The number ONE priority of any strength training is to get stronger.
This is obvious, but the persistent pursuit of strength can be elusive, at times, causing us to hit plateau after plateau. Progress is good for a period, at least it feels that way during the early stages of lifting and moving weight, but there comes a point where everything sigfiicantly slows down, stops, or even regresses.
Assuming you are taking care of all the things outside of training — adequate sleep, good nutrition, managing your stress, and working on mobility and taking care of your body — it is time to add in VARIATION.
Other than technique, VARIATION is the best KEY to force your body to adapt to new stimulus to increase its strength.
If you have any experience with any strength training endeavor, like powerlifting, football, or just trying to get stronger, then you know that you get to a point where the next increase in strength is that much more difficult to attain, and you have got to add in complexity to your training — variation — that forces the body to adapt further and get stronger.
Just look at the graph below. I think it does a great job at mapping out what I mean of what strength performance progression looks like over time.
For example, you will notice in the beginning of the graph (as a novice), your progress is rapid and efficient. That is because your body can adapt fairly quickly to the new stimulus of performing movements (squats, deadlifts, bench press, etc.) with increased neurological efficiency (your body’s ability to control itself through the central nervous system — CNS), as you do them more often. This accounts for as much as 30% increase in strength gains within the first 6 to 8 weeks for a beginner in a movement.
The reason for this is because strength is a function of your CNS.
If your CNS can perform better by signaling all of the muscle available at its disposable and using all the avialable pathways for those muscles, your body will have more potential to lift more weight and overcome resistance, in any particular movement.
How we get better and better is progressively overloading the muscle with load, but there comes a point where that sort of linear progression fails and progress stops.
What happens then is to add variation.
Adding variation is especially key when you become a more advanced lifter, as the graph above describes. Just trying to increase load ALONE fails because the progression as a lifter is not linear after the beginning stages — it is curved. That means you have got to add complexity in your training and variation is that complexity to keep progressing.
What is Variation?
When I say variation I am not talking about load (or intensity). Load is how much weight you have on the bar, and that varies week-to-week based on your programming progression, level of experience, and is crucial in getting stronger.
That said, however, when I talk about VARIATION I am talking about doing any exercise, especially the big compound movements, like the squat, deadlift, overhead press, and bench press, in slightly different ways than what is “NORMAL” for you.
What happens is that this new variation seeks to challenge your body in different spots, during a movement, that you may have trouble with. For example, if you notice that when doing a squat you have trouble coming out of the “HOLE” then doing a pause squat will help you in that regard. It will help train your body to be more explosive coming out of the hole by teaching you to activate your glutes more, and improving core stability. Any variation like this, can be applied to any of the lifts.
Even doing something as simple as experimenting with a different stance or grip in a movement will do wonders. For instance, if someone always does a conventional deadlift and then tries sumo that would be a variation for that person. That is because doing a sumo deadlift forces your hips in a different position because of the wide stance, which targets the glutes, hamstrings, traps, and quads a lot more, rather than your spinal erectors and lower back in the conventional deadlift. This will help you be a more rounded lifter with improved hip and glute strength helping you in all other areas.
With new variations to your lifts you will notice that you will feel stronger and more stable with weights that were once shaky for you. This will improve overall performance in a movement by increasing the effectiveness of your CNS, which leads to strength gains.
Variation is Not Bodybuilding
Yes, variation can mean multiple things, but variation in your programming should not necessarily be different modes of training, like powerlifting to bodybuilding.
Of course, it is good to add in another style of training because most of it has overlap with strength training, and sets you up in a position for more strength potential.
That is great.
However, please do not mistake variation in your strength movements with HYPERTROPHIC TRAINING.
HYPERTROPHIC TRAINING is commonly referred to as bodybuilding, and seeks to build muscle volume to its maximum by focusing on the contraction of the muscle under high times of tension.
Hypertrophic training is a totally different type of training style, and is not variation to your strength lifts.
Where hypertrophic training comes in is allowing you to build a bigger engine over a given time period, giving you more potential for your CNS to work with. This is because you have more muscle mass that, in theory, will allow you to have increased strength potential when you train for strength.
(I wrote a post about this in detail after hearing powerlifting legend Eddy Coan talk about this in a video with Mark Bell. I encourage you to click HERE to read “How to Build a Bigger Engine” because there is some good stuff).
Strength training, on the other hand, is different. Strength training is being able to use you CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM (CNS) at its highest potential to unlock all the muscle your body has to perform a movement and overcome a resistance or move a weight.
THIS IS THE NUMBER ONE PRIORITY FOR STRENGTH TRAINING:
TRAINING YOUR BODY TO WORK AS ONE UNIT WITH GREATEST EFFICIENCY TO MOVE OR OVERCOME A RESISTANCE.
Bodybuilding, does not necessarily do that because the goal is to get as much muscle mass on your frame as you possibly can.
