You know that guy you see in the gym every Thursday night, and every time he's doing the same exercises and the same reps? He's been there as long as you can remember, doing the same thing on the same night, year after year. And when you think back on how he looked when you first noticed him way back when, he looks...the same.
Yeah, let's not turn into that guy.
Consistency is good – it's essential – but if you've been doing exactly the same workouts for a bit too long, it's time to switch things up. Sure, you may have had some decent results while lifting the same weights in the same movements through the same range of motion at the same speed, but come on, man, it's the 21st century.
Don't be the guy who still has a picture of Jessica Simpson circa 2005 in his locker. Be the guy who tossed that picture out when you learned who Adriana Lima was, and then tossed her picture out when you learned who Gina Carano was. See? It's consistent, but evolving.
Many of the methods we're going to discuss play upon the concept of neural engram remodeling, where a well-known pattern with some added variables has to be relearned as if it were a totally new pattern. An example of this would be running on concrete compared to running through sand.
The movement is basically the same – run real fast-like – but in sand, the difference in ground reaction forces applied to the body to propel it forward cause the muscle activity to change, the response time of the stretch-shortening cycle elongates, and the person doing the running wants to puke blood sooner, compared to running on flat, solid concrete.
By introducing just one or two variables to a familiar exercise, you can create a new stimulus out of a movement that's already well practiced, which can prevent you from plateauing and even spark some new progress. Here are 10 suggestions:
1 – Get a (Different) Grip
Grip is something that many people don't seem to like to mess with. They see a bar, they grab the bar, and they start their lift. Most people want their grip and hand position to be as familiar, reliable, and uncomplicated as their daily bowel movement. Any deviation, to either, makes them feel anxious and totally ruins the rest of their day.
The funny thing is, that by altering your grip even slightly, you can make different muscles fire and different fibers within those muscles fire more than you were with your previous grip. Plus, a new hand position means the weight is in a new position, which can alter the leverage being used.
Grasp a dumbbell in the dead center of the handle and the weights are equally distributed on both sides of the hand, requiring little stability from the forearm muscles. But shift your hand position either to the very top, with the thumb against the weights, or to the very bottom, with the pinky against the weights, and you've adjusted the dumbbell's balance and altered the activity of the forearm muscles.
You have even more options with a barbell:
- Hook grip: Grasping the thumb between the index and/or middle fingers and the bar, like making a fist the wrong way.
- False grip: Keeping the thumb on the same side of the bar as the fingers.
- Reverse grip: Supinating both arms, palms up.
- Mixed grip (when applicable): One hand supinated/palm up, the other hand pronated/palm down.
These are all basic and effective variations. In addition, you can change grip width on the barbell from narrow or very narrow to wide or super-wide like a snatch, or even try an off-center grip with one hand slightly closer to the weights than the other.
2 – Base of Support
When, or if, a police officer asks you to walk on the white line heel-to-toe, he's not just being a jerk by pointing out your embarrassing lack of coordination and even more embarrassing propensity to tip a few before heading home. He's also giving you an easy way to make your workouts different.
The base of support can be best described as the square area that makes up the distance between both feet and the distance from the point of one toe to the heel of the other. The bigger your base is, the more stable you are and the more weight you can successfully manipulate.
A square stance, as used in squat patterns, can work the hips more when in a wide stance and with feet slightly externally rotated. When the squat stance is narrower, it requires more work from the ankles and more flexibility through the hips and thoracic spine.
Balance becomes a challenge when you move from a square stance to a narrow split stance, as in most lunge movements, and it becomes even more challenging when you go to a closer heel-to-toe position.
One of the most difficult progressions would be to perform single-leg exercises (single-leg squats or one-leg deadlifts) since you'll obviously have only one foot to provide the base of support. For upper body work, consider the multiple foot positions available for a push-up – feet close together, wide, staggered, or even changing your foot position during the exercise.
3 – Speed of Movement
Rep speed, or tempo, can be one of the easiest variables to manipulate, yet it can produce dramatic differences in what the movement actually does and its level of difficulty. Performing an exercise at a moderate pace, such as one to two seconds for eccentric and concentric contractions, is typically the easiest and safest method, but it's more mind numbing than the "Ben Stein Reads the Dictionary" audiobook.
A faster speed with more explosive movements generates a higher level of force production within the muscle, and allows bigger force outputs to the weights being lifted. So you get to throw around more plates than a dishwasher at Denny's.
A deliberate and super-slow pace, such as a 10-second eccentric and concentric, can make you hate life by increasing the torturous time under tension, limiting the amount of weight you can lift but increasing the level of post-workout muscle soreness, and still end up being very useful for muscle hypertrophy.
4 – Rest Intervals
Honest question: When was the last time you timed your rest intervals? If you're like most people, you can't remember, because it's just not something you do. That's for newbies who don't know any better. You lift when you feel "ready," whatever that means.
But by holding yourself accountable to the clock and starting each set within a specified time, you can actually increase the overall demand on your system while reducing the time you spend in the gym. Not such a bad deal, and all you have to do is glance at a clock every once in a while.
For most programs, the length of rest time will be determined by the relative intensity of the lift being attempted. In most circuit-style workouts, where the relative intensity is roughly 50% or less of the individual's 1-rep max (1RM), the rest time could be under 30 seconds.
For intensities between 60-75% 1RM (generally 10-15 reps per set), a full 60 seconds is usually adequate. For work in the 80-90% 1RM range (around 3-6 reps), 90-120 seconds rest between sets is typically required. Lastly, for true max weight efforts, a solid 3-5 minutes may be needed.
