How To Progress Exercises Intelligently

Head over to your Instagram explore and you’ll probably be flooded with random exercises. It seems to be the new hot thing to just increase the complexity of every exercise you do.

The problem with this is when most people make an exercise more complicated, they usually do it at the expense of the purpose of the exercise.

In a lot of cases people do this with the intent to make an exercise more challenging – to push for some kind of progression.

Now we love to progress exercises, but it shouldn’t be just for the sake of trying to look cool on the gram.

Instead, looking to progress an exercise with the option we list below can help you make your exercise more challenging, without taking away from it’s intent.

1.     Add load

This might seem obvious, but a lot of people skip this one. If you’re using some form of loading like a barbell, dumbbell, cable, or band, it can be pretty easy to just increase it.

In contrast, if you aren’t doing a movement with external load already, we can try to add some in!

Take for example the classic plank – we can add some weight on your back to spice that up!

Getting a bit more creative, perhaps you’re doing bird dogs and they’re just not hard enough? Add in a band for load and you’ll quickly see they’re not so easy.

2.     Increase volume

Your planned sets and reps aren’t doing the job? Well let’s do some more work.

Getting a bigger engine – AKA work capacity – has huge benefits for the long term and this is a phenomenal option for most people who don’t want to add more load. It’s also super simple!

If you’ve got 3 sets of 6 reps planned, do 3 sets of 7-8 or do 4 sets of 6 instead. It doesn’t have to be a huge change, just a bit more and keep progressing over time.

3.     Cut down on rest

If you come from a strength background, this might seem like sacrilege, but it’s an easy and effective way to make training more challenge and as long as it doesn’t take away from your goal, it’s great for your cardiovascular health.

Have that 3 sets of 6 planned and were going to have 90 seconds of rest between? Well chop it down to 60-75sec and stick with the same load! You’ll probably be quite surprised how much harder that can make it.

We use a lot of supersets and circuits in our sustainable strength and foundational strength programs to push for good work capacity levels.

4.     Change the tempo

This one has two ways it can go – faster or slower.

If you’re doing a movement where it’s purposefully not meant to go fast, slow it down even more!

If you’re doing a movement where kicking it into gear is beneficial, crank up the speed!

For example, perhaps you’ve got Dumbbell bench press planned for 3 sets of 10 today and you’ve maxed out your dumbbells you have and don’t want to do a ton of reps, well try slowing down the lower and really feel that eccentric motion!

Flipping it around, you’ve got 5 sets of 5 on push ups planned you’re feeling extra strong today?

Try to drive up off the ground even faster than usual and develop some power!

This is a principle we utilize in many of our training support programs to help dial in positioning and technique.

5.     Change the moment arms

A moment arm is a term from physics that describes how far the load is from the axis point. When we exercise, moment arms dictate how demanding the load we have will be.

A simple illustration is when doing a move like a lateral raise, keeping your arm totally straight is much harder than bending your elbow and bringing the weight slightly closer to your body.

To take advantage of this principle, if you’re doing a movement where we can safely alter the moment arm – increasing it can make for that some loading to be more challenging.

For instance, you’re doing some goblet squats and have maximized the weight you have available to you and you’re not wanting to do any option we listed prior; pushing the weight further out from your torso will make that weight feel a whole lot harder.

6.     Increase your control/focus

A final option we want to outline that doesn’t require drastically changing the movement is to focus on controlling the motion more. This is somewhat in line with slowing down the tempo, but a bit different.

If you’re doing an isolation type movement, an effective way to try and make it more challenging is to really focus in on the muscle being worked and try to have a greater contraction of it.

An example would be to really to squeeze your biceps during curls and get the maximal contraction you can instead of just slinging around weight.

Similarly, for movements where there is a higher level of motor control demand having more intent and control can increase the demand significantly.

Bear crawls are a solid example of this where you can go through quickly and they might be challenging, but slowing down and trying to resist having your trunk shift or pelvis rotate really elevates the demand.

Hopefully these examples help you understand how you can make some subtle changes to the movements within your program to be more challenging without having to go off plan or do some unconventional variation that doesn’t have the same intent as the original planned movement.

The Citizen Athletics Team,


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