Tips for adding exercise variation to a training plan

Take a look around Instagram and you’ll see hundreds of variations of your favorite exercises. Exercise variation is critical to sustained progress, but how you vary exercises matter. Randomly copying what you see online isn’t going to do the trick. The latest training program we posted in the HMMR Classroom provides a great look at how exercise variation can fit into a training plan.

» Learn more: members can see every set and rep of de Lacey’s training plan leading up to the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

World class Olympic weightlifter Mona (Pretorius) de Lacey shared the 8-week training plan that helped lead her to the Commonwealth Games podium in 2018. The sport of weightlifting is about two movements, and training is often very simple by focusing on pulling, squatting, and pressing. What I found most interesting about the program is how it incorporates variations of the traditional movements and combinations (complexes) to help reach her goals. Below are a few tips I got from reading the program and talking to her more about the program.

Understand the purpose for variation

Start off by asking a simple question: why do you need the variation? Different athletes will have different answers. How you answer the question will have a big impact in how those variations fit into the plan.

Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk’s periodization model uses variation simply for variation’s sake: it is a way to provide a fresh stimulus. Therefore in his program the exercise are changed only after each program is finished. Frans Bosch will use variation more as a tool for skill acquisition and differential learning, therefore it is added more frequently, and with an eye towards how you want to challenge the athlete.

In de Lacey’s plan the first thing you’ll notice is a lot of weightlifting complexes in the first few weeks. When I asked her the purpose she had two answers. First, it provides a mental break. Training the same lifts over and occasionally requires something different. In this regard, like Bondarchuk, she just wants change for the sake of change.

Second, complexes allow her to focus her training to overload areas of need. By picking the right exercises she can attack strength and technical deficits.

Analyze your needs

This leads us to the next point. If your goal is to address strength or technical deficits, you have to know what those are. This requires a detailed analysis. Even her goal of a mental break requires a needs analysis. Something different will help, but the variation needs to be thoughtful. Just 8 weeks out from a competition, everything she does needs transfer and she had to find some variations to keep training exciting while still working towards her goals.

For de Lacey, her strengths were clear:

One of my strengths has always been my legs. For example at 63 kilograms bodyweight I Front Squat 141 kilograms. If I could pull a weight and get under it then I could stand up with it . . . So for the final 8 weeks leading into the Commonwealth Games we decided to also put a lot more emphasis on my back strength. This would help with the pull, then we could rely on my strength and past training to help stand up and jerk it afterwards.

How did this translate into programming? She decided to overload the pull through weightlifting complexes with pauses. For example she’ll do one rep of hang snatch followed by a one full snatch with a pause. Adding the pause in into the second rep, once she is already a little fatigued, makes back strength the critical component of the lift. It also helped her technique. Pauses required her to stay over the bar longer and help me a bit more patient before exploding with the second pull up to help get under the bar.

Variation is often about reorganizing the old, not inventing the new

Exercise variations do not actually have to be different movements. By changing up the order of execution, the stimulus can change drastically.

One way to do this is simply to reorder training. Weightlifting coach John Thrush did not use many exercise variations in training, but he did frequently vary the order of exercise. This is often an under utilized strategy. Normally athletes train the traditional lifts before the legs. If an athlete can jerk the weight they want when they are fresh at the start of training, but struggle to do it at the end of a competition then it might help to move jerk work after leg work. Then they will be challenged to execute the lifts in a more fatigued state.

You can achieve similar goals by using exercise variations. De Lacey has a strong jerk and it is normally not challenged enough by executing the competition lifts over and over. Her answer: do a weightlifting complex with two reps of cleans before the jerk. This allows her to get extra reps for her weaker segments (cleans) and more fatigue to challenge her strengths (jerk).

Don’t forget to come back to the originals

If you look at de Lacey’s plan you’ll also see complexes are mostly front loaded into the first four weeks of the 8-week plan. In week 1 she is doing complexes or other variations daily. In week 8 she sticks to almost exclusively to the traditional lifts and squatting. As de Lacey explains:

The complexes are put into the beginning of my program to create a strong foundation for when I switch over to my classical lifts. They make me strong and increases my work capacity.

All the benefits mentioned above are important, but they only matter if they transfer back to the sport. After using the variations discussed above, de Lacey noticed a huge bump once she moved back to the normals lifts. As she put it, once you strip away the fatigue “All of a sudden they felt a lot easier to do.” That’s the point: the plan worked. After a few weeks she was on the podium.

The timing of this transition is important. One or two weeks out from a major championship is not the time to focus on exercise variations. That is the time to find your rhythm, strength, and confidence in your competition exercises. Never forget that the purpose of variation is to make you better at your sport. That means no matter how far your stray from the sport, don’t forget to come back in time to put all the pieces together.