“I got a short little span of attention, but oh my nights are so long.” – Paul Simon
We live in world where exercise information is incredibly easy to get. In fact it’s impossible not to be barraged with at least five new gimmicks a day and 700 hundred emails and social media blasts offering you the latest, coolest, newest thing. We also live in a world where our attention spans are literally getting shorter. Everything has to come in a quick sound byte and we’re on to the next thing. Blissfully being entertained and never really learning much or getting much done. It applies just as much to exercise as it does to every other area of life.
We also live in an age that has some amazingly great information and some absolutely terrible information. From an exercise perspective, unless you are very advanced, it is hard for most people to tell the difference. Everything is made to sound science-y, or backed by a celebrity expert and most people just can’t tell the difference between what’s real and not. One of the greatest of these fitness fallacies that’s sold as gospel truth is the term or idea of “muscle confusion.” It sounds awesome in a late night infomercial. It sells the idea that as soon as you do one exercise, your body masters it and gains stop immediately. You must then come up with a twisty cool combination next time or your genius nervous system says, “Oh we did that last time, I have no reason to grow or change. If only they would use the next bomb and blitz insanity, then I could grow more muscle or get leaner.”
Listen up Junior – It does not work that way and no legitimate expert on the planet will push that on you. Even if they use a system that is highly variety based. A celebrity trainer might try, but not somebody who actually knows what they’re doing. Real experts will tell you, you have to stick with the program. You have to master exercises and that takes time. You have to stay with some basic things for long periods of time to actually get good at them. That program hopping is one of the biggest gain-killers in existence.
However, you say, “I get bored so easily!” Or “So-and-so has a new program and if I don’t try it I’ll just die and I won’t be one of the cool kids!” First, refer to the above paragraph. Program hopping will kill your gains. But fear not – Uncle Bud, Conan Claus is here to save the day and tell you how you can actually not program hop, but still indulge your taste for new shiny toys, the latest program and kick boredom in the teeth. Also I mentioned cake, so we should use the, “Have your cake and eat it too,” line, because well – cake is awesome.
So let us assume that you’re not a total beginner. If you’re a total beginner, you need to pick a program from a real strength and conditioning person and stick to it, to the letter for a long time. Until you’ve actually learned how to do the exercises well and your body has had time to build a base and adapt for real strength. Until you’ve built the discipline to show up every day and do the work. One of the best things you can do, if it’s an option for you, is get with a team that trains strength. Even if you don’t really care about competing, get with people who know what they’re doing, who actually know the techniques of exercises, not Br0-Techniques, and train on a regular basis. They will make you accountable for showing up, doing the work right, getting it done and they will make you strong.
Fast forward to this scenario: You know how to do some basic exercises correctly. You understand that unless you’re a 101 pound girl, a 315 pound deadlift is not heavy. Even if you use a whole bar-ful of bumper plates to load it. This is past being a New Year’s Resolution for you and it’s something you’re committed to and disciplined enough to show up and do regularly. So here’s how you actually get to play with new stuff, but not program hop and make consistent gains.
1 – Decide what your goals really are.
Most people program hop, because they get turned on by different things all the time. Last week they wanted a big squat, yesterday they wanted a big bench press, this morning at 8am they wanted six-pack abs, but by 9:30 they decided they wanted to bulk. You should have a legitimate goal in each one of those departments. Strength, muscle and body composition and conditioning. A legit goal keeps you focused. The secret is you don’t stop till you hit that goal. You keep the work that’s going toward that goal exactly the same until you actually hit it. This is also the solution for boredom. If you’re getting bored in the middle of a program, it’s because you’re not actually focusing on getting a job done, but every time you see a new five pounds on the bar, or two pounds off on the scale on the way to your goals, it has a tendency to punch boredom directly in the solar plexus and watch it drop to the ground and wheeze.
2 – Decide which exercises are specifically nailed to your goal.
Even if your goal is just get bigger – that doesn’t happen just by haphazardly doing exercises. You get bigger legs by adding pounds to your squat. Bigger upper body by adding pounds to your presses, bigger back and posterior chain by adding pounds to what you pull. If it’s getting leaner, then pick your big dog conditioning exercise. Maybe snatches or burpees or sled pushes. If running, biking or swimming is your deal, pick the one type that is closest to what you actually want to achieve and make that you’re main thing. Pick the one big dog, pay off exercise on each of those things and keep that as the cornerstone of your training. Put it first in your training. Put it first in your training week. Put it in an absolutely regular rotation that does not vary. If you’re combining strength and conditioning, most people will be best served to do the strength before the conditioning.
