Many of these exercises I post aren’t necessarily movements that need to be included in one’s routine on a consistent basis. Most of them represent unique challenges that also happen to expose a variety of weaknesses, compensation patterns, imbalances, energy leaks, and dysfunctional movement patterns. With that said, most of these exercises have a variety of benefits that when periodically implemented into one’s routine can actually help correct and address these aforementioned issues. However, focusing on mastering the basics particularly with eccentric isometrics is the true key to successfully completing these unique and advanced movements. Including some degree of variety in your program simply allows the lifter to repeatedly test themselves with various movements that both expose and address various underlying weaknesses.
One of the easiest ways to hit a plateau in your training is to keep chasing heavier and heavier weights. Unfortunately, this is often exactly what occurs when minimal exercise variety is presented and progressive overload is over emphasized. In fact, I’ve seen this occur numerous times in my 16+ years of training regardless of whether linear or undulating periodization models are used. When the lifter feels overly compelled to reach higher numbers at all costs simply because their training routine calls for an increase in load (i.e. beat your previous best) inevitably form breaks down.
Once form deteriorates the lifter is no longer adequately stimulating their muscles to produce significant strength or growth as the reps are simply demonstrating their strength with poor form rather than building it. This is a surefire recipe for stagnation not to mention injury. Performing basic compound movements using subtle modifications (i.e. slight variety) allows the lifter to perform the same exercises that build functional strength and size however they’re less compelled to target PR’s since they have less of a benchmark to compare their numbers to.
Over the years of training I’ve noticed a very unique trend in just about every athlete in that they actually have a more difficult time breaking bad habits on basic foundational barbell lifts. In fact, this issue has become so prevalent that I’ve given it its own title “dysfunctional specificity of movement transferability” or DSMT. Here’s why DSMT likely occurs.
When most individuals first begin lifting weights oftentimes in high school or early college years, they’re typically exposed to the barbell squat, bench press, deadlifts, cleans, and overhead barbell press. Unfortunately, these are also the same years where most technique aberrations are etched into their CNS likely due to a number of factors including poor coaching and instruction as well as ego and 1RM maxing not to mention the general nature of learning a new skill. Although these form aberrations often seep into just about every aspect of their movement including in the weight room, playing field, and everyday life, oftentimes their bad habits are most strongly linked to the specific lifts and activities they so frequently practiced with poor form. In other words, their movement aberrations are most closely tied and most specific to the exact exercises they learned those bad habits.
Besides re-educating these athletes and lifters on how to properly perform those movements, one of the best ways to eliminate these form issues is to provide a slightly different yet similar stimulus (i.e. slightly altering the lift). For instance, it’s often easier to teach high-level athletes how to perform Olympic lifts with dumbbells simply because they’ve never performed these drills. Therefore the form aberrations they developed are less likely to manifest themselves compared to a scenario where we try to re-educate them on the barbell versions they’ve become so accustomed to performing with aberrant mechanics.
Building Strong Foundations for Lifelong Movement Success
Trying to re-educate them on the same barbell movements oftentimes becomes quite frustrating and inefficient as the old habits are more likely to re-occur since the lifter is more prone to reverting back to old habits. However, once the athlete has mastered the dumbbell variations we can then take the same technique and re-apply it successfully to barbell Olympic lifts as the new and improved habits will effectively replace the prior flawed ones. During this time period we may even provide several different dumbbell or kettlebell cleans and snatches as a means of exposing them to more variations that are foreign to their body since these specific motor programs essentially resemble a blank slate rather than ones that have repeatedly been tarnished. This is a process I’ve used on many exercises and movement patterns particularly in athletes who’ve strongly etched flawed motor programs into their CNS and need extra attention to resolve these issues.
This is also why I periodically like to program unique variations into my athlete’s routines. Yes, they may have re-educated their CNS with proper form on the basic barbell lifts using the above process. However, old habits die hard and oftentimes trace elements will often remain for years if not decades after the movement aberration has been addressed. Performing unique variations periodically will help to ensure that these old forms of dysfunction stay at bay and never re-occur.
