Putting Variety to Work

Variety in programming is often used to sustain client interest, but it’s also a great means of making gains through resistance exercise.


In most people, about a month is all it takes for the body to begin adapting to a given strength training program. Even so, many people realize this and remain with the “same old same old” for years. While there may be some merit to this, many clients enjoy the challenge of trying something new, and they can often benefit from working different muscles.

Variation doesn’t have to mean doing an about face in programming: Variety can come in many forms and sometimes subtle changes are more effective and easier to incorporate than drastic ones. For example, if someone is tired of machine weights, it might be time to let him or her have a go at free weights, and vice versa.

Three main ways to change up routines are to vary exercises themselves, to vary the number of repetitions, and to vary the rate of muscular contractions.

Vary Exercises

Perhaps the most obvious form of variation is to change actual exercise movements. When doing so, consider using exchangeable exercises that work the same body part from time to time. Exercises that attack the muscles from different angles stress different neuro-pathways and can revitalize muscle tissues. Altering leverage can not only be a refreshing change for target muscles, it can also keep them in an adaptive state. Although strict muscle isolation is not possible, it is advisable not to focus too long on exercises that could be considered “isolated” in a general sense.

Vary the Number of Reps

For someone interested in functional fitness, the variation of weights and reps trigger different motor units just as would be the case in a specific sport activity, and is therefore something to keep in mind for such a client.

For example, if your desired sport specific muscle conditioning program calls for the performance of sets in the 4-6 rep range, considering adding some lighter sets in higher rep ranges once occasionally for variety and to strengthen bones and joints.

If your sport-based position calls for a focus in reps in the 20-25 rep, add some 4-6 rep sets from time to time to change the effects on muscle tissue and to keep things interesting for the client.

Suggested Work Rep Ranges by Result

  • Power: 1 to 3 reps
  • Muscular Strength: 4 to 6 reps
  • Strength/Stamina: 12 to 15 reps
  • Muscular Endurance 20 to 25 reps

Note: Be certain that the client has spent considerable time building a muscular endurance or strength/stamina base before moving on to muscular strength or the seldom recommended “power” work rep ranges. It is not advisable to concentrate on 1-3 rep sets for longer than one week. This is because of the risk of affecting too much tissue damage, making recovery more difficult, particularly in the case of an athlete who is young and inexperienced. 

Vary the Rate

In general, a fast rate of muscular contraction results in the development of power while slower contractile speed leads to increases in size and strength. Depending on the client’s goal(s) and state of training, varying the rates can be beneficial. For clients interested in enhancing performance in a specific sport, is important to understand the requirements of that sport. For example, does it require heavy intense training, or does it involve movements best trained for by the use of light weight, low intensity resistance?

Keep in mind that strength and power training are part of a larger picture when working toward optimal sport and functional fitness performance enhancement. 

It is the responsibility of the trainer to determine what is appropriate for the individual sport activity to determine the specific weights, reps, and rates that will be most effective.


The National Federation of Professional Trainers. Personal Trainer Certification Manual. 2nd Ed. Lafayette, IN: NFPT, 2006.


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.