Vary Your Movements to Dial Up Your Results

By March 11, 2018Blog

If I had to guess, I’d say you’ve lifted a thing or two in your day. If you’ve made it to this website to read an article about macro and micro-movement variations, you know your way around a barbell or at least a gym.

I’d also hazard a guess that you probably don’t always feel that great when you’re lifting. A small tweak here and a shot of pain there often leaves you sore, confused and feeling beat up after a workout.

Believe me, I know.

The big 3-0 just hit me like a freight train, especially in the gym.

You’re talking to a tall, gangly guy who grew up in a chiropractor’s office. When that didn’t work so well, we switched all our time and money over to a physiotherapist’s office. I had more miles on a treatment table by the time I was a young adult than most have in a lifetime.

But since I learned to brace properly, lift heavy and be aware of how each lift feels, I’ve barely seen the inside of a clinic, save for the odd quick adjustment due to something stupid that was 100% my fault.

I get to spend more time in the gym, I get to lift more heavy shit and I don’t feel as beat up and run down as I used to.

And I can attribute that to one major change, as well as a couple of small ones. I’m talking about awareness and building variations into each training program and session.

Know YOUR Shit

I bet there’s at least one lift; one movement you do on a regular basis that just doesn’t feel right.

You know it in the back of your mind – something’s wrong every time you try it. But, for whatever reason, you keep coming back to it.

Maybe it’s supposed to feel this way.

Everybody else does this – so I should, too. 

That guy seems to like it, and he’s jacked.

My high school strength coach said this is the most important movement I can do for my sport.

Right, but how do you feel when you do it? Does it work for you?

All through junior and college hockey, my strength coaches kept tossing a barbell on my back for back squats. Rightfully so, since back squats are an incredible muscle builder for hockey players; especially tall, scrawny individuals who need muscle like myself.

But my tall, lanky rig didn’t fit well with back squats, and as a result, I ended up in a crumpled heap on the floor twice from the same movement being shoved down my throat.

I knew it didn’t feel right. I knew I never felt safe, stable or smooth under that bar. But I did it anyway; because someone told me it was right.

Until I got smart and tried front squats. I’ve never gone back since. I must be coming up on ten years without a back squat and zero serious injuries under the bar since then. My worst injury has been a recent rib tweak that I should have addressed earlier.

Becoming more aware of how your body works is one of the most valuable skills any lifter can learn and one that will make a world of difference on those days when it’s just not going your way.

No one should know your body like you do. No one can feel what you feel when you’re lifting, so they shouldn’t be making all the decisions for you.

So, job #1 moving forward: For one week, take notes on how each lift, each set, and each rep feels.

How did it feel at a lighter weight? What muscles did you feel working? Was it smooth or did it feel clunky?

Did anything change as you increased the weight? Were different muscles working? Did it still feel as smooth as the lighter weights?

Is this truly the right weight and movement variation for you or are you getting into a dick swinging contest with the guy wearing the tank top next to you, possibly hurting yourself in the process?

Remember, your body is completely different from everyone else’s. Even someone with the same shape and dimensions will have different issues due to their regular activities, former injuries and sports compensation patterns.

Run your own race and know your body.


Let’s say it’s deadlift day, and you’re having one hell of a day. Your kid was up sick last night, you had a crazy stressful day at work after next to no sleep, and now you’re sitting in horrible traffic on your way to the gym.

You finally arrive and get started, only to find that conventional deadlifts feel like shit today. Your low back is doing all the work and your hips feel locked up, like the tin man with no oil.

Should you just shut ‘er down and forget deadlifts for the day?

Hell no, man. Those deadlifts are going to keep you from punching a hole in the wall when something goes sideways this evening at home.

So what can you do?

Option #1

Continue shoving a movement that feels awful down your throat. You’ll perform poorly, probably tweak something (maybe worse) and feel beat up for the next day or two, at best.

Option #2

Adjust the movement, keeping the hinge pattern in your program for the day, just using a different variation.

What other variations are there, coach?

I’m glad you asked.

Off the top of my head?

Sumo deadlifts.

Trap bar deadlifts.

Kettlebell deadlifts.

Jefferson lifts.

Barbell hip thrusters.

Single leg deadlifts.

