of fast twitch versus slow twitch fibers) play a paramount role in rep assignments.

Fluctuating the rep schemes from high (10-15) to moderate (6-10) to low (4-6), gives you a better chance of coupling your athletes with the rep design that best fits their fiber type makeup.

Considerations: Be sure to track the athlete's progress within each rep scheme subgroup in order to account for progressive overload. This method is especially effective during the off-season months, when wear and tear from games and practice will not hinder the athlete's progress.

5. Change the workout tempo and/or "time under load": Another extremely effective change-up technique is to quicken the workout pace by allowing less time between sets and exercises. If the usual allotment is 2 minutes, you might shorten it to 90 seconds or less.

In time and as adaptations occur, the respite can be shortened even further. We like to do this with "no-card" workouts--those performed without documentation.

Rationale: Unless you do this on a consistent basis, the results can get skewed and thus rendered invalid. For this approach, it is better to concentrate on the coaching effort, as opposed to worrying about documenting reps.

Increasing the rep duration--time under load (TUL)--is a great method for upping the intensity level of reps and sets. If your normal rep duration is approximately 1-2 seconds for the concentric (raising) phase and 2-4 seconds for the eccentric (lowering) phase, you might consider accentuating the TUL to 2-3 seconds for the concentric phase and 4-6 seconds on the eccentric phase.

Considerations: Either one of these suggestions works well during the in-season, as both of them permit you to lower the total volume while still garnering the needed work, overload, and neuromuscular adaptations.


Keeping workouts fresh and challenging for both the mind and body are key elements for continual progress. Whether you adopt a classic periodization model, one or more of the alternatives described here, or an integration of all of the above, try to make variety a priority in your program.

To borrow a concept from football coaches, it simply amounts to running the same plays from different formations.


A few of the concerns:

* The vast differences in the training and competition calendar for other sports make it difficult to adhere to a strict training cycle.

* The accumulative physical stresses of these sports differ significantly and dictate continuous flexibility in the training paradigm. Additionally, injuries and illness can disrupt the cycle and throw a wrench into the entire process.

* Athletes respond and adapt to strength training at different rates and levels within the parameters of their individual genetic capabilities (check the May/June, 2004 issue).


* The primary goals of athletes involved in sports other than competitive weightlifting are much more intricate than the occasional demonstration of a maximal lift. The athletes are confronted with a far-reaching aggregate of strength and conditioning concerns, not the least of which is sport-specific skill acquisition. All of this takes a significant physical toll on the athlete over time, which must be accounted for in the overall conditioning profile.

* Some question the need to determine 1 repetition maxes (or even estimated 1 rep maxes) on most exercises in order comply with the periodization format. Now, if your goal is performing a 1RM or estimated RM in a lift or series of lifts, a modified cycling model will certainly assist. My point is that it may be difficult to find a clear-cut periodization construct that is ideal for everyone.

By Ken Mannie, Strength/Conditioning Coach Michigan State University

SEND YOUR QUESTIONS TO: Ken Mannie, Michigan State University, Duffy Daugherty Building, East Lansing, MI 48824 or via email at
COPYRIGHT 2004 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Powerline Sponsored by Philips
Author:Mannie, Ken
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Previous Article:Follow up ...
Next Article:Pet peeves.

Related Articles
New powerline technician apprenticeship committee at Cambrian.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters