5 Exercise Progressions to Build Strength

Photo: Pond5
Photo: Pond5

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” or so the saying goes. And in the weight room, this mantra is often translated to “When the lift gets easier, add more weight.” For most gym junkies, increasing weight is the go-to method for upping the difficulty of an exercise. This makes sense for the most part. When your buddies want to estimate your gym prowess, they normally ask how much you can lift on the bench press or the squat. Rarely, does someone ask how many single-leg squats you can do or if you can stand on a stability ball and do a set of squats.

In the rush to stack on more plates for every exercise in the gym, you might be missing out on other methods for progression, like changing your foundation and balance (as mentioned in the examples above). To help diversify your options for increasing the difficulty of an exercise — and deliver results you can see and feel — here are the five most basic principles of progression and how you can apply them anywhere in your workout.

1. Increase the Weight

Few sounds are as gratifying as the clank of plates on the bar, or the loud thud of dumbbells hitting the gym floor after a new PR. After all, the effectiveness of adding weight is hard to ignore. The formula for getting stronger seems simple: Add some weight to the bar, lift it a few times, recover, add more weight, and repeat. But in the pursuit of superhero strength, many lifters may be guilty of making overambitious jumps in weight.

One of the major downsides to increasing weight too quickly, according to Rob Sulaver, founder and head of BandanaTraining.com, is injury. According to Sulaver, muscles aren’t the only parts of your body that need training; tendons and ligaments need to adapt as well. You may feel like your muscles can handle another 10 pounds on the bench, but your tendons and ligaments might not be as ready.

To make sure you’re progressing at a reasonable rate, Sulaver suggests increasing no more than 2.5 to 5 percent between workouts. For someone squatting 185 pounds, that would only mean a 10-pound increase at most. As for knowing when to increase, Sulaver says that ease of completing a set and speed of movement are two key variables. If you’re moving a weight around rather easily or completing all of your sets without a bit of strain, it’s probably time to add a few pounds!

Photo: Pond5
Photo: Pond5

2. Change the Loading Method

Adding weight to an exercise doesn’t always mean plates or heavier dumbbells. In some cases, you can benefit by changing the loading altogether. Tools like resistance bands have been shown to help increase strength when used in conjunction with free weights. Bands work as a result of the length-tension relationship, explains Sulaver. “Traditional plate-loading is a constant resistance…but a band is magic. Because the more you stretch a band, the more resistance it provides.” For example, if you’ve mastered the basic push-up, you could use exercise bands for an added challenge. All you’d have to do is wrap an exercise band around your back and place the ends under each hand. As you get towards the top of the push-up the band is stretched increasing the difficulty. At the bottom, the slack is increased making the exercise easier. 

In addition to bands, you can experiment with a variety of other tools at your disposal. If you’re used to doing barbell back squats on leg day, try barbell front squats or goblet squats for a change. In a rush and faced with a busy squat rack? Ditch the heavy weights altogether and use a sandbag on your shoulder for a change of pace. Adding weight to an exercise doesn’t have to mean the traditional plate or dumbbell. 

3. Increase the Complexity

We’re not talking about bringing quantum mechanics into your workout. Complexity involves changing a few variables to increase the coordination and sequencing requirements of a particular exercise. Often times, this can be accomplished by combining exercises like squatting and overhead pressing into one movement (also known as a “thruster”). This way you’re taking two multi-joint exercises that are demanding on their own and combining them for an increased neuromuscular and cardiovascular challenge.

Keep in mind, increasing the complexity doesn’t have to be just the blending of two moves. It could be as simple as changing your hand position every time you’re at the top of a push-up. By constantly moving your hands (apart, close together, one in front of the other, etc.), you’re challenging your shoulder joints slightly differently with each repetition. Similarly, you could change your foot positioning or add a reverse lunge in between each repetition of a squat. The goal is to add some variety to your exercises rather than just moving through the same pattern over and over, which will leave you plateauing.

Photo: Pond5
Photo: Pond5

4. Change the Foundation 

Normally, when you’re exercising in the gym, both feet are flat on solid ground. Changing your foundation involves either moving from two feet to one or using something else other than solid ground. BOSU balls and other balance devices rose in popularity over the last few years (both in the gym and out). This is the result of research indicating that balance training and increased core strength may decrease risk of injury. We’re not suggesting that you load up a barbell for a set of squats while standing on an unstable surface. The risks in that situation far outweigh the potential benefits. However, you can change your foundation without increasing your risk of injury.

One of the most common examples of changing the foundation of an exercise is moving from a standard squat to a single-leg variation. By moving onto one leg (known as unilateral training since you’re working one side more than the other), you’re increasing the balance and coordination demands of the exercise. Sulaver notes that unilateral training also helps to balance out asymmetries within the body. The same methodology can be applied to the push-up. Hold one leg up in the air throughout the exercise to increase the difficulty.

As far as stability balls and other tools, consider using a ball instead of lying on a bench for a dumbbell press. The added instability increases the strength requirements from your lower body and core. Sulaver does however caution lifters from using unstable surfaces too frequently. “The reality is that most of us train to be functional. And when you think about it, a vast majority of functional tasks are carried out on stable surfaces.” Using an unstable surface will also decrease the amount of weight you can use on an exercise. “Unstable surface training reduces load capacity — by a lot — thus attenuating potential strength gains. In other words, more often than not, it simply makes your training less effective,” Sulaver says. But, if your goal isn’t just to gain strength or you’re using unstable foundations sparingly, the challenging surfaces can add a positive dimension to your workouts.

5. Vary Your Tempo

When you’re pushing through your last set of pull-ups, the last thing you want to do is slow down. But that may be the exact recipe for greater strength and muscle gains. Also known as “time under tension,” this refers to the total time the muscle is under strain during an exercise. Longer periods of strain have been shown to equal greater muscle growth. However, that doesn’t mean slow is always the way to go. Both fast and slow muscle contractions have been shown to be beneficial. So, your best bet is to use both throughout your workout.

The next time you’re in the squat rack, slow down the lowering portion of the exercise. Try counting to five seconds as you descend to the bottom. Then, explode up as quickly as possible. You’ll notice that the slow descent will have your quads on fire! When increasing or decreasing the speed of an exercise, it’s important to focus on maintaining proper form. Moving as fast or slow as possible with heavy weights can lead to an increased risk of injury with sloppy form.

Using new equipment and changing your foundation or tempo aren’t meant to kick the age-old method of adding weight to the curb. They’re meant to increase the amount of tools in your lifter’s toolbox, so you don’t always have to resort to adding pounds to progress during your workout. Mix and match the above methods, and you might find yourself able to break through a plateau, boost your strength, and start seeing the results you want. 

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