Here's what you need to know...
- Increase your range of motion. Switch from barbells to dumbbells on the bench press. Try deficit Bulgarian split squats.
- Adjust your stance on appropriate exercises. Go from wider to narrower.
- Switching to a more dynamic, or totally explosive, exercise is great way to see new progress.
- Lifting the weight faster or lowering it slower is not a very effective option.
Maker It Harder, Get Better
Here are eleven ways to progress the exercises in your program month after month to make them more challenging.
1. Go Heavier
Everybody's favorite. It's certainly the most straightforward approach, but unfortunately a lot of lifters take "go heavier" to mean that it's okay to have piss-poor form.
Remember the real priority. When you add weight to the bar, it's so that you can systematically get bigger, stronger, faster, and more athletic. It's not meant to make your ego any bigger.
2. Increase Range of Motion
This is a simple, yet wildly effective technique when used appropriately. However, if it's implemented incorrectly, you can wind up injured.
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 general training stimulus, but also to increase both the range of motion and stability within that new ROM.
The same dual benefits apply to pressing with dumbbells instead of a barbell.
I'm not a huge fan of deficit deadlifts, using smaller plates or standing on a platform, because most people have terrible deadlift 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 may be ready for it, but that's about 1% of the lifting population, and frankly, you're probably not that special.
3. Shrink the Base of Support
Here's a quick tutorial on stability vs. balance:
Stability is a state that's constantly in flux based on the positioning of your center of mass, a.k.a. your "center of gravity" within your base of support. Stability describes the relationship between your body, the ground, and motion.
Balance, on the other hand, is an ability that can be trained, and it has to do with your capacity to maintain a given level of stability.
Your stability changes whenever you reposition yourself, like squatting lower or bending forward, or anytime you enter a different general environment like stepping onto ice.
But your balance only changes significantly when you improve or decrease strength, kinesthetic awareness, coordination, or proprioception.
An exercise with a wide base of support will always be easier to accomplish than one with a narrow base of support.
Related: 19 Squat & Deadlift Variations
A simple example of this is a traditional bilateral squat where the wide base is the entire distance between your two feet, compared to a single-leg squat which has a much narrower base – the surface of the bottom of one foot.
So, if you want to progress an exercise, find a way to narrow the stance a bit.
4. Raise the Center of Mass
If you bring your center of mass lower to the ground during an exercise, it gets easier.
Think back to Barry Sanders, who may have been the most agile guy in NFL history. Sanders was only 5' 8" and carried most of his 200 pounds in his lower body. These two factors kept his center of gravity lower and closer to his base of support.
When it comes weight training, where we're attempting to get bigger and stronger, we need to seek inefficiency through instability with our exercises by raising the center of gravity when appropriate.
A quick example is progressing a dumbbell lunge to a barbell lunge. With the dumbbells down at our sides, the center of gravity is low. Putting a barbell across the upper back raises the center of gravity, creating a more unstable scenario.
We can even hold the bar overhead to take the instability one step further.
5. Move the Center of Mass Further From the Axis of Rotation
This technique can be a little tough to grasp.
Think of a football lineman 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, and in both cases, the athletes have sacrificed stability to gain this momentum. It's the only way they can move faster in a given direction or reposition their body to better absorb an impact.
Now, let's apply this to weight training. Consider how much harder a front squat becomes if you switch to a Zercher squat by letting the bar roll down from on top of your shoulders.
When the load moves forward, your center of gravity is moved further from the axis of rotation (the hips and knees) and from the base of support (the feet), and that makes the movement a lot harder.
This is also why lifters with poor mobility at the hips, ankles, and thoracic spine seem less stable under the bar. They pitch forward and move the weight further from their center.
Fortunately, there are instances when we can safely reposition the horizontal center of gravity to our advantage. Take a split-stance cable lift, for example.
The challenge is greatest when the rope is pressed all the way out from the body (and, thus, furthest from the hips and thoracic spine). To make this even harder, you'd add isometric holds to each rep when the rope is "locked out" furthest from the body.
