The Art of Variety
Strength / bodybuilding training is truly a combination of art and science. Keep in mind the 'art form' existed long before the 'science' part came in. I'm not saying that exercise science hasn't revealed result producing training methods; I'm saying that there were many methods that proved to work long before we began to study 'why' things produced results. Then 'science' took over and searched for ways to make training better.
What we have now are many (actually not 'that many') methods that work, supported by anecdotal evidence - and science. Then you have many, many, many, more methods promoted by steroid users, and 'con men' that are simply misleading and ripping off millions of trainees. It is unbelievably confusing for a trainee now a days searching for the 'best way' to get bigger and stronger. So, what is needed now more than ever is instruction by an honest strength coach who truly understands the 'art form', and is not close-minded or biased to one method or another. There are so many factors to consider when deciding what is the best approach for a trainee to use. Every trainee is different, and I am not talking about just genetics here. I am talking about different lifestyles, job requirements, and tolerance to exercise, motivation levels, and personalities.
With many years of instructing trainees under my belt I've become a pretty good 'artist' at this point. I'm not saying I know it all - far from it - but I have a very good working knowledge of how to take almost any trainee and get them stronger and/or bigger. The trainees I've worked with are a variety of ages, have differing goals, different lifestyles, different personalities, different tolerance to 'good' pain, etc. Manipulating the basic principles of successful weight training to such a broad spectrum of trainees to produce successful results requires a great understanding of the 'art form'.
Applying the Art to Exercise Transitions
Here's the scenario:
You've been hitting the weights consistently for over 4 years. You've done things right. You've focused on a handful of basic exercises and gotten pretty strong. Over the last year results have slowed to a crawl, but you keep hammering away at the same basic movements. Although your nervous system needs a change at this point - you've forced yourself to stick with the barbell bench press. You're dying to try some dumbbell bench pressing but you don't want to lose your barbell bench pressing strength because you've read that to make the switch you should drop the barbell bench altogether to focus on the DB version for 6 to 8 months. After that time if you want to make the switch back to the barbell, you drop the DB work and simply start the barbell movement again - starting light and building back up. After the break-in period with the barbell, you should feel the strength 'carryover' from the DB work. Just doesn't seem to make sense to you. It doesn't.
Well, you may - or may not - get some carryover. If you get some carryover I believe it won't be much. The problem with the approach above is that there is too much 'lag time' between the transitions from the barbell movement to the DB version, then back to the barbell version. During the lag time - the time when the weight loads of the new movement have to be reduced to allow for motor skill development and conditioning of the ligaments and tendons - a good portion of the hard fought for strength is lost in the muscles responsible for pressing. There is a better way - a method in which no strength is lost, and there is tremendous carryover from one similar exercise to the next.
How to transition from one basic movement to another to get maximum strength carryover.
Let's use the scenario above but get some real numbers involved.
You've been at that barbell bench for the duration of your four years of proper training. The latest cycle had you barbell bench pressing to the tune of 3 sets of 5 reps (3 x 5) for 40 weeks. You are handling 250 pounds for all 3 sets. The first two sets are very tough but they are "clean"; you are able to maintain great technique. The last set of 5 takes everything you've got to get that last rep, and your form is starting to get a little sloppy; what was a 'light' tap on the chest is becoming more of a 'bounce'. You've been able to maintain progression at 1 pound per week for the last 20 weeks. One part of you doesn't want to give up the fight with the barbell - but you know it's nearing the end physiologically, and frankly you don't even look forward to benching at all. Actually you're starting to hate it (at the end psychologically). It's time to tear into those DB's you've been longing for. But it is unwise (actually it is stupid) to jump right to a DB weight that is 'hard' for 5 reps. You must let the ligaments and tendons get used to the movement. Also, you must give your nervous system 4 to 6 weeks to develop efficient motor skills so that you can move the DB's through a perfect 'groove' increasing your leverage and greatly reducing the risk of injury.
Here's the program: Drop the barbell bench to one live set: 1 x 5 and keep adding that little dose of iron - even as little as 1/2 pound. Now, this is assuming that you can perform that one set without bouncing the weight off of your chest. If not, then drop back 10 pounds, use perfect form and keep adding that little dose of iron during the transition to the DB's.
Take your barbell weight and cut it in half: 125 pounds. You may think that with a 5 rep max (5RM) of 250 pounds with the barbell that you should be able to handle half the weight in each hand with DB's. This is not the case even if you were conditioned to use the DB's. A good general rule to convert barbell weight to DB weight is to take the weight of the barbell cut it in half ***
Start adding a pound or two to the DB's. Your goal is to be pushing the DB bench press pretty hard in 4 to 6 weeks - 'pretty hard' for a workout of 2 x 5 is that on the last set you could make a 6th rep, maybe a 7th. At this point drop the barbell bench and replace it with a third set with the DB's. You have now made the transition and have received the most carryover from the barbell to the DB's possible. Go to work with the DB's for the next 4 months or so and then use the same transition method to re-introduce the barbell bench, or to re-introduce another movement for the pressing musculature like the incline barbell bench or dips. If you decide to bring back the barbell bench I would suggest starting with about 80% of your former 5RM for 5 rep sets. But I would prefer that if you decide to use the barbell bench again to use a different rep goal than you did before the DB's - try 3 x 3, 3 x 6, or even a 5-3-1 pyramid. The purpose of using a different rep goal is to again keep the nervous system fresh.
Keeping the Nervous System Stimulated: Implementing this Exercise Transition Method into a Yearly Plan
Trainees who have many years of proper heavy training under their belt usually have developed a nervous system that adapts relatively quickly to a stimulus. Once adapted, gains really slow down, stop, or in some cases strength starts sliding backwards. It would be wise for these trainees to utilize variations of the big basic exercises on a regular basis to keep the nervous system guessing. The method laid out above is perfect for this.
Break your year into 3 - 4 month segments. Call these 'segments' Mesocycles. Using the example above spend 4 months using the barbell bench, switch to the DB bench, then switch to the dip. If an exercise is still delivering good results then lengthen the Mesocycle.
Squat - Rack Squat - Hip Belt Squat
Sumo Deadlift - Trap Bar DL - Conventional DL
Barbell Curl - Dumbbell Curl - EZ Curl
Military Press - Dumbbell Press - Rack Press
Sit-ups - Hanging Leg Raises - Supported Crunches
There are many combinations to choose from.
Powerlifters need to keep their 'skill work' going year 'round in my opinion. By 'skill work' I mean performing the Squat, Bench press and Deadlift in perfect competitive form with relatively heavy but not maximal, loads.
With one adjustment to the exercise transition method outlined above this can be accomplished easily. Again using the barbell bench press as an example, once you make the transition from the barbell bench to the DB bench, simply keep one set of the barbell bench in your routine permanently. Perform 2 or 3 reps with your 5RM. This load will keep you ready to easily convert back to the barbell movement - and it will also help with the carryover from the DB's. Perform this one set before you go on to the DB bench. Now the only other difference from what was outlined above is that you still keep the volume of the DB work at 3 work sets. Look at the barbell work as part of the warm-up for the DB work. You'll still need to perform appropriate warm-up sets with the DB's - just keep the number of reps used during the warm-up sets low, between 2 and 5 reps.