Are you in a rut with workouts? Have you hit a plateau with results or enthusiasm? Or maybe you’re looking for ways to keep exercise fresh and exciting? Look no further! I’ve come up with this list of creative ways to switch up your workout and shock your body (in a good way) because of these common conundrums. If you’re looking for specific advice or a personalized workout plan for one of these exercise formats then please don’t hesitate to drop a note in the comments, contact me, or sign up for either my 30-minute mini consultation or jump-start program.
Now, for the details…
Increase Time Under Tension
When you increase your “time under tension,” you’re increasing the overall workload of the exercise. It’s a no-brainer that this results in a harder workout and paves the way for greater results. While not always easy, eccentric loading is a surefire way to increase time under tension. Eccentric loading involves moving slowly and carefully through the elongating phase of the primary muscle in a given exercise. This is typically during the lowering phase of an exercise (ex: deadlift, bench press, shoulder press, sit up). “Lower slower” is a good way to remember how to do this. Eccentric loading is similar to super slow training, if you’re familiar with that, but allows you to move at a normal pace through the upward movement/shortening phase.
How To: Do a few normal reps of your go-to exercises and see how many seconds it takes you to complete each rep. Next, “lower slower” by adding anywhere between 2-10 seconds to the lengthening phase of each movement. Complete a normal number of reps. You will notice that it takes much longer to finish each set but that’s okay! You’re getting way more out of your workout!
Caution: Recovery is a critical element to eccentric loading. You will be more sore (okay, maybe WAY more sore) than usual so an active recovery involving light movement like walking or jogging, gentle yoga, or low-intensity lifting will be important. I do not encourage people to do two workouts like this back to back unless one day is upper body and the next is lower.
SMIT Instead of HIIT
I’m sure you’ve heard of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) training over the past decade, but do you know about HIIT’s beastly cousin; supra-maximal interval training (SMIT)? Similar to HIIT, SMIT is marked by periods of intense exercise followed by periods of rest. In HIIT, the rest periods tend to be active recovery. In other words, you’re continuing with light movement to help lower your heart rate. By contrast, SMIT incorporates full rest intervals – and for good reason. SMIT workouts take you above your VO2max. This means that you’re basically working as hard as possible for intervals of 30 seconds to 2 minutes and then reaping the benefits of a long recovery interval before repeating maximal exertion again.
SMIT hasn’t been as widely studied as HIIT; however, research demonstrates that SMIT workouts can improve speed performance better than HIIT and with less overall training volume. To sum: You’re getting more done in less time. It just might feel a little brutal. But hey, neither HIIT nor SMIT is for the faint of heart. These workouts are for the gym rats who love to profusely sweat.
How To: Choose the same or similar exercises as you would select for a HIIT workout (ex: mountain climbers, burpees, squat jumps, sled pushes, box jumps, etc) but perform them with as much energy and speed as possible. During your recovery interval simply walk around while slowing your breathing. This keeps your blood flowing but allows for a more complete recovery than doing a low-intensity exercise during this interval. Try work to rest ratios of 1:3 or greater (versus 1:1 or 1:2, which are commonplace with HIIT).
Caution: If you start to feel really dizzy then lie down on the ground and get your feet above your heart. Try propping them up on a stability ball or bench. If this doesn’t help then get someone to grab you an easy-to-digest carb snack like a granola bar, orange juice, sports drink or banana.
If you’ve ever been on Pinterest then you’re no stranger to these workouts. They are abound in social media primarily because they’re so darn easy to design that anyone – professional or not – can slap them up and look like they’re coming up with a quality workout. Despite my eyerolls over all the fitness professionals who rely too heavily on these basic programs (usually due to lack of experience), they are still worth incorporating from time to time. Perhaps the best thing about exercise pyramids is that YOU can come up with them all by yourself for a fun, energizing workout!
