Exercise Variation: For a similar reason that fasting or sauna can benefit the body, exercise stress can generate a fantastic stress adaptation in the body. The key to continuing to benefit from the adaptation of exercise stress is variation. If you’ve ever faced a fitness plateau, this article is for you.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
Exercise Variation for Adaptation
Hormesis refers to adaptive responses of biological systems to moderate environment or self-imposed challenges through which the system improves the functionality and tolerance to more severe challenges 1. Hormesis-inducing activities may include diet, sauna, cold exposure, fasting, and exercise.
When it comes to exercise, this means that varying how you move regularly ensures that you continue to adapt without hitting a “plateau.” If you feel like your progress is stalling, it’s probably because you are not engaging in enough variation.
Although hormesis stimulation generates a beneficial adaptation, it is still a form of stress. If you chronically expose yourself to stress (be it the “good” or “bad” kind), you will eventually get a negative return on your efforts 1. The key is balancing between hormetic stressors and proper rest.
A sedentary (no training) lifestyle leads to inflammation, disease, and muscles that atrophy when it comes to movement and exercise 2. As we add the stress of exercise, there is a natural boost in the production of antioxidants, a decrease in inflammation, and a reduction in various diseases like cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, with over-exercising, many of the same problems of a sedentary lifestyle come back: inflammation, insulin resistance, and mitochondrial dysfunction 3.
When someone does the same fitness routine with no variation for years, they re-enter the sedentary category. Once the body adapts to your new movement level (which tends to occur pretty fast), this is your new sedentary. If you keep the same routine and just amp up the intensity only, you can quickly end up over-exercising and harming your body.
So if someone is a runner, for example, and they go from the couch to a steady 5km– this will force a great adaptation to start. After a few months, continuous 5km runs will take you to a plateau of health benefits. You will no longer maximize your fat loss or cardiovascular benefits and may even notice a plateau in both. On the other hand, if you stay with running and just push it to 10km runs, then 20km, then marathons– eventually, you slip into the over-exercising category. The key was never to just “go harder”; it was to vary your movement style! Variation causes adaptation. Yoga, lift weights, swim, sprint short distances, run on the sand instead of pavement, run the stairs– the options are endless. But variation is the answer.
The Sweet Spot
You need to train hard enough to force adaptation and generate change in the body, but not consistently hard as to start causing chronic inflammation and disease 1. This “sweet spot” does vary from person to person, but a good rule of thumb is that you need to rest as hard as you train.
Sleep quality is another great check-in to know if you are resting and nourishing your body enough. Sleep quality regarding how many hours you sleep, because a long sleep could just be a symptom of exhaustion too. Sleep quality is how deep your sleep gets, which can be tracked by a wearable like the Oura ring 4. If you don’t have one, another way is to see how deeply rested you feel upon waking and cutting out all caffeine and refined sugars for two weeks. If you cannot rely on sleep alone (and no stimulants or simple sugars) to get through the day, your sleep quality is probably poor.
How to Implement Exercise Variation
There are so many ways to vary your exercise routine. It’s important not to get stuck in one form of variation either! Technically increasing your weight if you are into weightlifting is variation, but it becomes your downfall too if you fail to vary in other aspects of your training. Mixing up between all seven variation techniques is essential for sustainable fitness progress and overall health.
1. Sets, Reps, and Weight
Sets and reps are the terms used to describe the number of times you perform an exercise. A rep is the number of times you perform a specific exercise, and a set is the number of cycles of reps that you complete. How much weight you add to your body weight for sets and reps is another way to play with a variation.
You can perform many sets and reps, typically lower sets with higher reps or with higher reps and fewer sets. Higher reps tend to induce more cardiovascular endurance adaptation in the body, while a higher weight with fewer reps is more focused on strength.
Many people think that the more intensity, the better, but this can quickly lead to over-training. Although high-intensity training forces fantastic adaptation, it only gets you so far. When high intensity is cycled with low intensity (or even total rest), you will get the maximum benefit from your high-intensity training periods.
Intensity can be sprinkled into any training program, or you can rotate a week of high-intensity (think HIIT, sprints, or intense gym circuits) with a week or two of lower intensity movement like yoga or swimming.
3. Plane of Motion
Many people tend to move in frontal and sagittal planes of motion. Since we live in a 3D world, that can lead to a poor range of motion. Instability in a single joint can cause overcompensation, chronic pain, and injury 5.
The three planes of motion are:
- Sagittal Plane: Cuts the body into left and right halves– forward and backward movements.
- Frontal Plane: Cuts the body into front and back halves—side-to-side movements.
- Transverse Plane: Cuts the body into top and bottom halves—twisting movements.
