By NPC National Bodybuilding athlete & Team Apollon trainer Jason Fowlks
In bodybuilding, as well as other sports, VARIATION is essential to physical progression. This means varying everything from your diet to your training split, exercises, rep timing and set types. It was Albert Einstein who once said "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results." This is why I want to bang my head against the wall whenever I see people doing the same things, the same way, over and over, week after week, and then wondering why they're not making the progress they potentially could be making.
The human body is an extremely intricate and complex machine which does a wonderful job of adapting to stimulus. It is important to occasionally "SHOCK THE SYSTEM!" (people who know me have heard me say this a million times.) By shocking the system, we confuse the body by introducing a new or different stimulus, thus forcing an adaptive response, a.k.a "change."
One example of shocking the system is when you're restricting a diet for days, even weeks, then give your body a "re-feed" or "cheat meal". Although these two terms are often confused with each other, they are, in fact, different. A "re-feed" is a calculated increase in caloric intake, which typically consists of large amounts of carbohydrates. A "cheat meal" is an indulgence in something that's not a part of the diet, which typically consists of junk food like pizza, or burger and fries. Although different, both are meant to serve a similar purpose, which is to...yes, SHOCK THE SYSTEM. Believe it or not, this principal does actually serve several physiological purposes (besides giving us a sense of fullness, satisfaction, and yes, sanity, albeit temporarily.) The basic idea is to create a "reset" of the body's adjusted hormonal responses to the plain, healthy, carb-less diet food we've been feeding it. These hormones are responsible for regulating muscle glycogen, metabolism, energy levels, and fat-burning mechanisms.
Just as these occasional changes to your diet are important for progression, so too are changes in your training. The body will eventually learn to adapt and endure whatever physical resistance it is given, thus the importance of "mixing things up." The idea here is to keep the body confused and therefore having to constantly adapt to new stimuli, thus forcing a physiological response. There are many different ways this can be done.
One way is to vary the training split. In other words, to occasionally change the combination, frequency, and/or order of body parts trained. Personally, I like to change up my split every couple months or so. For example, if my lagging body part is my legs, I'll split my legs into two days, one day focusing on quads, a few days later focusing on hams/glutes. Also, if my shoulders are dominant, I'll train them last, and focus on a weaker part first, when I'm strong and muscle glycogen levels are highest.
Another way to shock the body is to vary the exercises performed for any given body part. If every chest day you constantly do the same exercises, your chest muscles and the surrounding stabilizing muscles will soon adapt, and learn to better endure, and even combat, the "burn" you're longing to achieve. By doing this, you create a "plateau". But when you periodically throw new movements and/or different angles into the mix, you force the recruitment of different muscle fibers, and thus growth and/or strength will increase.
Another strategy is to vary set types and rep timing. Just telling someone to "do 3 sets of 10 reps" is only scratching the surface of describing the performance of an exercise. The principal here is referred to as Time Under Tension (TUT). This means the length of time a muscle is under strain during a rep or set. The longer a muscle is under strain, the more muscle fibers are recruited to perform the movement. For example, if you swing the bar up and down during bicep curls, and each rep takes 1 second, a set of 10 means the biceps are working for a total of 10 seconds. But if your rep timing is 2-1-2, meaning 2 seconds eccentric(down), 1 second rest at bottom, and 2 seconds concentric(up), now your ten-rep set forces the biceps to work for a total of 40 seconds, which makes a big difference. Another way to increase TUT is to vary set types. This is done by incorporating "drop sets", "pyramid sets", "rest-pause sets", or one of my favorites, "timed sets", where I choose a somewhat light/moderate weight, and perform as many reps as I can in 45 seconds, or 1 minute, or even 90 seconds (TUT).
In conclusion, if you want your body to respond (and ultimately improve), the key is variation. Remember to SHOCK THE SYSTEM! If you want your body to change, you must give it a reason to have to. Your body's job is to adapt to whatever you put it through, so your job is to always stay one step ahead of it. Don't be afraid to try new and different things; your body will hate you now, but will thank you for it later. Now get to work!