Over the years I've noticed two rather distinct types of trainees – those who follow programs, and those who prefer to train "instinctively."
As it turns out, people who come from athletic backgrounds tend to use the programming approach, while bodybuilders or general fitness folk are more likely to train by instinct.
What isn't so apparent, however, is that even those who "program" their training still make constant, instinctive adjustments to their training, and even the most disorganized-looking gym-rats still have some structure to their workouts if you look hard enough.
As it happens, this is a good thing. There are problems with being too rigid, and an entirely different set of issues can result from not having sufficient structure.
First, programming is by its very nature, a form of forecasting. The problem is that athletic readiness is very tricky to predict.
As an example, 12 years ago (and yes, that does make me feel old!) I wrote about two (allegedly) Russian peaking programs.
They both usually work great, but the problem is that, like most programs, they assign workloads based on percentages of your maximum strength level at the start of the program.
As mentioned, usually this works well, but what happens if four weeks in you have a bad day for whatever reason and can't hit your prescribed numbers? So what now? Even if you find a workaround, your confidence (in the program, and/or your own abilities) will likely be shaken.
A second problem is that many people aren't particularly monogamous, at least not to their programming.
It's simply human nature to be attracted to anything new. That's why you have so much enthusiasm upon launching a new training program, only to find yourself searching for a new approach after a few weeks – even if the current one is working just fine.
This phenomenon once prompted Dan John to exclaim (with a knowing twinkle in his eye), "That program worked so great, I stopped doing it!"
Needless to say, being too improvisational carries its own set of problems, the most obvious being that the principle of specificity must be respected in order to create a specific adaptation.
As an example, if you want to improve your deadlift 1RM for an upcoming push-pull meet, you'll need to pull on a regular frequency, and your loading parameters must be confined to those that will improve maximum strength (in other words, low reps with relatively heavy weight).
If you only pull infrequently using a wide range of set/rep brackets, your training (while not completely worthless) won't be specific enough to reach your goal.
Another example, most credible research strongly suggests that protein synthesis only lasts perhaps three days after a training stimulus. So if bodybuilding is your primary interest, and you only train a muscle group once a week, you're only stimulating muscle growth for 3 out of every 7 days.
And finally, psychological factors come into play as well. Some people are very comfortable with constant routine, while others quickly find themselves looking for that "new car smell."
Neither outlook is intrinsically good or bad – the key is to recognize your personal tendencies and then work with them, rather than trying to plug yourself into a format that ultimately proves unsustainable.
What I'm suggesting is that you need to find the "sweet spot" – having enough variety to satisfy your wandering eye but not so much that you'll destroy the structure that's responsible for creating the results that you want.
So toward that end, I'll now provide you with 5 weight room hacks that will help satisfy your desire for variety while still staying true to a program that will keep you on track for results. What's cool about these hacks is that you can apply them immediately to almost any program you're currently using.
1. Incorporate Compulsory and Optional Exercise Categories
This first hack simply gives you permission to "wander," but only after you've eaten your vegetables, so to speak. Applying this idea is as simple as it sounds. Your first exercises (and I suggest you limit this to no more than two per session) are what you need to do, not necessarily what you want to do. In other words you're going to get your work done before you "play." An example might look like this:
A) Front Squat: 3 x 3 @ 87.5% 1RM
B) Pull-Ups: 25 total reps with bodyweight
A) TRX Atomic Push-ups
B) Seated Dumbbell Curl
In this manner, it's not all work and no play, but the "work" always comes first. What's nice about this approach is that you won't be overwhelmed by a long list of exercises since you know that you only have one or two "must-do's."
And more often than not, once the compulsories are completed, you'll likely continue to the optional exercises since you'll be warmed up and (hopefully) spurred on from a good performance on the compulsory movements.
2. On Your Last Set, Go Nuts
One of the best examples of this tactic can be seen in Jim Wendler's very effective 5/3/1 program. On each "core" exercise, during the last work set, you're encouraged (but not required) to do more than the indicated number of reps. So for example on 5-3-1 week the program calls for 5 reps with 75%, 3 reps with 85%, and finally, 1 or more reps with 95%.