Incorporating transverse plane movements into your fitness routine is typically avoided because it is less natural. Many people focus so much on front and back or side to side that they develop a weakness in the twisting movements. As a result, they avoid them and amplify the weakness.
The ego often takes a hit when you incorporate less familiar movements because you have to perform them slower or with less weight and intensity than familiar movements. However, the variation is most beneficial to your body in all planes of motion in the long run.
There are many ways to vary your training by introducing variations on unstable ground. For example, you could do this by taking your pavement run onto the sand or by taking your weighted squats onto an upside-down Bosu ball. It is essential to scale the weight or speed way down and focus on proper form in both cases.
5. Upper Body/ Lower Body/ Full Body Split
Another way to switch things up is to focus on working a particular body area in isolation. For example, if you are used to working out your whole body in a single session, try spending the same amount of time working only on the lower body. Then, either in another session or the entire following week, focus on the upper body. On the other hand, if your typical routine involves a split, try spending a few weeks doing whole-body workouts in a single session.
Cross-training changes exercise modalities altogether, like rotating between weight training, cycling, yoga, and swimming. This is one of the best ways to incorporate variation because changing exercise modalities inevitably changes intensity, stability, planes of movement, and set/rep/ weights.
One great way to maximize the variation is also to use a coach or take a class. When someone else guides your movement, they tend to incorporate variations of exercise that you may typically do or even know about!
7. Three-Week Cycles
Three weeks is a good benchmark in which you can switch up your routine. In three weeks, you should have enough time to focus and become proficient at the movement style you are learning. When three weeks is up, you can choose a couple of types of variation and, for example, up the weight and change the plane of motion; move from an upper-body focused split to a lower-body split, or you could focus on a different type of training altogether.
Humility and Scaling it Back
Many focus on reaching maximum range regarding flexibility and strength: the highest weight possible, the most reps, or the deepest stretch. The problem with the “more is better” mentality is twofold.
First of all, constantly “maxing out” typically keeps you in a very narrow-minded training program. Only focusing on progressive overload (more weight), for example, will be at the cost of getting the variation that comes with a variation of reps or lifting at different (weaker) angles. You will know the line of movement that you are “best” at and focus on that with blinders.
Instead of playing around with different stances in a squat, for example, you may stick to the narrow squat that you have mastered, only focusing on adding more and more weight. This often leads to under-worked muscles, weaknesses in areas, imbalances, and eventually injury 6.
The flaw with going 100% every time is that if you don’t vary your intensity, you will continuously deplete your body, and you can never truly go 100%.
Secondly, it promotes reaching this “harder is better” goal without regard for form. Poor form means compensation, imbalances, and injury 7.
Approaching fitness training from a place of humility enables you to do what is best for the body long term, enabling maximum gains, minimal risk of injury, and supporting movement. If you are getting injured regularly, especially at an older age, it can be a truly devastating blow to your health.
Focusing on proper, varied movement, ideally supported by a coach, you can ensure that you’re moving correctly, which will help you achieve your goals in the long run.
Fitness vs. Health
A huge myth that needs to be dispelled regarding the “go big or go home” mentality is that fitness does not equal health. Many people who are extremely fit are also extremely unhealthy. Although many people who have rigid fitness routines that fail to use variation may look healthy, it’s important not to confuse fitness with health.
For fitness and health to intersect, the key is finding your “sweet spot” of exercising enough to stress the body for adaptation but not overdoing it. In a nutshell, train hard, but rest as hard as you train.
Variation with your exercise routine will prevent you from reaching a fitness plateau and encourage a more balanced body. When we stick to exercises we know, it tends to emphasize our strengths and our weaknesses. Ways to implement exercise variation include switching up your sets, reps, weight, intensity, planes of motion, splitting up the lower and upper body, or going full-body, cross-training. A good rule of thumb is to implement some variation approximately every three weeks.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based upon the opinions of Dr. Daniel Pompa. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Pompa and his associates. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD for accuracy of the information provided, but Dr. Pompa encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.
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4 “Balancing Sleep Quality and Quantity.” Sleep.org, 5 Apr. 2021, https://www.sleep.org/sleep-quantity-different-sleep-quality/.
5 Payne, Andrew. “Sagittal, Frontal and Transverse Plane: Movements and Exercises.” NASM, https://blog.nasm.org/exercise-programming/sagittal-frontal-traverse-planes-explained-with-exercises.
6 “Rules for Avoiding Overuse Injuries.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 10 Mar. 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/overuse-injury/art-20045875.
7 Aasa, Ulrika, et al. “Injuries among Weightlifters and Powerlifters: a Systematic Review.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 51, no. 4, 2016, pp. 211–219., https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2016-096037.