Posted in exercise, Health, Wellness

Spice Up Your Rack

Practice makes perfect, right?

Well, sort of. Turns out, it’s slightly more complicated than that.

There’s something called the Law of Specificity. When I first heard that term, I had no idea what it meant. It sounds fancy, but it’s quite simple.

If I want to be a better basketball player, I have to practice shooting, dribbling, and quick footwork. If I want to swim like Michael Phelps, I have to spend hours upon hours in the pool. If I want to get stronger, I have to lift weights. Practice makes perfect on the specific thing I want to do better.

“Well, duh,” you may be thinking. “Why do we even need a ‘Law’ for something so obvious?”

That’s what I thought, too. Stay with me…

Here’s the catch: in addition to the Law of Specificity, there is also the Law of Accommodation. I didn’t know what that meant the first time I heard it, either.

Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky, a world-renowned sport biomechanist and former strength and conditioning consultant for the Soviet Union Olympic teams, defined the Law of Accommodation in his classic work, Science and Practice of Strength Training:

“According to this law, the response of a biological object to a given constant stimulus decreases over time. Thus, accommodation is the decrease in response of your body to a constant continued stimulus. In training, the stimulus is physical exercise.”

In layman’s terms, if I do the same exercises over and over and over, eventually I will stop seeing results. My body has “accommodated” the movement; it “recognizes” the stimulus. It knows what to expect, and will use the least amount of energy possible to complete the movement.

It gets worse. If I continue to practice the same movements in the same way, I will begin to lose my previous gains. I will “overtrain” that area, damage my muscles and joints, and probably injure myself.

From a biological perspective this makes perfect sense. Our bodies’ energy systems have evolved over millions of years for one goal: survival. If every movement required the maximum amount of energy, our species would have died out long ago. Our bodies are hard-wired to navigate the world using the least amount of energy.

That’s the physical aspect, but there is also the mental aspect to consider. Doing the same thing over and over is boring as hell. Seriously, who wants to do hundreds of crunches, or bicep curls, or lunges, day after day, week after week, month after month? I’ve tried that route many times before. I sometimes saw brief results in the short-term, but I was never able to stay with it. It’s dull, repetitive, soul-sucking, and as it turns out, doesn’t even work in the long-term. I felt like the hamster on its wheel, running furiously but going nowhere.

So we have these two laws we must balance: the law of Specificity states that if I want to get stronger and build more muscle, I need to lift weights. But the Law of Accommodation states that if I do the same exercises repeatedly, I will get diminishing returns from those exercises.

What’s the solution?

William Cowper, in his 1785 poem “The Task,” first coined the phrase that eventually became a treasured cliché:

Cowper Spice

Variety. That’s the answer.

Salt and pepper are essential, but there is so much more life in the spice rack! What about garlic, basil, cayenne, rosemary, ginger, cinnamon, the list goes on and on!

It’s the same with strength training. There’s more than one way to spice up your rack.

Some movements are like salt and pepper: they are staples. Squats, deadlifts, presses, push-downs, rows, these are essential to any strength training regimen. The trick is to constantly vary the WAY in which we do them.

Take the humble tricep pushdown.  A standard piece of equipment at most gyms, big or small. (I chose this one as an example on purpose: the tricep is often ignored at the expense of over-training the bicep, when in fact the tricep is the true power-house muscle in the bench press. But I digress…) 

You can vary the type of handle, which slightly changes the way the muscle is activated. You can use handles that use both arms at once, or one arm at a time. Here are a few shots of me doing pushdowns with the different handles we have at Ludus Magnus.

Your gym doesn’t have different kinds of handles? No problem. Variety often doesn’t require fancy equipment.

You can vary the tempo. You can do them at a regular tempo, or slow it down to increase the time under tension, or some combination thereof.

You can vary the weight. Lighter weight for increased reps and more speed, heavier weight for fewer reps and more straining.

You can vary the type of sets. You can do multiple sets at the same weight for the same amount of reps each set. You can increase the weight and decrease the reps each set. You can do “failure” sets where you do as many reps as you can at a given weight until the muscle gives out and can’t do one more. You can do timed sets. You can do “drop” sets where you start at a higher weight for fewer reps and then decrease the weight and increase the reps as you move through sets.

See what I mean? Each variation is still a tricep pushdown, but the stimulus is slightly different to keep the body guessing about what’s coming next and maximize the energy expenditure.

And that is a mere sampling of how to vary this ONE exercise with this ONE machine. In the context of an entire workout, the possibilities are limitless.

When people find out that I strength train, a frequent question is “how much do you [insert squat, bench, deadlift]?” I know what they mean. What they mean is, “How much weight can you do for one rep of that movement with a conventional bar?”

Which is a measure. But just one measure. If someone asks me, “how much do you squat?” I could give them a myriad of answers. Sure, I could tell them what I can do for one squat with a straight bar. Or I could tell them what I can do for 5 with that bar. Or 3. Or 2.  Or with a 2 second pause at the bottom. Or with a 5-second down and a fast up. Or with bands on the bar. Or with chains on the bar. Or all of those same questions, but with a safety bar. Or with a safety bar squatting to a box. Or with a camber bar.

You get the idea.

bench bars
A sampling of the different bars we use at Ludus Magnus

squat bars

I have heard Matt give the same speech at seminars and to individuals in the gym, again and again. To maximize results and avoid overtraining and injury, you have to constantly vary the stimulus. You have to keep your body guessing to overcome that hard-wired impulse for efficient energy expenditure. If you continue to do the same thing without variation, you will wind up like the hamster: running furiously to nowhere.

I consider myself beyond fortunate to have learned this valuable information from someone like Matt who has practiced and honed it in his own training. Knowing this stuff is how he broke world records, and at the same time, how he helped someone like me gain muscle, correct structural weaknesses, and drop body fat. It works for all types of people with all kinds of goals. I use it with my own clients to help them work towards their own individual goals.

Moral of the story? Practice may make perfect, but don’t forget the spice!

I could not have learned and implemented this valuable information on my own, and you don’t have to either! Call me at 614-517-2520 or email to learn about how you can join my clients and I at Ludus Magnus, and get started spicing up your own rack!

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