Of all the training variables involved in program design, what stands out to you as being the most important? Optimizing the number of sets and reps? Tempo? Intensity? Frequency? Density? Volume? Good form?
All are important, but the most important is exercise selection. After all, if you're using the wrong exercises, efforts to optimize the remaining variables only work against you. However, if you are using the correct exercises, you at least have a shot at success, even if you totally screw up everything else.
With that in mind, we're left to ponder an inescapable conclusion: There's a continuum of exercises available to you, ranging from the most beneficial to the least beneficial. Given the constraints of time and energy, this means there are a mere handful of exercises that you should always be doing. My personal list includes deadlifts, squats, benches, and pull-ups. These are what I consider my "must do's."
If this is true – if there are certain movements so beneficial that we pretty much always need to be doing them – how do we also respect the law of variety?
When exposed to the same stimulus repeatedly, your body will eventually habituate to that stressor, which means your training results will come to a grinding halt. One obvious solution is to create variety though ever-changing loading parameters (sets, reps, etc.) But I want to suggest a less obvious solution to the specificity/variability paradox I call "Same But Different."
Engrave this in your brain: the best exercises are also the most modifiable.
Most of us think deadlifts are valuable. Now think about how many ways you can do a pull – conventional, sumo, trap bar, stiff-leg, from a deficit, from blocks, snatch grip, chains, bands, single-leg, single-arm, dumbbell, kettlebell, sandbag, etc.
For example, you could do chain-resisted Dead-Squat bar deadlifts from a deficit. Or snatch-grip stiff-legged deadlifts from blocks. Or double kettlebell sumo pulls. The amount of variety here is considerable, and I haven't even addressed the numerous ways that exercises can be changed through modifying the loading parameters assigned to them.
Now that I've spurred your imagination, think about the variations possible with squats. And presses. And rows. And pull-ups. And carries. This variety is possible because the exercises I've just listed aren't exercises per se, they're representations of patterns.
Imagine you're a professional heavyweight boxer. What's the best and most specific and result-producing type of training you can do? Hitting the heavy bag? Running? Shadow boxing? Nope, the most beneficial training you can do is sparring.
Not just any sparring, mind you – you must spar with a difficult opponent who's as big as you are. And you'll need to use competition equipment and abide by official rules – 3 minute rounds with 1 minute rest.
Ideally, you'd do this with an audience of some type to at least partially simulate real-life competition. And you'd spar hard, as if your life depended on winning, just like you would if you were fighting for the world title. Your sparring partner would do the same.
That's about as specific as you can get, right? Clearly this high-specificity training would prepare you for a real fight much more than anything else you could do.
The problem (and it's a big one) is you can only do so much of this kind of training. It's exhausting, stressful, and frankly, dangerous. You can get cut. You can get knocked out. You can lose teeth. If you did this every day, your skills would rapidly deteriorate from stress and fatigue.
So while specificity is critically important, it also comes at a cost. In resistance training, you aren't risking broken teeth and concussions, but you're risking physical and psychological burnout, as well as pattern-overuse injuries – all of which constantly threaten your ability to train consistently long term.
So if our training isn't specific enough, it won't produce the results we're looking for. If it's too specific, it produces the results, but it isn't sustainable.
The solution? The Same But Different approach. This approach allows you to preserve the beneficial elements of specificity while neutralizing its less desirable side effects. To fully appreciate this concept, let's talk a bit about something called "fatigue specificity."
To help you visualize the specificity of fatigue, think about the wake that forms behind a fast moving boat. Whatever's closest to the back of the boat takes most of the brunt.
Similarly, whatever you do tomorrow will be affected from the fatigue of today's workout more than whatever you do five days from now. Recognizing that fatigue is specific to the work you perform, we need to implement some form of contrast so that we can perform important things more frequently without burning out in the process.
Imagine you're a novice powerlifter trying to improve your piss-poor deadlift. You surmise that the more frequently you pull, the faster you'll see results, so you decide to pull on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. And of course, to respect the principle of specificity, you decide to work up to a daily max each time, since powerlifting is a sport of one-rep maxes.
If you're an absolute beginner with a best pull of about 255 pounds, I'm betting this plan will work for about 6-8 weeks, by which time you'll be pulling around 315 or so. From there, however, things will start to come to a screeching halt. Before long, the very thought of deadlifting makes your low back throb in a Pavlovian kind of way.
What if you'd tried something a bit different? Instead of doing the same deadlift workout three times a week, you maintain the same training frequency, but use three different types of deadlifts instead?
On Mondays, you do a standard pull, working up to a daily max, just as you'd done before. On Wednesday, however, you'll do rack pulls from knee height for 3-4 moderate triples. And on Friday, you'll pull up to one big set of 5 with a Dead-Squat bar, which allows for more of a quad-dominant, low-back sparing pull than you can do with a conventional barbell.
What we've done here is reap with benefits of specificity while minimizing its downside. Physically, we're working from the floor as well as the knee, targeting two common weak points in the deadlift. We're also performing a quad-specific pull on Fridays, which gives the low back a break while addressing quad strength at the same time.
Psychologically, we've got something different to look forward to each workout, which allows us to maintain a high level of enthusiasm for the long haul.
Notice that the loading parameters vary from day to day as well. This not only helps to train different strength qualities, it also allows us to pull more frequently since each workout taxes slightly different energy systems and motor units.
By training with this type of "same but different" schedule, you'll manage to make progress and maintain your enthusiasm for a much longer time than by using the pure specificity model.
I'm currently using this approach as I train for a tactical strength challenge. This competition tests a 1RM deadlift, bodyweight pull-ups for max reps, and a 5-minute kettlebell snatch test with a 53-pound 'bell.
Since my kettlebell snatch technique still needs work, rather than snatch every kettlebell workout (which would leave my wrists bruised with my current level of skill), I'm alternating kettlebell snatches on one workout with one-arm swings on the second workout.
In this way, I'm working my specific endurance twice a week and working the fundamental pulling technique on both workouts, while keeping myself fresh and injury-free.
High specificity performed at a high frequency is a winning ticket no matter what your lifting goals happen to be. The trick is to make the approach physically and psychologically sustainable by implementing just enough variation to make the medicine go down a little easier.