Understanding 'Same But Different': Maximizing Your Progress!

This article is about the subtleties of program design. And specifically, how to find the perfect balance between two inherently conflicting principles of resistance training - specificity and variability.

This article is about the subtleties of program design. And specifically, how to find the perfect balance between two inherently conflicting principles of resistance training- specificity and variability.

Both principles are absolute necessities of sound training programs, yet how can a program be both specific and variable? That's the fundamental question we'll explore together in this article.

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Specificity Rules (Right?)
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The principle of specificity is a core principle of learning. For example, if you want to be a virtuoso violinist, you'll get there a lot faster if you practice the violin than if you were to spend most of your time playing the cello.

Fine-tuning this example a bit further, if you want to master a specific piece of music on the violin, you'll achieve that goal faster and more completely if you spend most of your time practicing that specific piece of music on the violin than by practicing other pieces of music, sort of.

Well, before I lose you with the music analogy, let's bring this back to the weight room and see how this relates to lifting ...

Resistance training is at its heart, a form of "motor learning." That's why old East-Bloc weightlifting facilities were called "schools" instead of gyms or weight rooms. Their "workouts" were referred to as "lessons."

So whenever you lift a weight, two types of changes are possible.

  1. First, the nervous system "learns" how to become more efficient at lifting those weights. It optimizes both inter- and intra-muscular coordination for example - put another way, the ability of muscle fibers within a muscle, as well as different muscle groups- to work together as they lift the weight.

  2. The second type of change is secondary to the first: once the brain learns how to better orchestrate and involve your muscles more efficiently, those muscles will hypertrophy or enlarge, so that they'll be better prepared to handle similar tasks in the future. After all, thicker muscles can handle larger loads than thinner muscles.

Now back to specificity. Any type of training can theoretically produce these two changes, but thinking back to the violin analogy, you can see that not all changes lead to the result you're looking for correct?

So for example, if you want a bigger squat, you've gotta squat. If you want bigger biceps, you've gotta place that muscle under load. If you want to have a faster metabolism, you've gotta do things that lead to that specific result. Let's go back to the example of wanting a bigger squat for a moment ...

We'll assume that you're a competitive powerlifter looking to put 100 pounds on your current PR (personal record) on this lift. Using the principle of specificity as your guide, you decide to focus on squatting in your workouts and more specifically, squatting in exactly the same way you would in competition - using the same support gear, the same technique, the same equipment - everything.

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Further, since you squat a maximum weight for one rep in competition, your tailor your workouts to mimic the exact demands of a powerlifting competition.

Meaning, you start with a light weight, and gradually increase the weight with each set while simultaneously dropping reps, until you end up with 3 successively heavier singles and that's it - that's your workout. Three days a week. Now this approach is certainly very specific, and it will certainly lead to fast results - for a while. That's when the poop hits the fan, and you hit a plateau ...

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The Downside Of Specificity: Habituation
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Your plateau was inevitable, but thankfully, it's also preventable. Your winning streak came to an end because your nervous system, when it's exposed to the same type of stimulus over and over again, loses its old feeling of "panic" about those heavy weights.

The Central Nervous System.
The human central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. These lie in the midline of the body and are protected by the skull and vertebrae respectively.

This collection of billions of neurons is arguably the most complex object known.

The central nervous system along with the peripheral nervous system comprise a primary division of controls that command all physical activities of a human.

Neurons of the central nervous system affect consciousness and mental activity while spinal extensions of central nervous system neuron pathways affect skeletal muscles and organs in the body.

Every time it successfully overcomes that load, it becomes more and more familiar and therefore, less likely to signal those changes you're looking for.

A long-standing paradigm in the weight-training community is that your training sessions must convince the body that bigger and stronger muscles and necessary for it's survival.

And during your first few powerlifting-specific workouts, your body did think just that. But after a few months, those workouts are as familiar as your favorite old pair of jeans. No need for alarm, and no need to get any stronger.

Well, earlier I said that there's a solution, and it comes in the form of another training principle, namely, variability.

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Enter The Principle Of Variability
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The principle of variability suggests that the training stimulus but periodically change if continuous results are desired. I'm not sure how long it's been since you've been in school, but if you think back to a specific teacher you may have had, you might remember that at first, the teacher was "new" (to you at least) and therefore he held your attention in class.

But before long, even if your teacher was a good one, you eventually became "habituated" to him. Your familiarity with this teacher dulled your senses somewhat right?

But then, one day, you find you've got a substitute teacher for the week. Suddenly, this new teacher seems interesting! After all, he's NEW. And he probably isn't as good as the teacher he's substituting for, but hey, he's new!

So "new" is good, because it shakes things up, even if the "new" thing you're doing isn't as specific as the "old" thing you were doing.

Actually, there are at least three reasons why variability is a critical component in successful training programs:

  1. To overcome habituation. The training stimulus can't simply be intense; it has to be novel, unexpected. By the way, the longer you've been training, the harder it is to cook things up that fulfill this requirement. This is a big reason why progress is slower for veteran lifters than it is for novices.

