We all know that to prevent a plateau and get results we have to vary our workouts every so often. A lot of us do this naturally by increasing reps or weight (or distance for cardio) when the exercise starts feeling less challenging. But this definitely isn’t the only way to vary your workouts. And if you’re anything like me, just increasing reps or weight can get kind of boring after a while. Also, at some point, this too becomes somewhat predictable for your body. In this article I’ll talk about some of my favorite ways to vary my workouts that get results AND keep you engaged!
1. Vary Tempo
Performing the exercise faster or slower will challenge your body in different ways. Going slower will increase the resistance and therefore challenge your strength, while increasing speed will challenge your power. It’s important to maintain proper form and muscular engagement throughout the exercise, especially when increasing speed (where it’s easy to rely on momentum).
Here are some fun ways you can vary your tempo:
- Reduce or increase speed for the last set of the exercise
- Reduce or increase speed for the entire exercise
- Reduce speed for the first 4-6 reps, then increase speed for 8-12 reps
- Reduce speed for 4 reps, increase speed for 10 reps, then finish by reducing speed for 4 reps
- Increase speed on the concentric action, decrease speed on the eccentric action (my favorite!)
- Decrease speed on the concentric action, keep regular tempo for eccentric action
- Perform 1-2 sets at reduced speed, then 1-2 sets at increased speed
This list is definitely not exhaustive. There are infinite possibilities when it comes to varying tempo, so don’t be afraid to let your creativity come out!!
2. Vary both weight and reps
Some ways to vary both weight and reps include drop sets and pyramids. For a drop set, perform 4-6 reps at a very heavy weight then immediately drop the weight to perform an additional 8-12 reps. Super fun! There are a few different ways to perform pyramids so you can definitely get creative. For example, you could perform 5 sets with an 8/10/12/10/8 rep sequence. You can also go the opposite direction with the weight and do something like a 12/8/4/8/12 sequence.
The great thing about pyramids is that you can also incorporate them into cardio. The elliptical is one of my favorite machines for pyramids, but you can do them on virtually any cardio machine or while running. For cardio, you can alter either speed or resistance in a pyramid structure. For example, on the elliptical or stationary bike, you can increase the resistance incrementally every 15-30 seconds for 1-2 minutes, then decrease it using the same increments. If you’re running, you can do the same thing with speed or by increasing the gradient on the treadmill.
3. Add a stability challenge
Another fun way to vary an exercise and add an extra core challenge is to create some instability. There are a number of ways to do this, including performing the exercise on one foot (e.g., single leg bicep curl or shoulder press) or on a stability ball (e.g., stability ball chest press, stability ball bridge raise). You can also change your stance. For example, you can go from a wide stance to a narrow stance or go from seated to standing (e.g., seated row to standing cable row in squat position). If your balance is pretty good, you can stand on an airex pad or bosu.
4. Combine exercises
This is one my favorites of late, and if you follow me on Instagram you’ve seen several examples of combination exercises already. Combining exercises recruits more muscles and works more areas of your body for greater intensity and calorie burn. This is also another way to vary exercises that has endless possibilities so if you like to get creative, this is perfect for you!
A few examples of combination exercises include:
- squat to bicep curl
- squat to bicep curl to shoulder press (on my recent HIIT program – find it here)
- lunge with an oblique twist
- lunge with a knee lift
- lunge to glute raise
- Side lunge to upright row to deadlift
- Squat to deadlift
- Single-leg deadlift to upright row
- Single-leg deadlift to upright row to shoulder press
- Pushup to side plank with a rotation
- Squat to row
- Chest press to glute raise
See what I mean? The list could literally go on and on.
5. Add a high intensity interval at the end of each circuit
Adding a high intensity interval (30-60 seconds) at the end of each circuit will increase the intensity of your workouts and therefore calorie burn. It’s also a great way to challenge both strength and cardiorespiratory fitness. High intensity intervals might include anything from sprints to burpees. Other ideas include squat jumps, lunge jumps, skaters, jumping jacks, jumping rope, or speed jabs.
6. Advance the exercise
Do you like the exercises you’re doing, but need more of a challenge? Progressing the exercise and performing a more advanced variation is another way to overcome plateaus and reach your goals. Just about all exercises can be advanced. For example, there are countless plank variations that really challenge core stability, like lifting your opposite leg and arm. Learn about more plank variations here.
Here’s a few other progressions for common exercises:
- Squat -> barbell squat, squat from steps to increase distance, jump squat
- Lunge -> bulgarian split lunge, jump lunge
- Deadlift -> single leg deadlift
- Lat pull down -> pull up
- Chest press -> chest press with feet elevated, chest press with hands on steps to increase distance, plyo pushups, chest dips
- Row -> chin up
- Bicycle crunch -> standing cable wood chops
7. Take your workout outdoors
This is another one of my favorites, and anytime I get the chance I take my workouts outdoors. Working out outside is associated with greater enjoyment, satisfaction, revitalization, and sustainability. Wind resistance and non-level surfaces can also increase calorie burn.
Not all workouts can be done outside. For example, it might hard to bring your 300 lb. squat bar to the park. But there are numerous activities that can be done outside including bodyweight exercise, yoga, high intensity interval training, sports, cardio, and exercises using bands, balls, and less resistance.
8. Try a method you’ve never done before
A lot of people like to stick to what they know whether it’s lifting heavy, lifting lighter weight with higher reps, high intensity interval training, etc. If you have a specific goal, of course you will want to train for that goal. But switching up your workouts every once in a while keeps you on your toes and prevents plateaus.
If you typically do 2-3 sets of 12-16 reps of each exercise, you could try increasing the weight and performing 1-2 sets of 4-6 reps or doing high intensity interval training for a few weeks. If you typically do 8-10 reps, you may try increasing your reps to 12-16. If you lift 6 days a week and do basically no cardio, you could drop down to lifting 3 times a week and do cardio 3 times a week. (Same goes for you cardio bunnies out there! You might try cutting back on cardio and increasing your strength training). You’ll likely be surprised at how dramatically your body changes in response to trying something new.
As always, let me know what you think in the comments! What works for you and what doesn’t? Feel free to like, comment on, and share this post if you found it helpful or interesting!