11 Ways to Make an Exercise Harderby Eric Cressey
If you search through the archives here at TNation, you'll find hundreds of programs you can try. In fact, there are probably enough for you to rotate through for the rest of your training career without ever having to complete the same one twice.
However, I'd venture to guess that most of you aren't here just because you want to be told exactly what to do. Rather, in the process, you want to learn why you're doing something, and how to eventually be able to do a better job of programming for yourself.
It's no different than being a guy who's given a sample diet plan — but wants to know what to order off the menu when eating out; a little education on thinking on the fly goes a long way.
So, to that end, I want to use this article as a means of educating you on how to take that next step. The 11 tips that follow should help you progress the exercises in your program from one month to the next to make them more challenging.
Progression #1: Go heavier.
This seems like common sense — and it certainly is the most straightforward approach. Unfortunately, a lot of lifters take "go heavier" to mean that it's okay to have piss-poor form and/or use weights so heavy that your frat boy buddies have to pull it off you while yelling "It's all you, bro!"
Just remember that when you add weight to the bar, it's so that you can systematically get bigger, stronger, faster, and more athletic. It will not, however, make your wang any bigger.
Progression #2: Increase the range of motion.
This progression is a simple, yet wildly effective one when used appropriately. However, if it's implemented incorrectly, you can wind up injured.
First, let's talk about the good. I love utilizing this strategy with single-leg exercises like reverse lunges, Bulgarian split squats, and step-ups. It's an outstanding way to not only change the training stimulus, but also to increase both range of motion (ROM) and stability within that new ROM. The same can be said of bench pressing with dumbbells, as compared to barbell bench pressing.
As for the bad, I'm not a huge fan of people who try to deadlift from a deficit — meaning that the lifter stands on boxes.
Why? Well, most people have piss poor deadlifting technique in the first place — and it only gets uglier when you ask an unprepared body to go to a more extreme ROM. Some folks out there may be ready for it, but that's about 1% of the lifting population, and contrary to what your Mommy may have told you, you're probably not that special.
Progression #3: Make the base of support narrower.
Before we discuss this progression, here's a quick tutorial on stability and balance. Stability is a "state" that's constantly in flux based on the positioning of your center of mass (or gravity) within your base of support.
Balance, on the other hand, is an ability — or something that can be trained. Your stability changes transiently when you reposition yourself (e.g., squat lower) or enter a different environment (e.g., stand on ice), whereas your balance changes only chronically when you improve (or decrease) strength, kinesthetic awareness, coordination, or proprioception. Got it? Good.
An exercise with a wide base of support will always be easier to accomplish than one with a narrow base of support. A simple example of this is a bilateral squat (the wide base is the distance between the two feet) as compared to a single-leg squat (narrow base: the surface area of just one foot).
So, if you want to progress an exercise, you can narrow the stance a bit. A Pallof Press is a great example; the wider the stance, the easier the drill.
Progression #4: Raise the center of mass.
If you bring an athlete's center of mass lower to the ground during an exercise, it gets easier. If you need an example, think back to Barry Sanders, who may have been the most agile guy in NFL history. Sanders was only 5' 8", and his lower half was built like a brick shithouse.
These two factors kept his center of gravity lower (and therefore closer to his base of support). Look at the NFL today and you'll see that the trend continues with guys like Wes Welker and Darren Sproles, who can turn on a dime because they're shorter and bottom-heavy like Sanders (who also had the benefit of being as strong as an ox, and played on artificial turf at home).
These guys all seek efficiency through stability, but in a resistance-training context where we're attempting to get bigger and stronger (and improve our balance), we need to seek inefficiency through instability with our exercises by raising the center of gravity when appropriate.
A quick and easy example is the comparison of a dumbbell lunge to a barbell lunge. With the dumbbells at our sides, the center of gravity is low. Putting a barbell across the upper back or shoulder girdle raises the center of gravity, creating a more unstable scenario. We can even hold the bar overhead to take the instability one step further.
Progression #5: Move the center of mass further away from the axis of rotation.
This factor is a little tougher to grasp, so I'll give you a few examples.
First, think of a lineman in football who deliberately positions his center of gravity forward to prepare himself for contact with an opponent as he comes off the line. Or, think of this same kind of scenario with a sprinter coming out of the blocks. In both cases, this big forward lean helps create momentum.
In both cases, though, the athletes have sacrificed stability to gain this momentum. It's the only way they can move faster in their chosen direction or reposition the center of gravity body to better absorb an impact (by being closer to the edge of the base of support on which a force is acting).
