When most people think of variation in training and modifications, they immediately think of changing the actual exercise itself. Rarely do people consider all the other variables that can manipulate the training effect of a particular movement. Manipulating factors such as muscle work regime, rest intervals, intensity, volume, and the like can create a wide spectrum of options to choose from. By understanding the purpose of each, athletes and coaches can work toward obtaining desired training effects with a greater rate of success.

As great as the internet is (as well as the vast resource of books and literature out there), it has also created a fairly unique problem. Many people have gotten to the point where there are so many bells and whistles in their faces, they think that all these need to be utilized. To illustrate this point, I will use a back story and show how this affected me.

Back when me and some of my training partners were still fairly new to powerlifting, we came across many of Louie's articles. We read about all the results that his system of training was producing and were immediately caught up in all the wrong aspects of the system. We read about the reverse hyper machine, glute ham raise, bands, chains, safety squat bars, cambered bars, and just about any other contraption out there. Right away, we thought the missing link of our training was that we didn’t have access to these devices. We began going to great lengths to obtain these. Some of these were fairly tame, such as spending money little by little to buy things like a glute ham or bands and chains. Another involved stealing a safety squat bar from an old weight room in the middle of the night and driving with it hanging out the window of a Dodge Intrepid. But to us, it was worth it because it meant that we'd have access to equipment that was responsible for all these monster totals.

After acquiring these things, we started to rotate our movements almost too often. We were of the mindset that more variation was better, and we didn’t want to become too accustomed to any particular movement. Unfortunately, we weren’t very well read at this point on things such as rest intervals, periodization, muscle work regimes, or anything similar. We didn’t really have any other plan except to follow a basic max effort/dynamic effort split and work hard. It worked for us, but because we were fairly green to the sport, just about anything would have worked.

Knowing what I know now, there are numerous other ways to modify a program and vary the movements without needing everything but the kitchen sink. It would be great if we all had access to everything under the sun, but this isn’t the reality for the vast majority of lifters. What I intend to do here is take a look at the many variables that can be manipulated to produce different training effects. I also aim to show ways to add variety to a training program when limited resources are available.

Understand what you're training for

The first thing that you must know when manipulating a training system is what you're training for. Are you looking for maximal strength? Hypertrophy? Muscular endurance? Or is it something else?

One movement can have all these effects depending on how the intensity, volume, and rest intervals are applied. To illustrate this point, I'll use an example from Verkhoshansky's Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches. On page 50, he has a table that describes the differences in training effect depending on the overload weight, number of repetitions, number of sets, and duration of rest intervals.

Let’s use the barbell squat as an example. Say you decided to use a weight of 80–100 percent and perform sets of 1–3 reps for 4–8 sets with rest intervals of 3–4 minutes. In this case, you would be training for maximal strength and explosive strength against a great external opposition. Let’s say that you used 70–80 percent for 3–6 sets of 6–12 reps with rest intervals of 1–2 minutes. This same squat would now be contributing to the development of maximal strength and hypertrophy as opposed to explosive strength. Now, let’s say that you use a weight of 30–60 percent and perform 2–4 sets of 30–50 repetitions with rest intervals of 45–90 seconds. You would now be working muscular endurance against a moderate external opposition. Keeping the bar weight in a similar range of 30–60 percent but performing 4–6 sets of 10–15 reps with rest intervals of 3–4 minutes would produce a different effect of high-speed movements against a low external opposition. As you can see, a barbell squat isn't simply a barbell squat in terms of training effects. The difference in volume, intensity, duration of work, and duration of rest intervals changes the direction of the training effect.

On page 58 of the aforementioned Verkhoshansky manual, the following quote appears: “The rest pause is the most important element of the training method. The length of rest period determines a specific organism’s functional reaction to the entire volume of exercises’ work.” Basically, different work to rest ratios will result in different training effects. This must be kept in mind when designing the training program and often can get overlooked by many other variables. However, it should be a priority to have this in order before worrying about which bar or box height you'll be using. While this seems like common place knowledge, many blow this off and get substandard results for the amount of effort put into other areas.

Adjusting muscle work regimes

Another variation that can be made rather simply is the muscle work regime that an exercise is performed with. Bondarchuk states the following in Transfer of Training Vol. II (page 39):
“A definite effect on separate brain structures is seen by the use of different muscle work regimes.” This has also been referenced by Natalia Verkhoshansky and Buddy Morris on the elitefts™ Q&A, and Cal Dietz has covered these in-depth in his book Triphasic Training.

