by Patrick McHenry

Variation “is the purposeful change of the program design variable assignments to expose a client to new or different training stressors.”(1). It is a key component to getting results and keeping your clients coming back. Variation can refer to sets / reps/ training loads or rest periods. Variation can also refer to the exercises performed by the client within the weekly workout. The positive side for changing the exercises within the workout is that “The more exercises performed the greater variety and stimulus to the system.”(2) The negative aspect of changing up the workout is that too much will confuse the client and not produce the desired outcome; not enough variety and the client becomes bored or complacent. An easy to use, helpful tool for keeping variety in a program while maintaining the results is to develop a “notebook” of exercises that allows you to quickly substitute one exercise for another in an organized, efficient manner. There are many ways the notebook can be arranged depending on how the workout is designed. If the program is laid out by body part then list the exercises for each body part (i.e. shoulder, back, chest, quadriceps, and hamstrings). By listing each specific muscle group then you know that one lift can be exchanged for another while focusing on the specific area intended to be worked out. . Another way to lay it out is by the type of exercise that is performed (i.e. full body, upper body, lower body, shoulder rehab). Whichever method chosen, make it fit your needs

When designing programs research shows that a heavy day and light day should be included in the workout (1). Having heavy days early in the week with the basic “core” lifts allow the client to add a little more weight because they are fresh. The lighter days later in the week are a perfect time to use the “alternate” exercises because many times clients are tired. Changing the exercises manipulates the workout so that the client has to lighten up the weight to perform the lift correctly. If lower body is worked on Monday, then a “core” exercise such as the back squat would be performed. On Wednesday an “alternate” for the back squat can be the front squat, or a front spilt squat depending on the client’s training level. The “alternate” exercise requires the client to lighten up naturally and yet it is still challenging.

There are several benefits to adding variety in the workout including; “One way to alternate the program is to do a different exercise to develop the same muscle” (3).

To develop a wide variety of exercises, start out with the basic lift (Figure 1). Next, look at the variables that make up the lift including foot placement, body position, implement used, speed of movement, or machine. Putting all the information into a table is an easy way to track your data and read it when needed.

Step one: Choose the core lifts that will be the base for the exercise program. Squat, bench, incline, military are common “core” lifts.

Step two: If it is a lower body exercise, decide on the various ways the feet can be placed. For an upper body exercise the feet can be on or off the ground. Upper body exercises can be performed from a standing, sitting or prone position.

Step three: What implement will be used to perform the exercise? It is a bar, dumbbell (4), sandbag (5,6), kettlebell, medicine ball or plate.

Step four: How will the implement be held? In the front of the body, back of the body, overhead, or next to the body.

Step five: What speed will the movement be made in? Same speed up/ down, slow on the way down/ explosive on the way up / pausing at the bottom or shrugging at the top.

Step six: Is there a machine that can take the place of the free weight exercise?

Step seven: Can two exercises be combined. When performing a dumbbell bench, stopping at the top then moving into a fly.

The use of variety in exercise selection will keep the workout fun, effective and progressive while ensuring desired results. With the number of different exercises, scientifically proven equipment and the proper use of program design any program can incorporate variety to it. The key is the objective of the program. Making sure the lifts meets the desired outcome will guarantee results and prevent wasted time in the gym.

  • Earle, and Baechle, T. Essential of Personal Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics 362-389 2004
  • Torcolacci 1993
  • Yessis 1981
  • Dumbbell training at the airforce
  • sandbag training
  • 101 sandbag Drills



Feet position





One leg on box one leg touches groundOne leg on bench/ one leg on ground
Bar positionBackFrontOver headZetzer (hold on arms)
DumbbellNext to sideOn shouldersoverhead
Other ImplementSandbagPlatesKettlebellsMedicine ballChains
SpeedSame speed down / upSlow down/ explode upPause at bottom
MachineSmith machineLeg press


Body positionFeet flatFeet upStanding
GripNormalWide gripClose grip
SpeedSame speed down / upPause on chestNegative Slow down quick upShrug at top
MachineSmithCross over cableFree Motion
CombinationDB bench to flyDB Pushup to side raiseDB pushup to rotation