How to Vary Your Lifts

by Jordan Syatt July 1, 2013

The concept of variation  is one of the most over-complicated topics in all of strength and conditioning.

While it may appear to be complex and confusing, it’s honestly very simple and once you “get it” you’ll never have to think about it again.

I wrote about this topic last year and even provided a step-by-step guide to variation but this time I want to break things down further and show you how simple it really is.

In this article I’ve outlined numerous training variables which can be manipulated to create countless exercise variations. Each variable can be used in isolation or in concert with others on the list.

The possibilities are endless and you are only limited by your imagination!

Keep in mind, in the grand scheme of variation this list barely scratches the surface. From this list alone there are hundreds (if not thousands) of possible variations to choose from but, realistically speaking, there are an infinite number of possibilities.

With that being said, let’s get to the list.

How to Vary Your Lifts

Type of Grip

Changing your grip is a quick and easy way to vary an exercise. Depending on the grip being used it can make the drill harder, easier, and even more joint friendly. Below are a couple of my favorite grip variations.

  • Fat Gripz <– Every serious trainee should own a pair. I’d note, I am an affiliate but I would never recommend a product that I do not use and fully support.
  • Towel Grip –> Click HERE for video demonstration
  • Ball Grip –> Click HERE for video demonstration

Stance and Grip Width

Not sure which variable to change? Alter your stance and/or grip width. For example, try using a close(er) grip on the Bench Press to emphasize the triceps, or a wider (Sumo) stance in the Deadlift to focus on the hips. There are countless possibilities which can be applied to nearly any lift including all variations of the Bench Press, Squat, Deadlift, Row, Chin-up, etc.

  • Close
  • Medium (Regular)
  • Wide

Grip Position

Changing grip position can alter muscle recruitment patterns, increase or decrease the difficulty of an exercise, as well as make it more (or less) joint friendly. For example, using a supinated grip (instead of a pronated grip) on Lat Pull Downs may reduce stress placed on the shoulder and possibly improve lat recruitment.

  • Supinated (palms facing upward/towards your face)
  • Pronated (palms facing downard/away from your face)
  • Neutral (palms facing eachother)
  • Alternating (one hand supinated, the other hand pronated)

Type of Movement

Generally speaking, movements can either be static, dynamic, or isometric in nature. Each type yields separate and distinct benefits so consistently switch between them to get a mix of everything.

  • Static (Static Lunge)
  • Dynamic (Walking Lunge)
  • Isometric (Isometric Lunge Hold)

Implement Used

Changing the implements which you are lifting is a great way to target individual weaknesses, avoid adaptation, and accommodate for injuries. For example, those with a weak upper back may benefit from using the SS Bar during Squats and Goodmornings as it will challenge her/him to fight in order to keep their chest up and in good position.

  • Barbell (Straight, SS Bar, Cambered, Football, etc)
  • Dumbbell
  • Cable
  • Kettlebell

Load Position

Where we decide to place the load in relation to our center of gravity can greatly influence the difficulty of a given exercise. For example, those who have tried both Front Squatting and Back Squatting understand that placing the load in front of your body makes the lift far more challenging, especially for the anterior core and quads.

  • Back Loaded (Barbell Back Squat)
  • Front Loaded (Barbell Front Squat)
  • Overhead (Overhead Squat)
  • Arms Extended at Side (Farmer’s Walks)
  • One Arm Overhead, One Arm Extended at Side (Offset Farmer’s Walks)
  • Contralateral Loading (Opposite-Side Loading such as DBell Single-Leg Deadlift)
  • Ipsilateral Loading (Same-Side Loading such as Walking Lunge with Sandbag on Shoulder)

Contraction Emphasis

Different types of contractions affect the body differently. For example, eccentric contractions are generally more stressful than concentric and isometric contractions but also produce greater strength outcomes. Experiment by emphasizing different types of contractions based on your individual needs and goals.

  • Concentric (Prowler Pushes, Sled Drags, etc)
  • Eccentric –> Click HERE for a video demonstration
  • Isometric –> (Bench vs. Pins, Deadlift vs. Pins, Push-up with Iso Hold, etc)

Reduce Range of Motion (ROM)

Reducing the ROM of a given lift can be good for a variety of reasons. For example, an injured lifter may use a reduced ROM Bench Press to gain many of the same benefits as the standard lift without venturing into the painful region. Additionally, reduced ROM’s can help trainees move past sticking points as they allow the lifter to handle more weight than normal and target specific areas of the lift.

  • High [Box] Squats
  • Rack Pulls
  • Board Presses
  • Floor Presses

Increase Range of Motion (ROM)

Increasing ROM can also be extraordinarily beneficial. For example, those lacking speed off of the floor in the Deadlift could experience great results from incorporating Deficit Deadlifts into their program. Likewise, individuals trying to gain mass may do well to utilize increased ROM movements as they recruit a greater amount of muscle.

  • Deficit Deadlifts
  • Low [Box] Squats
  • Incline Bench Press
  • Fat Gripz
  • Beyond the Range Push-ups
  • Arch Bar Bench

Increase/Decrease Lever Arm

By increasing or decreasing the lever arm of a given lift we can make it harder or easier to complete. Take, for example, the Glute-Ham Raise (GHR). The GHR is a difficult lift but try extending your arms overhead (like THIS) and you’ll notice the lift has become drastically harder. The same goes for the Push-up. With your arms directly beneath you it is relatively easy to accomplish. However, move your hands further out in front of you (like The Superman Push-up) and suddently it isn’t so easy.

  • Planks
  • Glute Ham Raise –> Click HERE for a video demonstration
  • Hanging Leg Raise

Number of Limbs Involved

Altering the number of involved limbs is a fantastic way to vary your movements. For example, one of my favorite accessory exercises for the Bench Press is the Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press. I love it not only because it’s a great variation but it’s also more shoulder friendly and has a great rotary stability component. Remember, your imagination is the only limit!

  • Bilateral (Squat, Bench, Deadlift, etc)
  • Unilateral (Lunge, Single-leg Squat, Dumbbell One-Arm Bench Press, etc)
  • Alternating (DBell Press, Lunge, Spiderman Pushup, etc)


Stance (and grip) is the easiest variable to change for any lift. Change your foot placement and, voila, you have a new variation! It’s also cool to play around with different stances to take note of how each one challenges you in different ways.

  • Standing 
  • Seated
  • Split Stance 
  • Half Kneeling 
  • Tall Kneeling


I’m not a huge fan of unstable surface training (read why HERE) but changing the surface off of which you lift can be a valid option. I tend to value unstable surface training for the upper body much more than I do for the lower body but they both have a time and a place.

  • Stable (flat/hard floor)
  • Unstable (physio ball, bosu ball, mats, etc)

Type of Drill

I wasn’t sure what to name this section but I’m basically just referring to how the lift is completed. For example, you could squat to a box or you could free squat. You could bench with a pause on your chest or complete the movement without stopping. To show you how this works, I encourage you to watch THIS VIDEO via Tony Gentilcore explaining the difference between the Box Squat and Squat to Box.

  • Standard
  • Box/Board (Box Squat/Board Press)
  • Touch and Go (Squat to Box)
  • Paused (Pause Squat/Bench/etc)

Wrapping Up

Variation is honestly so simple it’s stupid. Trainees tend to get too caught up in the minutia and forget the big picture. Pic a variation (any variation) and perform it while sticking to the standard principles of strenght training that have held true for years on end.

Don’t over complicate it!

Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.


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