If you have been in the strength and conditioning field for any length of time, you quickly realize there is an influx of new information always coming in. Some of this information causes a quick and immediate call to action and all of a sudden, the pendulum of coaching and training drastically swings. Variability training is kind of along those lines.
What does variability really mean when it comes to training our athletes or adult clients for performance?
Are we addressing it in terms of simply adding something new and different to our programs, or are we implementing a strategy of variability to continue to challenge proper growth and progress?
After typing in the word variability, I thought I would search synonyms of the word to extrapolate meaning. Listed are some synonyms of variability:
I don’t know about you, but my intent with adding variability isn’t to be erratic or inconsistent. But, if I assess many of the programs I see this is exactly what they are doing. They are simply adding variety to add something new with no real regard to how it fits into the continued progressive growth of a well-planned program.
Let’s take a deeper look into what variability should mean to the enhancement of your athletes and client’s development.
“Variability, to become useful, must be owned by the subconscious actions in a highly proficient and effective manner”.
A skill or movement pattern, through practice, should become an established motor pattern that can be called into action with less and less thought until conscious thought is no longer needed to perform the parts. The whole skill simply flows when a task needs to be accomplished. An example might be performing a lateral lunge. At first this is an awkward movement with many sticking points. Eventually it is a smooth movement that can be performed without thinking through its parts. Within a 4-6-week time frame it is a well-established movement with little to no flaws.
What we know about learning is that if we do not cause a challenge or a stressor to the brain, learning, and therefore growth, stifles. In order to continue growth and learning we must either teach something new or add variability to an existing skill or pattern.
So, what does this mean?
Going back to the example of the lateral lunge, I can add variability in a number of ways. I can increase the speed or range of the movement. I can add resistance or assistance. I can keep the movement speed, range, or intensity exactly the same but add variability simply by moving the arms in any of the three planes of movement. The questions you have to ask is why are you adding variability to the skill or pattern?
If my goal is to make an athlete more stabile and powerful while changing directions in the frontal plane, I have to consider how variability to the lateral lunge can help. I might spend the first 4-6 sessions on doing slow eccentric, or possibly isometric, actions to build strength and stability through the range of motion. I could then add variability by increasing the speed of the entire lateral lunge movement to roughly 1-second.
That means the athlete would have to drop into and out of the lateral lunge at a very high pace- which is much closer to the speeds needed to change direction. This is just an example and I might use different strategies then the ones I outlined.
Regardless of my method of variability added to the skill or patterns, I have to make sure the variability isn’t just a flash in the pan.
I must make sure the nervous system and brain has time to store a semblance of the pattern. This takes enough exposures to the patterns within the skill to cause a motor learning effect. As Frans Bosh has reported, in his chapter on "Fine-Tuning Motor Control" in the book, High-Performance Training For Sports, "movement patterns are not isolated incidences, but rather interrelated."
Movement patterns, from the recall perspective of the brain, need not be exact or identical. They simply need to be similar in the way the pattern is performed, and the learned pattern will be called upon. The key is to understanding variability is to implement a whole-pattern when learning, not part-of-pattern.
Circling back to the opening of this short article, variability can’t be a series of disorganized variation thrown at an athlete or client with the expectation it will create greater learning or advancement of the intended skill or pattern. Variability must fill a void or needto expand motor learning. Choose your variability wisely and audit its intended value before you prescribe it.