What I am saying, is that if you want to get stronger variation is the key, and that variation is seen in your strength lifts. Balance other type of training from your strength training, and determine what matters to you by periodizing any programming you have for your goal, and ultimately prioritize what matters to you.
If your priority is strength, do variation. Period.
Variations to Add to Your Lifts
With everything said, so far, what are some variations you can do that will help you in your lifts?
I will break them down based on movement below:
- Non-dominant style
- If you always do conventional do sumo, or vice versa.
- You can vary the duration of your pause, and do lighter weigths to focus on stability and explosiveness out of the hold.
- Romanian deadlifts
- Good for working your posterior chain really good and improving grip strength.
- Can be done with the barbell or dumbbells.
- Stiff-legged deadlifts
- Good for working your hamstrings and glutes, and turning them on.
- Use a barbell, or even dumbbells, and always train within your means and focus on form.
- Snatch-grip deadlifts
- Strength coach legend Charles Poliquin called the snatch grip deadlift the best deadlift to do for strength. Why? Because you are at your weakest when you have your arms far away from your center of mass forcing your body to work extra.
- Do them for grip work, and training your back.
- Trap Bar deadlift
- Relieves stress on the lower back because the bar is not in front of you.
- Good for people with back injuries or who are tall.
- Good for increasing power.
- Accommodating resistance
- Any use of chains or bands, that hit sticking points during this movement that hits you when you need to feel it the most.
- Fat grip deadlift
- Grab an axle barbell, or a pair of Fat Gripz that you can put on the barbell, to train your grip strength.
- Front squats
- Great for core strength and stability, thoracic extension (good for posture), and teaching your glutes to activate, while killing your quads at the same time. They are essential.
- Paused squats
- Great for core stability, control in the hole, explosiveness rising up in the squat, as it teaches you to engage more muscle at the right times.
- Tempo squats
- Hard to do but, like pause squats, great for stability and control over your decent in the hole. Also, great at working your body for endurance, given the increase in time under tension.
- Box squats
- Good for being explosive and teaching your body to fire at the right times.
- SSB (safety squat bar) squats
- 4x World’s Strongest man, Brian Shaw, called SSB squats the only squat you need to do.
- It alleviates pressure on your elbows, and upper back, because of the padding and how the bar is constructed.
- Great for building massive strength and muscle mass.
- Yoke Walk
- Will teach you more about core strength and stability than anything else because you can handle more weight than any squat you can do. Do them and you will understand.
- Sled work
- Not a direct variation to the squat, but I think sleds have carry over for the squat, namely that it is great for conditioning and putting your muscle to use.
- It improves endurance, and can be used as an active recovery tool for heavy squat days.
- High or low bar squat, and doing varying stance widths
- Doing the non-dominant squat style for you.
- Will teach you how to control your body better, and you might even discover that something else works better for you.
- Wide or close grip bench press
- Anything outside of your “normal” bench press grip. Teach you to work varying aspects of muscle and ways to fire on your CNS more (like your lats, triceps, leg drive, etc.).
- Incline bench press
- Good for developing upper pec development and it tends to be easier on the shoulders for most people, especially if you have prior shoulder injuries.
- Also, good for shoulder stability in pressing movements.
- Paused bench press
- This is essential if you’re in power-lifting because you are required to rest (pause) the weight on your chest and press.
- Great for stability, control, and building time under tension to work you muscles and CNS further.
- Spoto bench press
- Made famous by world record holder Eric Spoto for how he got up to his 722lb bench press.
- Great for control and stability in the descent and explosiveness when pressing up.
- Accomodating Resistance
- Use any accommodating resistance, like chains or bands, that force your body to work harder at weak points for you.
- Bamboo, Duffalo bar, or other type of bar for bench press
- For advanced lifters with access to this special equipment. Using different bars like these will force your body to perform better by working in different ways, even with lighter weights, like the bamboo bar.
- Push or jerk-press
- Will teach you to engage your lower body, while also teaching you to handle more weight than strict press.
- Axle Press
- Forces you to press using a thick bar forcing good technique and leverage to perform.
- 1-arm overhead push press
- Good for isolating one-arm and one-side of body to correct imbalances, while improving explosiveness.
- Dumbbell shoulder press
- Good for control and stability for the shoulders while isolating each arm to spot imbalances that are a concern.
There you have it!
All the basics you need to know about improving strength through the addition of variation to your strength training.
These variations will take time to implement and get proficient at, but are easy to practice once a week if you do programming right. For example, using something like the CONJUGATE METHOD, popularized by Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell, or a derivative of that works great.
Click HERE to learn more about the conjugate, or click HERE to check out a video about it from strongman athlete Brian Alsruhe.
I’ve also included these things into my own strength and muscle building program called LEAN MUSCLE BUILDING.
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD LEAN MUSCLE BUILDING.
Regardless of what you do, if you want to get stronger you have got to add variation.
Without it you will be missing out on those strength gains, and no one likes that.
SO, go do it!
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As always, thanks for stopping by and reading.
Until next time, be strong and be you!
(Cover photo credit)