“Variety” has to be one of the most common words thrown around in the fitness world nowadays. At this point I have to imagine that more or less everybody knows, or has at least heard, that variety is important in a proper training program. But variety likely means very different things to different circles of fitness enthusiasts. This dawned on me as I was reading a blog post from Charles Poliquin on his website (strengthsensei.com) about this very subject. He begins one paragraph with this sentence:
“The body can adapt to any routine in as little as six workouts”
I would wager that on reading this, either here or from Charles, there were quite a few folks that were pretty dumbstruck, but for very different reasons.
If you’re a bodybuilder or the regular gym-rat type, you may have been doing the same 3x12 variation of bicep curls or bench press for the past 12 weeks - way, way more than the six workouts that Charles points out. Powerlifters too often rotate between the same squat/bench/dead rotation for weeks upon weeks upon weeks without any significant change in tempo, rep scheme, volume or rest. I know that in my pre-professional days I certainly went to the gym and ran through the same routine for as long as I could remember without any compulsion to change.
Now if you’re a CrossFitter, I imagine you’re thinking something different: “Wait… doing the same routine six times? In a row?!”. One of the guiding tenets of CrossFit is of course CONSTANT variation, which many coaches and fanatics have taken to mean as doing a different workout every single day and perhaps never doing the same workout twice. This is far and away the most popular model for most CrossFit gyms around the world - new day, new workout. I was once a kinda-sorta competent CrossFit athlete that competed at a reasonably high level, and before I owned a CrossFit gym, I attended one. Ask most CrossFitters what the most famous benchmark workout is and they’d probably say “Fran”. I’ve done “Fran” all of five times in my entire life, which is more than any other CrossFit workout.
So depending on where you’re coming from, doing a workout six times and then rotating may sound absurd, but for two very different reasons.
Quick aside for the CrossFit crowd - variety in a conditioning setting, or a ‘metcon’ can be justifiable since with conditioning we’re largely trying to create a metabolic adaptation. Moving through different workouts is fine so long as you’re sticking with exercises that you know you can do with your eyes closed (no new or exotic exercises in metcons). Proper variation is about creating the right neurological adaptations, which is critically important for strength and muscular development. If you’re trying to get strong, jumping from one session to the next is a flawed approach.
So when you hear about variety being important in a proper training program, it’s important to consider it in the context of where you are now. If you’ve been grinding away at 5-3-1, Smolov, or your own program for too long, time to mix things up. If you’re used to living by the maxim of constantly varied then you probably need less variety. The right amount depends on your training goals, the type of athlete you are, your sport, training age, competitive calendar, and of course, what you’re used to now. You know… context.