Now, let's apply this to a resistance training context. Consider the front squat, and think about how much harder the movement instantly becomes if you switch it to a Zercher squat, or just let the bar roll down from its position atop your shoulder girdle.
Effectively, when the load moves forward, your center of gravity is moved further from the axes of rotation (hips and knees) and base of support (feet), and that makes the movement a lot harder. This is also why those with poor mobility at the hips, ankles, and thoracic spine seem less stable under the bar; they pitch forward.
Fortunately, there are instances when we can safely use repositioning the horizontal position of the center of gravity to our advantage. Take a split-stance cable lift, for example. In this drill, the challenge is greatest when the rope is pressed all the way out from the body (the axes at which we are resisting rotation are predominantly the hips and lumbar spine). To make this harder, we can just add isometric holds at the point of each rep where the rope furthest away from the body.
Progression #6: Make the surface unstable.
In order to make this point, I'll have to summarize a few years of my life (my master's thesis) in a few sentences. I'll quote directly from my e-book, The Truth About Unstable Surface Training:
"Unstable surface training is rarely appropriate for the lower body; outside of the rehabilitation of functional ankle instability, it doesn't have much merit. That's not to say, however, that utilizing unstable surfaces in other scenarios can't be advantageous; the important thing is to recognize that the instability must be applied at the midsection/torso or upper extremities. Examples include push-ups with the hands on stability balls or inflatable rubber discs and pressing exercises while positioned atop a stability ball [in athletes who aren't too strong/heavy]. These movements have considerable benefit with respect to enhancing shoulder proprioception and deloading joints without losing out on muscle activation."
So, to recap, you can go to instability in certain scenarios to make an exercise harder, but you better be able to justify your reasoning completely. If you can't justify your reasoning, chances are that you ought to be sticking to the other ten means of increasing exercise difficulty that I'm outlining here.
Progression #7: Make the surface contact dynamic (changing).
The challenges to stability are lower with static tasks (no change to base of support) as compared to dynamic tasks. A few examples of static (stable) vs. dynamic (unstable) challenges include:
Split-squats vs. forward or reverse lunges, split squat jumps
Squats vs. jump squats
Push-ups vs. clap/plyo push-ups, T-push-ups, or hand switches
A few years ago, Mike Boyle made the interesting observation that we could subdivide oursingle-leg movements into static and dynamic — but he also took it a step further by subdividing static movements into supported and unsupported variations. Furthermore, dynamic movements could be accelerative or decelerative variations. These subcategories feed right into the discussion of our next two factors.
Progression #8: Decrease the number of points of stability.
Logically, we're more stable when we have more points of stability. A squat (two points) is more stable than a single-leg squat (one point), and dumbbell bench presses (four points) are more stable than stability ball dumbbell bench presses (three points).
When you move from a standing position (two points) to a kneeling position (3-4 points), the exercise becomes less challenging. In the kneeling position, you have points of stability at both knees and both feet, and in the half-kneeling (lunge) position, you've got two feet and one knee.
As I noted earlier with respect to single-leg movements, static exercises can be both supported and unsupported. Examples of static supported movements are single-leg squats to bench/box (pistols) and single-leg RDLs. Static supported movements, on the other hand, include Bulgarian split squats and split squats. If you've got support, you've got more stability.
Progression #9: Make the movement more decelerative (increase eccentric stress).
Returning to the discussion of single-leg movements, decelerative movements like forward lunges and lateral lunges are much more unstable and challenging than predominantly accelerative exercises like reverse lunges and step-ups. If you wanted to look at it as somewhat of a continuum, here's what you'd have (from accelerative on the left to decelerative on the right):
Sled Push/Drag →Step-up → Reverse Lunge → Slideboard Reverse Lunge → Forward Lunge
There's really no eccentric stress on a sled push/drag — which is why it really won't make you sore (and one reason why a lot of powerlifters use it for off-day GPP). Step-ups have slightly more eccentric stress, but less than reverse lunges. Add a slideboard to those reverse lunges, though, and the lifter has to work harder to control the exaggerated eccentric component.
Placing single-leg movements into categories is a perfect example of how important it is to match stability challenges to different corrective exercise scenarios.
With someone with an unstable or dysfunctional knee (with anterior and lateral knee pain being the most common), static and accelerative movements will be better tolerated than decelerative movements. Ask anyone with a history of knee pain, and they'll tell you that forward lunging is a pretty advanced — and often painful — progression!
