Many trainers and programs use a never-ending variety of exercises with each workout, while other trainers will say that you need to be consistent with your exercise selection.
Who's right? Well, it depends on your goal.
Of course, if your goal is to participate in powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or strongman, you certainly need to be consistent with the lifts you must perform in competition. Those require mastery.
But what about the rest of us who are in the gym for athletic performance, muscle growth, and general fitness? Here's the answer.
Research shows that relative strength (how strong you are relative to your own bodyweight) is the greatest predictor of performance in sprint, vertical jump, and change of direction, which are key indicators of athletic performance (1).
Obviously, heavy training is superior for maximizing strength adaptations (2,3). Although lifting heavy weights can help improve your power, there's plenty of evidence to show that improvements in power are maximized when you also regularly do low-load (lighter) exercises that require you to move fast (4,5).
So, the main focus for improving athletic performance is to improve strength (force production) and power (rate of force production).
That said, to gauge your strength and power, you do need to do exercises consistently in order to compare your numbers from previous workouts. Otherwise, if you're changing exercises all the time, you'd have no way to gauge improvement.
Are you able to lift the same weight for one more rep? Or lift more weight for the same amount of reps? Or do a certain number of reps faster than you did before using the same load?
Speaking of progress in lifting numbers, if it were true that you should be adding plates every week, then 30-year-olds who've been lifting consistently since they were teenagers should be hitting world record numbers. Since this isn't the case, it's far more accurate to say, "You should get stronger every week, as long as you're changing your program every month or two."
Because the human body adapts, the principle of progressive overload will only take you so far. Everyone reaches a plateau at some point within a training program, and they're unable to keep progressively overloading the same exercises. This is where applying the principle of variation comes in.
If you're an athlete, as a general rule you should change the exercises in your program every four to six weeks or so depending on how many days per week you're training.
This gives the body enough time to adapt and progress on the exercises in each program, but it usually isn't a long enough training period for the program to become boring or cause you to develop overuse issues from moving and loading your body in a specific way.
Field, court, and combat sports rely on specific movements for performance. Those actions are derivatives of the eight main functional movements:
- Jumping and landing
- Throwing and striking
- Knee Bend
- Hip Hinge
Even though you're changing exercises, the foundation of every program should be on using the same eight main functional movements, but in slightly different ways by using different exercise variations in each program.
Now, some coaches will assert that successful programming is all about mastering the basics. They believe that good training involves the mastery of certain exercises. This isn't quite accurate, though, because if you're not trying to be a powerlifter or an Olympic lifter, then there's no single exercise that you MUST do.
For athletes and casual lifters, the conventional deadlift, squat, and bench press are simply exercises – optional tools that train the hip hinge, knee bend, and pushing action. But their toolbox contains many other exercise options to train those same main functional movements.
Research highlights that no form of exercise has magical properties. One study compared unilateral (single leg) versus the standard bilateral squat training for strength, sprints, and agility in rugby players.
It found that Bulgarian split squats were just as effective as barbell back squats in improving measures of lower-body strength, 40-meter sprint speed, and change of direction (6).
Another study also found that single-leg and double-leg training exercises increased strength and decreased fatigue in the lower body, with no differences between the single-leg and double-leg results (7).
Yet another study found that, although unilateral and bilateral training appear to affect muscle size adaptations similarly, and while both groups had increases in both unilateral and bilateral strength, the unilateral training group had the greatest strength improvements in unilateral strength and the bilateral training group had the largest improvement in bilateral strength (8).
So, it makes sense to incorporate both as knee-bend exercise options in different programs, without obsessing over one variant.
In other words, don't mistake the fundamentals of strength training for the fundamentals of competitive weightlifting. For athletes and casual lifters, it's about building an all-around stronger lower body, not about being a great squatter.
When it comes to doing exercises like barbell deadlifts, for example, you only need to use them in a way that's safe and helps you improve your overall strength or muscle growth. You need basic competence in the lifts you're performing; however, you don't need to learn or practice powerlifting-specific skills required to be a master deadlifter.
Sure, the big barbell lifts are a great way to create progressive overload because they provide a lot of value, but they're not the only way. Resistance exercises are just a way to put force across joints and tissues to help them to grow stronger. That's it! Barbells, dumbbells, cables, machines, and bands are all just different tools that allow us to apply force across joints and tissues.
As Richard Sorin says, "Athletes (and athletic-minded individuals) are not in the gym to become weightlifters; they are there to be athletes made stronger in the weight room." Not to mention, not every good athlete is a good lifter, and not every good lifter is a good athlete.
So, for athletes, "sticking to the basics" isn't about honoring some list of specific exercises. It's about building programs around the eight main functional movements because they're foundational to improving human performance.
Research shows that trained powerlifters and weightlifters who simply practice 1RMs on a daily basis improved their maximal strength in a relatively short training period on the lift they practiced (9).
With this reality in mind, one of the biggest things that separates a program for weightlifters and a strength program for athletes is that, for athletes, it's not about mastering specific exercises. It's about mastering the movements of a knee bend, hip hinge, push, pull, etc. by changing the exercises used to express those movements every month or two to ensure you're all-around stronger.
Research shows that lifting a lighter load to failure produces gains in muscle size similar to that produced by lifting a heavy load to failure (10,11).
From a practical perspective, the scientific evidence on rep ranges tells us that there's no magical rep range for maximizing muscle size; therefore, you can incorporate both heavy-load and low-rep sets (1-5 reps) along with medium-load and high-rep (15-20-plus reps) sets if you'd like.
There's also a dose-response to gains in muscle size and strength, which means that increasing muscle hypertrophy is mainly about training volume (12). This involves dedicating more total sets/reps and training days to your weaker, less-developed areas, and less overall volume to your more well-developed muscle groups.
