Shock Your System!

7 Smart Ways To Shake Up Your Training

The Question

Even the best training programs can stall out and get boring. And if you're mentally checked out, it's definitely time to "shock" the system. What's your favorite way to do it?

Do less, not more.

When bodybuilders lose motivation they often try to make up for it with training volume. For example, they know their intensity is waning so they just do more sets. Ultimately this approach is counterproductive, leaving them feeling unmotivated and overtrained.

So I try to go the opposite direction and reduce volume by using "challenge sets." Rather than doing 3-4 sets of an exercise, I'll do a couple warm-up sets and then do a single challenge set with a moderate-to-heavy weight.

This isn't designed to be a set of 4-6 reps to failure though; use a weight you can normally get a solid set of 10 reps with.

On the challenge set you mentally know you only have ONE shot to get as many reps as possible, so you go balls-out and often get more reps than expected. When the set is done you move on to the next exercise.

The next week come back and try to increase your reps on the same exercise with the same weight. This is particularly useful for people accustomed to training in the 3-plus set range per exercise. Doing a single challenge set shocks the system. - Mark Dugdale

Training hard is more important than following a plan. And if you're losing motivation, it'll be more difficult to train hard.

Someone who trains brutally hard with laser-like focus on a very basic plan will get better results than someone who trains at 80% on the best plan designed by man.

The key to training hard is motivation. And the foundation of motivation is looking forward to doing what you have to do. If you start to get bored with your training, there's a good chance that your motivation will fade and your training intensity will erode gradually, without you even noticing it.

What can you do when you're losing training motivation? I have three solutions:

1 Do the opposite

Look at how you were training, and for a week or two do the opposite in as many ways as possible.

Were you doing low reps? Do high reps. You were using a fast tempo? Use a slow tempo. Was lifting more weight your goal? Try focusing on maximizing the mind-muscle connection. Long rest intervals? Go with a faster training pace, either with shorter rest periods or by doing supersets or giant sets. Are you doing many sets of few exercises? Go with fewer sets of more exercises. Whole body training? Go to a body part split.

You get the idea. That change will either rekindle your training motivation by making you enjoy the gym again, or it will make you yearn for the training you were doing.

2 Read and get excited

Read a lot of training articles or books by people you respect and look for the one training program/methodology that gets you excited.

Choose the plan that makes you go, "Hmm, that looks really cool!" Oddly enough, don't go with the program that sounds the smartest or the most based in science – go with the one that gets you amped up. Even if that program doesn't address your immediate goal directly, it doesn't matter. It's better to train hard even if it's not 100% what you need. Train like a wuss and you'll lose even more motivation.

3 Do a week of neural charge training

I've written about neural charge training and how it improves CNS recovery and working state.

Often, a loss in motivation can be the result of a fatigued CNS. So replace a normal training week with 3-4 neural charge sessions. If your problem was a nervous system issue, I guarantee that before the week is over you'll have a hard time containing yourself and you'll want to hit the weights hard again. – Christian Thibaudeau


Use variety or set new goals.

There are endless possibilities when it comes to variety, but many people won't utilize their options because they get stuck in their ways. When you start to plateau or feel unmotivated by a lifting program, use the internet to find other programs that are different yet also serve to get you closer to your goal.

Regularly set new goals and actively train for them: Spartan races, local mini-competitions, challenges with fellow athletes, etc. Taking classes is another way to hold yourself accountable and give the reigns to another trusted expert. Whether or not class-based training is right for you, you can immerse yourself in NEW and different programs easily if you're willing to do your research. – Mariah Heller

Stop saying you want to get "bigger and stronger" – it's a nebulous goal that's probably not working for you.

If you walk into the gym most days and you're thinking about what to watch during dinner instead of focusing on the lifting that's about to happen, you need to refocus with some serious changes ASAP.

Grab a calendar, count out 12 weeks from today, and put a giant X on the spot. You now have just 84 days to reach your goal (we'll get to "what goal" in a sec). The consequences of missing the deadline? You end up letting yourself down. If the idea of that doesn't sting just a bit, your ego is way too big. Get a grip, buddy, nobody's that awesome.