The longer rest periods for higher intensity work are needed to allow for neural recovery, while the shorter rest periods in the lower intensity sets allow for cardiac recovery, which can occur relatively quickly.
The higher the intensity, the more demand on more tissues is present, beginning with cardiac demand (heart rate response), progressing into muscle demand (perfusion of substrate into the working muscles and removal of metabolic byproducts), and finishing with neural demand (ability to generate a synaptic impulse repeatedly and with some power).
5 – Use Dynamic Resistance
Using a form of resistance that changes throughout the movement can make a big difference in the activity. Two examples of this would be using heavy chains or bands when performing free weight movements.
With chains, as you lower the weight, more chain collects on the floor and less weight is applied to the bar. As you lift up, the chain comes off the floor and adds to the weight being lifted. For example, a bench press with 225 and 50 pounds of chain would provide a total weight of 275 at the top of the movement, but only about 230 at the bottom. Bands work on a similar premise – added resistance at the top of the lift, reduced resistance at the bottom.
Another form of dynamic resistance would be to use something with an unstable load, such as sand bags or slosh pipes. The weight shifts while moving and creates an unstable load that requires more work to simply stay vertical and not get crushed while trying to move from point A to point B.
6 – Use Rest-Pause Breaks During Sets
Let's say you're in the middle of a tough set of squats and you're getting close to your work capacity. Instead of racking the weight when you get to the last rep, just stand there with the weight on your shoulders and take a few deep breaths. It won't be fun, but you'll survive. After you catch your wind, knock out another rep or two. Repeat the process until you see your late Aunt Bertha waving at you from the light at the end of the tunnel.
Don't go to the light, just rack the bar and grab some water.
By using a short mid-set break, where you still bear weight but aren't actively going through a range of motion, you reduce the systemic stress on the body for a short time and allow for more oxygen into the working muscles. This can help power you through a couple of extra reps, which will add up in the long run.
7 – Breathing
This is another one of those things that most people don't really spend time thinking about, simply because they either have the pattern ingrained to breathe a certain way or they simply set it up the same way every time.
The mechanics of breathing means we have three distinct regions where we can draw in a breath: the diaphragm, intercostals, and scalene (through the neck). If you're not using all of these areas properly, you don't get enough air, period.
This past summer, I was working with an elite marathon runner who had some pretty messed up breathing patterns. She was only shrugging her shoulders to breath (scalene) and getting just a little bit through her intercostals. As a result, she was essentially only using about two-thirds of her lung capacity:
After a few sessions going through some breathing mechanics retraining and postural work, we were able to get her using more of her intercostals and some of her diaphragm, as well:
Coincidentally enough, when we first started training, she complained of cramping around her left shoulder, close to her neck, which is where her scalene were overworking and fighting back.
When people get "side stitches" when working in a really anaerobic state, their diaphragm is often doing the same thing due to the intercostals and scalenes not doing their job. By balancing her breathing out, she managed to shave eight minutes off her personal best marathon time without altering her run mechanics or training program.
8 – Exercise Order
One day I had the great idea of switching around my bench workout order so that I'd finish with bench press after doing six other exercises. Needless to say, it didn't go well. Getting totally pinned with just one 45 on each side of the bar, and having some old guy in knee-high grey socks and disturbingly short-shorts help me out while telling me, "I shouldn't lift so much without a spotter," was definitely a highlight moment in my lifting career.
If you're used to doing exercises in the same order, switch it around, but maybe not to the extreme of doing the biggest exercises dead last. If your training exercises were usually 1,2,3,4,5,6, something like 3,2,6,1,5,4 would be enough variety to get some benefits without totally sacrificing the weight on any exercises.
By altering the order, when you would previously be tired on certain exercises, you'd now be fresh and conceivably move more weight. Similarly, by moving an exercise later, you'll be more fatigued which means the same movement will require more work at the same weight.
9 – Add Weight
Yep. Go heavier. Shocker there, huh?
But really, add some weight to the bar and lift it like it'll squash your dog if you don't. Keep technique in mind, absolutely, but if you happen to lose a textbook-perfect neutral spine for a split-second because you're pulling significantly more than you've ever pulled, it's okay.
Top powerlifters will tell you that when it comes to setting a PR, technique will tend to go out the window to pull more. Don't be afraid of the weight, make the weight afraid of you.
10 – Change Your Set and Rep Scheme
If you've been using the same 4x10 or 5x5 scheme, it's time to change it up. Do some higher rep marathon sets or low rep power sets. Choose one exercise and work up to a heavy, confident single, and then bang out 10 sets of fast doubles for others.
Get back to pyramiding (increasing weight and dropping reps every set) or include dropsets, staggered sets, supersets, or any variation of the theme. By switching the set and rep scheme, you change what the end-focus of the workout will be, whether it's strength, power, hypertrophy, or endurance. Occasionally, it's good to do different, even if it might seem contrary to your current goals.
If you consider that with each of these 10 methods of altering an exercise, if there were only three variations that would possibly occur, that makes 59,049 possible ways of altering each individual exercise.
If each method had four options, it would mean 1,048,576 possible ways of changing an exercise. This would conceivably mean that you could apply these changes to the same exercise everyday for the next 2,870 years and never repeat the same exact design.
So, you officially have zero excuses to be doing the same workout next week that you did this week. Play around with different variables and try to get some crazy inconsistency for each exercise in your workouts.