Variety vs. Practice: Finding a Balance

I often preach about practice.  It’s tough to be awesome at something you haven’t practiced much.  Possible sure, but unlikely.  Recently I was channel surfing and I saw a commercial or infomercial for the popular at home workout product P90X.  I think that you can now add a 3 to the end of that or something, probably because it’s now 3 times more effective than it once was.  Imagine how inferior the first installment must have been. Anyway, one satisfied customer exclaimed, “It was always changing and I loved that. And I think your body reacts to that change.”


I don’t dispute what this woman is saying.  Clearly it works for some people.  Loving the workout is half the battle.  People love to “mix it up” frequently.  Some call it exercise ADHD.  Today it’s this, tomorrow it’s that.  The problem is that the focus is sometimes a little low.  Do you know what your body also reacts to?  Progressive resistance.

At the opposite end of the spectrum lies practice and getting in frequent reps in an effort to better master movements.  Referring back to the quote from the satisfied customer, do you know what your body also reacts to other than change?  Progressive resistance for one and certainly brain reacts to practice as neural pathways are built and one becomes more efficient.  I recently read a letter written to management by a concerned member at another training gym.  His concerns included doing what felt like a different, relatively random routine, every time he came in the gym and feeling like he never did anything well because of this fact.  Sounds like the opposite of a satisfied P90X customer.  This immediately made me think back to what coach Dan John always says is a key to goals and results for clients, “Don’t make me look stupid.”  If everyday feels like day one for someone then they are going to feel awkward and uncomfortable.  As a coach, not where you want to be.  I’m a huge fan of the fundamentals and I’ve often said there is tremendous value in mastery of both movement and strength.  Practicing something new everyday won’t get you better.

Human brain and colorful question mark

What to do?  If you are a coach you’ve got to figure out what type of person you are working with.  That’s your job.  Do they want more variety or are you making them feel stupid and perhaps they embrace the idea of consistent practice and improvement toward mastery?  It doesn’t matter if you are bored with them doing the same things what feels like over and over.  Coach them up.

The cure:  One solution I like to employ is to include the exercises not being trained that day in the warm up. For example:  If deadlifts and lunges are on the menu today, then the warm up is a great time to do some goblet squats and practice some single leg deadlift patterns.  If squatting and single leg deadlifts are on the training menu for today then the warm up is great time to practice various lunge patterns and some sort of bridging and/or hinging pattern. Pressing overhead today?  Great, do some very much sub-maximal push ups as part of your warm up.  I hope you get the point.  Another option is to use the same but different approach.  Kettlebell deadlifts one day, trap bar deadlifts the next.  Chin ups one day, fat grip neutral grip pull ups next time around.  Simply changing a position slightly, grip or where the load is held changes the exercise enough to be or feel different but not enough to make it new and confusing.

As they say, knowing is half the battle.  I’m not here to bash P90X or other variety type of training.  If it makes you happy then carry on but don’t be afraid to ask yourself if you are getting the results you desire.  I personally don’t believe trying to “mix it up” all the time is the most effective way to reach your goals.  There is a lot of value in practice and mastery of movements.  Again, that’s not to say front squatting is the only way when you could back squat or zercher squat for some variety (or refer to the prior pull up example).  If you are a coach, figure out how to read your clients/athletes or simply talk to them about how they are feeling.  Don’t make them look (feel) stupid and find a way to make them better.

– Mike Baltren