As long as you focus on training volume, you don't have to stay consistent with the exercises you use if you're looking to increase hypertrophy. This is demonstrated in a 12-week study comparing constant intensity and constant exercise, constant intensity and varied exercise, varied intensity and constant exercise, and varied intensity and varied exercise (13). The study found that muscle hypertrophy is similar regardless of the training intensity and exercise variation.
Interestingly, this same study also found that constant intensity and varied exercise is more efficient to produce strength gains for physically active individuals. So, you can certainly improve your strength regularly while varying exercises. However, to gauge progress, you'll still need some consistent exercises to do either every week or every month or so.
Additionally, there's another study on resistance-trained men that compares the effects of a traditional resistance training program (fixed exercises and rep ranges) to a program where exercises and reps were randomized on a session-by-session basis on markers of muscular adaptations and intrinsic motivation.
While both programs (fixed and randomized) elicited similar improvements in muscular adaptations, it was varying exercise selection that had a positive effect on enhancing motivation to train (14).
A 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis – one of the most powerful forms of scientific evidence because it's essentially a study of studies – came to two conclusions when it comes to exercise and fat loss:
- Resistance training was more effective than aerobic endurance training (cardio) or a combination of resistance and aerobic endurance training, particularly with whole-body and free weight exercises at around two to three or more sets per exercise performed at an intensity of greater than 75 percent of 1RM.
This equates to using heavy-enough loads that you can't do more than about 10 reps per set. It's important to note that using loads that enable you to do more than 10 reps per set before reaching fatigue are still beneficial for fat loss, but this research highlights the importance of incorporating heavier lifting into your fat loss training.
- When training to maximize fat loss, the focus of the exercises "should be on producing a large metabolic stress," induced by emphasizing the resistance training parameters or intense levels of cardio training, such as high-intensity intervals (7).
In short, when fat loss (without muscle loss) is the main goal, the training is all about maximizing the metabolic impact of the workouts. This goes along with a nutritional approach that puts you in a caloric deficit while eating plenty of protein and emphasizing whole foods.
As long as you're focusing on workouts that maximize the metabolic demand and maintaining a caloric deficit, you can get great fat loss results, whether you're using the same exercises for a given time period or you're constantly varying the exercises.
That said, many people who exercise for general fitness and fat loss prefer constantly varied exercise because it's a more interesting and positive workout experience for them. Exercise variety keeps a lot of people (more) consistent.
For beginners, the main goal is to familiarize their bodies with the demands of non-complex exercises. This helps the brain learn how to engage muscles more efficiently as they progress through the early stages of a new program.
These neural adaptations often bring rapid strength improvements during this phase. However, even though neural adaptations are primarily responsible for increased strength in the early phases of training, research has also found that changes in muscle size are detectable within the first three or four weeks of lifting (15,16).
Although some beginners may prefer more variety, they've first got to achieve competency in an exercise before adding intensity or complexity to it. Just like in boxing, you don't get into throwing punch combinations until you've first learned the basic boxing stance and how to throw a proper punch. Advancing in any skill requires a foundation.
To build a training foundation, you've first got to be able to demonstrate good technique and use deliberate control on each rep. Building a foundation of competency will happen as a result of these two things:
- Finding a limited number of non-complex, pushing, pulling, knee bend, and hip hinge exercises that best fit their current ability and that they're able to do pain-free.
- Consistently practicing these exercises to achieve basic competence.
It's no wonder so many beginners get hurt or don't stick to the exercise programs they started when they go from exercising very little to trying to train like a navy SEAL.
- Swinton PA et al. Regression models of sprint, vertical jump, and change of direction performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jul;28(7):1839-48.
- Schoenfeld BJ et al. Differential effects of heavy versus moderate loads on measures of strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. J Sports Sci Med. 2016 Dec;15(4):715-22.
- Coyle EF et al. Specificity of power improvements through slow and fast isokinetic training. J Appl Physiol Respir Environ Exerc Physiol. 1981 Dec;51(6):1437-42.
- Mora-Custodio R et al. Effect of low- vs moderate-load squat training on strength, jump and sprint performance in physically active women. Int J Sports Med. 2016;37(06):476-82.
- Schoenfeld BJ et al. Effects of low- vs. high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Oct;29(10):2954-63.
- Speirs D et al. Unilateral vs. bilateral squat training for strength, sprints, and agility in Academy rugby players. J. Strength Cond Res. 2016 Feb;30(2):386-92.
- Rube N et al. Effect of training on central factors in fatigue follows two- and one-leg static exercise in man. Acta Physiol Scand. 1991;141(1):87-95.
- Hakkinen K et al. Neuromuscular adaptations during bilateral versus unilateral strength training in middle-aged and elderly men and women. Acta Physiol Scand. 1996:158(1): 77-88.
- Zourdos M et al. Efficacy of Daily 1RM Training in Well-Trained Powerlifters and Weightlifters: A Case Series. Nutr Hosp. 2016 Mar;33(2):437-443.
- Mitchell CJ et al. Resistance exercise load does not deter- mine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Physiol. 2012;113(1):71-7.
- Schoenfeld BJ et al. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697.
- Schoenfeld BJ et al. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082.
- Fonseca RM et al. Changes in Exercises Are More Effective Than in Loading Schemes to Improve Muscle Strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Nov;28(11):3085-92.
- Baz-Valle E et al. The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained men. PLoS One. 2019 Dec 27;14(12):e0226989.
- DeFreitas JM et al. An examination of the time course of training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Nov;111(11):2785-90.
- Seynnes OR et al. Early skeletal muscle hypertrophy and architectural changes in response to high-intensity resistance training. J Appl Physiol. 2007;102:368-373.