If you look past the oiled up muscles and ads promising the latest and greatest supplements, T-Nation is one of the best resources online for the discussion of new ideas about training. Sure, some articles there are based on inaccurate hearsay or seem written more for the author to hear his own voice, but it also collects together input from some of the top young minds in athletic development looking to teach and learn like Wil Fleming, Chad Smith, and Derek Woodske. All three are former throwers and run their fantastic blogs of their own. But no matter the author, the site always leave you thinking and help on developing your own training philosophy.
A few weeks ago Chris Cralle pointed out an article on change, one of my favorite topics. In the article trainer Todd Bumgardner essentially makes the assertion that changing exercises in training is a bad thing. Merely adjusting volume and intensity is all the change an athlete needs. As he puts it “A new exercise variation typically isn’t the solution; an innovative way to load a proven exercise typically is.” The author makes a few good points: change done to make things interesting is bad and training needs to focused on the event. But after that our opinions diverge. I think change is one of the most crucial factors in developing a good training plan.
In my article Simplifying Bondarchuk, “change” encompasses two of the eight lessons. The related topic of exercise selection (you have to change to something after all) another three lessons. My thoughts on change boil down to two core principles: (1) variation needs to be used systematically; and (2) don’t stray too far from the core.
Regarding the first point, there needs to be a balance between consistency and variation. Too much variation is indeed bad, but so is too much consistency. This is at the heart of adaptation. Change exercises too quick and the body will not have enough time to adapt to them and get their full benefit. But by keeping with the same exercises too long the body will no longer have the new stimulus it needs to adapt to. Creating a good program is about finding the right middle ground for each athlete and using that systematically. This means that you aren’t doing something different every day, but you also aren’t doing the same thing for a decade straight. You are changing when, and only when, the athlete needs change.
The second point concerns exercise selection. Bumgardner’s suggestion of changing volume and intensity does indeed act as a change that affects the adaptation process, but it limits the coach to just a few small tools when many more are available. Why try and build a house with just a few tools? But then the question is what tools to pick up. Bumgardner is also right when he ridicules some of the obscure exercises done on TV infomercials. Changing your leg workout to include “one footed, band resisted, alternating dumbbell raising, dance-move, split squats” is not a good change since it will not transfer well to the hammer throw. A simple front squat is better and there are many other good tools to use.
In most sports there are still a plethora of exercises to choose from in a variety of categories. Some of my favorite hammer throw exercises are classics: throwing different weight hammers, olympic lifts (cleans, snatch, hang clean, hang snatch, close grip snatch, etc.), leg lifts (front squats, back squats, step ups, half squats, etc.), and special strength exercises (this video is just the tip of the iceberg for exercises in this category). All of these exercises and many more have a proven strong transfer to the hammer throw. However using them all at once would be overkill, like killing a rabbit with a bazooka. It makes more sense to chose a few exercises from a core group that have a high transfer to what you are training for (be it hammer throwing, powerlifting, or badminton) and systematically rotate between them. This is change you can believe in.
Even Bumgardner ends up agreeing with this. After he starts out with the broad conclusion arguing against exercise change, he eventually admits slight variations can work well. But it’s best not to lead with that point. After all, “screw exercise variation” makes a better headline than “smart training through well-timed slight variations is the way to go.”