How to use variation in your programming

When it comes to training there are two very big attractors when it comes to programing. You have specificity and variation. A good program will utalise both to keep progress moving in the right direction and a sub optimal program will utilize too much of one or the other which will lead to stagnation or a lack of consistency in the program. Both of which will lead eventually to plateaus or even regression if overly flogged.

Getting the balance of these two factors is very important but before we can discuss how you can best utilise them in your programming we should, first of all, give them a brief definition so are of the same understanding.

Both variation and specificity are recognized principles of training and as such, they have their own pre-existing definitions that are understood in the sports science community.

Here are the two top search results for each topic on a google search.

Training Specificity.

The principle of specificity states that sports training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce the desired effect. Additionally, training should progress from general conditioning to specific training for the particular skills required in that sport or activity. 

Essentially, specificity training means that you must perform the skill in order to get better at it. It is the principle behind that old saying, “practice makes perfect.” –


Training Variation

The Variation Principle suggests that minor changes in training regimens yield more consistent gains in sport performance. Training programs for virtually every sport include variations in intensity, duration, volume, and other important aspects of practice. 

The most well known method of practice variability concerns training in phases. Typically, an annual sports training program includes phases of training for conditioning, intensive sport-specific work, in-season maintenance, and an off-season regimen. Training in phases, or periods, is called periodization


Relating these concepts more specifically to powerlifting and weight training in general.

Specific powerlifting training –

  • Uses a competition barbell or replica.
  • The lifter mimics the rules of competition each repetition
  • Reps are low 1-3 per set.
  • Intensity is high 90%+ or 8+ RPE
  • The lifter concentrates on the competition lifts (squat, bench and deadlift)
  • The lifts are performed with the same equipment as in a competition (knee wraps, belt, sleeves, etc.)
  • Allows for complete rest and recover (5-15 minutes between attempts).

Varied powerlifting training –

  • Can use any implement or barbell.
  • The lifter can lift to any movement standard predetermined.
  • Reps can be any number however typically 4-12.
  • Intensity is varied but typically 50-85% or 6-9 RPE
  • The lifter is focusing on variations aimed to help them develop their competition lifts.
  • The lifts are performed in any manner of equipment.
  • Rest is determined by the training outcome (i.e. strength 3+ minutes, size or fitness 1-3 min between sets).

We can get dragged into the weeds on describing what specific and varied powerlifting is but the above should give you a good flavor of where the differences lie in both training principles.

How best to use specificity –

When you want to get better at something the best and quickest way to get better at it is to spend your time practicing the activity you are trying to get better at. The more time and effort you put into your powerlifting specific training to a point the better you will become as a powerlifter. In this instance, we will be leaning on the SAID principal – Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. Meaning what specific demands we place on the body through training stress we will see an adaptation towards. That is assuming that there is sufficient recovery afterward to allow the lifter to recover and adapt from the stimulus that they have been placed under.

However there os attenuation and slow down when we are training so specifically towards one goal. Plateaus, aches, pains, overuse and overreach are all signs that you are entering the point of diminishing returns with this style of training. As a rule of thumb 12-16 weeks of hard specific training geared towards any goal will be enough to see you entering this state of stagnation.

This of course is not a hard truth that everyone will realise but as a general rule of thumb it is useful.

So when you want to maximize your powerlifting performance is the time that you want to engage in the most specific periods of preparation. Meaning your training should more resemble what we termed as Specific powerlifting training above.

How best to use variation

Variation covers a lot of overarching variables that we manipulate in training on a session to session, week on week and month on month basis. As such it is actually a larger topic logistically to discuss than specificity however that isn’t to mean that specificity isn’t as important if not more important than variation. It is just ahem a more varied topic for which there is more to discuss. We will now break down variation into its constituent parts when it comes to programming and the relevance of each factor and a brief discussion on how you can best manipulate it.

Periods of Focus

The first and biggest source of variation comes from the change in training focus. There are some thoughts on this such as block periodization or conjugate periodization to name two older schools of thought which have differing opinions on how to handle variation and periods of focus.

