Here's what you need to know...
• There are times when a challenge-type workout is what you need, such as when you're feeling beat up, bored, or pressed for time.
• Anyone can lump a bunch of exercises together, but there should always be a method to the madness. Tough but doable is key.
My training is centered on getting stronger at the basics, but that doesn't mean I don't love a good workout challenge. Sometimes it's fun to ditch a program for a day and push myself with something new. Other times, I'm in a rush and can't perform my full routine as planned, so I need to call an audible and still have an awesome, fast workout.
Do any of three scenarios resonate with you? If so, these challenges could be just what you're looking for.
These workouts aren't just haphazardly thrown together at random like a lot of the programs you see circulating out there. There should always be a method to the madness even when you're going off the reservation – the workouts need to make sense, and these do.
1. The Chin-up/Pushup Countdown Challenge
This is a good one to do when you're looking to blast your upper body in a hurry. It's also a good workout for when you're on the road and don't have access to a well-equipped gym because all you need is a chin-up bar.
The following are all done in succession with no rest between exercises.
You don't have to rush between exercises but there's no dedicated rest periods, so go as soon as you're ready.
In total, it comes out to 30 chin-ups and 60 push-ups. It might not seem that tough on paper, but trust me, it's rough. And can you say "upper body pump"?
All chin-ups are to be done with good form: full range of motion, chin over the bar, no kipping, etc. If you use a little kick towards the end it's not the end of the world, but it shouldn't look like you're having a seizure on the bar. Use whichever grip you like best.
Push-ups are to be done with good form, too: no sagging the hips and you must go all the way down until your chest touches the floor and then come all the way back up.
The first step is just to try to complete the whole thing unbroken without having to stop mid-set on the chin-ups or push-ups. I don't like the idea of trying to improve your time because that usually leads to sloppy form, especially with the chin-ups. Fast chin-ups are typically ugly chin-ups. Instead, add a little bit of weight. Adding weight is always the best form of progression.
Here's me struggling through it with a 30-pound weighted vest:
If this workout is too much for you at first, you can start at 8 chin-ups and work down, which comes out to 20 chin-ups and 40 push-ups, a much more manageable task. Or start wherever you're able – just make sure to do twice as many push-ups as chin-ups.
If chin-ups ain't happening, you can substitute inverted rows. If the push-ups are too easy, elevate your feet.
2. 50-Rep Leg Complex (aka. Leg Hell)
Here's a "fun" challenge for the lower body. Using a front squat grip, do the following without putting the bar down:
5 Skater Squats per leg
10 Reverse Lunges per leg
20 Front Squats
It comes out to 50 reps in all, and even though the weights won't be anywhere near your maxes, it'll take everything you've got to finish. If you need to take breaks throughout the set – and you probably will at first – just put the bar down, rest as needed, and clean it back up into position.
Start with a weight that you can handle for the skater squats, as that's the hardest exercise of the group. The goal at first is to complete the whole set unbroken, after which you'll start to increase the weight.
If 50 reps is out of the question at first, scale it back to 5 skater squats per leg, 5 reverse lunges per leg, and 10 front squats for a total of 30 reps and build up from there. Also, if front loaded skater squats are too tough, you can do them with just bodyweight and then pick up the barbell for the reverse lunges and the front squats.
Here's Kevin Anderson cruising through the challenge like it's nothing. He makes it look easy, but trust me, it's no joke:
3. Overhead Press/Front Squat Combo Challenge
The overhead press and front squats make a great pairing for a full-body workout that I came across by accident (and laziness).
In an effort to increase my weekly volume for my legs, I started doing light front squats on upper body days after overhead pressing. I'd like to say I had a well thought-out rationale for doing it, but the truth is that the bar was already set up at the right height in the rack to front squat so I figured it would save me the hassle of setting up for two separate exercises.
Whatever I did for overhead press, I'd just match it with front squats in between sets. So let's say I was doing 5 sets of 5 reps of overhead press. I'd just do 5 sets of 5 front squats in between sets with the same weight.
That's a great way to increase your overall squat volume and work on technique without crushing yourself, but it doesn't provide much of a challenge for the legs because you can front squat a lot more than you can overhead press – or at least you should be able to.
To make both exercises challenging and get a good total body training effect, do a challenging set of overhead presses, then use the same weight and do twice as many front squats. So if you do 10 presses, you'd do 20 front squats, like so:
For the actual workout, you can do one of two things:
1. Start with 10 presses and 20 front squats and do a countdown just like the chin-up/push-up countdown.
2. Do 4-6 rounds of the pairing with a set weight, resting as long as needed between rounds. I like this workout better as it allows for heavier weights to be used.
It's important to note here that I'm not talking about thrusters – this isn't a combo exercise where you do both exercises at once, but rather a pairing where you do all the reps of one exercise with good form and a full range of motion before moving on to the next exercise.
I don't like thrusters because if the weight is light enough to press overhead, it isn't doing much for your legs. Also, you rarely see them done well, so it turns into a bunch of half-assed presses combined with half-assed quarter squats.
Thrusters are okay if you're just looking to jack your heart rate up, but a hard set of overhead presses with heavy weight and good form followed by a hard set of front squats with a full range of motion will jack your heart rate up even more, build more muscle, and be a whole lot safer.
4. Front Squat/Inverted Row Countdown Challenge
This is similar to the chin-up/push-up countdown challenge, only here you're doing the same number of reps for each exercise.
Start with 10 front squats, then 10 inverted rows. Then 8 front squats, then 8 inverted rows, then 6 front squats, then 6 inverted rows, then 4 front squats, then 4 inverted rows, then 2 front squats, then 2 inverted rows. It comes out to 30 reps of each.
Here's what it looks like in action.
This allows you to use heavier weight on the front squats than in the previous challenge since you aren't doing such high reps in a single set. You can also increase the upper body challenge here by substituting chin-ups for inverted rows, but that changes the challenge from rough to downright hellacious.