How To Leverage Specialized Variety For Better Fitness Results

woman doing barbell overhead squat

Pop quiz: All other things being equal, who would be the healthier, fitter, stronger, better developed, and an otherwise, more complete athlete?

a) The athlete who specializes in only one pushup exercise (e.g. the standard military-style pushup) to the exclusion of all others.

or

b) The athlete who specializes in many different pushup exercises (e.g. standard pushups, diamond pushups, elevated pushups, etc.), and trains several variations regularly.

Or, how about this one…

a) The runner who only runs at the same pace, on a flat track, for around the same distance every run.

or

b) The runner who runs trails on different grades and terrains, and at different paces for different distances.

And one more…

a) The weightlifter who only specializes in the Big 3 lifts (i.e. barbell back squat, deadlift, and bench press).

or

b) The weightlifter who specializes in the big 3 lifts, the Olympic lifts, and other unconventional lifts such as strongman training (e.g. odd-object lifting).

Let me give you a hint: bumblebees begin buzzing before breakfast…bibbidi bobbidi boo…brachiosauruses brachiating between behemoth bulldozers…I got nothing. It’s B, people. B as in Bumble-BEE.

But why is that? I mean, haven’t we been indoctrinated to believe that specialization is the key to success? Well, we know that some degree of specialization is essential because the body only adapts specifically to the demands imposed upon it (SAID principle). However, specialization is only one component of a training program. And in some cases, too much specialization is usually not the most effective option, and it can be harmful, too.

I can hear the naysayers proclaiming…

But John, you can’t be good at everything!

Sure you can. Well, not everything. But you can be good at a lot of different physical skills and attributes across a broad spectrum. What you can’t be is the best at everything. So, unfortunately, if you want to set a new world record in powerlifting, you’ll have to give up your career of running marathons. But if you’d be content with a 6 minute mile, and a double bodyweight squat, I think you could achieve both in short order. And you’d have a strong, lean body to go with it.

The key is finding the middle ground between specialization (and thus, specificity) and variety. Speaking of which…

I heard a new term this week that immediately “clicked” for me. StrongFirst Master Coach, Karen Smith, mentioned in one of her training videos that she likes to alternate her grip while doing pull-ups, which she referred to as “specialized variety.” And I thought, “Yes! That’s EXACTLY the right term for it!” And until now, I haven’t been able to articulate this training strategy succinctly. So, thanks Coach Smith!

In this post, I’ll explain what Specialized Variety is and give you some examples of how you can leverage it for better fitness results.

Here’s how it works…

Specialized Variety – finding a balance between specificity and variety to achieve well-rounded results from one specialized activity.

So, for example, if you have a goal of getting better at pull-ups and/or chin-ups, you can use a variety of different grips to train the movement pattern and muscle groups in a variety of ways. Every pull-up exercise has a vertical strength training component, but each grip variation stresses the body in a unique way and confers unique benefits. Some versions are easier on the joints than others. Some emphasize the back more than the arms. Some involve a lot more core activation (etc.). And it is my belief, that training a variety of these pull-up variations provides even greater overall benefits than specializing in just one or two.

Specialized variety is useful for…

  • Improving your strength and conditioning
  • Injury prevention (i.e. by helping reduce wear and tear and the resulting overuse injuries)
  • Body transformation, and specifically, muscle building and “body sculpting” (i.e. for well-rounded muscle development)

male flexing back

How to Use Specialized Variety – 12 Examples

So, how do we put this into practice? Here are some examples.

1. Strengthening a specific muscle group.

Abs – Don’t just do crunches. Instead, do a variety of core strengthening exercises – not just in all three dimensions, but all six degrees of freedom, too. If all you do is focus on flexion and extension of the spine, and maybe a rotational exercise or two to call your program “functional,” you’re really missing out! The spine and core can move in a variety of different ways and it should be trained accordingly.

Core training should be incorporated into almost all of your strength training because every strength exercise is a core exercise, too. And of course, most people should also do direct core work as well. Crunches can be a part of that, and if you’re going to include them in your program (I think there are better alternatives, but that’s just me), at least make sure you’re doing a variety of them. But keep in mind that you should also do twisting, tilting, and bending exercises, among others, as well.

There’s lots of info in the Abs and Core Training archives for those interested. I’d probably steer you to my free 3D plank training program here: 30 Days to a 5 Minute Plank and Rock-Hard Abs.

Chest – Do pushups. Lots of them – and many different variations. Hands close together. Hands further apart. Side to side pushups. Knuckle pushups. And pushups with your hands or feet elevated. There are many different pushup variations and you should get used to using a lot of them. But don’t just do pushups. Do dips, too. And if you’re a weightlifter, train all of the main pressing exercises: bench press, overhead press, incline press, decline press, with barbells, and dumbbells (etc.). And if you’re a bodybuilder, add even more supplementary work like chest flys and dumbbell pull-overs (etc.).

Glutes – The hip thrust might be the king of all glute exercises, but you’ll build a better set of glutes if you also do squats, deadlifts, lunges, and step-ups, among others.

2. Strengthening a movement pattern.

Squatting – Sure. Bodyweight squats are great. But so are Goblet squats. And front squats. And bear hug or zercher squats, and overhead squats, and pistol squats, among others. Even elite powerlifters who only compete in one type of squat recognize the value of variety in their squat training. That value is much greater for the non-powerlifter who wants to look, feel, and perform at their best. So, don’t just specialize in your favorite squat variation. Use a bunch of them. Get good at squatting – period.

