4 Smart Ways to Make Your Workout Routine Challenging Again
Not ready to come up with a brand-new regimen? Use these workout hacks to push your body past plateaus (and boredom).
For many dudes, it's the pesky second word in the phrase "workout routine" that best describes their strength training choices: Every week consists of the same exercises, the same sets, and the same reps, all performed in the same order. You body knows what's coming, and greets each obstacle like a familiar old friend. At this point, you use your favorite bench so often there is an imprint of your back on it, and even the temporary unavailability of a piece of equipment you need is a source of tremendous anxiety.
The good news is that you needn't throw out your entire beloved regimen in order to keep your body guessing. Instead, try incorporating a few clever modifications of the same exercises with which you're already comfortable. We asked James Shapiro, MS, CES, PES, a NYC-based trainer and owner of Primal Power Fitness to share his favorite workout hacks that won't require you to loosen that vise grip on your favorite kettlebell.
How: Stop halfway through the concentric phase and return to the "bottom" of the range of motion—effectively inserting a half-rep into what you would do otherwise—before completing the movement and returning to start position. For example, when squatting, first dip down so that your quads are parallel to the ground. Next, come back up, but only halfway, so that the knees and hips are still flexed. Sink back to the lowest point of the squat, and then stand tall. That's one 1.5 rep.
Why: You work nearly twice as hard at both ends of a single repetition—the descent and ascent. 1.5 reps ensure that you get more of these critical start and finish phases. To avoid injury, start by using 80% of the weight you would normally use. “You can use this at any time during your workout: your warmups, your first exercise, or even at the end as a 'finisher' before you cool down,” says Shapiro. “If you use it at the end, you’re almost guaranteed to be building muscle because you’re going to be out of stored energy, and you won’t be pushing the same weight as you could at the start of your workout.”
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How: Incorporate a distinct two- to three-second stop in what would otherwise be a fluid movement. For example, during a seated shoulder press, bring your arms down to a 90-degree angle and then hold that position for two seconds before finishing your rep. In a squat, pause at the bottom; while benching, pause with the bar just off your chest; while deadlifting, pause a few inches off the ground while maintaining proper form.
Why: By taking away momentum, this kind of repetition is designed to develop strength without relying on your body’s elastic stretch reflex. Again, these will be harder than conventional reps, so select lighter weights than you're used to—you'll be starting and stopping at the very end of the range of motion, where exerting control is most difficult. "Don’t go past three seconds, since you are using a lot of energy during pause reps," says Shapiro. "Those microtears in the muscles may have you feeling like an octogenarian the next day."
How: After finishing a set, select a lighter weight and complete another set—either the same number of reps as the last set, or to failure—without taking a break. (This decrease in weight is the "drop.") If working with a barbell, be prepared to strip plates off. Most drop sets operate with two to three drops of anywhere between 10 and 25 pounds each.
Why: ”This is exclusively a finishing strategy when it comes to your strength training,” says Shapiro. He recommends accumulating your training volume prior to the drop set, and then using this as a tool to push your muscles past their comfort level before calling it quits for the day.
How: Pair a free weight exercise with a bodyweight exercise that mimics it—flat bench press and push-ups, for example. Exercises that target a specific muscle group can also go well with full-body exercises that use that muscle group—squats and leg extensions, for example. Either way, incorporate this duo into your workout routine with no rest time in between exercises.
Why: Throwing a bodyweight movement into a superset allows you to accomplish more total training volume, elevate your heart rate, and build muscular endurance. By the end of it, you'll feel as if you did far more sets and reps than you actually did. And when that happens to you, remember, it's okay to shorten your schedule a little. No one has to know. This is the payoff of learning to work harder: The more efficient you are in the gym, the faster you can get out of it.