Setting the timeline is a fundamental part of basic goal-setting, but the stumbling block most people trip over is that they never actually set goals, they just meander towards general ideas. The problem with chasing vague, unreachable things is that, eventually, the chase doesn't seem worth it, so you lose interest and fizzle out.

So, yeah, about the goal. Ask any guy in the gym what they're training for and it's a safe bet you'll hear, "I wanna build size and strength." Do 'ya? Do 'ya really? Lemme guess, you also study "words" in school and had "food" for breakfast.

Specifics matter. And since we've already started to narrow the focus with a strict 12-week timeframe, the next step is choosing one of three things. You can lose fat, you can add size, or you can build strength. Pick one. Only one.

With 12 weeks of dialed-in training and nutrition, you can get abs (for the first time in who knows when) or you can put on about 10-15 pounds of decent scale weight (not all lean muscle, but definitely not all jiggly bits) or you can increase a lift by a significant amount (maybe a plate a side if you're more of a beginner).

After you've picked the single goal, narrow the focus even more to have a better idea where you're headed. Are you carrying 30 pounds of gut over that hidden six-pack? Do you want to put on 15 pounds and finally weigh in at a solid 190? Has your overhead press been stuck at 155 for months?

Last step is choosing the right approach and then sticking to it. Hundreds of training routines and just as many nutrition plans mean you just have to grab the right goal-focused program and follow along.

This will almost-definitely require stepping outside your comfort zone instead of doing the kind of diet and training you've gotten overly comfortable with, but that's where the results are. Crack down and do the hard work for a few months, and your mind and body will benefit from the challenge. – Chris Colucci

Strongman Training

Introduce a strongman training phase. Move away from the bars, racks, and platforms and use various implements like tires, stones, sandbags, and kegs.

The abnormality of these is the reason this type of training is perfect for mainstream athletes and hardcore lifters. The beauty of strongman training? Things won't always go according to plan. The tire doesn't always flip over the same way. The sled doesn't always glide easily over the surface. The implements you hold for farmers walks don't remain stationary as you zigzag through your course.

The awkwardness of these exercises is what builds true functional strength. They strengthen muscles that are nearly impossible to strengthen with traditional weight training. Their unpredictability will help you develop a new level of mental strength too.

There are many strongman exercises to choose from and they all work. Here are my favorites:

Tire Flips

There's not a strength athlete who wouldn't benefit from this classic strongman event. It's easier to obtain an old tire than most people think, and you can't beat the price: they're free!

Farmer's Walk

The farmer's walk improves muscular endurance, anaerobic capacity, grip strength, and your upper back, trap and oblique strength. It's also great for building hip, knee, and ankle stability. You can carry any awkward object or just use the heaviest pair of plates or dumbbells you can find.

Atlas Stone Training

It's hard to argue with the strength and power that training with the atlas stones can provide. Lifting the atlas stone fully taxes the body in a way many other multi-joint movements can't match.

Backward Heavy Sled Drag

Reverse sled drags are great because they allow you to blast your quads in a knee-friendly way. When you really break it down, each step of a reverse drag mimics terminal knee extension (TKE), a popular knee rehab movement. This makes it great for people trying to strengthen and put mass back on their quads after a knee injury. And it's great if you just need a break from more stressful knee-dominant exercises.

Overhead Keg Toss

The keg toss will improve explosive hip extension and posterior chain strength.

There's something primal about this type of training. Athletes thrive and get reenergized in attempting to pick up, carry, and move strange objects that vary in size and awkwardness. There's also huge transfer from the strongman training to the weight room, and it'll benefit your main lifts. – Michael Warren

Ditch the heavy stuff... and most weights in general.

Weight training can become repetitive if you've been at it for a long stretch. Truthfully, if you've gotten stuck in a redundant plateau, chances are you've been consistent at the gym and have built strength and muscle over the year. This is what often happens in order to plateau in the first place.