How To: The most basic way to do a pyramid is to pick five of your favorite exercises (or least favorite, if you want to be tough on yourself) and write them down in a list. Assign rep counts to each exercise; 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 reps, and then complete the workout in order of ascending rep count and/or descending rep count. Voila! Complete. There are more complex ways to vary weighted exercises for pyramid training too. If you’re interested, you can check out this post I wrote 5 years ago on the subject (fair warning: infographics were the new blogosphere rage at the time, haha).
Caution: The focus on high rep counts (20+) puts most people at risk of losing form and technique. Be sure you can truly handle the load without putting your body in jeopardy.
Eccentric loading (mentioned above) doesn’t sound like your jam? Good thing concentric-only training (COT) is an option too! It’s the complete opposite from eccentric loading. You work through the shortening phase of the exercise and avoid completing the lengthening phase. Dr. John Rusin is a distinguished fitness professional who has studied and implemented concentric-only training with athletes. Dr. Rusin explains that COT involves a “high amount of central nervous system (CNS) yield with very low amounts of mechanical fatigue.” In other words, you’re working hard but you won’t feel as sore and tired afterwards. It’s also not as mentally grueling as eccentric focused workouts.
How To: Have you ever seen a heavy lifter start a deadlift, stand with the barbell, and then drop it straight to the ground (with a loud bang)? That’s COT, friends! Each exercise will look a little different and it takes some creativity and planning to implement this type of training effectively. Again, Dr. Rusin is an expert on this unique style of training so check out his videos here.
Caution: Make sure you know how to stay safe if you’re dropping weights or doing new maneuvers with COT. It’s simple once you’ve got it down but it might be worth working with a coach or friend the first time around.
Body Weight Freestyle Flow
This is my favorite way to workout, especially on days when I’m not feeling very focused or motivated. I ditch the weights and exercise props, at least to start, and just begin moving my body through whatever moves feel good. I might do a lunge matrix followed by some walking planks or rotating side planks. A sun salutation or two might make an appearance and suddenly, I’m feeling energized enough to do two sets of squat jumps followed by some russian twists and push-ups AMRAP style. No rules apply for sets, reps or order apply to this style of exercising. It’s a freestyle flow following whatever creative and physical energy is available. The workout ends when motivation drops off or heavy fatigue sets in. I typically make it about 34-40 minutes on days like these. I’m almost always amazed at how my “blah” energy turns into one of the best workouts of the week!
How To: No rules apply – hooray! Pick any body weight exercises, in any order, for however many sets, reps or minutes you’d like and just enjoy! This is a great way to hit lots of planes of movement, limber your body, and connect with your energy.
Caution: Be sure to properly warm up before you start doing hard body weight exercises like push-ups or high-impact jumps. Also, if you have any shoulder or wrist issues then exercises that bear weight on your hands might need to be substituted for exercises with props like a kettlebell or band.
One of the most neglected aspects of exercise in the general population is stability training, even though it has been well researched for decades. It feels slow and boring to folks who love speed, sweat and busy workouts, but there’s a lot to be gleaned from incorporating just a few stability exercises into some of your weekly workouts. Stability exercises are great for strengthening the ankles, knees, hips and core. They are also a wonderful way to keep your nervous system sharp. This can help with sports performance and injury prevention, one of many reasons that athletic programs incorporate this kind of training.
How To: Stability training can be as simple as standing on one leg for 30 seconds or as complex as doing a single leg deadlift reach and performing a dumbbell reverse fly at the bottom of the exercise. What matters is that you’re keeping your weight evenly balanced in the heel and ball of your feet and that you’re engaging your core. Get creative using bosu balls, wobble boards, suspension training and other props at your gym. If you’re working out from home then all you need to do is lift one leg! You can do balancing side leg lifts, single leg jumps, and more!
Caution: Build up your balance gradually. Getting “fancy” too quickly can put you at risk for injury. The last thing you need is to fall and hurt yourself so be humble about what you can and can’t manage on unstable surfaces or standing on one leg.
Best of luck!
Yours in health and wellness,