top of page
  • Writer's pictureKevin Mullins

4 Ways to Add Variation without Compromising Exercise Integrity

"What deadlift is better?"

"What exercise should I do if I want to tone up this area" (While grabbing at it)

Questions like the ones above are posed to me on a daily basis. Typically it is when I introduce a new exercise, or exercise variation, into their program. For example, a client who has spent time doing conventional deadlifts with me will switch to sumo stance and immediately question the motives behind the alternative.

I'm immediately met with - "Is this better than the other deadlilfts?"

To answer we must first distill this broad sweep into a finer question - to do so we must first realize what an exercise truly is...

Exercises, like people, are no better or worse than each other. A lift, like a human, is created equal at its inception. There is a load which requires force to move it along a desired path.

That's it.

Thus, as bicep curl is equal to a squat just as a pushup is equal to a run. So long as a mass of resistance is being moved along a desired path by force created through the contraction of muscles, then we have an exercise.

An exercise becomes "graded" when we examine its relationship with a desired training goal.

This relationship is what allows for us to consider and rank our options. When filtered through our training experiences, common training habits, and limitations we can adequately arrange an order of operations to help us achieve that goal.

For example:

If you are looking to build a bigger chest, then a push up is better than a jumping jack. (duh)

Moreover, if you are looking to build a bigger chest, then a bench press may be better than a push up.

Furthermore, an incline bench press may be superior to the flat bench press due to the engagement of the clavicular region of the pectoral muscles; an underutilized region during flat pressing.

Increasing Time-under-Tension, regardless of exercise, may be more superior due to the increase in work performed by the target muscle groups during any given set.

The best method for building a larger chest would be to employ all of the above exercises in some doseage throughout a workout, or cycle of training (micro --> macro). Tactical variation in training methods will lead to improving weak points, freshening the training stimulus, and resting over-utilized joints. AKA -GAINZ.

Once more:

Employing well-thought out variation in a training program is critical to the success and constant progress of the training athlete.

These variations should be subtle deviations of proven exercises, methods, and intensities.

Thus, they aren't better or worse...they are just different.

Now, it shouldn't have to be said, but I'll do it anyway...that employing variation simply as a party-favor is a quick way to short circuit progress. Muscles do not have brains, and therefore; muscle confusion is a bit of an overreaching concept that has undercut many people's results. You can't be doing 5x5 one week, cube method the next, and training for a half-marthon the next and expect to get results.

You might not look out of shape, but you sure as hell won't be making notable progress in any given direction.

Adding variation to an exercise doesn't give you a license to do stupid shit either. Doing an overhead squat on a Swiss-ball is a quick way to jack-yourself-up.

Adding a BOSU ball, resistance band, Bodyblade, and harmonica to your conventional squat will not boost core recruitment, melody accuracy, and hip drive simultaniously. It'll make you look silly.

For those who don't want to look silly, and are genuinely interested in how they can vary their workout below are 4 methods of variation that work wonders in your training program.

1. Foot Position -

All people have a position in the squat where they are most capable of safely achieving depth under load. For most, this is found slightly wider than shoulder width with the feet turned out fifteen to thirty degrees. Consistently squatting in the position our hips are designed for can allow for significant results in strength, size, and overall fitness.

Yet, varying the stance can be beneficial to fixing weak points due to the overemphasis of weaker muscle groups. An exceptionally wide stance with high turn-out can boost abductor, gracilis, and VMO recruitment when added into a program. A narrow stance squat can radically increase overall quadricep usage, which leads to strength and conditioning of the muscle group.

These variations apply to the deadlift as well. Foot position (which relates to hand in this case) can great alter which muscles to the work.

It should be noted that foot position in squats and deadlifts is going to greatly impact starting and ending hip positions. A wide or narrow stance squat will not have the same depth as a standard stance, and the wide squat will not present as much "butt-back" posture at the top.

2. Hand Position

Changing the hand position in an upper body lift can radically change the muscles that are recruited. Many of people have been doing close grip bench presses for years to build their triceps, because they know the hand positioning limits the ability of the pectorals to help.

What about snatch grip rows? Snatch grip overhead presses? Pronated Curls? Supinated Tricep Pulldowns?

Image belongs to T-Nation, referenced to article below

Side note: If you want to try something hard, but awesome. Try the snatch grip deadlift. See this awesome write-up on T-nation about it. It is too good.

There are many ways we can rotate, or change the width of our hands on an implement that allow for us to target different muscles. Utilizing a variation for an extended period of time can seriously change the landscape of the targeted muscle.

3. Repetition Speed

I'd argue that most people follow a standard one second up/ one second down repetition speed for their lifts. Some who are more disciplined may be able to slow this to 1.5 or 2 seconds per phase.

Yet, so many other tactics can be employed to train a variety of muscle fibers in the body. Negatives, slow positives, and pauses are common techniques that are used to increase the time a muscle is under tension.

A personal favorite technique of mine is to utilize a sub-maximal weight on an elastic exercise, such as the bench press or squat. A 5 second negative is executed with a maximal velocity contraction in the positive phase. I like to imagine slowly squeezing a spring until there is nothign left to give, and then letting it go!

Tactical pauses are another great method for addressing weak spots in the major lifts. Get stuck at the knee during a heavy deadlift? Then, load up a moderately heavy weight and stop at that spot...holding for three to five seconds before completing the rep. Over time you'll build tolerance and strength in that range of motion, which should allow for you to better complete maximal loads.

4. Partial Range of Motions

A partial range of motion is a functional coaches nightmare, but they can serve a myriad of purposes when applied adequately.

For strength, like a pause rep, a partial range of motion can boost performance in a weak spot of a lift. For example, a rack pull is an exercise done from the knees up to boost lockout strength in a deadlift. This is useful for those who have the raw horsepower to get the bar off the ground, but can never seem to finish the lift at the top. (Same with benching to a block).

Another great use of a partial is do what I like to call - "living in the 80%". Eliminate the top and bottom ten percent of a range motion and only exercise in the middle. This will disallow you from diverting the load into other muscles, joints, or tissues; thus, forcing you to overcome some serious lactic acid burn and serve as a tremendous finisher to a particular muscle or movement.


Variation for the sake of change is not a good plan. However, planning to change things up to address specific flaws in a training program is critical to long term success. Simply changing from a standard stance to sumo stance in your deadlift for a few months may be the trick you've needed all along.

Focus on one or two variations at a time, and remain consistent with them for a period of time in order to actualize any training progress. Don't just keep flipping channels looking for something new and exciting.


Keep Reading with Kevin's book - Day by Day: The Personal Trainer's Blueprint

Open Book.png

Elevate your Fitness Career...Daily


What they Say...

"365 Golden Nuggets of Wisdom" - Jonathan Goodman

"Little attention is paid usually to the "how to" of building a successful career. Thanks to Kevin, this void is now being filled."  - Simon Warwick

THIS book should be required reading for anyone hoping to make a career out of personal training. - Steven Head

bottom of page