I am sure most of us have been here before, you know, just lifting the same old boring weights. You have the thought, “How can I make this exercise more badass i.e. harder?” Well, my friend, do I have a treat for you.
Coming up, I have not just 1, not just 2, but 5, yes, five ways to make your exercise more challenging, which increases overall badassness.
As the late Emeril Lagasse would say, “Let’s kick it up a notch!”. And that we will Emeril.
Sets/Reps, Rest Interval, and Weight
Ok, this first point does not really count. By manipulating any one of the above variables you will either increase or decrease the difficulty of a given exercise. Increasing the weight will always make an exercise more challenging, same with decreasing the rest interval.
You can mess around with these variables all you want, but only the right combination of all of them will lead to the outcome you desire.
Center of Mass
The center of mass on the average person is somewhere around the waist. When you start loading up with weights, your center of mass will change. The closer the weight is to the base the more stable you will be. As the weight moves further away from your center of mass the more difficult the exercise.
We can use this concept to increase the difficulty of your exercises. Lets look at some exercise variations and how they become harder with the change in weight positioning.
Dumbbell Squat with dumbbells at side: center of mass is low and close to base of support
Barbell Squat: center of mass is moved up further way from base of support
Barbell Front Squat: center of mass is moved up and out away from the base of support
Barbell Overhead Squat: center of mass is moved to its greatest distance from the base of support
A Trapbar Deadlift will be easier since the weight is going through you as compared to a conventional Barbell Deadlift where the weight is positioned in front of you. Both lifts have a low center of mass due to the weight being close to the base of support. The big difference is the conventional Deadlift is moving your center of mass more to the front, like the front squat.
Points of Contact
The more points of contact you have the more stable you will be, it just makes sense. A three legged stool is less stable then a four legged stool. It’s the same with your body. A squat is more stable then a single leg squat and the same goes with a RDL vs. a single leg RDL.
You can do the same with pushups and planks and various other exercises by taking one leg or arm off the ground. This makes you less stable and changes the distribution of bodyweight.
Range of Motion
By increasing the range of motion, or ROM for short, you can make an exercise more challenging. This puts you in a new position where you will have to gain stability. You will also increase the time under tension, which increases the stress put on your muscles. This creates more muscle breakdown.
Two of my favorite exercises to increase the ROM for are reverse lunges and Bulgarian split squats. The way that I do this is by doing them from deficit. All this means is I place my front foot on a 4in plyo box and then perform a reverse lunge or Bulgarian split squat the same way I usually would but now I have to go through a greater ROM.
Base of Support
The wider your base of support or the wider your legs are, the more stable you will be. The squat requires less stability then a lunge. This is because your base of support is wider with a squat.
I like to use this concept a lot when doing anti rotation exercises like Pallof presses or cable rotations.
I am not a big fan of unstable surface training by any means, but it can definitely make an exercise more challenging. Doing a BOSU ball squat may look cool and be challenging but if you are trying to gain strength it makes no sense.
The only time I will use an unstable surface would be without weights or with very light weights. The goal would be to gain stability or to make a stable movement pattern unstable; this does not require much weight or any at all.
But this article is not about how I feel about unstable surface training; it’s about how to make an exercise more challenging. And doing an exercise on an unstable surface does fit that requirement.
There are many ways to make any given exercise more challenging. After reading this there should be no excuse as to why your exercises are not challenging enough. So go out there and badassify those boring old exercises.
I love the big multi joint lifts. You know deadlifts, squats, and bench. They are great bang for your buck exercises. They can help develop full body strength, but they are not for everyone. People with range of motion limitations, stability problems, or pain with certain movements may be prohibited from performing some of these lifts. This is why it is important to perform an assessment before hand.
The assessment is the time where the client proves to you what they can do. A client may show that they are able to perform the multi joint lifts. Physically they may be capable but one aspect that I think is overlooked is if they are mentally able to perform these lifts.
I know lifting weights is essentially lifting heavy circular objects over and over again until you get that sweet swell. So anyone can do it without putting any thought into it. (This is my attempt at sarcasm.)
When working with young athletes I think it is a privilege for them to perform the big barbell lifts. This is why I am never quick to throw someone under the bar until they have proven to me they can handle it, both physically and mentally. I am like the Gandalf of barbells. I don’t know if that works, but I am sticking with it.
If you look at the deadlift, there is so many things to remember: hips back, chest up, back flat, push through the heels, and I could go on. What I am getting at is that if you don’t have the mental capacity to remember at least a hand full of these reminders, then there is a chance you will end up getting hurt. I don’t expect kids to remember all of them, but there is usually at least one or two cues they are going to have to remind themselves of during each lift.
Weight lifting should be fun, but when it comes time to perform the lift it should be all business. This is where the mental aspect comes in. It is our job to put our athletes in position to improve, while at the same time keeping the risk to reward as low as possible. There is nothing that irks me more then seeing someone mistreat a big lift. It makes me want to go up to the person and slap the bar out of their hands and say, “No”. Of course I don’t do that.
The question is how you know when an athlete is mentally mature enough. Age does play a role. An athlete of college age is more likely to understand the risk of performing a lift improperly. A younger high school athlete may not understand or see the importance of lifting with techniques. They could possibly see it as a need to just lift this weight any way possible, regardless of form. I am not going to mention middle school because I am not a big proponent of prescribing squats or any other big lifts to middle schoolers.
During the assessment it is good to take note of how the athlete acts and responds to your corrections. If they seem to take correction more seriously, then they may be more mentally prepared then someone who may seem to reluctantly take your corrections. From this you may get an idea of where they’re at. If you feel they show good form and are able to focus during the lift then prescribe them some big barbell lifts. You can always back off the lift if they show they are not ready to handle it. You can giveth and taketh away.
All the responsibility does not fall on the shoulders of the athlete. We as coaches need to spend time with our athletes, getting to know them. The more they are comfortable with you the more they will trust you and listen to your instruction. If you get your new athletes to open up to you it is amazing how much more they will listen to you.
Putting Everything Together
The multi joint barbell lifts are not for everyone. The athlete or client must show that they are physically and mentally able to perform the lifts. This is for their safety and well-being. Take note of their level of perceived maturity. From this, if you feel they can handle the big lifts, then prescribe them. You can always remove them. Finally it is our responsibility to get to know our clients. By doing so they will have a greater respect towards you and the lifts they are performing and will understand that you have their best interest at heart.