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How to Experiment in Your Strength Training Program

Mary Kay

Recently, I was working out next to some high schoolers who do weightlifting as part of their sports training program, and I noticed one of them doing something different.  He had interwoven conditioning in between his heavy lifts.  When I asked him about it, he said he was bored with his program and decided to mix up his workout a little.  I can relate.  When people ask me what’s my favorite workout, I tell them I like having a written program because it's like a roadmap.  But I get excited when I try something new and end up learning something about my body that I didn't before.  Like the time I tried and successfully completed the Bear Complex (e.g., a type of barbell circuit where you complete 5 barbell moves back-to-back without letting the bar rest on the ground).  That experiment revealed I had greatly improved my work capacity.

It’s interesting, but experimentation isn’t talked about much in the strength and conditioning world…primarily because most strength coaches already know the quickest and best way to accomplish individual performance goals.   Hence, they want you to follow the program.  The problem I run into is my body works differently than it did in my 20s, and I have a fair share of off days.  So, when something doesn’t feel right, I have to fix it right then.

Sometimes, I’ll intuitively know how to change methods. Other times, I’ll scribble and erase a brand new workout on paper until I figure out something that works.  But how do you concoct your own DIY strength training experiments without sabotaging your current strength goals?  2 tips:

  • Tip #1: Don’t Deviate Too Far From the Plan – One of the hardest obstacles in achieving a strength or fitness goal is simply sticking to a plan.  Speaking from experience, it’s especially hard when you’re not seeing results.  This is when experimentation can be dangerous because it can lead you into thinking that a program doesn’t work.  Well, there’s a theory called “deliberate practice” which says the act of simply persevering increases the likelihood of success.  The idea being that progress is subtle… making it hidden from view.  Hence, if you’re going to experiment, use new methods sparingly and intermittently…or as “add ons” to your training program (not as a substitute).   Instead, have faith that if you follow the program, the pay-offs will come.
  • Tip #2: Create Training Experiments With Positive Outcomes – Too many people think there’s a prize for being original, having the better method or creating the best workout.  There’s not.  And frankly, it can create a lot of unnecessary work.  At the end of the day, all that matters is finding something that’s sufficient to elicit protein synthesis and/or fat burning.

    So, before you experiment, ask yourself 3 questions:  1) Does this method or workout solve a problem (aka reduce pain, give my body more time to recover, motivate me to work out, etc.?  2) Can I continue with my regular program tomorrow?, and 3) even if this flops, what’s 1-2 things I can learn by doing this?  In other words, let training experiments unfold in a series of outcomes you can learn from (not be tests about better versus best, strength versus weakness, innovation versus duplication, etc.).  You’ll enjoy your workouts more, and you’ll gain more insights about what works and doesn’t work for your body.

Here's a whole body strength + conditioning workout that I came up on the fly while traveling for business.  I liked it so much, I've add it to my repertoire. Note: The goal is to move from station to station within a superset with minimal rest (60 seconds).  At the end of each superset, you can rest 2-3 minutes.  Enjoy!

Whole Body, Weighted Conditioning Circuit

A1) DB Bench Press (12 Reps)
A2) Push-Up (AMRAP in 60 Seconds)
B1) Back Squat or Leg Press (12 Reps)
B2) Vertical Jumps (AMRAP in 60 Seconds)
C1) DB 1-Arm Row (12 Reps Each Arm)
C2) Rower or Seated Row Machine (AMRAP in 60 Seconds)
D1) Leg Extension (12 Reps)
D2) DB Step Ups (60 Seconds)
E1) DB Overhead or Military Press (12 Reps)
E2) Cable Lat Pull-Down Machine or Pull-Ups (AMRAP in 60 Seconds)
F1) DB Pull Over On Bench (12 Reps)
F2) Seated Dips (AMRAP in 60 Seconds)
G1) DB Curl (12 Reps_
G2) Triceps Pushdown (AMRAP in 60 Seconds)
H1) Abdominal Wheel Rollouts (12 Reps)
H2 ) Plank Arm March (AMRAP in 60 Seconds)

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