Imagine this scenario: You are lost at sea with no land in sight. You don't recognize where you are and you don't have any markers to point you in the right direction to get home. Any direction you choose it merely a guess, and no guarantee that you're moving closer to home.
Imagine a different scenario: You are lost in the forest, but you know that your home is north of the forest. So, you take direction based on the sun and you start walking. As you walk, the trees, bushes and rivers prevent you from walking in a straight line, but the necessary zigzagging is not a problem because overall you are moving in the right direction.
As trainers, when we fail to plan, “mix it up” or “throw in ...name your favorite exercises
….” each workout in order to keep the training program interesting, we are like the person lost at sea without direction. The training becomes a guessing game rather than a planned physiological process. After a while, we find ourselves in the same spot as when we started, and no closer to our destination!
A productive training cycle is planned and evolves in a way similar to the person finding a way out of the forest with a goal and a plan. Zigzagging – my analogy for variation and progression
- is not a problem and is even necessary in order to optimize the training responses.
The purpose of this article is to discuss:
- What is variation?
- Why is variation needed?
By understanding what
variation is and why
variation is needed, you will understand variation on a fundamental level. Therefore, you will become more confident in applying variation to the training programs and explaining your suggestions to your clients.
What is variation?
Variation is the act or process of changing one or more of following program variables: (Jensen, 2010)
- Goals of each block template (meso cycle)
- Volume of training
- Intensity of training
- Exercise selection
- Training frequency
- Structure of workouts
- Method used
- Speed of repetition
- Rest period duration
- Rest period activity
Applying variation can result in a different, higher or lower
value of the variable.
For example, applying variation to the goals of the meso cycle, exercises, structure of workouts, method used or rest period activity involves a different goal, different structure, different method or different rest period activity.
Applying variation to the volume, intensity, training frequency, speed of repetition and rest period duration involves suggesting higher or lower values for these variables.
Variation has a qualitative aspect that involves WHICH variable to change and a quantitative aspect that involves HOW MUCH to change it. The quantitative aspect is easy to understand with respect to the variables, where variation is about choosing a higher or lower value of that variable.
However, also with respect to workout structure, the quantitative aspect relevant. Are you making a small change to the workout structure or a large change to the workout structure? An example of a small change in workout structure might be to train the same exercises in a different sequence. On the other hand, an example of a large change in workout structure might be to shift from a 4 day split program to a whole body routine.
Why can’t I just use the same program all the time?
More than likely, no personal trainer would expect to use the same program all the time. However, to understand variation it is essential to ask the question: Why is variation needed?
The reasons that variation is needed are intimately linked with the fundamental reasons that training programs should be periodized. It has even been stated that the studies on periodization have confirmed that variation is
important in the training program (Kiely, 2012). Periodization is a simple concept to understand, but can be more difficult to apply. Consider the word “categorization,” which means “dividing in to categories.” On a similar note, periodization means “dividing into periods.”
In the context of a long term training plan, periodization is a division of a longer training cycle into periods with different goals, structure and contents of the training program. These periods, with different goals, different structures and different content are sequenced
in such a way that selected physical abilities
are maximized at the goal attainment date.
There are three fundamental reasons why variation and periodization are unavoidable aspects of effective training programs:
Reason 1: Scientific Study
First of all, science tells us that “comparative studies of non-varied programs and periodized programs in which serial testing was performed, demonstrate that non-varied programs can result in training plateaus, whereas periodized programs result in more consistent fitness gains” (Fleck & Kraemer, 2004).
Reason 2: The Principle of Accommodation
The Principle of Accommodation, often considered a general law in biology, states that the response of a biological object to a constant stimulus decreases over time (Zatsiorsky, 2006). In the case of strength and conditioning or fitness training, the “biological object” is the human mind-body and the training stimulus is the training load.
The “training load” is not a well-defined term (Siff, 2004). The word “load” may be understood as the total external force applied TO or BY the human body. (6) The load also has a qualitative component (which structures and systems in the body are experiencing or creating the external force). A training load is created through the use of certain exercises, performed with certain intensities, volumes, rest periods and frequencies.
The Principle of Accommodation.
Graph 1 shows that as a certain training load is repeated over time, the performance gain decreases (Zatsiorsky, 2006). Most of us have experienced the Principle of Accommodation while working with our clients; when the clients make initial great gains on a program only to plateau after a few weeks.
It is the Principle of Accommodation that is the physiology behind the saying that, “the best program is the program that you are not using right now.
” The saying points to the fact that the program that your athletes or clients are using RIGHT NOW is getting gradually more ineffective every time they use it.
To experience optimal performance gains, the athlete or client must, after an appropriate amount of training sessions
, switch to another new program that ALSO leads to training adaptations that are relevant to their long term goal.
The Principle of Accommodation points to the need to create a qualitative change – a different value of a program variable - in the program.
Reason 3: The General Adaptation Syndrome
Canadian Biologist, Hans Selye, coined the term General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) to describe how the adrenal glands respond with an initial alarm reaction followed by a reduction of an organism’s function in response to a noxious stimulus. The key to the continued adaptation to the stress is the timely removal of the stimulus so that the organism’s function can recover (Kraemer et al., 2008). Former Eastern Block scientists and physicians found similarities between the pattern of the training response in athletes and the stress patterns observed by Selye.
