Home Blog Weight Training Programs: The Basics, but with Variety

Weight Training Programs: The Basics, but with Variety

Written on May 24, 2011 at 7:16 am, by Eric Cressey

Tank has been the CSP “gym dog” since 2010.

When we first got him, my wife and I didn’t allow him to come upstairs, as we wanted him to gradually adjust to the downstairs of our house and slowly introduce him to more space.  Accordingly, to him, upstairs became the “great beyond,” a place where unicorns played and milkbones rained down from the heavens.  He would try like crazy to get up there when we took our eyes off him.

Then, one weekend in January of 2011, my wife and I were out of town to visit friends in Florida, so one of my minor leaguers and his wife watched Tank and the house.  With us gone, he barked and cried at night – so they let him come upstairs to sleep with them in their bed.  When we returned home, there was no turning back; he now sleeps in our bed – a change that he’s made very clear is for good.

What’s more interesting, though, is the fact that he’s still infatuated with the upstairs portion of the house.  He’ll go up and take naps on the bed when my wife and I are downstairs, and if either of us goes upstairs to grab something, he’ll race up after us to ensure that he doesn’t miss a unicorn sighting or the opportunity to score a treat.  Meanwhile, all the cool stuff – food, treats, his toys, cool scents of other people, stuff to chew, things to pee on, space to run around (including the door to the back yard) – are all still downstairs.  If I was a dog, upstairs would be pretty boring – and the downstairs would be “where it’s at.”  Puzzling, huh?

In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this piece, there is a strength and conditioning parallel to this story.  A lot of lifters start with the basics (the downstairs) and make great progress – only to abandon the “staple” strength exercises in favor of something new, unproven, and gimmicky (the upstairs).  Then, even when they realize that the flavor-of-the-week stuff isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, they don’t go back to what worked in the first place.  Why?  They’ve convinced themselves that novelty is more important than efficacy, and that it’s easier to do the fun new stuff than it is to get good with the basics.  It’s the kind of logic that makes me wonder if a lot of people eat paint chips.

The question, of course, becomes “How can we ‘sell’ the basics to a beginner who appreciates variety and novelty?”  My response would simply be that variety and novelty can be synonymous with progression.  I’ll give you an example.

On the first day at Cressey Sports Performance, just about every new client learns the trap bar deadlift (assuming no injury that would contraindicate the exercise).  As I outlined previously, it’s an entry-level teaching progression that best allows lifters to grasp the concepts of hip hinging, vertical shin, neutral spine, and optimal hip extension patterning in spite of their mobility restrictions.  It’s the basic arithmetic before we get to calculus.

Once they’ve sufficiently learned the lift and progressed in the weight they’ve lifted, we can transition them to other deadlift variations, including sumo deadlifts, rack pulls, and trap bar with chains.  Then, eventually, they may graduate to conventional and snatch grip deadlift technique.  This set of progressions and regressions are combined with other strength training program variables – sets and reps, training frequency, exercise pairings, and the like – to give them the novelty they need – but without compromising the training effect.

I’ve seen football strength coaches who use the squat, bench press, and clean as their primary lifts for years on end.  Do kids get stronger?  Absolutely.  Do they get bored as hell and absolutely disinterested in their less-than-optimal training programs?  Absolutely.  And, do they miss out on the rich proprioceptive environment that all young athletes should have?  Absolutely.

So, there is a balance that must be discovered.  On one hand, you need to stick to the basics so as to not compromise the training effect.  On the other hand, you need to implement variety so as to not bore folks to death.  The solution is to use variations of the basics.

To that end, at CSP, we change the strength training program every four weeks to modify exercise selection, regardless of a trainee’s age and experience level.  In our eyes, it provides the best balance of the basics and the novelty to keep folks motivated and progressing in their strength and conditioning programs.

Looking for an example of how this looks in a real-world weight training program? Check out Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better. It’s on sale for 38% off through tomorrow (Sunday) at midnight. The discount is automatically applied at checkout.

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11 Responses to “Weight Training Programs: The Basics, but with Variety”

  1. R Smith Says:


    You’re too modest to say this, but I’d add “And it works” after your last sentence.

    Been using your programming for close to 18 months now; and I can say I have never gotten bored. While I LOVE the variety, it still comes down to what you always preach, the fundamentals. The stronger I get at lunges, deads, pullups, squats and rows, the more fun I get to have with the TRX, kettlebells and sundry other stuff I play with on metabolic days.
    But I think a WAY under-appreciated part of your programming is not the exercises but the regulated volume by week: high, medium, very high, low. I’ve found it to be an immensely effective way to get (or stay) lean, gain strength and not have to worry about counting freakin calories.

    PS: Thanks very, very (note: sarcasm) much for the Phase 2, Day 1 workout of Show & Go: Sumo, reverse lunge AND single-leg RDL. Crushes me–but the results speak for themselves.

  2. Mike Bordeau Says:

    Our gym burned down 3 years ago and just reopened last week. In the meantime, I trained at work (High School), at home (power rack in garage) and in a very bare bones gym. With the new gym comes lots of potentially distracting machines and variations of the basics that get results.

  3. Alex Scott Says:

    As a strength coach/personal trainer, I sometimes feel the need to mix things up just to show the client that I am not a one trick pony. This is a great example of playing to the customer’s wants (the business side of the profession) while still sticking to what we know works and will produce the results (the science of the job). The latter should satisfy the former, but it doesn’t always work that way. While keeping variety definitely has is physiological benefits, it also serves as some flash to show off your programming/coaching skills.

  4. Bret Contreras Says:

    Great post Eric. Reminds me of one of my favorite articles by Charles Staley and Keats Snideman on TNation where they called it “Same but Different.” The focus is always on getting strong and coordinated with the basic movement patterns, but providing just enough variation to prevent habituation. Cheers!

  5. David V Says:

    “When we returned home, there was no turning back; he now sleeps in our bed – a change that he’s made very clear is for good.” LOL

    Eric, I think this sums up every dog lover’s situation.

  6. Niel Says:

    I feel like the basics are the most fun.

  7. Rees Says:

    I can’t imagine letting a dog sleep in my bed but what can I say, haven’t had one since high school.

    Non the less, enjoyed the post. Fundamentals are the foundation.

  8. James Says:

    To be honest, some of my best progress has come from consistency in my big lifts. Switching to 5/3/1 as my training program was a revelation for me, because I had previously done traditional programs where every lift switches every 4-6 weeks. Instead, I’ve had the bench press, push press (originally military press), squat, and conventional deadlift in every week over the past year and I’ve benefited tremendously from the specificity and slow-and-steady progress of adding weight every cycle. Maybe I’m just easily entertained, but not bored yet. Part of that is the fact that 5/3/1 involves switching out the accessory lifts every 6-8 weeks, and those are a whole different ballgame. Similar ideas, somewhat different execution, but I’ve consistently put more than 5 lbs a month of my squat and deadlift, and that ain’t bad.

  9. Nick Efthimiou Says:

    I’m also of the school of always training the basic lifts.

    I might change things slightly like grip width on bench presses, but that is rare.

    I get my variety from the accessory work.

    However, this fits with my goals, I want to progress on a certain few lifts, so it makes sense to train them regularly.

    For clients, who don’t have any specific goals numbers wise, I will change the movement but keep the pattern e.g. front squats/back squats/zerchers/overhead squats etc.

  10. Danny Says:


    Don’t know what you think of Wendler 5/3/1 but basic lift..And I vary the accessory stuff all the time.

    Good article!


  11. Eirik Sandvik Says:

    Nice post. This should be said more often.

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