Albert Einstein once said "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler", and there is nowhere this holds true more than in exercise programming.
The first thing to keep in mind is that "simple" does not mean "easy"; "simple" is the opposite of "complex" - "easy" is the opposite of "difficult". Many people spend a lot of thought on making workouts needlessly complicated rather than working hard on the basics.
A workout can be insanely difficult without making it particularly complicated. Some great examples of very simple, but brutally effective workout programs include:
- Jim Wendler's 5-3-1 program, which is based on squats, shoulder presses, deadlifts, and bench presses, with no more than 4-6 basic assistance exercises, such as pullups and dumbbell presses, added fill any gaps.
- Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength program, which includes only squats, deadlifts, power cleans, bench, and shoulder press.
- Many of Pavel Tsatouline's programs, which frequently include only progressions of a "functional couplet" (two complementary exercises), such as deadlift with bent press or kettlebell swings with turkish getups.
Brian Copeland, the owner of Brian Copeland's Core Fitness in Aurora reminds us, "When choosing exercises remember the 80-20 rule. 20% of your exercises will net you 80% of your results." As with any program, the key is not to look at what someone does differently - instead, look at what the best do that is the same.
Any good strength coach will ensure his programming seeks a balance between upper-body pressing, upper-body pulling, hip hinging (e.g. deadlifts), and squatting. Dan John recommends that an "audit" of a workout program should reveal a balance between all of those movements, along with a good representation of loaded carries (such as farmers' walks), and movements such as groundwork and tumbling.
James Drebenstedt, the Head Trainer of TwinFreaks CrossFit in Longmont agrees. "I've found that strength is most efficiently trained with the 'Big Four': [shoulder] press, squat, bench press, dead lifts, and I'd add only the pull up. Conditioning can be as easy as burpee intervals; no equipment is required, it only takes strong will. Heck, if you really need variety get a couple kettlebells and do farmer's walks and swings. If you do those movements correctly and slowly add resistance, that's all any non-professional athlete will ever need."
Before adding complexity for its own sake, begin by looking at these basics. If you have a sport you practice - whether it's basketball, martial arts, or CrossFit - the combination of the basics with playing and practicing your sport should add all the variety you need. If you still feel variety is lacking, you can add it with complete confidence that you've covered the necessities.