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The Buzz of Variability Training

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. Then all of a sudden, the pendulum of coaching and training drastically swings. Variability training is kind of along those lines.

Meaning of Variability

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, implementing a strategy of variability to continue to challenge proper growth and progress?

After typing in the word variability, I thought I would search for synonyms of the word to extrapolate meaning. Listed are some synonyms of variability:

  • Erraticism
  • Inconsistency 
  • Unpredictable 
  • Capriciousness 

My intent with adding variability training isn’t to be erratic or inconsistent. However, 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”.

Through practice, a skill or movement pattern 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, 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, either teach something new or add variability to an existing skill or pattern. 

Adding Variability Training

Looking back to the example of the lateral lunge, variability can be in a number of ways.

  • Increase the speed or range of the movement.
  • Add resistance or assistance.
  • 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 lateral lunge variability can help . I might spend the first 4-6 sessions on 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 one-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 than the ones I outlined. 

Regardless of my method of variability added to the skill or patterns, I have to be 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 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 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.

In Conclusion

Variability can’t be a series of disorganized variation thrown at an athlete with the expectation it will create greater learning or advancement of the intended skill or pattern. Variability must fill a void or need to expand motor learning.  

Choose your variability wisely and audit its intended value before you prescribe it. 

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