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Exercise Selection and Variation

By Elliot Fisher MS, ATC, CSCS, PES

Exercise variation is an important factor when designing an exercise program. There are many benefits to changing exercises every so often. Some of these benefits include increases in performance and decreased injury risk. However, it is important to apply variation correctly to maximize results. In this blog, we will look further into exercise selection and variation.


Athletes are always looking to improve their performance. When designing a strength and conditioning program, there is research indicating if exercises are rotated there is an increase in performance compared to keeping the same exercises over time.(1) This is theorized to be caused by adaptive resistance.(2) Adaptive resistance with exercise is when you have done an exercise over a long period of time and the exercise has become less simulative as you adapt. By changing the exercises in a program, there can be a more novel stimulus creating more progress over time.

Injury Prevention

Different but similar exercises will target the same muscle but in slightly different ways. For example, the front squat and high bar squat are both great exercises for quadriceps development. The front squat however, will emphasize the quadriceps little more than the high bar squat due to the larger moment arm at the knees. This difference is small but meaningful. It has been shown in research that different exercises will hit muscles differently causing more growth in different areas, making exercise variation important for full muscular development.(3) This leads to important point in injury prevention. If you do the same exercise for a prolonged period of time, you will be using the same muscles in the same pattern/angle causing more wear and tear on the same soft tissue structures, creating an increased risk of injury.(2) This means if exercises are rotated every so often injury risk will decrease.

Application of Variation

Variation has its importance, but too much variation can become an issue. When choosing exercises in a program, two to three exercise variations should be chosen per muscle or movement. If more exercises are performed, it will become more difficult to adapt because you are always doing something different. This can blunt the overall gains from a workout program.

Exercises can be rotated every Mesocycle (about 3-5 weeks of training) or as long as 3-4 mesocycles. It is probably a better idea for novice exercisers to use the same exercise for a couple of months so they can learn the technique better, where more experienced individuals may benefit from switching every month or so.


  1. Fonseca, R. M., Roschel, H., Tricoli, V., de Souza, E. O., Wilson, J. M., Laurentino, G. C., … & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2014). Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength.The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research,28(11), 3085-3092.

  2. Israetel M, Hoffman J, Smith C. The Scientific Principles of Strength Training. Renaissance Periodization.

  3. Antonio, J. (2000). Nonuniform Response of Skeletal Muscle to Heavy Resistance Training: Can Bodybuilders Induce Regional Muscle Hypertrophy?.The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research,14(1), 102-113.

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