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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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August 08 2008

Exercise Variety Is Key

By Worker Bee

BoredomBoredom. Monotony. Tedium. The same day after day. Dull as tombs. Nothing new under the sun. As fun as watching paint dry. While we hope these phrases don’t apply to any part of your life, we definitely hope they don’t describe, above all things, your workout! We’re half-kidding, of course. Nonetheless, variety is definitely the proverbial (and, we’d argue, essential) spice of a fitness program.

Of course, there’s the issue of motivation. If you’re schlepping yourself to the gym with the look of the “Time to make the donuts” guy, it’s time to shake things up a bit. And, wouldn’t you know it, research out of the University of Florida in Gainesville suggests the same. The study divided 114 men and women into three groups. The first group was given specific exercise instructions for their workouts that incorporated frequent variety. The second group was also given instructions for their workouts, but they were the same for each session. Researchers did not give the third group any guidelines regarding workout schedule or specific exercises. The study period lasted eight weeks, and those in the first two groups were instructed to exercise three times a week throughout the duration of the study. The group with the best retention and most reported satisfaction was – as I open the envelope – the first group that incorporated both structure and variety.
Variety, as we intend it here, is about more than momentary whim. The best kind of workout variety is a diverse and challenging program with clear options that you can adopt wholesale or configure to your needs and abilities. Not only does this kind of “menu” offer helpful structure and a more enjoyable mix of activity, it can also provide a more extensive, truly well-rounded fitness program. Sure, we talk ad nauseum about optimum health and fitness (‘cause we love this stuff), and what we mean by optimum isn’t targeted, restricted, narrow and incomplete. Solid, all around fitness, by necessity, requires substantial variety.

For these reasons, we like the Crossfit approach as it encompasses all fitness domains and an infinite diversity of exercise approaches. The idea behind a complete workout, as the Crossfit folks explain so well, is to “encourage creative and continuously varied compositions that tax physiological functions against every realistically conceivable combination of stressors.” With everything from weight sets to medicine balls to pirouettes to kips and cartwheels, the Crossfit philosophy intends to work it all and work it all in. They offer an immense list of exercises and demonstrations. We’d suggest taking a look and laying out some new options you’d like to try.

Ideally, your workout routine should change almost daily. Though that concept might seem a bit intimidating to someone who’s just established a solid routine, don’t feel you need to “re”- build Rome in a day. And it doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t have a core set of activities to work from, but let those core exercises make up a part of your workout, not the full extent of your total program. Look at how you can incorporate variety into the course of a week’s program, and go from there. Variety isn’t just the natural antidote to boredom; it’s the best remedy for the inevitable plateau we hit when we stay on the same track too long.

Whether your workout leaves you feeling blasé these days or you feel you can kick it up a notch and challenge yourself anew, we’d suggest laying out a new outline with a fresh set of goals. It’s one thing to be a man/woman with a plan, but quite another to be half-consciously stuck in a self-limiting, numbing rut.

So, we’ll turn it over to you now. How do you keep your fitness routine from becoming rank? What does variety mean for your workout approach?

Oh, and one last thing: check back in coming months for a Primal Fitness column. We plan on bringing you more tips, tricks and workout suggestions to get Primally fit in a variety of ways.

Further Reading:

The Prison Workout

Primal Plyos for the Upper Body

Primal Plyos for the Lower Body

Mark’s Beach Sprints

Video Proof You Can Exercise Outdoors

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15 thoughts on “Exercise Variety Is Key”

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    Im plateauing as we speak.


    Miz., whose variety as of late has meant doing dumbell presses instead of bench pressing with a barbell—–and she knows better.

  2. Lack of variety is definitely not a problem for me. If anything, I have what Alwyn Cosgrove refers to as “training schizophrenia”. I start out with one program and as soon as I hear about something new I switch again!

    This would be a problem if I were trying to win a specific competition or race, but I’m not, so it works well for me.

    Lemme see, what was my workout this morning? Ran 1/4 mile, did several deadlift sets up to 205#, medicine ball slams, pull-ups, somersaults…about 20 more exercises I won’t bore you with.

    And this is totally different from what I’ll be doing the rest of the week. Tomorrow is boot camp, Sunday is bike-riding…

  3. Mark – definitely looking forward to the Primal Fitness column!

    Man, I just love saying that word – Primal…


  4. Good advice Mark. I must say that I noted the irony in giving kudos to CrossFit today after dissing the popular, de facto standard CrossFit diet yesterday.

  5. First off, I have to admit that Crossfit is an infinitely better training methodology than the bodybuilding based programs found in both mens and womens fitness magazines.

    However, it is not perfect.

    If I can refer back to the U of F @ G study – The group with the best retention and most reported satisfaction was the first group that incorporated both structure and variety.

    Structure and Variety

    Crossfit provides boatloads of variety but is definitely short on structure.

    I periodically train with Crossfit, but I find that after a while my strength drops a little too low and I need to get back to some heavier lifting.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so.

  6. I’ve recently started taking Nia classes and I love it. I’m not usually thrilled about exercise either. There is a nianow website for more info but it’s hard to explain, easier to just experience. It’s designed so that people at all levels can take the same class. It combines dance, martial arts and yoga type moves. It’s done Barefoot! You don’t have to be coordinated and able to follow dance routines. Nia originally stood for non-impact aerobics but it’s not completely non-impact and it’s so much more than aerobics. For me the key is that it’s great FUN and (to relate the theme of your post) every class is different.

  7. Ironically the biggest change in my life came when I learned to introduce variety into my resting. Whilst it was certainly a revelation when I learned that hammering away at the same exercise routine for weeks on end was not good for the body or soul (for me introducing swimming was the big one because it’s so different in many respects.)

    However, when I learned to just throw in 2 or even 3 days of consecutive rest after a particularly hard week or even day of exercise, I became a different animal. I guess this is partly because my diet is basically primal/paleo and as such is better suited to more sparodic, intense exercise than to routines based on daily exercise that require regular glycogen top-ups.

    Does this make sense to you?

    Pay Now Live Later

  8. Now you’re talking my language:) I’ve been accused of exercise schizophrenia but I take that as a compliment. I change up – completely – my workout every 30 days.

    And I have to agree with DR. CrossFit is one of my fave fitness programs ever but I do find that it doesn’t hit all the body parts and I do lose strength if I don’t mix it up with heavier/more traditional lifting.

  9. This is something I think about often as I think it needs to be cleaned up a bit. I mean is it enough if you change your workout by doing deadlifts with a heavier weight? or diamond pushups instead of normal pushups? how big of a change are we talking?