Some may be asking, what the hell is a muscle work regime? We could define these as the following:

  • Yielding/eccentric: In 'broscience' terms, this is the “negative.” This is the lowering phase of the exercise.
  • Overcoming/concentric: To put it simply, this is the way up (the positive) or the side many focus on.
  • Isometric: This is strength effort without muscle shortening. The muscle is under tension but no movement is visible.

Traditionally, yielding has typically been thought of as beneficial for hypertrophy. While this is true, other positive benefits include a higher recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers and a higher rate of metabolic efficiency. These have also been shown to have an effect on maximal strength as shown by Verkhoshansky in Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches (page 78). Some examples of how to incorporate yielding exercises include submaximal yields (less than maximal weight with a slow yield and a fast overcoming), maximal or supra-maximal yields (maximal weight for a slow yield without any overcoming), and weight releasers (heavy weight on the yield with a lightened weight on the overcoming).

Isometrics can be effectively used to develop strength in a specific range of motion. In addition, between each yielding and overcoming action, an isometric has to occur before transitioning. Isometrics can also be used to teach proper body positioning and can increase intramuscular coordination. Due to this, the use of isometrics can be effectively integrated into a training program. Some examples are yielding isometrics (holding a weight in a certain position) and isometrics into a fixed apparatus such as a press or pull against a pin.

Overcoming exercises can be utilized to produce strength in the concentric phase of a movement. Exercises such as a rack lockout or a chain suspended squat can be utilized for this. These types of movements are especially valuable in increasing strength in events where there is little to no yielding contraction to proceed the overcoming action.

To go in-depth on each of the muscle work regimes is the subject of another article entirely. This is something I plan to touch on in the future. However, it must be noted that they are a valuable form of program modification that can be utilized to produce different training effects.

Simple modifications that go a long way

Some other modifications can have an impact on training effect. Remember that when a stance, grip, bar position, or angle is changed, it isn't the same exercise any longer. Also, when a form of accommodated resistance is added to the bar, it isn't the same exercise any longer. Changes in box heights, pin heights for rack movements, and movement patterns all alter the exercise. All this has to be accounted for when making modifications to the programming.

Knowing when to make changes

While this article is about making modifications and changing exercises, it should be noted that none of this should be done just for the sake of rotating exercises. Important movements such as the competitive exercise and other movements that build this need to be made a priority. For lifters with little experience, it isn't necessary to blur the lines of correct exercise execution by adding specialty bars, accommodated resistance, or other modalities. However, such variations such as slow yielding movements can help reinforce technique as well as produce other desired training effects. Isometrics can also be used to reinforce correct posture or positioning for a beginner.

While accommodated resistance has its place, we have to ask why it's being used. In the case of bands, is it the benefit of overspeed eccentrics and the reduction of electromechanical delay? If so, is this the best way to develop this for your given sport or qualification? In the case of chains, is it to build strength in a given range of motion? Could this be accomplished through other means such as isometrics or possibly a partial range of motion movement? All these types of considerations need to be made.


My purpose isn’t to say that any one method of modification is better than another. The idea here is to find ways to make meaningful modifications to programming and produce desired training effects. Part of the reason I covered this is because I've worked in varying environments that all necessitated different types of thinking. When I interned at the University of Pittsburgh, we had a well-equipped facility with almost all the specialty bars, machines, bands, chains, and so on. The gym I train at now, Tampa Barbell, is also well equipped with many of the same amenities. At a few of the universities I worked for as well as at the public high school I work at now, we pretty much only had the basics—racks, bars, plates, dumbbells, bands, and a few medicine balls. However, you're only limited by as much information and ability as you have to logically modify your programming. I didn’t really go in-depth with as much of the information as I would have liked, but I plan to in future articles. This was just a basic look at making some modifications.


  • Verkhoshansky Y, Verkhoshansky N (2011) Special Strength Training Manual For Coaches. Verkhoshansky SSTM: Rome, Italy.
  • Bondarchuk Anatoliy P (2010) Transfer of Training in Sports Vol. II. Ultimate Athlete Concepts: Michigan.