There comes a time in any program when the exercises become too easy. Time to load the bar up with more weight right? Likely not. The most popular and obvious progression to increase the difficulty of any exercise is to add weight, but chances are, it isn’t always appropriate.
Certain exercises like squats create a vertical compressive force on the spine. In that case, adding more plates may not always be the right choice. Beginners, for one, build strength extremely fast. Within the first few months, a new lifter may be able to add 30-40 pounds to their main lifts. Considering their skeletal and muscular systems are still adapting to lifting, constantly adding on pounds could potentially lead to injury. Advanced lifters also fall into the mindset of adding more weight to get stronger. At a certain point, sliding on more plates may do more harm than good. To prevent plateauing and encourage progress, lifters should tweak exercises every few weeks. Dan Trink, director of training operations at Peak Performance, modifies exercises frequently with his clients. “As a general rule of thumb I change exercises every 3 to 5 weeks. This gives the trainee enough exposure to progress in the exercise and learn the motor patterns but is short enough to avoid potential plateaus in developing strength.”
There are a lot of additional exercise varieties that can increase the difficulty of an exercise without focusing on extra poundage. Some focus on tempo whereas others provide a slight variation in exercise depth, speed, or direction. Trink uses a variety of progressions in his programs including “pauses in disadvantageous positions, altering tempo and total time under tension.” To help you advance your current program, we’ve provided our favorite methods to amp up your routine. Rather than solely focus on weight, add these variations to your workouts to increase strength levels and prevent plateaus.
The Exercise: Bench Press
Amped Up Variations:
The floor press adds an explosive dimension to this upper body favorite. Lifters lie on the floor and perform the same motion as a traditional bench. By decreasing the depth of the exercise (since your elbows will hit the floor before the bar gets to your chest), the floor press limits range of motion, emphasizing the top portion of the lift. To get the most out of the floor press, utilize a slight pause when your elbows come into contact with the ground. Then, focus on exploding up through the top of the motion. This will increase power production and help you lift more weight when you return to the bench.
Band-resisted Bench Press
Bands have the ability to add a different dimension to your favorite lifts. Since they stretch as you move throughout the exercise, they effectively add load as you get near the lockout portion. To start, load bands on each side of the bar and attach them to a firm foundation on the ground. The bands should be taut when the bar is racked. Utilizing a spotter, perform the bench press motion as usual. As the bar approaches your chest, the tension in the band will decrease lowering the difficulty at the hardest portion of the exercise. As you approach the lockout position, the band will stretch and increase the load on the bar as you get stronger throughout the movement. By increasing the difficulty near the top of the motion, bands offer the ability to challenge your chest while also reducing the chance of a shoulder injury at the bottom of the exercise.
The Exercise: Back Squat
Amped Up Variations:
Box squats separate the lowering and lifting phases of the lift disrupting the body’s ability to utilize stored elastic energy to help drive lifters out of the hole. This increases the difficulty of the exercise and builds explosive power. Set up a box that allows you to squat down just below parallel. Perform the back squat as normal, but pause for 1-2 seconds on the box. Avoid losing tension in your midsection as this will increase your chance of injury. Explode up from the box back to the standing position.
Volume and shortened rest periods are two main factors that can increase the difficulty of an exercise without more plates on each side. Rest-pause squats utilize both of these methods in one killer exercise. By limiting rest periods to 30 seconds, your muscles don’t have time to fully recover. This increases the volume of your program and adds a big stimulus for growth. To start, load the bar with a weight that you could complete 10-12 times for a single set. Perform 5-8 repetitions. Rack the bar for 30 seconds, then un-rack for another set. Aim for 3-4 sets resting only 30 seconds between each set.
The Exercise: Deadlift
Amped Up Variations:
For many lifters, the grip can be the most difficult part of a heavy deadlift. The snatch grip deadlift adds an extra challenge to the forearms and also the lower body by increasing the depth of the exercise. Begin with the bar resting on the ground. With your arms about two-times shoulder width apart (should be pretty wide), grab the bar with an overhand grip. Proceed through the lift as usual. The enhanced grip strain and distance to the ground should provide an increased challenge.
The deficit deadlift utilizes distance as a key player in increasing exercise difficulty. An increased depth challenges your flexibility and strength levels in your low back, hamstrings, and glutes. There are two options for performing this lift. Lifters can either stand on a raised platform that still provides a firm foundation (think an inch to an inch and a half to start) or use weight plates that have a smaller diameter than a typical 45-pound plate. For the former variation, weight plates can provide a good foundation in most instances. For the latter, utilizing 35 pound plates typically provides a good starting depth. Perform the lift as usual making sure to pull your chest up on every rep as the increased depth will attempt to pull your torso forward.
The Exercise: Overhead Press
Amped Up Variations:
With heavy loading, the traditional overhead press increases shear force at the shoulder joint. This may not be the best for lifters predisposed to shoulder pain. The push press utilizes the combination of upper and lower body power to load up the vertical press motion while reducing stress on the shoulder at the bottom portion of the lift. Start with the bar racked on the shoulders as normal. Dip slightly at the knees and hips to lower down into a power position. Explode up quickly out of the dip and drive the bar overhead. The addition of the lower body should allow you to lift more weight, hence increasing strength, while also emphasizing power and coordination.
Chain Shoulder Press
Chains work in a similar fashion as bands, increasing the difficulty of an exercise as you near the lockout portion. At the bottom of the movement, the majority of the chain should be resting on the ground. As you start lifting the bar, the chain will raise up off the ground and add weight to the bar. Therefore, the weight increases as you get towards the strong point of the lift - the lockout position. Add a decently heavy chain on each side of the bar. Perform the first few reps with no additional weight as the chains can produce a different feel and be slightly unstable. Once you get used to the feel of having chains on the bar, add weight to the bar to increase the challenge.
The Exercise: Pull-up
Amped Up Variations:
Pull-up Changing Grips
For many guys, the grip element is one of the most challenging portions of the pull-up. Rather than performing more reps, challenge your grip even further by changing it every rep. This gives you the ability to also hit different pull-up variations throughout your set. Start with your hands about shoulder-width apart and perform a pull-up as usual. At the bottom of the lift, flip your right hand to an underhand grip. Perform another rep. Then switch your left hand to an underhand grip so you are in a chin-up position. Continue changing grips throughout your set.
Traditionally, pull-ups are loaded around the waist with a belt and chain to attach additional plates. This foot-loaded variation increases the difficulty of the exercise by increasing core recruitment and forcing you to maintain full-body tension - an important component to maxing out on this pulling exercise. To start, place a kettlebell or dumbbell directly underneath the pull-up bar. Set your grip and then either slide the toe of one of your feet inside the handle of the kettlebell or use both feet to clamp down on the dumbbell. Begin performing the lift being sure to brace your abdominals and keep your legs locked out slightly in front of your body the entire time.