Variability in Strength and Conditioning: The Newest Misunderstanding
Authored By: Dylan Gutheil
The concept of variability in training is a hot topic in strength and conditioning right now. Unfortunately, I believe a lot of coaches are using too much variability in training their athletes and clients without an understanding of the correct application. Variability seems to be the new buzz word used as an excuse to add complexity or progression before fundamental skills and movement competency are learned. Some coaches even seem to use the “need for variability” as an excuse to be less detailed oriented with their coaching and programming, as if there isn’t such thing as a “bad” movement strategy. I will tell you right now, there are plenty of bad movement strategies that athletes and clients use every day. It is our job as a strength and conditioning coach, performance coach, physical preparedness coach, skill acquisition coach or whatever the new label is, to take the athlete or client through appropriate progressions and positions to improve the likelihood of them using the most efficient/powerful strategy. Sorry folks, but this is without a doubt NOT going to be at full speed, in multiple planes, with a competition or a decision-making element. The poor movement strategy will likely never improve if you load it differently every time you do it.
Is it more fun to have every exercise be loaded in a different way every week? Probably.
Is it more fun to add a competition element to drills? Yeah.
Does every movement need to be “perfect” before adding progression? Of course not.
There is no such thing as a perfect movement.
Should there always be a reactive element if you’re training athletes? Yes, but skills and movements need to be built separate from the reactive component first.
How much variability do athletes and general public clients need in their training? Now that is the million dollar question.
Before we can answer this question, we have to determine who we are working with.
Before we can answer this question, we have to determine who we are working with.
What are the goals of this individual?
What is their training experience?
What is their level of movement competency?
What is their affect toward training?
If we are talking about training athletes, then ultimately, you want them to train in all positions, planes, and velocities, with varying intensities. I use the word “ultimately” because starting out a new athlete doing all these things would actually be detrimental to their progress.
Imagine you have a new 15-year-old athlete come through your doors with no weight room experience. On that first day, they might be able to display some athletic qualities such as speed, relative strength, agility, maybe even rate of force production. They were either given these abilities genetically or they gained them playing their sport. Either way, the odds are that they also have some inefficient strategies that they use to display these qualities. The goal of the first block of training for this athlete should be building competency in basic movement patterns. If you have been coaching long enough, I’m sure at some point you have started a client or athlete out on an exercise that they were not prepared for.
You end up beating your head against the wall trying to get them to do the exercise correctly and they usually don’t really get better at it.
They don’t get better at the exercise because they didn’t go through the prerequisite movements that give their brain context for how to display this movement correctly with the right musculature being used. If I get an athlete or client really good at goblet squats, the transition to a barbell front squat shouldn’t be that difficult. They have built competency in the movement pattern of squatting. They know where to put the weight in their feet. They know how to keep the pelvis stacked under their ribcage as they descend, and they also know how to maintain that stacked position while they drive their feet into the ground and come back to the start position. The athlete no longer has to think about these cues or technique points because it is drilled into their wiring. We call this stage of motor learning unconscious competency. Meaning, it’s automatic. The pattern does not go out the window when you change the load slightly from the goblet position to the barbell front rack position. However, you changed a variable. So, for a short amount of time the athlete might have to think about the cues again… BUT, because the main pattern is so locked in, this should be very short.
The same goes for non-traditional weight room exercises like jumping, running, and change of direction. The need for open loop speed and agility work is obviously important to have somewhere in the program for an athlete. Creating a more chaotic, reactive environment with training is definitely valuable but I would argue that drills or exercises done in this fashion serve better as assessments to drive your exercise selection than actual exercises themselves.
Open loop drills are a chance for the athlete to blend all the specific skills they have worked on in more game-like situations. Due to the increase overall demand of these drills, the athlete’s weaknesses should be more apparent, giving the coach a good idea of what skills they need to break down and spend more volume and time on with that athlete.
This concept is easy to understand if we take it back to our weight room movements. A lot of lifters will squat with good technique up to a certain percentage, then they will compensate in some fashion. Let’s say that percentage is 90%. This compensation strategy that the lifter is using is the result of a specific weakness in that movement pattern. For example, imagine a lifter that pushes their hips back as they come out of the hole in a back squat. You might have the lifter lighten the load and work on extending their knees to drive up. Or you could have them do more front squats to work their quads. The point is that the demand of that over 90% back squat highlights the weaknesses of that lifter. Knowing the lifter’s weaknesses is extremely important, to reduce/ eliminate compensation at higher intensities. Putting high enough demand on the lifter was important to be able to clearly see their weaknesses, but that doesn’t mean you should have your lifters squat over 90% every time they lift. The 90%+ squat also didn’t do anything to fix their weakness in that movement pattern, it just exposed it. If the goal is to squat more weight, the lifter needs to be exposed to high intensity work often. But they will not actually get stronger or more resilient unless they spend a lot of time and volume building the foundation by addressing their weaknesses. Spending inappropriate time at high intensities will be teaching their body to use the compensation strategy whenever the intensity gets high. The overall 90% squat is just like the use of open loop drills to build speed and agility. They will expose weaknesses. They are needed to give you a taste of the full speed competition. Most importantly, if you train open loop drills for the majority of your training you will not get better at the skills it takes to be successful because you aren’t building competency, you are testing it.
High level movement competency drives good movement variability, not the other way around. Consider coaching a youth quarterback in football how to pass. When you first start coaching them on proper mechanics, they will have no consistency. The movement will probably look different every time they do it and the ball may rarely reach the target. You could consider the variability too wide with this young athlete. The more the athlete practices efficient mechanics, the more consistent the throws will get. As the young quarterback starts playing real games in Pop Warner he will be put in different circumstances almost every play. Some plays he will have to change his throw to get over a defensive lineman that is tackling him. Some plays he will have to throw on the run. If you build the basics of the movement pattern to an extremely high level with an athlete, they will be able to take the fundamental core of the pattern and alter it to match the situation. This is the variability that we are looking to build as coaches. On the flipside, if you put the athlete in those difficult circumstances before he engrained the proper motor pattern, he would have no fundamentals to call upon and the intensity and variability of the situations would never allow the athlete to build enough consistency to be effective. The athlete would just be left with variability, which by itself does not lead to better performance.
The job of a strength and conditioning coach is not to put clients and athletes and difficult positions and expect effective “self-organization”. It is our responsibility to use specific exercises at the right time, in the right progression to build performance. This is the sweet spot of coaching! If you want to help your clients and athletes get better at moving at any level, focus on building high levels of competency in the fundamentals and you will give them the tools to have true movement variability.