Block periodization uses periods of focus (macrocycles 3-8 weeks) looking to focus on one of the component parts of fitness that help to develop the underlying goal. For powerlifting, the relationship typically looks like.

Hypertrophy first – increases in muscle cross-sectional area are very strongly associated with increases in force production and it is more or less taken as a fact that one of the if not the most important factors in getting a stronger muscle is to first get a bigger muscle.

Strength second – increases in muscle size however doesn’t directly lead to stronger muscles. It is normally a precursor to strength gain or to newer higher levels of strength. A lot of the physical attribute we understand as strength is neural and skill based in nature. As such if we don’t try to get better at lifting heavy things the way we want to lift those heavy things we are unlikely to get stronger. So we need to spend time developing this physical quality.

Peaking third – when we want to show the world what we got or we want to compete/hit some personal bests we can create a better performance by doing what is termed as peaking. It is an often used term that isn’t very well understood. I took the time to write and article on what peaking is here. Basically, a peak is a period of overreach where we look to maximize the physical capacity we currently possess specifically towards certain tasks normally on a certain date or on a timeline.

These are all tied together in a manner that takes advantage of block potentiation where completion of one period of training allows for better performance in the subsequent period of training.

Conjugate periodization – popularised by louie simmons and the early to late 00s powerlifting crewz. It basically is a template of training or an approach that seeks to develop every physical attribute together concurrently. The rationale is that every physical attribute needed for strength – speed, hypertrophy and maximal force production should be on the go at all times.

There is a certain rationale to this and is something that has a track record of success but in terms of variation,it relies heavily on exercise novelty and selection to avoid stagnation and is a training structure that is lacking for those who aren’t on steroids. When the 1500mg of testosterone you are injecting into your ass every week is taking care of the hypertrophy you only really need to worry about lifting moar weight.

There are a lot of ways of shifting focus during your training year but the one thing you can take away from this part of the action is that you should be changing focus every now and again. Typically speaking chunks of 2-4 months is a good amount of time to look to focus on different physical attributes or skill acquisition.

How to use periods of focus

  • Plan out your year in advance.
  • Put in periods of higher volume, skill learning and less specificity
  • Put in periods of higher intensity, less skill learning and more specificity
  • Put in periods of over reach, minimal skill learning and maximum specificity
  • Put in periods of recovery and detraining.
  • Make sure they are ordered in a coherent and complimentary manner.

Variation in frequency and volume

The next two factors you can look at are frequency and volume although separate variables in the planning of training they are reasonably well related. At some point to make adding volume reasonable and even achievable you are going to have to add in another training session into your week.

Volume is the amount of work done over a period of time. For the sake of lifting it is commonly defined as total number of lifts, sets or volume load. The current popular method is total number of working sets in a week. It’s as good a metric as any.

The general rule is that the higher your volume load is over all the lower your intensity should be. For periods of hypertrophy the primary driver of progress will be the total volume over the week and this is the metric that should be progressed.

For periods of higher intensity volume needs to give way. The more intense the effort the less of it you can do. For periods of strength gain, the weight on the bar needs to be progressed over the number of sets and reps.

Frequency is a very powerful tool when it comes to skill acquisition. The fresher you are when you are learning a skill the better you will be at learning it. The more tired you are the less you will take in. With this information alone doing a skill in a fresh state more frequently during the week is a better way to pick it up. For size training elevating muscle protein synthesis (MPS) during the week means you will get bigger. More frequent training stimulus during the week for size that you recover from is more optimal for gaining size. For strength the more times your can have a stimulating workout (6RM or greater intensity) and recover from it the more stronger and faster you are going to get.

Frequency can help you to emphasis and drive a lift or an outcome and it can also help you to focus on recovery by taking away stress from the week by reducing it.

How to vary volume and frequency

  • Increase volume to focus on size or basic conditioning related outcomes
  • Decrease volume when you need to increase the intensity
  • Use frequency to help you focus on outcomes or to prioritize recovery where it is needed.
  • Skill learning is heavily influenced by frequency and volume.

