Monday 30 May 2022

Are New Exercises Are Killing Your Gains?

“6 New Exercises for Big Biceps!” “5 Never Before Seen Chest Exercises You Need to Build a Massive Chest!” “10 Shoulder Exercises You Have Never Tried to Build Capped Deltoids!” The internet is infested with these click-bait titles. Yes, I know we live in a world where everyone wants infotainment training advice. However, you need to decide what you want the most – entertainment, or bigger, stronger muscles. If you want the former, that’s fine. YouTube is full of entertaining videos (including videos by those who are professional entertainers). However, if you actually want bigger, stronger muscles, a quest for exciting new exercises, may take you farther, not closer to your goal. Let’s look at what the latest research and practical experience have to offer you.

The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research recently published an article entitled, “Does Varying Resistance Exercises Promote Superior Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gains? A Systematic Review.” In this review, the researchers examined studies that compared fixed vs. varied exercise selection on strength and hypertrophy gains in young men. After starting with 478 possible studies, they narrowed it down to the top eight studies with 241 subjects that met their inclusion criteria.  

  • Exercise variation can have a positive or negative influence on muscle strength and hypertrophy.
  • For hypertrophy, select exercises that train different parts of the muscle.
  • When exercise variation is redundant, results are not optimal.
  • When the frequency of exercise change is very high, results are not optimal.
  • Specificity is important for strength training.

  • Here are some limitations acknowledged by the authors of this paper
  • Reviews are always only as good as the quality and quantity of available studies.
  • More research in this area is needed to do a more comprehensive (and helpful) meta-analysis (a study of existing studies).
  • Muscle growth is often not uniform across the entire muscle. Measuring changes in different muscle heads, as well as different parts (upper, middle, lower), would help us understand the true benefit of adding certain exercises to a training routine.
  • Some exercise variation is complimentary. For example, a leg extension tends to be more effective for hitting the rectus femoris (middle quad muscle) than squats (which hit the other quad heads effectively). In addition, some excises might train a muscle in its stretched position (e.g. overhead triceps extensions) versus in its fully contracted position (e.g. triceps kickbacks)
  • For measuring strength, we need to consider measurement specificity. For example, does increased isokinetic (equal speed) leg extension strength in the lab transfer to improved sports performance?
  • There is still much to learn about the optimal frequency of rotating exercises. 
  • We need research on populations other than young men. 
  • Here is one more of my limitations: we need to consider the training level of the subjects used in these studies. Some studies used untrained subjects while others used subjects with some resistance training experience. What is optimal for an untrained individual may be different from that of an experienced lifter. 

Practical Application

When to resist switching your exercises
  • There are very few “new” exercises that are superior to the exercises that already exist.
  • You are making progress on the majority of exercises in your training program. 
  • When your goal is increasing performance on a particular lift. In this case, more practice on that lift will usually lead to better performance (especially if it is a more skilled exercise). Other exercises that may help improve that main lift need to be carefully selected as some will have a better carry-over effect. For example, Olympic Weightlifters use less exercise variation than other strength sports.
  • When an additional exercise is redundant to what you are already doing. For example, a chest routine consisting of a bench press, smith machine bench press, and machine chest press gives you three redundant exercises that hit your chest at the same angle. 
  • You are someone who loves routine and hates change. Note: if this is you, there will still be a need to use a moderate variety of exercises, but you will do better by switching your exercises less often. 
  • When you have less experience and a large untapped strength and muscle growth potential. At this point, you will make your best gains by staying with and increasing your performance on a handful of effective exercises – not adding a bunch of new exercises. Most big and strong lifters used progression on basic exercises as their foundation – even those who now use excessive amounts of weird exercises to maintain their size.

When to consider increasing exercise variation 
  • When you have a legitimate exercise problem to solve. (You will see several examples of exercise problems in the following points). 
  • An exercise you are currently doing is causing joint pain during or afterward. 
  • You are not feeling an exercise in the target muscle despite technique modifications and proper focus.
  • You are getting signs of chronic overuse injuries.
  • When you are not structurally suited for a certain exercise. For example, I have extremely long legs and a near-non-existent torso. As a result, I am not suited to the back squat. After many years of trying to make this exercise work, I came to terms with reality. Back squats beat up my lower back AND failed to improve my quad size or strength. I have had much better results with alternatives such as Zercher Squats
  • When you have limited training equipment. For example, I recently wrote an article entitled 10 Clever Exercises for Home Workout Warriors: How to Build Muscle with Minimal Equipment. In this article, I showed exercise hacks for people who train at home (or in minimal equipment gyms). These tricks help create exercises that would mimic exercises you would normally do on cables or machines and fully-equipped gyms. 
  • You have a legitimate strength plateau that you cannot overcome with time, patience, hard work, better nutrition, and improved recovery.
  • You have been using an ultra-minimalist approach to training with very few exercises. The general trend we see in the research is that a moderate amount of exercise variation is helpful for maximizing hypertrophy. 
  • You are so sick of an exercise that you do not even want to train. 
  • If your personality likes variety and change, you will need more exercise variation than one who hates change.
  • When additional exercises are complimentary. For example, a chest routine consisting of bench press, incline dumbbell bench press, and dips give you three very different and complementary exercises. This will likely lead to better overall chest development than three redundant chest exercises. 
  • When you have gained all (or almost all) of the muscle you will gain. At this point, more variation can keep things mentally fresh while reducing your risk of overuse injuries.

Bottom Line
The fitness industry loves extremes. On one extreme, you have the ultra-minimalists who use a few exercises to train their whole body and never change these for the rest of their lives. On the other extreme, you have those who use a huge amount of exercises to train each muscle group and who are always trying new exercises. Between these two extremes is the boring middle ground that I like to call the “gains zone”. Here you do not to grow on only three exercises, but you also avoid trying to “confuse” or “shock” your muscles with excessive variation and “new” exercises. Instead, you remember that natural muscle building is about getting better and a moderate amount of effective exercises. 

To learn how to build muscle without drugs, check out my book: Size for Skinny Guys: A Hardgainer's Guide to Building Drug-Free Muscle

If you have questions or suggestions for future topics, drop them in the comment section below.

Thanks for reading!

Kassiano, W., Nunes, J. P., Costa, B., Ribeiro, A. S., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Cyrino, E. S. (2022). Does Varying Resistance Exercises Promote Superior Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gains? A Systematic Review. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 36(6), 1753–1762.

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