While they’re not exactly what you had programmed, they tick enough boxes to make them a worthwhile substitute and something to try.

Think about it. They all hit your posterior chain, focusing on hamstrings and glutes, and they all hit your lower body in general, something you want out of deadlift day.

The only thing you may be missing is some lat work if you choose the hip thrusters, but that can easily be added with some lat pulldowns supersetted with the thrusters.

When it comes to macro variations, just think about what other exercises can provide the same stimulus but using slightly different form, a different piece of equipment or all of the above.

You don’t have to barbell bench press if your shoulder is sore. You could switch up to dumbbells, allowing you to alter your hand position. You could even just go with a simple push-up if that feels better on your achy shoulder.

The point is, you don’t need to pound a square peg into a round hole. If a movement isn’t working, switch it out. You may find that you really like the new set-up or, you may just need to replace it for a week or two before returning to your old ways pain-free.

There’s also the option of keeping the same movement pattern in, just tweaking it enough to change the feel.


This is where we can really go deep, keep the exact same movement pattern and help you feel better while doing it.

We are, of course, assuming you’re already doing the things you should be prior to making any changes.

You need to be creating tension by pulling the floor or barbell apart on bilateral movements.

You need to be in a good position, able to keep your knee over your shoelaces and your elbow under your wrist in most unilateral movements, not letting it drop towards the midline of your body.

Once you have those down pat, you can change up literally anything to suit how you’re feeling on a given day.

Can you turn one toe out? How about taking a wider stance overall? Can you place one foot just slightly in front of the other?

It’s hard to see, but in the video below, I place my left foot about an inch ahead of my right. This allows for a little more freedom due to a locked SI Joint. The end result: I could lift heavy without pain.

What about grip? You don’t have to do double overhand on all your deadlifts. Does your shoulder feel better if you bring your hands in a little bit closer on the bench press or flip your palms to face the other way on bent over rows?

[TICK ALL THE BOXES] … Those of us in our thirties are often moving into the absolute busiest times of our lives … We're trying to make a name for ourselves in our chosen industry, attempting to maintain a social life and usually on a romantic relationship that sometimes comes with kids … So how the fuck are we supposed to fit in regular workouts, ensuring those abs we used to have don't turn into a perogy locker? … How can we stay jacked with all this going on in our lives? … The answer is to tick more than one box, using mainly compound movements and being ruthlessly efficient with our precious time … Enter, the barbell bent over row … You're gonna hit lats, upper back, lower back (doing its job), biceps, rear delts, rotator cuff, biceps, forearms, grip… maybe I missed something … Not to mention the fact that playing sports and living in the 21st century inevitably means our shoulders are a mess and we could all use a little more pulling … I like using the pins to ease the stress on my cranky lower back – up to you … The point is, find compound movements like this one where you can hit numerous muscle groups and knock several things off the list … Get in, get jacked, get out … Plus, you can show off your hockey 🍑 … #fitness #fitnessmotivation #weekendwarrior #workout #health #training #motivation #strengthtraining #strength #conditioning #prairies #tarpsoptional #tarpsoppy #hockey #beerleague #mchalestrength

A post shared by Gavin McHale (@gavinmchale1) on

The point here is, there is more than one way to complete any given movement, and just because the “conventional” way doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean you can’t do that movement anymore.

You can switch it out for a similar movement, as discussed above. You can also create and test out micro variations to see if you can continue doing the same pattern, just differently.

But the key behind all of this comes back to awareness. If you just show up and do the movements you’ve always done for no reason other than “that’s how I’ve always done it”, then you’re going to end up sore and possibly on the shelf at some point.

And when you’re on the shelf, you can no longer train or play your sport, leaving you miserable and angry that you didn’t listen to Gav sooner.

To your results,


If you want more exclusive content, access to lots of FREE shit, and to better understand the twisted mind of a former goalie turned fitness pro, sign up for the McHale S & C email list. Once you join the team, I will harass you with musings on hockey, lifting heavy shit, and fitting alcohol into your macros.


Gavin McHale

Author Gavin McHale

Online training and nutrition coach, retired semi-pro hockey goalie, and ex-skinny kid. Currently a beer league superstar, and lover of lifting heavy things, Gavin will help you reclaim that athletic, dead sexy body, and shrink your clothing budget. Because tarps are always optional.

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