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Exercise Progression

Challenge Yourself with Exercise Progression

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Updated June 04, 2013

Exercise Progression
Paige Waehner

"Is it really so bad to do the same workouts all the time?" That's what one client asked me, having admitted that, except for our sessions, she did the same workouts every week. This was despite my urging for her to change things up to avoid boredom and weight loss plateaus.

She liked her workouts, she informed me, and had no desire to change. My question to her was: "You may not want to change your workouts, but do you want to change your body?"

Progressing Your Exercises

Her answer to that question was a "Duh! Do you think I come here because I like being tortured?" Once I explained the theory of adaptation to her and the fact that lifting the same weights for the same exercises every week would keep her body in the same place, she had to agree: It was move forward or stay where she was.

The good news for her, for any of us who aren't crazy about change, is that progressing can come in a variety of ways: Changing your weight, repetitions, intensity, speed, duration, exercises and more. And you only have to choose one change to make a difference, although more is often better.

The bottom line is, once you master something, you need to do something to make it harder and one of the easiest way to do that is to try new variations of traditional exercises. Some basic ways to change what you're doing are:

  • Change your position. Look for ways you can change your position to make moves a bit different. If you usually do regular squats, try taking the feet wide and the toes out in a wide squat to fire different muscle fibers. Change your chest press by going to an incline or change your arm position during pushups and try a staggered version.
  • Change the type of resistance. If you gravitate to machines, try free weights or the cable machines. If you always do free weights, try some of your exercises on machines. Movements will always feel different when you change the resistance. Resistance bands offer a variety of ways to work your muscles in a different way. Take your usual chest press and move it to a standing position with a band chest press. Take a boring dumbbell fly and turn it into a rotating fly with a band.
  • Go from two legs/arms to one leg/arm. One of the most interesting ways to change exercises is to use only one arm or one leg at a time. This makes almost any lower body move more intense - One legged squats are much harder than regular squats and one legged deadlifts challenge the standing leg in a whole new way. Even upper body moves get more challenging when you switch to one arm at a time as in this one-armed chest fly or this one-armed triceps pushup.
  • Add a balance challenge. Going unilateral, as mentioned above, can make balancing more of a challenge but, even more challenging, is using something like a ball, foam roller, BOSU Balance Trainer or inflatable disc.
  • Do more compound movements. Doing two exercises at once can save time and add a new dimension to your workouts. Try doing a squat, curl, press to target the legs, biceps and shoulders or try a rear lunge with a row to work the back and the legs. Not only will you save time, but compound exercises are actually a form of metabolic conditioning, allowing you to burn more calories and get more out of your exercise time. More step by step compound exercises.

Those are just a few ideas for how to change your strength workouts. You can also follow some the basic exercise progressions shown in my Upper Body Progression and Lower Body Progression workouts. Each workout shows a series of exercises for different muscle groups ranging from beginner to advanced, allowing you to see simple ways to challenge your body without having to completely change your workouts.

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