A debated point on this classification scheme is where to position walking lunges. Some categorize walking lunges as accelerative because of the forward excursion and carryover to running, but I consider them decelerative because a considerable amount of deceleration is involved and they're not generally tolerated as well as other accelerative variations in early knee post-rehabilitation training. One-half of the movement is a higher-stress forward lunge.
Progression #10: Use asymmetrical loading.
The longer I'm in this industry and the more people I train, the more emphasis I seem to place on asymmetrical loading. For decades, we worked to get people off machines and into doing more free weights because of the stability benefits they afford.
Unfortunately, most people are almost exclusively bilateral and symmetrical in their free weight training — so they're missing out on some great benefits that come along with devoting a portion of their training to asymmetrical loading.
Don't get me wrong; symmetrical loading is super-important for both strength development and bodybuilding where muscular tension and the "mind-muscle" connection are more important.
However, if we're talking about a) making stuff harder, b) scaring the crap out of the housewives on the ellipticals at your gyms, and c) deriving maximal functional carryover to the real world, then we've got to have some asymmetrical loading. Here are a few drills that can be quickly and easily applied in your programs:
1-arm dumbbell push presses
1-arm dumbbell variations of the bench presses
1-arm DB bench press
1-leg dumbbell Romanian deadlifts and 1-arm, 1-leg dumbbell Romanian deadlifts
Barbell or dumbbell suitcase deadlifts
2-point dumbbell rows
1-arm farmer's walks
1-arm dumbbell Bulgarian split squats
1-arm DB Bulgarian split squats
1-arm dumbbell or kettlebell Turkish get-ups
The list could go on and on; your imagination is your only limitation. The goal, in most cases is, very simply, to stay symmetrical in spite of these destabilizing torques.
Progression #11: Transition from ground-based to standing exercises.
I could easily include "positioning" in the category that covers the center of gravity's vertical position. However, there's a pretty heavy debate within the industry over upright versus ground-based training, so I think it's a good idea to give it some direct attention.
Ground based training certainly affords a more stable environment compared to training in the standing position. I'm of the belief that there's absolutely, positively a place for ground-based exercises in just about any training program, regardless of the training age of the athlete in question.
The "functional training" zealots like to crap on the bench press and its derivatives for not having functional carryover, but the truth is that it's a silly argument to have because it comprises only a small part of any overall training program, and it's your best bet for packing loads of muscle mass and strength on the anterior torso and shoulder girdle.
Taking it a step further, though, there are those who claim that beginners should do everything standing, but I couldn't disagree more. Beginners will always go to the path of least resistance, meaning that they'll find a way to get to their easiest compensation scheme.
I've found that early on, it's really valuable to use low-level ground-based drills like prone and side bridges because they eventually allow us to transition to more challenging and "functional" upright variations performed correctly than if we went right to these variations immediately and just tried to "coach through" the weakness.
What about Tempo?
Many of you have probably noticed that I haven't mentioned changing the tempo of the exercise as a means of making it more challenging. The truth is that this is because I'm not convinced that it makes things "harder;" it just makes things "different."
If you increase the time-under-tension of each rep, you've got to drop the load. It's a tradeoff in terms of "difficulty" — even if we know that lengthening the eccentric component of an exercise is generally accepted as a way to kickstart muscle growth, as this is where the most muscle damage occurs.
Moreover, a fast eccentric component — as you might see with depth jumps or other high-level plyometric drills — can be extremely challenging and stressful on the system as well.
Need proof? Go out and do five sets of five broad jumps and see how sore the muscles on the front of your shins are from decelerating your landings. It'll make them sorer than any resistance training drill you can think up in the weight room — even though the tempo is non-existent.
Then again, it just goes to show that all of these progressions are a "give-and-take" among progressions on one front with regressions on another front, and the end result is variety in your training program for the duration of your training career.
Let's say that you do a barbell reverse lunge one month, and then want to change things up in the next month by going to a dumbbell forward lunge in the next month. You've progressed by adding a greater decelerative component (forward lunging), but regressed by lowering the center of gravity (from barbell on your back to dumbbells in your hands). Guess what, though? You'll still be ridiculously sore in the first week of the new program.
I don't expect that this article will overhaul your entire training philosophy as you read it today, but rest assured that you should absolutely consider it as one that you'll refer back to as you construct your own programs and are looking for quick and easy ways to shuffle up your training in the months and years to come.
Now, shouldn't you be innovating?
Eric Cressey, MA, CSCS is the president of Cressey Performance, just west of Boston, MA. He publishes a free weekly newsletter and daily blog at EricCressey.com. Pick up a copy of his new product, Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better at www.showandgotraining.com.
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