Rigid vs. Variation vs. Random

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Programs with constant and random variation are all the rage these days. I used to work in a gym where one of the other trainers would repeatedly lecture their clients on the amazing powers of “muscle confusion”, in between sharing Lance Armstrong’s secret green smoothie recipe (which was relayed from a friend of a friend, of course). People absolutely ate up the information, and believed it would lead to the results that had evaded them in past programs. I believe the term “muscle confusion” can be first attributed to P90X, the high intensity interval training program created by Tony Horton. There have been many more programs and systems based on these principles since the release of P90X, and there were high intensity, highly varied programs even before its existence. “Muscle confusion” means to constantly vary your program, thus confusing your muscles, avoiding training plateaus, and achieving superior results. Is this true? Will you achieve superior results? Does it make a difference if every workout is just a random choice of exercises? Let’s take a deeper look at rigid programming versus periodization versus random variation.

When it comes to working out, there are people out there who love consistency and routine so much, that they continue to follow the same rigid strength training program for years on end. I watched one gym member perform the same routine at the YMCA over a span of 11 years, and I didn’t see a whole lot of changes. The problem is we can plateau when we don’t change the imposed stress upon the body. Maybe they were happy with their fitness and were just looking to maintain it, but for me personally, I would be overcome with sheer boredom if I did the same program for that long. In my opinion, a lot of people lose interest in the gym when they continue to follow the same type of workout for long periods of time, without learning new exercises and trying new challenges. This type of training (non-periodized) was found to be inferior to periodized training in a 2004 meta-analysis.

Periodization as it pertains to this post, is the systematic planning of strength and conditioning. A year round conditioning program can be broken down into phases such as the offseason, preseason, and so on. It can also be broken down into three cycles, the macrocycle, mesocycle, and microcycle. Generally, the macrocycle is a year, mesocycle is the length of a phase (usually in weeks), and the microcycle is considered a specific week or day. The periodization can be linear or non-linear/undulating.  Linear programs progress in precise steps. An example would look something like this:

Weeks 1 to 3: 3 sets x 15 reps

Weeks 4 to 6: 3 sets x 10 reps

Weeks 7 to 9: 4 sets x 8 reps

A non-linear/undulating program has more variation, changing daily, and may look something like this:

Day 1: 3 sets x 15 reps

Day 2:  4 sets x 8 reps

Day 3: 4 sets x 4 reps

Research has shown the non-linear/undulating model to be as effective as linear, if not superior. The programming I create for the SOU Volleyball team follows a non-linear, undulating periodization template. Throughout the week, we have one high intensity (maximal effort) day, one medium intensity (submaximal effort) day, and one low intensity/high volume day. I base a lot of the program off of Triphasic training. I organize the program into phases based on the training loads as follows:

Phase 1: Above 80% – High Force at Low Velocity

Phase 2: 55% to 80% – High Force at High Velocity

Phase 3: Below 55% – High Velocity Peaking

The loads correspond to just the major, key lifts (squats, deadlifts, cleans, bench press, etc.) within the workout. We don’t do every exercise at that resistance. These are all concepts that can be learned in greater detail from the book, Triphasic Training by Cal Dietz and Ben Peterson. Of course, I add my own twist to the programming, calling upon all the information I have taken in from people much smarter than me, various strength coaches and physical therapists. So Linear periodization tends to not have much variation, while non-linear/undulating has much more. With that being said, what they do have in common is that they consist of a set plan. We will do these specific exercises, for these number of reps, with this percentage of load, on this specific day, for a specified amount of time (number of weeks).

Random training would be just as it sounds…random. For example, maybe one day is powerlifting, the next day is a run, and the next day is some sort of high intensity interval training with body weight. There would be no set days for specific training, just whatever I felt like doing for the day. People often like this method because it keeps them on their toes and decreases boredom. While increased fitness will be obtained through this method, it will not be as effective as periodization for reaching a specific fitness or sports performance goal. You are probably familiar with the phrase, jack of all trades, but master of none.  Here is a great analogy I read in a recent article, titled “P90X and Muscle Confusion: The Truth” by Charles Staley. “Think about learning a language in high school. If you take 4 years of French, you’ll be quite proficient by the time you graduate, right? Now, along the way, there will be days (and perhaps weeks) where you’re sick and tired of studying the subject, but that’s the price you pay for personal development. If instead, you took French as a freshman, Spanish as a sophomore, Italian as a junior, and Japanese in your senior year, you’ll be a lot less bored, but the price you’ll have to pay is reduced competency. This is a universal principle of personal development, and it applies to the weight room as much as it does to the classroom.” As Staley mentions within this article, progressive resistance training is the key to getting stronger, and you will often find it lacking from a random program. There are numerous studies showing the benefits of consistently increasing the resistance as a person increases in strength. Here is a study showing the benefits for healthy older adults, but there are many others to choose from, and if you don’t believe me, just enter progressive resistance training into Google Scholar.

There you have it. The choice is yours. Getting out and exercising is pretty much going to always be better for your health than doing nothing. All these methods will work, we know everything works for awhile, until it doesn’t, and as long as it doesn’t injure you. However, periodized training will probably work best for specific health and performance goals. If you’re looking to be healthy and active, then random training can work. Especially, if it keeps your interest and keeps you exercising.  Just like many things in life, if you’re in the middle, it may be the optimal place. Being on the extremes where you follow either rigid or totally random programming, you probably won’t have spectacular results, but you will get results. Create a plan, add some variation, gain strength, and make progress.

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