It’s not that difficult to make an exercise harder-just try squatting heavy while getting whacked in the shins with a baseball bat. That’d be really hard. Not that effective, but really hard.
Or maybe squatting on a BOSU ball. That was trendy for awhile. Again, hard, but not effective.
We know that progressive overload means that we have to do more than we used to in order to keep getting stronger and more jacked. We also know that we can’t just add 5 pounds to the bar each week indefinitely or we’d all be 1000 pound squatters within 2 years of our first training session.
If that was possible, I’d be squatting 6,295 pounds for 5 sets of 5.
And adding sets and reps works, but only up to a point. One way I like to progress people by adding volume is this:
Week 1: 3×8
Week 2: 3×10
Week 3: 4×8
Week 4: 4×10
But eventually, you run out of options here. Before long, your program is going to be calling for 14 sets of 20, which obviously isn’t feasible.
So how can you make exercises harder in a way that actually makes sense in order to keep progressing? It’s simpler than you think, and it doesn’t require you to learn a hundred new lifts or blowing up what you’re already doing.
1. Increase the range of motion.
You should already be utilizing a full range of motion on every rep. That’s a fundamental training principle, just like progressive overload and specificity, and principles should be the foundation of what your training is built upon.
Let’s go back in time to Physics 101 for a second, minus the pleated khakis and braces. Remember those formulas that you had to memorize that you never thought would matter? Well, if getting jacked is a priority, they do.
See, Work=Force x Distance. If we can increase the amount of distance we have to move a given load through, then we increase how much work we’re doing.
More work=more muscle. Mr. Marland taught me something after all.
Some of my favorite exercises to progress this way are rear foot elevated split squats, deadlifts, and single leg squats. An added caveat is these are all great for hammering home the mobility gainz you’re making as well.
On RFESS you can elevate the front foot on a 3-6″ box, and after building an appreciable level of strength on these with the back foot on an 18″ bench, this is my go to progression for a phase or 2.
If you can do 4 sets of 5 with 32 kg kettlebells in each hand, then elevate the front foot, start lighter and work to build the weight back up to 32kg bells in the new, larger ROM. This is how you get stronger and build mass over the long haul.
My buddy Ben Bruno is an absolute beast, and here he is doing deficit RFESS with about a gazillion pounds:
On deadlifts, using a snatch grip or elevating your feet on a plate or small box are both great ways to increase the range of motion. If you prefer a trap bar, which I highly recommend for most people that aren’t competitive powerlifters, then alternate between phases of using the low handles and the high handles (assuming that you aren’t 6 foot 9).
Increasing range of motion tends to work better with lower body lifts than upper. For example, pressing with dumbbells is already a really big ROM, so trying to increase it further is probably not in the best interest of your shoulders. However, if you only press with barbells, adding in some dumbbell work will certainly be a step in the right direction.
2. Hold the weight in different positions.
Goblet, suitcase, 2 arm, 1 arm, front rack, zercher, overhead-they’re all positions to load lifts, and we can simply move the weight around to keep making progress without actually having to add any weight.
Think about it-a 24 kg kettlebell feels a lot different overhead than it does in the front rack position. Let’s take advantage of this.
Say you’re program calls for goblet squats this month and by the end of the phase you’ve built up to 100 pounds for 10. Maybe in the next phase we just move to double kettlebell front rack squats to give us a subtle tweak to what you’ve been making progress on, without having to completely change it. This accomplishes a few things:
- we can limit how much we load the body so we can make improvements without just adding weight, reducing wear and tear, while still getting stronger
- It’s hard to get really good at something if you’re not doing it much, so hammering the squat pattern keeps getting you better at squatting.
Do bottoms up kettlebell presses instead of traditional overhead dumbbell presses, front squats over back squats, or goblet lunges over holding 2 dumbbells at the sides.
Simple and subtle for the win.
3. Change grips
Always press with a barbell and use a shoulder width grip? Try using a close grip or neutral bar. Mix up your dumbbell pressing and use a neutral grip one week and a 45′ grip the next.
Alternate chin ups and pullups with neutral grip chins and mix in Fat Gripz. Turn your palms all the way up sometimes when you complete a row and sometimes keep the grip neutral.
Deadlift with a double overhand grip instead of just a mixed grip all the time. Whatever exercise you’re doing, this little change can make a big difference, and will go a long way to keep your shoulders and elbows healthy as well.
4. Pauses, focusing on the negative, and tempo
These are the most commonly used techniques, but probably the ones that should be used the least as they are very taxing and can fry your nervous system if you’re not careful.
Traditionally, people will do slow eccentrics after they’ve smoked their system with a bunch of sets to failure, just to have a partner lift the weight off them when they get buried at the bottom. This is precisely how NOT to use these.
Too many paused reps will make you sore as hell, and I’ve never really seen a lot of benefit from doing too many heavy ones. I like to keep the loading around 65-80% and hit 3-5 sets of 3-5 pauses of 1 to 3 seconds.
I really like adding paused squats and presses into programs because it teaches how to stay strong and stable in the toughest part of the lifts. Staying tight at the bottom of a front squat for a 3 second hold is brutal, but it gets you strong and stable coming out of the hole. Pauses also limit the loading, which I’m obviously a fan of for guys over 35 or so.
One twist I love for pressing is to do alternating dumbbell presses with an iso hold with a slight incline. (The low incline tends to feel better on people’s shoulders.) Here, you’d hold one arm straight while you lower and press the opposite side, like rock ’em sock ’em robots. Alternate sides, and repeat, so you’re getting a series of iso holds in each set, and will give you a hell of a pump.
Negatives are similar to pauses in that they’ll make you really sore if you over do them. I like these better on chin ups, pushups, and dips over traditional barbell and dumbbell lifts. Sometimes I like doing bodyweight exercises for a lot of reps, sometimes I like loading them, but sometimes I just like people to slow down and move their bodyweight slower and more deliberately, and it’ll absolutely pay dividends with strength increases without getting banged up.
Tempo is a great tool to use, especially when adding a new variation into your program to really get comfortable with it. This is when you’d use a specific count on the parts of the lift. For example, if you were doing a squat with a 3-1-1 tempo, it means you would lower into the squat for 3 seconds, hold for 1 seconds, and take 1 second to return to the start. You can do any kind of tempo that you want, so mix it up a bit.
Doing the same motions with the same weight in the same position day after day, month after month, year after year, is how you stop getting better, start getting hurt, and keep getting bored. Getting stronger, leaner, while keeping mobile and healthy is the goal, so stick with the basics, but add some of these tweaks to build a resilient and truly fit body that is as much “go” as it is “show.”