27 December 2018


by Jacob Schepis 0

A hugely misunderstood and misapplied principle of strength training is variation. Lifters either vary their training too frequently or not frequently enough, which leads them to spin their wheels and plateau. Whilst there is no universal way to program, there are better and worse ways to apply the principles of program design. There is a…

A hugely misunderstood and misapplied principle of strength training is variation. Lifters either vary their training too frequently or not frequently enough, which leads them to spin their wheels and plateau.

Whilst there is no universal way to program, there are better and worse ways to apply the principles of program design. There is a marked difference between writing a program and programming, the former being the case in many trainees lifting career as they chop and change variables within their program without much forethought, structure, or understanding of the implications their decisions have on their ability to make progress.

The key to ‘good’ programming is to have a thorough understanding of the training principles and apply them in order of importance. Although variation is of lesser importance and a ‘lower’ priority principle, behind specificity, progressive overload and fatigue management. That being said, variation must be logical, sequential and is necessary for a number of reasons.

In this article I won’t be discussing changes in volume, frequency or intensity specifically as variation of  these three variables will primarily be dictated according to the specific goal of a training phase and should inherently account for progressive overload and fatigue management. Rather, this article will address the nuts and bolts of variation in other key variables within program design, and provide a step wise process for the application of variation for hypertrophy along with some practical recommendations based on my own anecdote.


Variation by definition is a change or slight difference in condition, amount, or level, typically within certain limits. In the context of resistance training, variation in program design is the deliberate alteration of variables such as: reps, sets, load, relative intensity, exercise selection, exercise order, rest and tempo.

The primary purpose of variation is to:

  • Minimise stagnation/plateaus;
  • Prevent staleness;
  • Reduce injury risk;
  • Minimise monotony and strain; and
  • Magnify long term adaptive potential by managing the impact of biological negative feedback loops.

It is important to mention that there are two subcomponents of variation, namely:

  • Adaptive Proclivity/Resistance trade-off: Variation must be within a certain range to have an additive rather than detrimental effect; and
  • Directed Variation: Variation can occur via emphasis/de-emphasis training, which becomes more important with increasing levels of advancement.


The amount of variation needed to make progress is highly dependent on your level of advancement.

Beginners need little to no variation as everything they do will be novel and allow for a faster rate of progress. More importantly, beginners need to prioritise skill acquisition, habit formation and enjoyment, which is largely tied to self efficacy and proficiency in their lifting, meaning too much variation is not ideal.

As training level of advancement progresses, the need for variation increases in order to provide sufficient novelty in the training stimulus and generate further adaptations. Therefore, the sole reason we need to vary the training stimulus is to maximize long term progress, ensuring plateaus and injuries are avoided whilst upholding enjoyment of training, with minimal interruption to training momentum and progress.

Before we delve into variation further, I want to highlight an all but neglected decision making process when plateaus arise. This framework (courtesy of Greg Nuckols) provides for a step-wise process in making alterations to program design and highlights how variation should be the last point in call.

In the case that you are feeling worn down, or when doing more is not feasible or beneficial, variation of training variables can be the next step in adjusting your program to provide a novel stimulus and allowing for the continuation of training.


One of the forgotten variables of program design is the order of exercises within a session or training week.

Traditionally the order of exercises has been premised on neurological/physiological underpinnings to allow for maximization of performance and minimizing injury risk by performing the most demanding exercises early in a training session/week when fatigue is low and readiness to train is high.

Whilst this is logical and in most cases a good idea, it doesn’t always need to be this way, especially when hypertrophy is the goal.

Periodically shifting exercises up/down within a session or week can create sufficient novelty, without the drawbacks of relearning motor patterns or finding appropriate loads for a given rep range/exercise.

It also mitigates interruption of the flow between training phases and can allow for directed adaptations to occur. This is otherwise known as emphasis/de-emphasis training, and is a useful way to vary the training stimulus.

Practical recommendations:

Main lifts:

  • Emphasise for 2-3 mesocycles, then de-emphasise for 1-2 mesocycles.

Accessory lifts:

  • De-emphasize for 2-3 mesocycles, then emphasise for 1-2 mesocycles.

For example:

Mesocycles 1-3

Emphasis: Squats

De-emphasis: Leg Press

 Mesocycles 4&5

Emphasis: Leg Press

De-emphasis: Squats

This variation in order of exercises will provide sufficient novelty by creating more fatigue when an exercise is de-emphasised as training a movement further back in a session means fatigue will be higher. Conversely, when a lift is emphasized, less fatigue is present and improvements in performance will surface.

