Exercise Program Design, Strength Training

How to design an effective workout PART 2: Progressing

In Part 1 of this series on the Elements of an Effective Workout, I talked about choosing the right exercises to achieve results most effectively without getting hurt. But an effective workout doesn’t remain effective forever – your body will adapt fairly quickly to the demands you place on it, and you’ll stop making progress toward your goals. The solution? Exercise progressions. In this article I describe a number of ways to progress your workouts, so you’re always challenging your body to become stronger, leaner and more efficient.

It’s a common belief that to make an exercise more challenging – or in exercise parlance, “adding intensity” –  you must add more resistance, or weight. But this is only one of a number of ways to increase intensity. Understanding these additional methods is important for several reasons:

  • Adding weight/resistance too dramatically can significantly increase your risk of injury
  • More weight typically means more equipment (heavier dumbbells, bigger kettlebells, a barbell, etc.) – and with so many of us now exercising at home this impacts both space and finances.
  • More weight doesn’t have much impact on cardiovascular strength

In simple terms, exercise intensity increases when one, or a combination, of these four elements goes up:

#1 – Resistance/load: The amount of weight being moved – whether that’s your own body, a dumbbell, a stretch band, etc.

#2 – Time under tension: The amount of time your muscles are actively engaged in a particular movement

#3 – Volume: How many times you perform a movement in a period of time

#4 – Complexity: How many different muscles are working to perform a movement

Now let’s look at four methods of progressing your workouts to increase intensity without getting injured, or putting a dent in your pocketbook. Then we’ll walk through how all of these can be applied to one particular exercise.

Increase Sets and Repetitions

A “set” is a group of repetitions (or “reps”). One easy way to add intensity to your workout without increasing resistance is to gradually increase the number of repetitions in each set of each exercise, and/or add more sets. This increases time under tension and adds volume. Fitness professionals have differing opinions on the best approach, but here’s mine:

Step one:  Keep the number of sets the same, but add more repetitions to each set

Step two: Add one more set with the original number of reps

Step three: Add more repetitions to each of the increased number of sets

Step four: Repeat steps one to three

While there’s quite a bit of exercise science around the number of sets and reps to perform in order to achieve specific outcomes, here are some general guidelines:

  • 7 to 12 repetitions per set triggers hypertrophy, or building muscle tissue, as well as corresponding strength
  • 12 to 20 repetitions per set increases muscular endurance
  • 1 to 6 repetitions per set, at a maximum load, increases strength (think powerlifting)

Tempo

Tempo refers to the speed of a movement. When it comes to strength training, slower is often better. Once again, time under tension is the key element here.

Every movement has three phases, and the time spent in each has an impact on intensity.

The eccentric phase happens when moving with gravity (and technically, when the muscle lengthens). Think of the downward movement of a bicep curl or squat.

The concentric phase occurs when moving against gravity (and the muscle shortens). The upward movement of a bicep curl, or coming up from a squat, are both working against gravity.

The isometric phase is any point where there is no movement, but the muscles are engaged and fighting against gravity. So pausing mid-bicep curl or mid-squat creates an isometric contraction as the muscle fights against gravity to maintain the load in one position.  

The slower you perform an exercise, the more challenging it will be due to the muscles’ increased time under tension. In general, the eccentric phase of a movement is the easiest (because gravity is helping) and should be performed more slowly.

The concentric phase of any movement is the most difficult, as the muscles are working against gravity. Concentric phase movements can be performed explosively to challenge the muscles to produce force.

Complexity

The more muscles are recruited to perform a movement, the more complex – and the more challenging – that movement becomes.

One very effective way to increase complexity is to add an instability component to a movement. Doing so requires the core muscles to engage in order to keep the body upright. In addition, the brain has to work to recruit the right muscles at the right time to keep you from falling over – what’s called neuromuscular coordination.