  2. paperclip
  3. To reduce overuse injuries. I have this little demonstration I do when I've got a client with overuse injury issues: I unwind a paper clip until it's a straight piece of wire. Next, I grab it with both hands and bend it back and forth. With each bend, I say "power clean" or whatever it is that this client happens to be over doing). So it sounds like power clean power clean power clean power clean power clean power clean pow ... And then the wire breaks.

    Next I unwind another paper clip, but this time, I bend the wire at a different point each time. Now my narrative sounds like this: power clean, hang clean, clean-pull, deadlift, reverse-grip-clean, power clean, flip-clean, log-clean ... And this time, I can do a LOT more bends before that wire breaks. Typically, the client gets it. In the rare cases where they don't, I'll usually suggest they find another coach.

  4. To make better use of available resources. Look, as great as specificity is, the problem remains that the most specific methods are also usually the most intense methods, and they also tend to have the most psychological angst surrounding them.

    Put another way, for most lifters, the most specific methods/lifts also tend to be the most dangerous, the most risky methods. You can only do so much of them before you're burned out and/or you're risking injury. Think about being a boxer for a minute. The most specific thing you can do is hard, competition-intensity boxing. But how much of that can you do?

The Solution: "Same But Different."

    OK, now that we've outlined the dilemma- the absolute necessity of incorporating these two conflicting approaches into your training, we're back to the question we started with: HOW do you accomplish this? The answer is in an approach I call "same but different."

    It's nothing new really ... Some of you may be doing it already. If that's you, I hope this article provides useful confirmation of what you're already doing. For those of you who aren't already employing this method, I know you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results once you do.

    "Same but different" simply means that your training will always address the specific requirements of whatever objective(s) you're pursuing, but always in slightly different ways.

    These "slightly different ways" will correspond to parameters like exercise menus and techniques, set/rep patterns, and volume-intensity relationships. To illustrate this concept in more detail, I've included a 12-week training cycle designed for that fictitious powerlifter looking to put 100 pounds on his competition squat.

    As you examine this program, you'll notice that I've not included training for the bench and deadlift. That'll be your job to iron out.

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The "SBD" Training Cycle For The Squat
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General Programming Notes:

  • This training cycle utilizes the "A-B Split" format. You'll alternate between two different workouts: the "A Session" and the "B" Session. This gives you the flexibility to train either 3-or-4 days a week, depending on your needs and circumstances
  • Some of the more unusual exercises are illustrated with short videos. I've not included videos for the competition squat with full training gear however. If you'd like to use this cycle and you're not a competitive lifter, ignore the directions that apply to using support gear such as suits, belts and knee wraps.
  • Understanding the alphanumeric notation: When you see (for example) "B-1" and "B-2," this means that those 2 exercises are to be performed in alternating fashion.
  • Feel free to modify this program if it doesn't apply to your specific needs. The program is presented primarily as a tool to better understand the concepts outlined in the article.


Weeks 1-4:

    "A" Session

    • A) Front Squat
    • B-1) Supine-Leg Curl Machine
    • B-2) Hanging Pikes
    • Notes: hanging from a chinning bar, curl yourself up like you're performing a vertical crunch

      Loading For The "A" Exercise:

      Perform 5 sets of 5 repetitions, resting 3 minutes between each set. The first time out you should be able to hit all 5 sets with little difficulty. From this starting point, gradually increase the load each session, culminating in a difficult final front squat session toward the end of week 4.

      Loading for "B" Exercises:

      Using the same weight on all sets (which should correspond to a 10RM weight for each exercise or a weight you could lift 10 times before failing), perform as many sets of 5 as possible within a 15-minute time frame. Each time you repeat this segment, seek to improve upon your PR (personal record).

      This is a derivation of Escalating Density Training. For more information, click here.

      print Click Here For A Printable Log Of Weeks 1-4 "A" Session.

    "B" Session

    • A) Overhead Squat
    • B-1) Back Extensions
    • B-2) Incline Sit-Ups
    • Loading For The "A" Exercise:

      Overhead squats are demanding, and it's likely you'll only be using a light load. The flexibility requirement is also demanding - elevate your feels with plates or a board if necessary. Perform 5 sets of 8 reps, resting 3 minutes between each set. The load should not be maximal or anywhere near maximal. This is a dynamic flexibility drill designed to promote better squat posture. Gradually increase load each session over the 4-week mesocycle, but if in doubt err on the side of caution. Stress positioning and safety over weight.

      Loading For "B" Exercises:

      Using the same weight on all sets (which should correspond to a 10RM weight for each exercise, or a weight you could lift 10 times before failing), perform as many sets of 5 as possible within a 15-minute time frame. Each time you repeat this segment, seek to improve upon your PR (personal record).

      print Click Here For A Printable Log Of Weeks 1-4 "B" Session.


Weeks 5-8:

    "A" Session:

    • A) Competition-Style Squat (No gear)
    • B-1) Rack Pin Pulls
      Notes: This is a deadlift, performed from the pins set at knee-height on a power rack.
    • B-2) High Cable Crunches

    • Click Image To Enlarge.
      Rack Pin Pulls.

