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Stimulate Muscle Growth Through Exercise Variation

By L.K. Regan

It's human nature to like routine, and nowhere more so than at the gym. If you're like many guys, you've got a workout routine that you like and you stick to it. And why not? Many traditional exercise programs encourage repetition. Conventional wisdom would have you do three sets of one exercise for each major muscle, with 10 to 12 reps per set. So, to work your biceps, you might do three sets of dumbbell curls, using as much weight as you can manage.

Sounds like a good plan, right?

Turns out, not so much. The problem with routine workouts is that they quickly lead to plateaus and limits to your strength gains.

To help you break out of your routine workout and come up with a better plan, we consulted with Devin Wicks, ACE, AFAA, a fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, and specialty strength coach for some of the University's premier sports teams. We asked Wicks how strength trainers can mix up their routines to build stronger muscles more quickly, safely, and effectively.

Acclimation: A Short- and Long-Term Problem
First things first, Wicks told us to throw repetition out the window.

"Muscles very quickly acclimate to an exercise program," says Wicks. "Your body naturally tries to conserve energy through maximum efficiency of movement. As soon as this happens, you lose much of the benefit of an exercise, no matter how much weight you're using."

That's bad news for your routine of barbell bench presses two days a week, because over your career of exercise your body becomes increasingly efficient at exercises it does repeatedly.

But it gets worse, because this effect isn't just a problem for your long-term regimen; it can be a problem within an individual workout. Muscles reach efficiency very quickly—in minutes rather than months. Lie down for bench presses, and by the second set your pecs have already started to learn the drill, and are looking for more efficient ways to lift the barbell. Do a lifetime of bench presses, and you'll slowly lose ground over the weeks and months as your body develops even greater efficiency.

Think Micro: Break Your Routine Up Within Each Workout
The best cure for tradition is to break with it. For the most effective workouts, Wicks says you should constantly change the stimulus presented to your muscles, so that they never have a chance to reach efficiency.

"There are three ways to change stimulus," Wicks says. "You can change the exercise, change the weight, or change the recovery time."

Your first instinct may be to change the weights—and most of us have experimented with this before, with drop sets and pyramid sets, for example. Drop sets and other intensity changes work well, but they don't offer the best long-term strategy for building strength. Wicks says a more effective method of stimulus change is to constantly change the exercises you do, both across the long program of your workout routine, and within individual workouts.

"Each exercise, even if it works the same muscles, will work them slightly differently, enough to force your muscles to use different neural pathways," says Wicks. "That, in turn, means more exertion, more muscle breakdown, and more muscle rebuilding. The more often you change, the more muscle you build."

Building an Eclectic Routine
For this routine, you'll still do three sets of 10 to 12 reps for a major muscle group—but each set will be of a different exercise. So instead of doing three hard sets of dumbbell curls, you might do one hard set of three different bicep exercises.

Check out the example workout provided by Wicks for a biceps, shoulders, and legs day below to better understand how you can add exercise change into your workout regimen:

Exercise Muscles Reps (Goal) Weight (Goal)
Standing Barbell Curls Biceps 10 Rep Max
Standing Cable Curls Biceps 10 Rep Max
Incline Dumbbell Curls Biceps 10 Rep Max
Shoulder Press Shoulders 10 Rep Max
Cable Lateral Raise Shoulders 10 Rep Max
Reverse Dumbbell Raise Shoulders 10 Rep Max
Squats Legs 10 Rep Max
Seated Leg Press Legs 10 each leg Rep Max
Walking Lunges Legs 10 each leg Rep Max

This plan covers a single day's workout. But that's only your starting point—to make this program most effective, you should change from one exercise to another within a particular workout, but also across the course of different days of your regimen. So on each day you work a particular muscle group, use a different selection of exercises targeting that muscle group than you did the last time you worked those muscles. For example, if you did the workout above, on your next bicep day you might try standing dumbbell curls, then single-arm cable curls, followed by preacher curls. Obviously you can't do new exercises forever; the goal is to keep from doing back-to-back repetitions of the exercise, either within one workout or across days.

Picking Your Mix of Exercises
Not sure how to put together your own combinations? It's actually simpler than you might think—just pick the muscle group you want to work, and select three different exercises for that group. For different and original exercises, you can search by muscle group using our content search at the top of or browse through all of the articles in our Strength Training section. With hundreds of exercises on hand, you should find plenty to keep you busy.

One great tip: Sandwich a cable exercise between your free weight and barbell sets to add an additional challenge and keep your muscles guessing. You don't want to build an entire exercise program around the cable machine, but it is an invaluable part of an integrated program. Because it provides continuous resistance, and forces your muscles to contract through both phases of your movement (the pull and the return), the cable machine trains your muscles to readjust continually. For a good selection of cable exercises, see Cable Exercises a la Carte.

Notes on Intensity and Recovery
For all exercises within this routine, you should use an amount of weight that makes you reach fatigue in approximately 10 repetitions (fatigue is the point at which you could just barely continue to lift the weight, but not while keeping proper form), and attempt to do at least 10 reps with each set. For different exercises you will obviously use a different amount of weight—but try to keep the intensity consistently tough for each exercise. Wicks recommends you don't try to vary intensity and exercise type at the same time.

As for recovery time, notice that this program varies that without you needing to. Different exercises will require different equipment and be located in different parts of the gym. Use takedown and setup time between exercises as your recovery period.