According to the General Adaptation Syndrome, there is a three stage response to the stress: (Wathen et al., 2008)
The Alarm Phase
– When a new and more intense stress or stimulus (type, volume, intensity) is applied, the first response is the shock or alarm phase that may be characterized by excessive soreness, stiffness and a drop in performance. This phase may last days or weeks.
In some cases, the alarm phase is associated with depletion
of biochemical substances, for example, glycogen. However, certain texts assert that it is never proven which substances to actually look at to understand this process. These texts also deem the GAS is too simple to explain progress (Zatsiorsky, 2006).
The Resistance Phase
– At any instant the body has a definite ability to respond and adapt to the training stimulus, termed the Current Adaptation Reserves (CAR) (Siff, 2004). The body adapts to the stimulus through various neurological, bio-chemical, structural and mechanical adjustments leading to increased performance. Examples of such adjustments include increased cardiac output and enzyme concentrations (adaptations to aerobic training) and increased neural drive/neural activation (adaptations to resistance training) (Swank, 2008; Sale, 1992).
In some texts, the resistance phase is referred to as super compensation and is associated with enhanced levels of biochemical substances.
Example: One theory of muscle hypertrophy is called the energetic theory of muscle hypertrophy. According to this theory, muscle catabolism (breakdown) is stimulated by lack of energy for protein synthesis during resistance training sessions. Thus, DURING sessions, muscle protein can actually DECREASE. Then, during the recovery phase, aka the resistance or super compensation phase, the balance is reversed and protein synthesis exceeds protein breakdown. The results are a net increase in muscle, aka myo fibrillar hypertrophy (Zatsiorsky, 2006).
The Exhaustion Phase
– If the stress persists for an extended period of time, the body loses the ability to adapt to the stress and soreness, stiffness, staleness and mal-adaptation may occur.
While the General Adaption Syndrome may have its shortcomings in completely explaining the body’s response to the training stimulus, it is still a useful model for understanding training progress. The curve on graph 2 can be understood on two different levels. The first level is the neurological, bio-chemical, structural and mechanical changes that underlie a second level that consists of easily observable performance changes.
The General Adaptation Syndrome is a model for showing initial performance improvements that gradually taper off and can continue into performance decrements.
In relation to periodization, the General Adapation Syndrome supports the strategy of alternating
periods of an increased, developmental, stressing training stimulus (training load) with periods of a reduced training stimulus that allow the body to recover and super compensate.
In simpler terms, we can say that the training stimulus must be strong enough and new enough to stimulate the alarm phase. The training stimulus must be applied repeatedly as long as the athlete/client is in the resistance phase. Lastly, the training stimulus must be removed at the beginning of or early into the exhaustion phase.
For practical purposes these three phases can be understood in the context of a single workout or to a period of two three weeks of training.
2-3 week cycle
Soreness stiffness during initial warm up exercises
Post workout soreness lasting for 1-2 days
Performance increases during specific warm up and during several work sets (pyramid training)
Performance increases from one workout to the next (reps, load, time, etc.)
Performance drops, feelings of exhaustion, potential aches/pains
Smaller increases in performance leading to no increase or drop in performance and potential injury.
The General Adaptation Syndrome points to the need to create a quantitative change – a higher or lower value of a program variable - in the program. It is clear from both the Principle of Accomodation and The General Adaptation Syndrome that the program should not be changed every single session. The program should be changed when the client stops adaptation to the program.
Variation is the act or process of changing one or more program variables. A program variable can be changed by making it different or choosing a higher or a lower value. The rationale for applying variation to the training program is closely linked with the rationale for periodization. There are three main reasons for applying variation (or periodizing the training program): Scientific study, the Principle of Accommodation (qualitative change to the program variables) and The General Adaptation Syndrome (quantitative change to the program variables).
Jensen K. In The Flexible Periodization Method All acute Program Variables Are Periodized. The Flexible Periodization Method. Chap 1.16, p 90. The Write Fit. 2010
Kiely, J. Periodization Paradigms in the 21st Century: Evidence-Led or Tradition-Driven. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 7:242-250. Human Kinetics. 2012.
Fleck SJ, Kraemer WJ. Advanced Training Strategies. Designing Resistance Training Programs 3rd Ed. Chapter 7, p 210. Human Kinetics. 2004
Zatsiorsky W. Basic Concepts of Training Theory. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Chapter 1, p 5. Human Kinetics. 2006
Siff M. Organization of Training. Supertraining. Chapter 6, p 350. Supertraining Institute, Denver USA. 2004
Modified from Collins Dictionary 21st Century Edition.
Kraemer WJ. Vingren JL, Spiering BA. Endocrine Responses to Resistance Exercises. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 3rd Ed. Chapter 3, p42. Human Kinetics. 2008
Wathen D, Baechle TR, Eaerle RW. Periodization. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 3rd Ed. Chapter 19, p 508. Human Kinetics. 2008
Zatsiorsky W. Basic Concepts of Training Theory. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Chapter 1, p 10-12. Human Kinetics. 2006.
Siff, M. Adaptation and the Training Effect. Supertraining. Chapter 1, 83. Supertraining Institute. Denver, Colorado. 2004
Swank A. Adaptations to Aerobic Endurance Training Programs. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Chapter 6, p 128. Human Kinetics. 2008
Sale D G. Neural Adaptation to Strength Training. Strength and Power in Sports. 2nd. Ed. PV Komi. Chapter 9A, p 249-265. Blackwell Science. 1992
Zatsiorsky W. Athlete Specific Strength. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Chapter 3, p 51-52. Human Kinetics. 2006