      Notes: Stand with a rope attached to a high cable pulley. Facing away from the machine, grasp the rope with both hands at forehead height, elbows bent, upper arms parallel to the floor and each other. Maintain this arm position, flex forward in a crunch motion.

      Loading for the "A" Exercise:

      Perform 6 sets of 2 reps, resting 3 minutes between sets. Your first competition squat session should utilize a weight that allows a demanding but comfortable completion of all 6 sets. From this initial exposure, gradually increase the bar weight each session, ultimately culminating in the heaviest load that allows successful completion of all 6 sets by the end of the 4-week mesocycle. Note: on every competition squat workout during this mesocycle, finish off your 6 sets of 2 with an additional 2 sets of 2, using 75% of whatever weight you used for the 6x2.

      Loading for "B" Exercises:

      Using the same weight on all sets (which should correspond to a 10RM weight for each exercise, or a weight you could lift 10 times before failing), perform as many sets of 5 as possible within a 15-minute time frame. Each time you repeat this segment, seek to improve upon your PR.

      print Click Here For A Printable Log Of Weeks 5-8 "A" Session.

    "B" Session:

    • A) Jump Squat
    • B-1) Right Side Dumbbell Snatch (Shown With Barbell)
    • B-2) Left Side Dumbbell Snatch
    • Loading For The "A" Exercise:

      Perform 6 sets of 2 reps, resting 3 minutes between sets. Use 50% of whatever weight you used for your 6 sets of 2 on the previous competition-style squat workout. Strive for an explosive jump, and safety-first at all times. Note from the video that the jump squat employs a shallower descent than does a standard parallel squat.

      Loading For "B" Exercise:

      Using the same weight on all sets (which should correspond to a 5RM weight for each exercise, or a weight you could lift 10 times before failing), perform as many sets of 3 as possible within a 15-minute time frame. Each time you repeat this segment, seek to improve upon your PR.

      print Click Here For A Printable Log Of Weeks 5-8 "B" Session.


Weeks 9-12:

    "A" Session:

    • A) Competition-Style Squat (Using full gear- suit, straps up, belt and wraps)
    • B-1) Box Jumps
      Notes: Simply jump from the floor up to a stable platform set to about your own hip level or slightly higher. Safety first!
    • B-2) Lat Pulldowns

    • Click Image To Enlarge.
      Box Jump.

      Loading For The "A" Exercise:

      During this mesocycle, variability gives way to specificity. Therefore, your loading parameters will mimic a competitive situation as closely as possible. Treat each squat session as a competition of sorts, performing several warm-up sets, and finally culminating with 3 progressively heavier attempts. Each time you repeat this session, strive for gradually heavier attempts. Spotters will be required.

      Loading for "B" Exercises:

      Using the same weight on all sets (which should correspond to a 5RM weight for each exercise, or a weight you could lift 10 times before failing), perform as many sets of 3 as possible within a 15-minute time frame. Each time you repeat this segment, seek to improve upon your PR.

      print Click Here For A Printable Log Of Weeks 9-12 "A" Session.

    "B" Session:

    • A) Competition-Style Squat (Using full gear- suit, straps up, belt and wraps)
    • Loading For The "A" Exercise:

      Throughout this final 4-week mesocycle, the "B" Session squat session will exactly mimic the "A" squat session, with one important difference: you'll use only 75% of the weight that you used during the previous workout. This is a lighter "unloading" session for the purpose of recovery and confidence-building.

      print Click Here For A Printable Log Of Weeks 9-12 "B" Session.


Final "Talking Points"

It is my sincere hope as a teacher that this article has enhanced your comprehension and ability to apply more advanced program design concepts. If I may be of further help, please e-mail me at: charles@staleytraining.com.

7 Tips For Maximizing The "Same But Different" Principle:

  1. Variability dominates at the beginning of a training cycle, and then gradually specificity takes over toward the end of the cycle
  2. Trainees with orthopedic injury issues and/or a history of overly-specific training should stress variability in their training
  3. Trainees seeking primarily bodybuilding goals should stress variability; athletes should leans more toward specificity
  4. Learn all you can about Olympic-style weightlifting this discipline makes optimal use of the SBD concept
  5. Don't under-value seemingly "minor" variations such as grip placement or stance width!
  6. Louie Simmons has said (I'm paraphrasing) "Somewhere out there is an exercise that'll put 50 pounds on your bench - your job is to discover what that exercise is"
  7. There are limits to specificity, but no limits to variability.

About The Author:

    His colleagues call him an iconoclast, a visionary, a rule-breaker. His clients call him "The Secret Weapon" for his ability to see what other coaches miss. Charles calls himself a "geek" who struggled in Phys Ed throughout school. Whatever you call him, Charles' methods are ahead of their time and quickly produce serious results. His counter-intuitive approach and self-effacing demeanor have lead to appearances on NBC's The TODAY Show and The CBS Early Show. Click HERE to learn more about Charles' proprietary training method, Escalating Density Training (EDT) and his new book Muscle Logic from Rodale.