Strength and Conditioning

Why movement variety matters

Think back through your last month of fitness activity. Try to tally every exercise that you performed during that time. Can you count the different movements on one hand? Do you need two hands? Do you need both hands and both feet?

You probably have a few of exercises that you use in heavy rotation. That’s to be expected.

However, we all know that exposure to a wide range of stimuli is important to a strong immune system. And in the same way, a diversity of movement is important to your physical wellbeing.

Thus, if you aren’t incorporating a large arsenal of movement within your workouts, then your health and fitness aren’t as robust as they could be.

Consider these reasons for using more variation in your exercise routine:

Life is unpredictable

The physical demands encountered in the real world are rarely symmetric or linear. Imagine how you hoist a 50 lb dog food bag from a shopping cart to the trunk of your car. It’s a complex movement. You bend over or squat, lift, twist, and are probably taking a few steps with your feet. How often do you train that specific combination of movements at the gym? You probably don’t, and that is okay. Yet, if your training doesn’t involve a variety of lifting, loaded carries, and rotational movements, than you are missing out.

Another example could be carrying an awkward piece of furniture up a flight of stairs. In this case, one arm is probably more loaded than the other. There is also likely some weird bending at your waist as you squeeze through tight spots. If you aren’t used to training a wide spectrum of movement, then it’s a prime scenario for getting injured.

Now, add in the speed and quick reactions that are needed during your favorite sport. Once the adrenaline surges, you’ll be hopping on one foot, spinning around, and recovering from getting thrown off balance. By its nature, athletic activity is chaotic. The more movement variety that you are familiar with, the better prepared you’ll be to play at your highest level.

Prevention of overuse injuries

Repeating the same motion over and over puts you at risk for developing a repetitive-use injury. Golf and tennis elbow are two well-known examples. Musicians and factory workers also develop musculoskeletal injuries due to how they use their bodies. Similarly, if you only exercise in one specific manner day-in and day-out, you are setting yourself up for tissue damage.

By varying your hand placement, the angle of pull or push, and also the tools used during your workouts you can stave off injury. Instead of only working on pull-ups with your hands in a pronated position, switch your grip for supinated chin-ups. Hammering away at classic deadlifts is a time-tested way to get stronger, but if you don’t mix it up with sumo or stiff-legged variations then you might run into problems down the line. Adding variability into your fitness isn’t just fun – it plays an important role in keeping you healthy.

Brain health

Your brain is a complex organ that helps you move and manipulate objects in a  3-D world. When you fail to use your body in a variety ways, then your brain is being starved of an important input. Like the old saying goes, you either use it or lose it.

Psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey  talks about how movement complexity is important for neurological health in his excellent book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. One of my favorite sections is where he talks about how technical physical challenges, like martial arts, can help school children improve their focus and their grades.

But, it’s not just for young people.

In my job as a physical therapist, I work with many older people in their 70s, 80s, and beyond. Those who push themselves to keep gardening, take dance class, or practice yoga, are more vibrant and healthy than those with a more impoverished movement skill-set. Obviously, the causality runs both ways. Whenever you’re feeling a little stagnant, add more vitamin M(ovement) to your routine.

Self expression

Exercise doesn’t need to be one size fits all. Maybe you don’t have the required mobility or coordination to make a movement work. Maybe a prior injury makes an exercise unsafe to perform. Maybe it simply doesn’t feel right to you.

With so many different ways to move, if an exercise isn’t working, just find a variation that feels better. Adjust your stance. Fine-tune the direction of travel. Find a different weight or other implement that you’re better able to control. Your body is unique to you alone; so don’t feel pressured to do what everyone else is doing. Familiarity with a large variety of movement skills lets you settle on the exercises that best fit your personal needs.

Boredom

Life can get monotonous. And, let’s face it; if you are bored when working out, then you’re less likely to do it again tomorrow. Training time should be a refuge from the tedium.

Think of how you use different spices when cooking. By varying between Indian, Thai, and Spanish flavors, you don’t burn out eating the same thing day after day. Approach your fitness the same way. You haven’t done any rotational movements in a while? Add some twists to your next workout. Getting tired of barbell squats? Challenge yourself with a heavy sandbag. Use exercise variety to spice things up, so that you’re more likely to stick with your training.

Now, there is one major caveat to using variety in your exercise routine: You shouldn’t be getting fancy if you don’t have mastery of the basics. There is no point add complexity when you’re struggling with simple movements.

When you’re starting out on your fitness journey, first strive for good form on a handful of skills. Depending on you goals, those could be push-ups, dips, pull-ups, squats, or deadlifts. Before loading anything asymmetrically, be sure that you can do it with equal weight bearing. Likewise, before adding extra degrees of motion, be sure that you do the simplest variation without difficulty.

It’s like the cooking analogy again. Before making a soufflé, you should first be able to cook a hard boiled egg. Conquer the basics, and then open yourself to variety.

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In case you missed it, the first edition of the Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia came out in 2013. It has over 700 exercise variations, and is a great resource for athletes, coaches, and trainers. I haven’t announced a release date yet, but I’m currently working on a second edition, with a ton of new movements.

Stay tuned.

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