As previously alluded to, using subtle modifications of basic compound movements (i.e. grip, stance, loading or leverage adjustments) allows the lifter to focus more on form, technique, and the muscle mind connection rather than beating prior PR’s. Yes, you may not necessarily have more weight on the bar. However, your muscles are likely to think the stimulus is more than adequate to trigger functional strength and hypertrophy gains simply because proper activation and ample stimulation were achieved while focusing on locking in the new variation with textbook mechanics.
Research shows that training to failure or close to failure i.e. muscle fatigue may be just as, if not more important than the actual load that’s used particularly when it comes to gaining size (read more in this research study here). Just because you’re not beating your prior numbers doesn’t mean you’re not stimulating hypertrophy. In fact, taking a unique movement that you’ve never performed (which in and of itself is likely to recruit new motor units) and taking it close to failure with controlled reps is just as, if not more likely to stimulate hypertrophy than chasing heavier loads on traditional lifts with lousy form. Read more in another research study here.
Yes, progression within reason is still very important particularly for strength athletes such as powerlifters. However, forcing the issue is never optimal as this simply sets the individual up for injuries and joint trauma. Programming low to moderate levels of variety while also employing eccentric isometrics helps minimize this potential issue.
When it comes to mastering movement, the name of the game is frequency of practice. Essentially the more you practice a movement pattern such as a squat, the more you’ll master it. Programming in low to moderate levels of variety allows the athlete to train the basic movement patterns more frequently without running into the issue of over training the same exact exercise. As an added bonus, higher frequency of training is associated with greater muscle hypertrophy particularly in natural lifters due to more frequent spikes in protein synthesis.
Besides frequency of practice, research in the field of motor learning shows that a high level of mental engagement and cognitive focus is critical for movement mastery or skill acquisition. When you perform the same movements week after week with little if any variety you’re much more likely to train on “autopilot” as you’ve become somewhat accustomed to the subtle cues and activation patterns associated with that movement. In other words it’s second nature.
Unfortunately, this also means there’s little if any improvement in mastering the exercise or movement pattern any further due to minimal levels of mental engagement & cognitive focus. When you implement new or unique movements, the lifter is required to use greater focus and mental concentration which inevitably enhances movement mastery, neural grooving, and skill acquisition associated with that particular movement pattern. Additionally, latest research on neuroplasticity supports this as means of creating new neural pathways.
With that said, here’s a statement from one of my clients & former dean of UGA Medical School, Dr. Leslie Petch, Ph.D. as she explains why she enjoys using a significant degree of variety in her training as backed by the most recent science.
Most Recent Science
“I recently listened to a renown neurosurgeon speak about neuroplasticity and the fact that our brains retain the capacity to reorganize neural networks and generate new brain cells in response to various stimuli, including physical exercise, throughout our lifespan. Furthermore, by varying how one performs a routine task, or learning a new skill, one can create new pathways and build cognitive reserve.
So what, you say. Simply, it served to reinforce for me the benefits of my awesome trainer Dr. Joel Seedman’s eccentric isometrics training methods and the myriad exercise variations included in my training, all of which require the highest levels of mental engagement, focus and concentration in order to achieve maximal sensorimotor integration and perform them correctly and successfully. Mindless repetitions are simply not possible.
Back to neuroplasticity, it follows that the challenge of engaging in new or different variations of an exercise, not only provides a different stimulus to the target musculature, it should also promote the creation of new neural networks and, by extension, help build cognitive reserve – plus it makes for more interesting, challenging and super fun workouts!! I should point out that my workouts are not always this varied although they do always include the 7 foundational movements: hinge, squat, vertical push/pull, horizontal push/pull and lunge.
If your goal, like mine, is to maximize and optimize your muscle function, maintain joint health, remain injury free and be as fit, strong and healthy as possible for as long as you can, and have fun doing it, I strongly encourage you to check out Joel’s training programs.”