Variable Training – A KEY Concept in Functional Training

By on May 28, 2023

Chaos is the biggest factor missing from many people’s training.

What do I mean by chaos? Essentially, I mean variety. Or, as Nicholai Bernstein put it: repetition without repetition.

Without this, your strength and fitness may very well be just for show.

Variable Training

What is Variable Training

We are taught the importance of maintaining proper form. And of repeating movements over and over again in order to refine them and strengthen the underlying neural pathways. We are taught the importance of specificity – and choosing exercises that perfectly match what we’re training for.

If you want to learn how to front lever, it pays to practice with your arms the correct distance apart, on a straight bar, with perfect form. Over and over again. 

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

Bruce Lee

But this is only useful up to a point.

Because, if you always train under perfect conditions, you will only perform at your best when you are inperfect conditions. THIS is the true implication of specificity, and it is crucial to understand when it comes to the transferability of skill.

In other words: it’s one thing to be able to score a goal during practice. It’s quite another to score that same goal when you’re already tired, it’s muddy, and someone is barging into you from behind!

See also: Specificity in Training – How to Choose the Most Functional Movements

Recently, I’ve been working a lot on handstands and handstand push ups. As I do a lot of my training outside, though, it’s sometimes more challenging. Doing handstands on grass is nice because you have a soft landing; but it also means the ground is rarely flat. One hand is often higher than the other, or I might be on a slight decline.

lizard crawl tensegrity

This massively changes the activation of the muscles and the amount of information I have to contend with.

Progress is slower as a result. But, ultimately, it means I’m learning to do handstands anywhere. And that’s much cooler, right?

In a similar manner, doing pull ups and chin ups from a tree branch means dealing with hands at different heights, varying widths of the branch, slippery patches, and much more. This makes it much more applicable to actual climbing. 

Nicholas Bernstein is best known for his work on the “degrees of freedom problem.” This refers to the seemingly endless number of ways the body can carry out any given task. How does the nervous system choose the precise angle of the shoulder joint, shape of the hand, flexion of the elbow… when doing something as simple as picking up a mug of tea?

Tree branch pull up

The truth is that every movement is slightly different. Even simple ones. Your starting position will be slightly different every time. Your relative fatigue. The speed of your movement and any momentum.

With this in mind, it becomes crucial that we train in a way to reflect this. If functional performance is our end goal.

This is what we call repetition without repetition or variable practice (also variable training).

One thing I love about this, is that it means we don’t need to worry about performing everything with perfect form all the time. It’s freeing and reminds us that, as long as we’re not hurting ourselves, there is no wrong way to move.

How to Incorporate Variable Training

Some ways we can accomplish this include:

  • Practicing with a variety of tools – things like kettlebells and sandbags utilize off-set and even shifting centers of gravity, ensuring no two lifts are ever quite the same. 
  • Practicing out of sequence. This is called “contextual interference” and has been shown in several studies to result in better performance as compared with “block practice” where you perform batches of the same movement over and over. Almost all traditional gym routines emphasize block practice, so incorporating something like movement training can be a fantastic way to take practice applying your newfound strength and mobility. Studies below.
  • Worrying a little less about perfect form. This is great for competition, but for the real world, training with your shoulders wider one day and narrower the next is actually beneficial. As long as you’re not putting your body in any seriously compromised positions. 
  • Training outdoors and in variable locations. As mentioned, varied terrain and randomly shaped objects found outdoors offer in-built variability.
  • Adding sports and hobbies on top of regular training. If you want to be truly fit and functional, don’t just spend time in the gym. Instead: practice running, martial arts, rock climbing, bike riding, or something else to really stress test that fitness and add variety to your movement.

What I’m not advocating for, here, is randomly training with no consistency, form, or measurement. Especially for beginners, getting the basics down with solid repetitions is paramount. 

But as you start to master the basics, instead of just adding weight, why not incorporate a little variety and chaos? As Nicholas Bernstein explains, you’ll build far more robust movement patterns.

I think the person we should truly fear, is the one who practices one kick… 10,000 different ways.

What do you guys think? How do you include variability in your training?


– Shea, J. B., & Morgan, R. L. (1979). Contextual interference effects on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 5(2), 179-187.

– Magill, R. A., & Hall, K. G. (1990). A review of the contextual interference effect in motor skill acquisition. Human Movement Science, 9(3-5), 241-289.

– Schmidt, R. A. (1975). A schema theory of discrete motor skill learning. Psychological Review, 82(4), 225-260.

– Wulf, G., & Shea, C. H. (2002). Principles derived from the study of simple skills do not generalize to complex skill learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(2), 185-211.

– Wulf, G., & Schmidt, R. A. (1997). Variability of practice and implicit motor learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 23(4), 987-1006.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Tristan Fitzmaurice says:

    Hi Adam. I think variety in exercise/ fitness has to be a good thing, as long as it is tempered to some degree and used intelligently. For me, it means cardio fitness every day but spread across the activities of cycling, running, swimming and rowing (machine). Within each of these I apply variety of terrain, tempo and stroke etc. This is married to your SFT 2.0 split routine, which provides a varied strength component four days a week, plus flexibility sessions and a poise routine before bed – if I’m not too tired! When I feel it’s time for a change, I change it.

    Thanks for the articles and SFT 2.0 – keep up the good work.

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