Pressing – If you want to improve your pressing, train it in a variety of ways. Train horizontal presses, vertical presses, and in-between presses. Train with bodyweight pressing exercises and free weight pressing exercises. Do standing presses and inverted presses (e.g. handstand pushups). Get good at pressing awkward objects like clubbells, kettlebells, and sandbags. Don’t just get good at a couple at the expense of all others. You’ll be better off if you’re good at pressing, in general, rather than just certain kinds of presses in a controlled environment.

Pulling – The same goes for pulling exercises. As much as I love pull-ups (i.e. a superb vertical pulling exercise), I know that they are merely one pulling movement. You should also get good at rowing movements, too (i.e. horizontal pulling) – both with your own body weight and also with various free weights. If you can do 20 bodyweight rows, but can’t barbell row without herniating a disc, you’ve got a deficiency! And let me tell you, pulling a clubbell is very different than pulling a dumbbell. It’s a whole new area of human movement training.

3. Mastering a training tool.

Barbell – Did you know that mastering the barbell will get you crazy strong? It also comes with some risks, of course, as do all kinds of training. But if you’re going to specialize in barbell training, it’d be best to use that barbell in a variety of ways. Use it to press, pull, squat, deadlift, clean, jerk, etc. Now, of course, there are some exercises that the barbell just isn’t suitable for (or isn’t best-suited for). For example, rotational/twisting exercises. And in those cases, it’d be best to use more appropriate equipment., such as a clubbell, sandbag, or resistance band.

ClubbellClubbell training provides many unique benefits, chiefly among them being lateral and rotational movement strength training, grip strength development, and developing strength-endurance and power, among other things. And if you get good at using a clubbell, you’ll get good results in all of those areas. So, instead of using clubbells for just grip strength or shoulder mobility drills – as they are commonly used – use them in a variety of ways to maximize your results and the benefits you receive, and minimize the risk of overuse injuries.

Kettlebell – Have you ever seen one of those guys who is really good at juggling a kettlebell? They’re beasts. And it’s because they’ve mastered the basics, but they didn’t stay there. They moved on to more sophisticated and/or advanced skills. Let’s learn from their example. Sure. You could get really REALLY good at the double kettlebell long cycle clean and jerk, which is one of the best strength and conditioning exercises in existence, in my opinion. Or, you could get really good at using a kettlebell – for any and all exercises. And when you do, you’ll be a much more well-rounded athlete.

4. Improving a specific movement skill.

Jumping – So, you’ve mastered the 24 inch box squat. Maybe you can do 100 in a row without so much as a bobble. Great. Now what? Well, how’s your long jump? What about your depth jump? What about when it’s wet? Can you jump from a walk or a running start? How fast and how far? And hey, how far can you jump accurately and land without losing your balance?

Balancing – If you want to maximize both the physiological and practical benefits of balance training, you’d better be balancing in a variety of different ways. Standing on one leg is a good start. And being able to stand on one leg in several positions is much better. But you’ll also want to balance on narrow or difficult surfaces (e.g. beam, rope, branch, river rocks, etc.). You should be able to travel while balancing – forwards, backwards, sideways – while standing tall and crouched low – even when crawling. And when you get good at balancing – just balancing, in a wide variety of ways – good things happen to your body.

Lifting – Strength is a skill, and lifting things is one type of strength skill. And it takes practice. And if you want to get good at lifting things, it would be best to train the main lifting movements with a variety of different tools in a variety of ways. So, don’t just do barbell deadlifts. Do sumo-stance deadlifts. And trap-bar deadlifts. Deadlift kettlebells and heavy sandbags, too. And take that concept and apply it to all of the other major lifting movements.

Are you starting to get the idea?

Here are a few more examples…

If you’re a runner, don’t just run around a track all the time. Run at different speeds, on different grades, and different terrain. Don’t just master a little tiny slice of running. Master the entire domain of running. Or, at least, your own individual expression of the domain of running. Try incorporating a little bit of planned spontaneity into your runs, too.

female trail runner

In other words, stick with your program, but don’t be confined by it. If you walk a lot, do some skipping, too. If you swim, try a new stroke. If you’ve spent a lifetime devoted to just one kind of martial art, dance, or musical instrument, keep up with your training, but also try something new once in awhile. Shake things up. Test yourself in new ways.

You get the idea.

Just in case I’m not being crystal clear, here’s what I’m not saying:

  • I’m NOT saying to forget specificity and ignore the laws of conditioning.
  • I’m NOT saying to start training randomly or try to “confuse” your muscles.
  • And I’m definitely NOT saying to try to do everything all at once.

What I am saying: for best results, find a balance between specificity and variety. In other words, specialized variety. You need enough specialization to elicit the required training stimulus and make progress. And you need enough variety to maximize your potential and keep making progress.

Final Words

You can implement specialized variety on the micro level, such as within a workout – even within one set. Or, you can implement it at a macro level, such as within one training cycle or even seasonally. The options are endless. And how you choose to implement them is totally up to you.

Now, here are some final words to the wise:

  • No matter what you do, whenever starting something new or making a change, always ALWAYS start with the basics (sounds obvious, I know, but I’ve seen some crazy stuff in my day!)
  • Master the basics before moving on to other variations of an exercise or movement skill
  • For most people and most training goals, movement and/or exercise sophistication is usually a better option than merely doing a different, complementary exercise for its own sake
  • Don’t use variety at the expense of your technique

So, who else wants better fitness results from a slight change in strategy?

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One Response

  1. Excellent article. I think too many people specialize WAY too early in their lifting careers. Beginning powerlifters could benefit from more than just the big 3, just like you said. Some could argue that the lack of specificity can cause mediocrity in their specific sports, but building overall strength in any lift will help a beginning competitor in my mind.

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