There are a few schools of thought in terms of rotating exercise selection, with the first being variation is key rotating assistance exercises each week and the second being that variations should be rotated less frequently (2-4 weeks of the same variations.)
The third school of thought encourages using the same variations for more than four weeks at a time (I’ve seen some programs using the same assistance exercises for more than eight weeks at a time).
So the question is: How do we find out what works best for our clients and ourselves? After five years of programming for general fitness clients all over the world and over 15 years of experimenting with my own programming, here’s what I’ve found.
Quick Personal Story
Before I get into the meat and potatoes, I want to share with you a quick story that may be relevant to figuring out what works best for you.
Back in college (circa 2004) when I was introduced to the conjugate method, my coach gave me a new program every three weeks — this included the same max effort exercises for three weeks at a time.
Obviously my training age was significantly lower than it is now, but this was a time in my life when I experienced the most consistent progress in terms of performance on the football field and seeing metrics like the 40-yard dash and 5-10-5 improve, but also in the weight room, my numbers went up at an alarming rate. But this alarming rate didn’t slow down — it continued for the next three years.
Fast-forward to the present day — I still hit lifetime PRs (I hit a lifetime PR on my power clean at 330 pounds this past year at a bodyweight of 195). Again, I’m older now, and I have racked up some miles on my body.
I think many of you coaches who are OCD (like I am) probably have a record of every single workout they’ve ever done. I still refer back to my old programs from college when I’m in need of some creativity. The funny part is that when I refer back to what worked best for me then, I always seem to glean some “new” information by reviewing old material.
About six months ago, I decided to make some changes to my own training. The biggest game-changer was using Dr. John Rusin’s six-phase dynamic warm-up, which you can read about here, but the second biggest game-changer was using less variance in my own programming by repeating the same special exercises for three weeks at a time.
I even went as far as repeating max effort variations for three weeks at a time, but instead of performing the same 1RM each week, I performed a 3RM on Week 1, 2RM on Week 2, and a 1RM on Week 3. This was something that was actually introduced to me by Christian Thibadeau a few years ago. At the time I wasn’t a fan, but my thoughts on it have since changed.
I’ve also played with using the same max effort variations with slight variations such as:
- Week 1: SSB Box Squat with Chains — 3RM
- Week 2: SSB Box Squat with Bands — 2RM
- Week 3: SSB Box Squat (no accommodating resistance) — 1RM
- My technique would improve: I found myself getting sore from exercises that I didn’t typically get sore from.
- My body felt better: I’ve had a history of front deltoid and lower back issues, both of which have mysteriously vanished over the last eight weeks.
- My recovery has improved: I track my HRV daily; as we know, how you feel is one of the most subjective things in the fitness industry. My waking heart rate has decreased and my scores continue to improve.
- My time management is better: My training does not require the same amount of thought and my time is better used when I’m in the gym.
What does this mean for my clients?
I work with boxes and former CrossFit athletes as many of you know, and box clients are some of the most ADHD people on the planet. I have clients that don’t even want to repeat the same warm-up in the same week, so variance has always been a staple.
But now I’ve seen the benefits of less variance first hand, and people with less experience can benefit from less variance more than people with higher training ages.
Exposure to the basic lifts and same warm-ups for two to three weeks at a time will afford people the ability to improve motor patterns, and it will afford coaches the ability to coach more in the actual warm-up instead of when a max load is on their clients’ backs.
In this case — though I tend to tread a bit more lightly, as my clients’ happiness and need for novelty are what keep them coming back — using the same variations two weeks at a time allows for the best of both worlds in terms of novelty but also ingraining good motor patterns.
What will work best for you?
Clearly, what has worked for me may not work best for you. The only way to discover what works best for you is to spend time in the trenches experimenting.
From my own experience, I’ve seen that for three weeks, I can continue to make progress, but after three weeks, I have little desire to use the same variations anymore and am ready for a chance.
Some personality types can use the same variations longer and still be engaged in their program. If that’s you, go for it!
I’d recommend starting with three weeks and then tailoring your approach from there. Again, time in the trenches will afford you the best education in terms of what works best for you.