The psychology behind this approach is masterful. Since you aren't required to do additional reps, you're not stressed out by the thought of going for broke on the final set, which increases the likelihood that you'll actually do it.
Also, if the indicated number of reps on the last set seems too easy, you won't go looking for another program because you have permission to do more reps if you feel up to it.
Using this method, I recently pulled a 9RM PR with 375 pounds while using Wendler's 5/3/1 format. I was on 5/3/1 week and my last set was designated as 375 x 1 or more:
These extra optional reps build confidence and work capacity for future workouts, and are also a "cheap" way to get new PR's.
3. Reward Sets
This might strike you as similar to the idea of using optional exercises (and it is), but there's a difference. I use this tactic a lot when employing "timed singles" when preparing for weightlifting or powerlifting meets.
This approach calls for using (as an example) 10 moderately heavy singles with short (typically one-minute) rest intervals, and very small (usually 2.5-pound) load progressions from workout to workout.
This approach is very methodical and requires a high degree of patience because, although each workout leads to new PR's, they're very small PR's. Most trainees find themselves itching to do something heavier, if only to reassure themselves that they're really getting stronger.
That's where reward sets come in. Let's say you perform 10 power cleans with 225 pounds in 10 minutes, with no misses. If you feel compelled to do so, you're allowed to take one heavier set, just to scratch the itch so to speak.
So maybe you take a single with 250 and call it a day. Then, next power clean session, you bump your 10 singles up to 230 pounds.
On any given workout, you only get your reward if you make your 10 singles with no misses, within the allotted time period. If you miss any of your singles, then you repeat using the same weight next session (that's your "punishment").
4. Multiple Choice Progression Tactics
Typically, this concept would be applied to auxiliary or "assistance" exercises, where the training target is hypertrophy or developing work capacity.
For example, let's say you've just finished deadlifts and now you're ready to move on to chins. Last time you did 5 sets of 5 reps with bodyweight only, and you've got to decide how you're going to increase the challenge today. Obviously there are a lot of choices to pick from, but you don't have to limit yourself to just one.
Instead, why not allow yourself to choose between (say) three types of progression strategies each time you do chins?
Check these out:
- Do 25 reps in less than 5 sets. Doesn't matter how you get them, as long as you get your 25 in 4 or fewer sets. If you do this, you've increased the training stimulus, and that's all that really matters. Once you can accomplish this, you've earned a weight increase on your next chinning session.
- Set a time limit and gradually do more total reps within that time period (borrowed from Escalating Density Training). Once you've increased your total reps by 20% or more, you've earned the right to increase the load by 5% next time out.
- Do 2 or more extra reps on your first set. Chad Waterbury shared this approach with me recently and I really like it. Applied to the above example, once you can hit 7 or more reps on the first set, you earn a load increase next outing.
There are certainly other progression strategies to choose from, but again, the idea is to give you a few different options, and pick whatever seems the most "doable" on any given session.
5. Roll The Dice
Randomness isn't entirely a bad thing; you just need a bit of structure to keep things from getting out of hand. Get yourself a pair of dice (or use a web-based app like from Random.org).
Use roll die to select the exercise you'll do next. Just assign values for each die like so:
1 = Planks
2 = Lunges
3 = Get-Ups
4 = Kettlebell Swings
5 = Back Extensions
6 = Bear Crawls
Use this method as a good way of forcing you to perform valuable drills that you might not otherwise do, but it can also just be a fun way to inject some variety into your program as well.
You can also roll a second die to randomize your loading parameters for the exercise you just chose. However, care must be taken to ensure that all six loading parameters can be applied to all six exercise choices.
For example, if you assign "10 x 1" as one option, it obviously wouldn't apply very well to at least five, if not all six exercises above.
While I certainly haven't exhausted all the various possibilities that can be applied, I've found these five strategies to be among the most effective.
When considering any of them, however, it's important to remember that structure is what pays the bills, but variety is what keeps you coming back day after day.
Therefore, use these strategies judiciously, and don't get so carried away that your workouts become excessively random. Find a solid program first (some of the best ever conceived can be found right here at T Nation), and then use these hacks as needed to help stay the course.