When it comes to single joint lifts, moving these exercises to up the order of exercises within a session or training them earlier in the week can be beneficial during phases where that muscle group is prioritized, aka a specialization block.

During these phases, by training that muscle earlier before completing mains and accessory lifts, fatigue is lower for that muscle group, which in turn allows for improvements in performance and greater volumes/loads to be used.

For example:

Mesocycle 1-3: Chest Focus

Day 1: Upper

  • Bench Press 3×8-10
  • Cable Chest Fly 3×10-14
  • Supinated Pull Up 3×8-10
  • Tricep Extension 3×10-14
  • Bicep Curl 3×10-14

Mesocycles 4-6: Arm focus

Day 1: Upper

  • CG Press 3×8-10
  • Bicep Curl 3×10-14
  • Tricep Extension 3×10-14
  • Supinated Pull Up 3×8-10
  • Cable Chest Fly 3×10-14


Whilst there is a broad spectrum of rep ranges that can elicit hypertrophy adaptations, the benefit of changing rep ranges/loading zones for muscle growth appears to be beneficial only so far as it minimizes monotony and strain, rather than preventing adaptive resistance/accommodation to a specific training stimulus or allowing for expressions in strength when moving to lower rep ranges.

Variation of rep ranges/loading zones too often will mean progress can be more difficult to measure. Conversely, training with the same rep/set schemes and loads may very well bottleneck long term progress by causing psychological burn out, staleness and boredom.

The objective when varying rep ranges/loading zones in the aforementioned manner when the goal is hypertrophy would be to maintain the same or similar loads when transitioning into higher rep ranges and improving strength within a certain rep range over time. This would mean an increase in repetition strength across multiple sets, which has been shown to be one of the best proxies for muscle hypertrophy aka performing more work with the same loads.

More importantly, it’s critical to note that exercises are self-selecting towards certain rep ranges and loading parameters from an efficacy and safety standpoint. Therefore, variation of many exercises are limited to certain rep ranges and loading zones.

For example, squats and other multi joint exercises that require a high degree of skill lend themselves best to lower rep ranges with greater absolute loads, whereas single joint movements that aren’t very technical such as a bicep curl will require more repetitions and thus lighter loads to effectively elicit a training stimulus.

Practical recommendations:

Multi joint exercises

  • Vary rep ranges +/- 1-3 reps every 1-2 mesocycles.

Mesocycle 1&2

Squats – 3×5-7

Mesoycle 3&4

Squats 3×7-9

Single joint exercises

Vary rep ranges +4-6 reps every 2-3 mesocycles.

Mesocycle 1&2

Bicep curls – 3×8-12

Mesocycle 3&4

Bicep curls – 3×12-16


Relative intensity is the amount of effort elicited in a single set, whereby the RPE (rate of perceived effort) or RIR (reps in reserve) scale(s) are used to measure proximity to failure and ultimately the ‘intensity’ of a set.

It’s important to note, that on average, training must get harder over time. However, as you become stronger and more advanced, your ability to train hard, thus elicit more stress and accumulate more fatigue increases, limiting the amount of hard/overloading training that can be performed.

Therefore, varying intensity of effort is of less importance for beginners and early intermediates. These trainees simply need to learn how to train hard and are will already create sufficient damage, despite minimal variation a novelty is already high and rate of adaptation will be faster.

As you get stronger and advance in your training career, the necessity for days/weeks/months of distinctly hard and distinctly light(er) training becomes all the more important and varying relative intensity can be a useful way to prevent accumulating excess fatigue whilst still providing sufficient stimulus for hypertrophy adaptations without detriment to recovery.

More specifically, the difficulty and fatigue summated is highly dependent upon the type of exercise performed. Not all exercises and volume creates the same level of fatigue, with some exercises eliciting more/less stress and muscle damage due to differences in:

  • Absolute load & total tonnage lifted;
  • Length-tension curves;
  • Number of joints/muscles used;
  • The type of contraction (passive vs active)
  • Range of motion; and
  • Joint positions.

For example, when training the triceps, the joint position of the shoulder during elbow extension plays a large role in the amount of damage accrued. When elbow extension occurs during shoulder flexion, more fatigue results due to the fact the triceps are in a stretched position when compared to elbow extension in shoulder extension.

Similarly, when training the hamstrings during hip flexion (Romanian deadlift) will cause more fatigue than knee flexion in a leg curl given the absolute loads used are greater, more muscle groups are used to stabilize and eccentric loading is more damaging than concentric contractions.

