8 Ways to Progress Your Exercises
Are you making the mistake of not progressing your exercise routine? If so, you’re not alone. Failing to progress the exercises that are performed in a program is quite common, and it is one of the biggest reasons why people don’t make the progress they hope to when performing an exercise program.
Today I provide 8 different ways to continually progress your exercises, allowing you to continually move towards your exercise goals. Enjoy!
You may have heard of the term “muscle confusion.” This is the popular concept that your muscles get used to an exercise routine, and you need to “confuse” them by performing new exercises to continue to challenge them.
This is a nice idea, but the problem is that people often take this to mean that they need to perform 62 different exercises each week so that they always keep their muscles guessing. Unfortunately this doesn’t lead to progress, as the only thing your muscles are confused about is what you’re training them to do.
You can perform 62 different exercises, but if you don’t have a clear training goal in mind, and you don’t gradually progress the challenge of the exercises you’re performing, then you are not going to see progress.
After all, the goal of training your body is to provide a challenge to your body that it has to adapt to, and then to increase that challenge at the appropriate time, and in the appropriate manner.
In order to do this you must understand exercise progressions. Rather than constantly changing the exercises you perform, you can increase the challenge by adding any number of progressions to the exercise you are performing.
The opposite end of the spectrum from those who think they should perform tons of different exercises to challenge their muscles, are those who think that they only need to perform three exercises while continually adding weight to increase the challenge. While this may be OK if you’re a powerlifter, it is not the only way to progress an exercise, and many people would be better off trying different means of progressing.
So, in order to help you continually progress towards your training goals, today I am providing you with 8 different ways that you can progress your exercise routine. These progressions will allow you to continually add challenge to your workout and avoid plateaus in your training.
8 Ways to Progress Your Exercises
Increase the resistance
While this is not the only means of progression, adding resistance to an exercise is still one of the best ways to progressively increase the challenge of an exercise and force your body to get stronger.
In fact, if your goal is simply to get as strong as possible, then the best way to do that is to learn how to properly squat, bench press, and deadlift, and gradually increase the amount of weight that you put on the bar.
Likewise, this method of progression can be used in any exercise by holding weights in your hands, using resistance bands, wearing ankle weights, etc. The idea is simple and straightforward: increase the amount of weight that you are forcing your muscles to work against and they will get stronger.
Increase the volume
Another option that is often used in conjunction with increasing the resistance, is to gradually increase the number of times you perform the exercise, or the volume of exercise. There are many different ways to do this, depending on the exercise being performed, but the bottom line is that by gradually increasing how many repetitions you perform, you will gradually become stronger.
This is an excellent means for progressing an exercise, but keep in mind that you usually don’t want to progress to 100 repetitions of each exercise. While it depends upon your specific goals, for the most part if you can perform 30-40 repetitions of an exercise at a given resistance, with proper form, then you are ready to progress the resistance or another variable to increase the challenge.
Increase the speed of the exercise
Increasing the speed at which you perform a movement is a great to not only increase the athleticism involved in the exercise, but also to promote power production. Producing power is not only important for sports, it is important for everyone to be able to move their bodies quickly either to produce force or to resist force (such as when you are knocked off balance and need to prevent yourself from falling).
In addition to increasing power production and building athletic qualities, increasing the speed of an exercise usually increases the metabolic output. In other words, you are going to sweat more, burn more calories, and get a better workout. Who doesn’t want that?
As with any progression, though, you must build up to the point at which you are ready to increase the speed of an exercise and make it more powerful. It is important not to sacrifice proper form in order to perform an exercise faster. Moving fast with poor technique often leads to injury.
Decrease the speed of the exercise
Wait a second, didn’t I just say that increasing the speed of an exercise is a way to progress, and now I’m saying you can also progress by decreasing the speed of an exercise? That’s right!
Many times people rush through exercises or try to move faster and faster, but doing this can cause you to lose the benefit of spending more time under tension.
Time under tension is used to refer to the amount of time your muscles spend working during an exercise. For example, if you are performing a squat and you move down and up in 2 seconds, your time under tension is 2 seconds. You can increase the challenge of the exercise simply by spending 3, 4, 5, or more seconds under tension.
Time under tension is thought to be one of the key factors in producing muscular qualities like strength, and especially hypertrophy (i.e. muscle growth). So if your main goal is to become as strong as possible and get bigger muscles, then slowing down your exercise, or even pausing in the middle of an exercise (at the bottom of a squat or push-up, for example) can go a long way in helping you to reach this goal. Not to mention it makes the exercise extremely hard to do, so yes, slowing down an exercise can definitely be a progression.