For example, a bicep curl performed while balancing on one foot is much more challenging that when in a stable position. Or how about a single arm overhead press while balancing on the opposite side leg? A squat becomes dramatically harder when performed on a BOSU Balance Trainer™ than on the floor.

Complex, or multi-movement exercises are naturally more intense. Take a bicep curl and a reverse lunge, for example. Each of these exercises may be performed separately in a workout. But what about combining them? Each time you lunge backward, do a bicep curl at the bottom of the lunge. Not only are you working all these muscles at once, but that pause at the bottom creates an isometric contraction in the legs. Much more challenging – and more time-efficient!

Recovery Periods

Another simple way to progress your workout is to decrease the amount time you rest between exercises. Again, there’s a lot of science behind this, based on the body’s metabolic pathway, or energy system, that’s at work. But here are the general options and related outcomes:

  • Shorter rests of 30 to 60 seconds enhance cardio and muscular endurance
  • Rests of 90 seconds or longer allow for improved muscle and strength building

When you eliminate the rest period between two exercises for a particular muscle group, the second exercise becomes significantly harder. This effect is called pre-fatigue. For example, if you did 10 pushups immediately followed by 10 overhead presses, those overhead presses are going to feel much harder than if you’d rested after the pushups. Your heart rate will likely go up as well.

Increase your workout’s intensity by rearranging exercises to induce pre-fatigue before the movements that are have become easier because your muscles have adapted. For example, if squats are becoming easy, try adding a set of squat thrusts right before doing them.

Or, just start by simply reducing your rest periods in between sets. Alternatively, try increasing rest periods to balance out fatigue caused by increased resistance/load. Finally, experiment with pre-fatigue combinations to make an easy exercise more challenging.

Putting it all together

Let’s look at different ways to progress one exercise that’s become easy, using the methods we’ve reviewed. Say your current home-based workout includes two sets of 10 squats holding 10lb dumbbells, and that’s become easy. You don’t want to buy heavier weights – so what can you do to keep getting stronger with your squats? Here are some options based on the four methods described previously. What other options can you come up with for your workout?

Reps/SetsTempoComplexityRecovery
Increase reps to 12-15Lower down for a count of 3, pause for 2, then rise up for 3Hold a dumbbell in one hand for one set, then switch hands for set #2Cut your rest period between sets in half of what’s normal for you
Add a 3rd set of 10Lower down for a count of 5, pause for 3, then explode up in one countAdd a bicep curl, followed by an overhead press, to the upward movement of each squatDo a set of 10 squat thrusts first, then the usual squat set, without resting between
Increase 3rd set to 12-15Lower down quickly in one count, pause for 3, then rise up for 5Stand on a BOSU Balance Trainer™, foam pads, or pillows to make your position more unstableIncrease the rest period to up to 90 seconds if you’ve increased intensity by other method(s)

Wrapping up

It’s important to continue to progress in your exercise routine in order to continue to see improvement and to reach your goal. But as you’ve seen, just adding extra weight isn’t the only option. By simply making a few adjustments to your reps/sets, tempo, exercise complexity, and/or recovery, you can make any exercise significantly more challenging.

I encourage you to experiment with these options to see what has the best effect for you. But take it slow and don’t make too many changes at once – give each modification some time, in order to really assess its impact before trying something else.

In the upcoming Part Three of this series, I’ll introduce you to two unique exercise tools that can push your workout program to another level:  the TRX Suspension Trainer™ and the BOSU Balance Trainer™.

Don’t want to spend time planning your workout program to meet your goals? Let me help! I’ll build a unique program designed for your specific needs and fitness level – and one that fits into your life as well! Contact me here and let’s have a conversation.

Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES is a Fitness and Nutrition Coach who works with clients virtually to help them transform their health and fitness. She takes a holistic approach to her clients’ wellness through strength training, cardiovascular exercise, real life/behavior-based nutrition strategies and recovery techniques.  She’ll work with you one-on-one to help you live a healthy and active life and achieve your unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.

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