These differences in exercises are critical in understanding the amount of fatigue caused and why variation in relative intensity within certain exercises is useful in the context of hypertrophy, especially as you become more advanced.

This lends to the idea of varying the relative intensity used with certain exercises within a training week or cycles and therefore regulating efforts in highly damaging/fatiguing exercises, especially when training with higher volumes/frequencies.

Therefore, utilizing a broad spectrum of relative intensities (RPE’s of 6-10) and periodically altering when higher and lower intensities of effort are used within a session/week is beneficial as you progress through your training career and should align with the amount of volume/frequencies used within a training cycle.

Practical Recommendations for intermediates/advanced:

Microcycle Variation of Relative Intensity:

Day 1: Hard Overloading workout – RPE 8+ with most demanding/fatiguing lifts

Day 2: Moderately Overloading workout – RPE 7-8 with less demanding/fatiguing lifts

Day 3: Light/less overloading workout  – RPE 6-7 with lowest demand/fatiguing lifts

Mesocycle Variation of Relative Intensity:

Mesocycles 1-3: High frequency/ High Volume

  • Lower relative intensities on highly fatiguing/damaging lifts (RPE 6-8)
  • Higher relative intensities on less fatiguing/damaging lifts (RPE 8-10)
  • Fewer rest days

Mesocycles 4&5: Low frequency/ Low volume

  • Higher relative intensities on highly fatiguing/damaging lifts (RPE 8-10)
  • Lower relative intensities on less fatiguing/damaging lifts (RPE 7-9)
  • More rest days


Variation is most commonly applied by substituting or altering exercise selection, however, when it comes to hypertrophy, too much novelty in exercises on a regular basis will result in less time eliciting morphological adaptations and more time acquiring neural adaptations and re-learning a motor pattern.

Whilst changing exercises is a viable means of applying variation, don’t forget there are many ways to vary the training stimulus within a given movement pattern or exercise. For example, variation can occur by moving from barbell –> dumbbells –> cables, changing hand position (supinated/pronated/neutral), altering stance/grip width, or simply changing the rep ranges/loading zones or  tempo.

I’ve found that subtle changes in within an exercises such as transitioning from seated row with a neutral grip to a pronated grip or bicep curls with dumbbells to barbells, will often be ‘enough’ variation to achieve the fundamental goal(s) of variation and allow for novelty of stimulus to occur without too much disruption to the flow of training phases.

Furthermore, when an exercise is substituted out of a training cycle(s), it’s replacement(s) should serve to enhance performance when the substituted lift is re-introduced back into your program.

Variation of exercise selection in practice:





Main Lifts (P1) Low 3-4 mesocycles Progress stagnates, overuse injuries arise and variation in order has been manipulated.
Accessory Lifts (P2) Moderate 2-3 mesocycles When staleness/monotony occur, after order has been manipulated.
Isolation Lifts (P3) High 1-2 Mesocycles Dependent on overall goal of training cycle & enjoyment.



(5) TEMPO –

The cadence of lifting for hypertrophy has been shown to be optimized with explosive concentric actions and controlled eccentric actions.

Varying the speed of contraction for isometric/eccentric phases of a lift can provide sufficient novelty to a specific exercise.

However, consistent concentric lifting speed irrespective of training phase is necessary to ensure that loading parameters are providing sufficient mechanical tension on the target muscle(s).

For example, incorporating pauses and slower eccentrics during higher rep training that emphasizes metabolic stress can be used to provide further overload by increasing the duration of tension applied to a muscle.

Practical Recommendations:

Mesocycles 1-3 (high frequency/high volume) :

  • Concentric: Explosive
  • Isometric: 1-2 seconds
  • Eccentric: 2-3 seconds

Mesocycles 4&5 (low frequency/ high volume):

  • Concentric: Explosive
  • Isometric: 0-1 second
  • Eccentric: 1-2 seconds


If your goal is maximal hypertrophy, tracking your training and performance on key lifts is vital, and the best proxy for muscle growth is improvements in repetition strength across multiple sets. Therefore, variation should serve only to further your ability to achieve the aforementioned and not come at the expense of making progress.

Too much variation will detriment your growth, as adaptation requires consistent signaling over extended periods of time, and  will make tracking progress difficult.

Too little variation will only lead to monotony, strain, a lack of enjoyment and plateaus.

Finding just the right amount of variation, at the right time is key, and always ensuring any changes made to your program are done so in a logical and sequential manner.

Remember, every decision you make in program design should be done so in a bid to help, not hinder your efforts or ability to progress. Change for the sake of change is a fruitless endeavour!

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