3 – Cut things to the bare bone.
If you want to have the ability to try new stuff and play with lots of new things, but not mess up the whole deal and short circuit your gains, you have to do intense, minimal amounts of the things you really track your gains with on a regular basis – The stuff I asked you to pick in the paragraph above. One of the biggest reasons people mess up in trying to combine variety and new stuff into a routine, is they forget you have a limited amount of adaptive ability. You get strong and you get conditioned from applying significant energy to a limited amount of things. If you’re going to have an ability to adapt and recover and try new stuff, you have to do only the important things. When working on your very specific big pay off exercises, don’t mess around and do fluff sets and volume simply for the sake of volume. Hit it and free up time and adaptive energy to play with new stuff.
4 – Set your week up right.
Most people use a week as their basic break down period for training, but it can be whatever micro-cycle you use. Think through what you want to do and see where it doesn’t match. If you want to simultaneously build a bigger squat and do 1,000 reps of kettlebell snatches it makes sense to do the squats before the snatches either in a workout or in the week, because it will have the least deleterious effect on the other exercise. If you do two hard sets each of squats, presses and pulls on Monday and then snatch on Tuesday, you’re much more likely to have a more productive session than if you do it the other way around. Put the hard important stuff first and put it early in the week. Then you can take the rest of the week to experiment or play, because you’ve done the things that you know are going to actually be the cornerstone of your gains. Then if you do the experiment right you can actually add to those gains with the play time in the rest of the week.
5 – Do your gain givers reg-u-lar-ly!
I believe in variety and a certain amount of randomization in a program, but you do not build top end, no joke, high level strength by complete randomization. The body simply needs more regular practice and structure to adapt and get past beginner level strength. I love the idea of different challenges and things you can’t prepare for, because I think it gives you a great holistic idea of how your training is actually preparing you for different purposes and possibly real life. But no amount of cool sounding terminology will get you past the fact that high level strength is a long term, regularly pursued activity. If you’re not doing your big squat, press and pull at least once on a 7-10 day basis, heavy and in the same basic style and rep range, you are not doing them often enough to get your best gains.
6 – Go out and play!
You’ve got the “bare bones, sliced with a razor, I know now that nothing will replace the gains I get from squats, presses and pulls and one big conditioning exercise,” new growth facilitators done. Now you are free with time and energy on some other days to try a new toy or a new workout or challenge. This can be great for you, because it does keep long term mental interest up. The mind drives the body. The more focused you are, the more energy your body drives into actually building itself. But be smart. Ease into new stuff until you’re ready to really give it 100% go! That means have a base of training so that when you do want to try something wild and crazy, you don’t end up sore and injured to the point that you have to be spoon fed your protein shakes for the next four days. Try to pick things that are complimentary and at the same time test or build slightly different pieces of the strength puzzle that you’re already working on.
7 – The one place where God-help-me Muscle Confusion might help you.
Let me restate that because the term muscle confusion is just crap. But there is a place where switching some things up regularly and creating some inefficiency might actually help you. My buddy Dave Whitely said, “I’m not trying to get muscle confusion, I’m trying to get muscle education.” That’s exactly what you’re getting when you practice an exercise regularly. You’re teaching the nerves how to do that. For strength – this is what you want. For endurance this is what you want. The best people in the world do basically the same exercises, the same way all the time because they need their body to ultimately practiced and efficient at those exercises. But for fat loss you can play with some confusion. Here’s what I mean. As you’re training you’ll physically get to a point where you’re very good at an exercise and it’s very ingrained and your performance actually goes way up while the effort you give goes down. In strength – you fix this by simply adding more weight to the bar. But in conditioning you get to a place where you have to go longer and longer to get the same effect (after a lot of training – this is NOT a super-important thing to do right away). So by switching to new exercises that you’re not efficient at you force the body to give a higher effort. Higher effort equals more calories burned and generally higher heart rate and breathing.
I love variety in training. I feel like the human body is an amazing, miraculous, divinely created machine with God-given abilities in many different directions. I feel like it’s a waste of life not to explore as much as you can. I’ve also committed to a lifetime of training and over that lifetime it is helpful to explore many different challenges, especially from the standpoints of potential overuse injury and maintaining excitement and interest. You just need to be smart about how you put it together. Pick a few main things, do them hard, heavy and regular, pick goals and new exercises that compliment what you’re already doing. Then go out, have a good time and try some new stuff you crazy kids!
That’s how you have your cake and gains too.