Decrease the time spent resting between sets
Do you spend a long time resting between each set? Or worse yet, do you spend time texting between each set?? If so, a simple progression is to decrease the amount of rest between each set of exercises. A simple way to do this is to use a timer, and knock the amount of rest between sets down from 60-90 seconds to 30-45 seconds or less.
This is an excellent way to increase your metabolic output, burn more calories, increase your heart rate, and increase the efficiency of your workout. Basically what you are doing is not allowing your muscles to fully recover after each set, and not allowing your heart rate to drop. Consequently you can pack some cardio training right into your strength training!
Granted if your goal is to lift maximal or near maximal weights, then this may not be appropriate. When going for heavy lifts, you want to allow full or close to full muscle recovery between sets. Otherwise, your performance will be reduced and you won’t be able to lift as much.
But if your goal is to simply burn calories, get a great workout, and be efficient, then try decreasing the amount of time spent between sets. Again, make sure that your form doesn’t break down as fatigue builds up throughout the workout!
Decrease the stability/base of support
This is a progression that everyone wants to jump into right off the bat because it often looks cool. Whether it’s precariously balancing on one leg, standing on a BOSU ball, or using a slide board while performing an exercise, these options are usually not best to start off with until you have built up plenty of strength, balance, and exercise experience.
Once you have built up strength and exercise experience, and have worked your way through at least some of the other progressions listed above, then you can think about changing your base of support and decreasing your stability to increase the challenge.
Depending on the exercise, there are several ways to do this. When performing a squat, you can increase the challenge by splitting your stance and performing a lunge, or you can put the rear-foot on a bench or box and perform a Bulgarian split squat.
If you are performing a push-up, you can increase the challenge by lifting one leg off the ground (probably not a good idea to start by lifting one hand off the ground for a single arm push-up…), elevating the feet onto a bench, or even using an unstable surface under the hands such as a BOSU ball or slide board.
Whichever way you choose to challenge your base of support, make sure that the progression is not too much to handle. You should still be able to perform a set of the exercise with proper form, and without the risk of rolling an ankle or falling over! If you cannot do this, regress the exercise to something that you can handle.
Increase the range of motion of the exercise
Increasing how far you move during an exercise can increase the challenge by forcing your muscles to work at angles they may not be used to. An example of this is performing a step-up exercise in which you raise the step an inch or two higher than before. Now you start from a greater angle of hip flexion, and the muscles of your thigh and hip have to move you over a greater distance.
There are many ways to increase range of motion, whether it’s dropping lower into a squat, performing a reverse lunge off of a step rather than flat ground, or moving from a regular lunge into a Bulgarian split squat with the rear foot on a bench. The important thing to consider is if you can move all the way through the range of motion without pain while maintaining proper form.
The benefit of doing this is that it not only makes the exercise more challenging, but it also builds active mobility into your workout. Many times people spend exorbitant amounts of time laying down performing passive stretches, but they fail to use their full range of motion when they get up to perform other exercises.
If you think about it, stretching really doesn’t do much for you if you are never able to use those ranges of motion in real life when you get up off the ground and start moving around. Instead, practice moving through increased ranges during your exercises and this will translate to improved mobility throughout.
Move to a more challenging progression of an exercise
Finally, after trying most or all of the above progressions, and owning the exercise you started out on, it is time to progress to a more challenging version of that exercise. When I think about specific exercises, I almost always think about them on a continuum of progressions or regressions of a certain movement pattern.
What I mean by this is that I don’t see a squat and a step-up as two totally distinct exercises. Rather, I see the lunge as a progression on the squat because it takes a bilateral exercise and turns it into a split-stance exercise while still using many of the same muscles and the same basic movement of extending the knee and hip.
With that in mind, you can challenge yourself by moving from an exercise that starts from a stable base, on two legs, with a controlled range of motion, and move to a similar movement that is performed on one leg, with a larger range of motion, and is less stable.
As you can see, then, exercising isn’t just about throwing a bunch of random exercises together into a workout. Rather, it’s about managing your exercise progressions and regressions, and making sure you are working at a level that is a match for what you are ready to do.
So, before you start trying 62 different exercises because you want more variety in your life, make sure to give these exercise progressions a try. The goal is to continually progress your strength and movement ability, not just to try new stuff. Regularly progressing your exercises is a great way to progressively increase strength and movement.
One word of caution before I turn you loose, however. When you progress your exercise, only change one variable at a time. In other words, don’t add repetitions, weight, and speed to the exercise all at once. Progress one variable, get good at that, and then progress another variable.