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34 Ways To Vary An Exercise!

Muscles do what they do. Each has it's own function and action, and that's that.

For example, the Gastrocnemius plantarflexes the ankle and flexes the knee.

The biceps will always flex the elbow and supinate the forearm.

The biceps femoris only flexes the hip and extends the knee.

Nothing is going to change there.

However, there are plenty of variations that we can use to make exercises and movements easier or harder, or to change them according to your clients goal(s); whether that's fat loss, muscle gain or something more sports-specific.

Here we have given you a comprehensive list of ways you can vary both exercises and programme design in order to be able to offer a plethora of progressive and regressive options.

At the end of this article, you can download it as a pdf to keep handy for future use!

Exercise Variations

1. Grip

Supinated, pronated, neutral, mixed, hook, clean, snatch grip, goblet.

Changing the grip you use can dramatically change the feeling and physiological affect of an exercise. As an example, Try doing a deadlift with a 'snatch' grip. You will feel your grip tested and your mid-back being worked much more than a standard deadlift!

2. Equipment

Training bar, Olympic bar, safety bar, trap bar, z-bar, chains, medicine ball, dumbbell, powerband, powerbag, swiss ball, kettlebell, Bulgarian bag, VIPr, cable machine, resistance machine, Suspension trainer.

Most movements can be replicated using any of the above pieces of equipment and yet each bit of equipment has it's own, slightly different uses. Work your way through completing all the exercises you know, using all of the equipment listed, and you'll have an excellent exercise library!

3. Speed (time under tension)

Conventional, super-slow, power, paused, halted, static.

The longer a muscle is under tension, the more muscle damage and therefore, muscle development can occur. Strength and power however, call for a more explosive concentric phase and limited eccentric phase. Vary your lift speed according to your goals.

4. Stance

Split, narrow, wide/sumo, shoulder width, seated on bench, seated on floor, supine/prone lying, kneeling, half-kneeling.

Try this for some variation on your shoulder press... Sit on the floor under the Smiths machine with your legs outstretched in front of you. Press from that seated position - be prepared to lower the load you would use on a bench or stood!

5. Range of Motion

Deficit, partial reps, conventional.

Changing the range of motion you use is a great way to focus on your strength and control in that specific area. If you know that your 'first pull' in a clean is poor for example, then use a deficit starting position to really engage your brain on that phase of the lift.

6. Reps

A common way to vary an exercise. However, ensure the rep-range is within the guidelines for your goal. Changing the rep range you use will long-term change the training effect of an exercise. But short term, it's a great way to test yourself and take yourself out of your usual comfort zone!

7. Sets

More sets = more stimulus for muscle adaptation - but don't overdo it - progress slowly! Also, remember that if you are specifically training for power or speed, your aim is to feel tired but not sore at the end of each session - so for some sessions, less is more!

8. Weight

Choose your weight with consideration to the reps you wish to achieve and the number of sets you want to complete. Once you have completed a prescribed exercise fully (all reps and sets) for 3 sessions in a row, consider upping the weight.

9. Lever Length

Moving the weight further away from the 'fulcrum'/fixed point to make an exercise harder is a simple way to adapt an exercise intensity.

10. Balance

Make an exercise more challenging by becoming off-balance. As an example, completing a bicep curl whilst balanced on 1 foot adds a whole new element of core stabilisation in to the exercise.

11. Eyes Closed

Completing any exercise with eyes closed takes a lot of skill. It relies on all of your other senses to take control of your movement.

12. Rest Time

Ensure you take enough rest between sets for your intended physiological adaptation - but don't have too much or the training effect may be diluted!

13. Motor Skills

Incorporate motor fitness variations as we discuss in this article.

Programme Variations

14. Approach

Whole Body Approach / Split Routine

A workout satisfying a balanced whole body approach helps develop all muscles in proportion and avoids imbalances, which makes this approach more appropriate for clients who have general overall fitness. Compound exercises are recommended for a WBA workout, as fewer lifts are required to work all major muscle groups. A split routine, a more advanced approach is where you separate muscle groups or movement patterns on different days. For example, alternating a 'push' day with a 'pull' day, or 'upper body' day with a 'lower body' day, or a 'chest & triceps' day/ 'back and biceps' day/ 'legs, shoulders, abs' day. There are many ways to split a routine.

15. Exercise order

There are many ways to manipulate the order of exercises within a programme, but it is generally recommended for beginners to alternate between upper and lower body exercises to avoid fatigue. Advanced clients will be able to focus on the same muscle groups for many consecutive exercises. Generally compound exercises are recommended to proceed isolation exercises to avoid fatiguing the smaller muscles and impacting the effectiveness of the compound lift. However, advanced clients can use a 'pre-exhaust' method which actually deliberately fatigues small muscles prior to a compound lift.

16. Kinetic chains (open/closed)

One example here could be a kinetic chain superset where you complete an open chain exercise followed by a closed chain exercise. An open chain exercise is one which the distal end of the limbs is not fixed to an immoveable object. Where a close chain exercise is one which the distal end of the limbs is fixed to an immoveable object. An exercise of an open chain exercise would be the leg extension, bicep curl, chest flyes, lifting shopping bags and a closed chain exercise, the squat, pull-ups, press-ups, getting out of a chair. Mobiliser muscles tend to be more active is an open chain exercise, where stabiliser muscles tend to be most active in closed chain movements.

Training Methods

17. Ascending Pyramid

18. Descending Pyramid

19. Full Pyramid

20. Agonist/Agonist Superset

21. Agonist/Antagonist Superset

22. Pre Exhaust

23. Post Exhaust

24. Tri Sets

25. Giant Set

26. Negative

27. Eccentrics

28. German Volume Training (GVT),

29. Escalating Density Training (EDT),

30. Peripheral Heart Action (PHA).

31. Drop/Strip Sets

32. Forced Reps

33. Matrix Sets

34. Blood Flow Restriction Training

For a convenient way to refer back to this list later, we've created it as a PDF document to download.

Related Programmes


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