That said, taking a phase of training to refine your bodyweight and light-weight training skills can be a humbling experience that's an equally surprising kick-start for fresh gains.

If you've mentally checked out, your nervous system is taking the worst of it. That's often a major reason people stop seeing gains or feel like zombies at the gym. Putting solid emphasis on your mobility and conditioning with fewer implements can serve your body well and still provide a massive challenge. As an example of a total body workout, try this:

  • A1. Chin-ups for max reps
  • A2. Tiger sit-outs, do 6 reps per side

Do 5 rounds. Rest 90 seconds between rounds.

  • B1. Goblet Squat: 12 reps
  • B2. Wall Mountain Climber: 30 seconds straight
  • B3. Hamstring 2 and 1 Swiss Ball Curl

Do 4 Rounds. Rest 90 seconds between rounds.

  • C1. Push-ups: Max reps (feet elevated, close grip, hands on BOSU)
  • C2. Inverted Row: Max reps

Do 3 rounds. Rest 90 seconds between rounds.

You may not be doing the most fancy-schmancy scientifically cutting-edge methods for gains, but you'll be cleaning your slate while getting one hell of a workout at the same time. And you probably suck at half of the moves on this list. All the more reason to work on them. Lee Boyce

Change your focus.

Most of the guys I work with are primarily focused on physique rather than strength goals. So we often end up progressing training volume higher and higher over time. Eventually, training in this manner gets a bit stale. When a client starts to find their training dull, it's time to switch things up to reignite their passion and progress.

There are two main ways I do this. The one you choose should depend on your goal and current condition:

  1. Pure strength work
  2. Modified strongman circuits

If a client has stayed relatively lean throughout a mass gain phase and the medium-term goal is adding more muscle, my preference is strength work.

At the end of their bulk they'll have generally been using higher reps (12-plus) and/or intensifiers like drop sets, super sets, etc. Doing the exact opposite is a nice change of pace and sets them up perfectly for another mass-building block of training.

By training for strength in the 1-5 rep range they get a shift of focus. Many times, change is as good as a rest and this new stimulus reinvigorates them. It also allows them to chase some performance goals. Hitting new 3 or 5-rep maxes for squats, presses, and deadlifts for example.

Having built a lot of muscle during their bulk, this phase now provides them with a capacity to showcase that new horsepower. Hitting a PR is always a boost for confidence and provides added motivation.

The other benefit of this lower-volume strength phase is that they're now "re-sensitized" to the benefits of higher volume training. They have also gained strength so they can handle more weight for more reps. Consequently, when we transition back towards more traditional bodybuilding training they get superior results.

The second option (strongman circuits) is fantastic if you've gained a little bit too much body fat during a bulk. This happens to the best of us from time to time. Generally, it creeps up on you. You feel like you're looking good, full and pumped, then bam, you wake up one day chubby.

Obviously, this didn't happen overnight, but our minds can play tricks on us. If you end up a little fluffy then shifting it rapidly is a good psychological boost. Dropping a few pounds of body fat quickly can get you back to looking like someone who lifts rather than someone who's seen a few too many all-you-can-eat buffets.

In this case, train in a manner which promotes muscle retention and is also energy intensive. A mini-cut in the 2-6 week range is probably all that's required to lose some fat and get you back in a position to build muscle effectively. If getting lean quickly is the goal, then using modified strongman training is my favorite.

Pressing logs, flipping tires, dragging sleds, and carrying heavy weights are all fun and challenging. The training is different enough from standard gym work to create a novelty factor. This novelty brings a burst of motivation. It's also incredibly effective. Not only will you retain muscle, but you'll improve your conditioning and drop fat fast.

Set up a strongman "death circuit" as follows:

  • A1. Farmers Walk: 4 x 30 meters
  • A2. Log Push Press: 4 x 6-8
  • A3. Hand-Over-Hand Sled Pull: 4 x 20 meters
  • A4. Backward Sled Drag: 4 x 30 meters

Tom MacCormick