6. Make the Training Surface Unstable
I actually did my Master's thesis on this topic. The bottom-line is that unstable surface training is very often misused, but can be beneficial when done under the right circumstances.
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. These movements have considerable benefit with respect to enhancing shoulder proprioception and deloading joints without losing out on muscle activation.
Related: BOSU Ball: The Good, Bad, and Ugly
You can introduce instability in certain scenarios to make an exercise harder, almost always for upper body exercises.
7. Dynamically Change Surface Contact
If you start moving explosively and approaching plyometric-level (or even moving quickly but under relative-control), the stability aspect of as exercise gets harder.
Think of Bulgarian split squats vs. reverse lunges, back squats vs. jump squats, or push-ups vs. rotating T-push-ups.
By introducing a dynamic element, we're asking the body to respond to a new stimulus. Lower body movements, particularly single-leg exercises, are well-suited to an added dynamic challenge.
8. Decrease the Points of Stability
We're more stable when we have more points of stability.
A squat (two points of contact) is more stable than a single-leg squat (one point). Flat bench presses (six points of contact, with four bench legs plus our own two feet) are more stable than Swiss ball bench presses (three points of contact, the ball and two feet).
When you move from a standing position (two points) to a kneeling position (three or four 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 position, you've got two feet and one knee.
It's not a giant mental leap to reverse engineer the process in order to increase the difficulty of an exercise.
9. Increase the Decelerative Force
Single-leg movements can be either accelerative or decelerative, with decelerative exercises being much more unstable and challenging than predominantly accelerative exercises.
Decelerative exercises include forward lunges and lateral lunges, while accelerative exercises are like reverse lunges and step-ups.
The continuum from accelerative to decelerative would be:
Sled Push/Drag → Step-up → Reverse Lunge → Slideboard Reverse Lunge → Walking Lunge → Forward Lunge
There's really no eccentric stress on a sled push/drag, which is why it really won't make you sore. Step-ups have slightly more eccentric stress, but less than reverse lunges. Add a slideboard to those reverse lunges, and now the lifter has to work harder to control the eccentric component.
When someone has a dysfunctional knee, 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.
10. Use 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 almost always train bilaterally and symmetrically, so they're missing out on the potential benefits that come from using an asymmetrical load.
Symmetrical loading is obviously super-important for both strength development and muscle building where muscular tension and the mind-muscle connection are important.
However, if we're talking about making training more challenging and deriving maximal functional carryover to the real world, then we've got to have some asymmetrical loading.
Here are some easy ways to apply it:
One-arm dumbbell variations of bench or overhead presses
Two-point dumbbell rows
One-arm farmer's walks
One-leg dumbbell Romanian deadlifts
One-arm, one-leg dumbbell Romanian deadlifts
Barbell or dumbbell suitcase deadlifts
One-arm dumbbell Bulgarian split squats
Dumbbell or kettlebell Turkish get-ups
The goal, in most cases is, very simply, to maintain a symmetrical posture in spite of the destabilizing torques.
11. Transition from Ground-Based to Standing
Ground-based training, literally being on the ground to perform exercises, certainly affords a more stable environment compared to training in the standing position. So there's definitely a place for ground-based exercises in just about any training program.
Related: The Best Damn Push-up Article
Especially with beginners, it's really valuable to use low-level ground-based drills like prone and side bridges because they allow us to eventually 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 weaknesses.
Moving from a plank to a Pallof press would be one example, or progressing from a side bridge to a standing cable row.
What About Tempo?
Changing the tempo of a rep by either increasing or decreasing the positive or negative, doesn't make an exercise harder, it just makes things different.
If you increase the time under tension of each rep, you've got to reduce the load in order to maintain total volume. That's an unavoidable factor, so it's a tradeoff in terms of "difficulty" even if the eccentric phase is one primary way to kickstart muscle growth.
All of these progressions are "give-and-take," with progressions on one front with regressions on another, and the end result is variety for the duration of your training career.
Let's say that you do a barbell reverse lunge one month and change to a dumbbell forward lunge 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.