A few weeks ago Pavel came to Phoenix to give a weekend workshop on programming for strength. For those of you who don’t know; Pavel Tsatsouline is a former Russian Special Forces physical training instructor, he single handedly made kettlebells a popular training tool and he’s crazy smart when it comes to getting people strong. He’s also been one of, if not the biggest influences in my training philosophy. So naturally, when Pavel comes to my backyard to talk strength, I have to go and listen.
I won’t go into detail about what was taught because, frankly, the information is pretty intricate and unless you coach high level strength athletes, it doesn’t really apply to your training. However, there was a theme to the system he presented and it’s a concept I’ve been thinking about quite a bit over the past year or so – it’s the concept of variability.
While Pavel dissected how elite Russian weightlifters used variability with regards to training intensity (load) and volume I wanted to talk today about the importance for “movement variability” within an athlete’s strength training program.
Variability Is Necessary
In the book Antifragile, which I highly recommend, Nassim Taleb discusses how antifragile systems thrive on variability. The stock market climbs, dips, recovers and climbs higher. You lift weights, rest, recover, then go back and lift heavier weights. Periods of hard work need to be followed by periods of rest. Peaks are followed by valleys which allow for even greater peaks. Long term progress is never linear, there is always a degree of variability.
Pavel showed that, in building strength, it’s important to have large degrees of variability in your training via manipulations in volume (sets x reps) and intensity (how heavy a weight is in relation to your 1 rep max). But as an athlete, or a performance minded person, variability in movement is just as important as variability in volume or intensity.
For example, we can all agree that squatting is important for strength development and performance enhancement. So in our programs we progress squatting in 3 different positions; we squat with a split stance (lunge), a symmetrical stance (double kettlebell front squat) and while standing on one leg (single leg squat). Building strength in all 3 positions is important because it has better carryover to athletic performance. In sport, you need the ability to apply force from a variety of positions and joint angles and only training one movement pattern (only symmetrical stance squatting for example) leaves gaps in your strength that may hinder athletic development.
Variability Within Movements
To simplify the training process, I’ve broken down our training into categories of fundamental human movements; hinge, squat, pull and press. Within each movement category is where we’ll add variability.
Hinge – Bilateral Deadlift, Single Leg Deadlift
Squat – Split Stance, Symmetrical Stance, Single Leg
Pull – Horizontal Pull (row), Vertical Pull (pullup)
Press – Horizontal Press (bench press), Incline Press, Vertical Press (overhead press)
As you can see, each movement category has some variability within it. Some days we’ll deadlift with both feet on the ground, some days we’ll use the single leg deadlift – same movement category, just a small variation.
You Still Need To Get Stronger
You still need to develop the ability to put force into the ground. When it comes to improving athleticism, getting stronger is a game changer. I don’t want this post to come off like I’m advocating the “muscle confusion” nonsense that’s being marketed as a viable training approach. What I am saying is that you need to train the basic movements with slight variability and with an intent to increase the load over time.
If performing better is your goal, add movement variability, like I outlined above, throughout your strength training program. Just remember – it’s not random training, it’s organized variety and strength is still the goal.