If you’re feeling stuck doing the same strength exercises day after day, week after week, it’s time to kick your workout — and your results — up a notch.
“The body adapts to the loads and stress placed upon it,” says Boston-based strength coach Tony Gentilcore, CSCS. Also known as the overload principle, this means your muscles will only continue to adapt and grow when you continue to challenge them — aka add more reps or sets, take shorter rest breaks or amp up the weight.
Another surefire way to keep your muscles guessing and add some spice to your routine: tweak the exercises themselves. Luckily, there are easy ways to take common strength exercises — like back squats, chest presses and bent-over rows — to the next level of training. After all, once you’ve nailed down your technique on the basics, it only makes sense to make them more advanced, Gentilcore says. Here’s how.
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6 Ways to Step Up Basic Strength Exercises
1. Instead of: Chest Presses
Try: Squeeze Presses
According to Gentilcore, squeezing a pair of dumbbells together while performing the chest press will increase your time under tension, giving your pecs and shoulders a boost.
How to: Lie on a bench, back flat against it, arms bent, and dumbbells held at chest height, palms facing away from your face (a). Actively press the ends of the dumbbells together (b). Continue squeezing the ends together as you press the dumbbells straight up over your chest (c). Then, lower the weights with control until your elbows dip just below the height of the bench (d). Push them back up to start, continuing to squeeze the ends of the dumbbells together throughout the entire movement.
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2. Instead of: Back Squats
Try: Back Squats with Pause
Taking a prolonged pause at the bottom of the back squat means your glutes, quad, and core will have to work overtime to keep you upright while supporting the weight. Be sure to maintain tension in the bottom position. “Don’t relax,” Gentilcore says.
How to: With a barbell positioned across your upper back, initiate the squat by pushing your butt back and bending at the knees to lower down toward the floor (a). Maintain tension as you pause in the bottom position for two to five seconds (b). Drive through your heels to push back to stand (c). Keep your torso upright and knees in line with your toes throughout the movement.
3. Instead of: Lunges
Try: Forward-to-Reverse Lunges
This two-in-one lunge variation packs more work into every rep. It’ll also test your balance and coordination as you switch from one position to the next, all standing on one leg. As an added bonus, this extra work burns more calories than doing either lunge variation on its own, Gentilcore says.
How to: Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Take one large step forward with one foot and lower your hips toward the ground with control (a). Return to standing by driving through the heel of your front foot (b). Once standing, take one large step behind you with the same foot. Sink into your hips as you lower toward the floor (c). Then, driving through the heel of your front foot, stand back up (d). Complete all repetitions on one side before switching legs.
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4. Instead of: Shoulder Presses
To make your shoulder presses more challenging, take them to the floor. According to Gentilcore, doing these seated means you won’t be able to use your hips to help press the weight overhead.
How to: Grab a pair of dumbbells or set up a barbell low enough that you can press it overhead while seated on the floor (a). Begin seated with your legs extended in a V shape straight out in front of you. Sitting tall, press the dumbbells or the barbell overhead, keeping your legs and heels pressed into the ground (b). Lower the weight back down to shoulder height with control and repeat (c).
5. Instead of: Barbell Bent-Over Rows
Try: Mechanical Advantage Sets
Certain grip positions can make exercises easier (underhand) or harder (overhand), says Gentilcore. By switching to an easier grip position once you reach the point where you can’t eke out more reps, you’ll be able to do more work and gain strength faster.
How to: With an overhand grip (palms facing up) on a barbell, hinge forward approximately 45 degrees, knees slightly bent. Both arms should be fully extended, and you should feel a slight stretch in the shoulders and hamstrings (a). Keeping your chest open and chin tucked, pull the barbell toward your ribcage, elbows pulling back toward your hips and stopping at your midline. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement (b). Lower the barbell with control until your arms are fully extended and you feel a slight stretch in the shoulder. Perform as many reps as possible without a breakdown in form (c). When you feel your muscles fatigue, switch to an underhand grip and do as many reps as possible until failure (d).
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6. Instead of: Crunches
Try: Reverse Crunches
Done right, reverse crunches take out any momentum from the legs, relying solely on the strength of your lower abs to lift your hips off the floor. According to Gentilcore, reverse crunches are also less taxing on the spine and lower back than standard crunches.
How to: Begin lying on your back with knees bent 90 degrees, calves parallel to the floor. Rest your fingertips against the back of your head, keeping your elbows wide and chest open (a). Use your hips to lift your butt off the floor and bring your knees toward your chest (b). Lower your hips with control to return to the starting position (c).
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