Variation in Intensity and Tempo

Just as frequency and volume have a close relationship so do tempo and intensity. If maximal intensity of lift or effort is the focus the tempo is not altered or controlled the only focus is execution. Likewise when intensity is lowered then focus can be driven towards the tempo of the lift to emphasise control or power development.

When the main goal is to drive strength in a movement then tempo can be used in conjunction with intensity to provide a good contrasting and complementary outcomes. During a session or week where there is a workout or block of work where the focus is neural overload in a movement focusing on improving force production and intention you are going to be tired and compromised in that movement later in the workout or training week.

When you know you are going to be compromised in terms of recovery from a high neural drive activity or workout then you can use tempo and lower intensities to work on skill based outcomes allowing for more positive adaptation through the week helping you to develop further as an athlete.

During periods of higher volume you can use intensity of effort for shock workouts or weeks to help and drive adaptation further. Methods of acute intensity such as rep outs or AMRAPs to failure can help to break plateaus or drive specific overreach.

Contrasting periods of high acute intensity with periods of low intensity can help to facilitate recovery and help to provide a better environment for positive adaptation.

  • Intensity needs to be varied based on the main outcome of the program.
  • Tempo can contrast intensity to help drive more beneficial adaptation and it needs to be varied when performance based outcomes are the focus.
  • Lower intensities can help to promote recover or to help produce a better environment for recovery after acute spikes in intensity or overload.

Variations in mode of exercise and selection

This is typically where everyone’s brain goes when it comes to variation. We are more or less conditioned to think that variation means going from doing low bar squat to front squat because we have weak quads. We will look at this in a bit more depth in he next part of this article. We need to look at mode of exercise first.

Mode of exercise is a more global exercise categorization. Cardio vs strength training is how you should look at the mode of exercise. As powerlifters, we are probably used to very little variation in this realm of exercise. However, some modes of exercise can help to promote recovery (swimming, yoga, light circuits etc). And some can bring positive adaptations to support our main training goals. Changing modes of training in periods of recovery or detraining can also help us to increase our rate of recovery, slow detraining and help to decrease the likelihood of stagnation. Taking a month off to fuck off and take up surfing might be the mental and physical break you need before you get stuck into the next level of training to break new grounds in strength.

Exercise variation is heavily related to skill learning and there are typically two ways you can look at it.

  • Reductionist – look at the problems mechanically i.e. you fall forward in a squat because your knees are weak and you are trying to bias the workload to your hips and back. Therefore you need to focus on movements like front squats or leg press.
  • Systems based – look at problems holistically accept that you fall forward in a squat for a reason that you probably don’t understand implicitly. However, by constraining the degrees of freedom in the movement (forcing the lifter to stay upright in a squatting movement) you can give them skill attractors to help them to learn how to execute on the outcome you want.

Either way of thinking will produce better outcomes than not varying your approach and doing the same bullshit all the time. However, I think personally a skills-based approach where we accept the actual complexity of the real world can’t be reduced to a black and white caricature and we need to deal with what is in front of us is more reflective of reality.

Exercise variation helps us to target work towards the outcomes we want. It also helps us to problem solve issues in technique and execution. Exercise variation and selection is also essential in injury rehabilitation and prevention.

How to vary exercise selection and exercise mode

  • Modes of exercise can promote mobility and lower level conditioning (pilates, stretching, and yoga) and can also promote recovery and basic physical fitness (swimming, light circuits, and light cardio).
  • Modes of exercise can help to restore people mentally and physically (taking a month out to do another sport or activity can really benefit you during a detraining month).
  • Exercise selection can help to drive skill learning.
  • Exercise selection decides ultimately what we get better at.
  • Choosing the right exercise for the right person at the right time can make or break your outcomes.

This is a topic that I could easily write a book on so hopefully this article gives you a framework for looking at it and some ideas on how to approach it in the future.


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