I had the honor of sharing my advice for a MyFitnessPal article back in the winter but publication was massively delayed when Covid19 changed the face of the earth as we know it. With gyms shuttered, the article became less timely. Now that gyms are gradually reopening (or perhaps now that you have more at-home equipment to work with), it’s well worth the effort to get acquainted with the basics of strength training.
The reality is that most of us aren’t getting in as much daily activity and movement these days. Focusing on acquiring or maintaining lean muscle mass is perhaps more critical than ever for our metabolisms and overall health.
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.
Designing a fun and challenging workout doesn’t have to be complicated. You can pack power into your workout by playing around with three simple variables; reps, weight and time. To shake things up and to challenge your body, try an “exercise pyramid;” increasing or decreasing one of these variables throughout the workout. It may sound confusing at first, but I’ve designed four easy-to-scan infographics for today’s post to show you just how simple it is. I hope they help inspire you to get creative, have some fun, and SWEAT!
These kinds of workouts are my favorite! I just love them. They can help pull you out of a training plateau, boredom or lack of inspiration.
This is not a post to tell you how many sets and reps is ideal for you. In fact, I’m not even going to mention the amount of weight you should attempt to lift. This article is centered on the stuff you probably don’t know about upper body lifting and how to achieve optimal tone.Your triceps can thank me later…wink wink.
Forget Biceps and Triceps…Temporarily
Yes, I’m serious. You can actually put off doing bicep curls and tricep exercises until the end of your routine. These muscles [biceps and triceps] act as assistors to larger muscles. Literally, every time you flex your elbow, the bicep is shortening and having to work. This applies to motions like picking up something heavy or even lifting a fork to your mouth. Can we make that a fork puncturing a big fluffy bite of chocolate cake, please?
The same is true for your triceps. Any time you extend your arm straight or push something away from your body, you’re shortening and actively working your tricep. Soooo, you know what this means? It means that when you’re doing chest, back and shoulder exercises, your biceps and triceps are actually getting a workout too!
Thus, if you’re pressed on time, opt for working larger muscles in your upper body. You will accomplish more overall work and will reap the benefits. Helloooo strapless dress!
Back it up, Baby!
Your back is begging you to pay more attention to it. It’s actually quite common to forget about the back because we tend to focus our workouts on areas of the body that are easier to give the stink eye to via our mirror’s reflection. But, it’s SO important to incorporate more back work. Here’s why…
You will get the optimal posture that you want by doing exercises (properly) like rows, reverse flies, lat pull downs and rotator cuff exercises. You will look more confident, tall and lean with improved posture. Not to mention “the girls” will now be sitting pretty!
Since we’re sitting down all day long, we often slouch forwards. This creates a rounded posture that can lead to kyphosis, discomfort, rotator cuff issues and impaired movement. Thus, it’s important for both function and tone to focus on opening the chest and working the back. I typically tell my clients to do two back exercises for every chest exercise. If someone has serious postural issues then I suggest an even greater ratio.
Get Low, Get Low, Get Low
I know I just preached about doing more back than chest exercises, but the chest is important too, and many women see great results when they work it. Here’s the thing though; if you want optimal tone for your chest exercises, you’ve got to complete a full range of motion in your exercises. For example, many people will opt for push-ups on their toes instead of their knees, but they only lower their bodies a few inches towards the ground before pushing back up to the starting posture. This is not ideal push-up form. A chick like this needs to humble herself and choose an easier modification (knee push-ups, wall/”mommy” push-ups, or push-ups with hands on a raised bench). Ironically, she will get more out of her workout this way.
You will achieve better results when you lower your body to a 90-degree angle (in the elbows) at the bottom of a push-up. You may not be able to complete nearly as many push-ups this way at the outset, but you will build up much better upper body and core strength in the process. Funny side note: I’ve corrected a lot of ex-military professionals on their push-up form. At first they think I’m crazy and arrogant, and then they feel the difference…
Don’t Fear the Transition
There’s this painful point in any exercise where you’re transitioning from lengthening your muscle to shortening it, or vice vera. For example, you’re doing a tricep dip and you’re changing from lowering to lifting your body (i.e. bending to straightening the elbows). The transition feels super intense and your body gets overwhelmed by the effort, so, oftentimes, people rush through this part of the exercise. They’re missing out…
By taking your time transitioning from one phase of the exercise to the next, you will get way stronger than if you rush the process. And you know what goes with getting stronger? Getting more toned!
There are many more bits of advice I could give you about upper body lifting and toning, but, for today, let’s leave it at these four nuggets. I hope you consider at least one of these concepts and achieve greater resilience through the application of it.
This blog post may just be my personal vendetta to correct the many things I’ve seen go wrong at gyms over the years, or it may be an opportunity for you to kindly reference this article to the next person who gets on your last nerve at the gym. Maybe print it out and smack it in the center of their bench press? If nothing else, know that you’re in the right and can chuckle lightly to yourself about those who will soon see the error of their ways. There are some real life anecdotes in here that may make you giggle (or cringe) too…you’re welcome.
1) Learn How to Share (it’s a basic life lesson)
Just like the little boy from the well-known Campbell’s Soup commercial said to his hungry older brothers: “Don’t hog it all!” Yes, it’s true that people at the gym can get overly possessive about the equipment they’re using. Take the following scenario that happened to me just a week ago…
I’m alternating sets between a leg extension machine and a reverse fly machine. They’re right beside one another and I was five sets done out of six. A man comes up to the reverse fly machine just as I’m finishing my last set for lower body and heading that way. I understand that he has zero notion of what my routine is so I ask him politely if I can finish my last set after his first one, while he takes a break.
This man gives me the nastiest look a human can possibly conjure up. After a pause he says in a snarky tone “But I’m just starting…” I reassure him that I’m happy to wait while he does a set and can finish my routine quickly while he takes his first break. The man gives me silence…yes, silence (oh yea, and another unusually offensive glare) and continues to adjust the machine’s seat to his preference. At this point I walk away. I could have responded to his comment “You’re just starting? Oh yea? Well, I’m just finishing! I was here first! Nah-Nah-Nah! It’s MINE!!!” But that would have been immature….we’re not children learning the rules of the playground for the first time.
So, don’t hog it all. It’s normal for people to ask to takes turns with you and it’s your right to ask the same. Some people might not follow the rules, but don’t you kind of feel sorry for them and their “I will be miserable to all of humanity” attitude? Apparently, they never learned that being ruler of the swing-set is something only preschoolers should get away with when their teachers aren’t watching.
2)Respect Paid-For Sessions
I know this next point is going to step on some sensitive toes…but here I go anyway. Individuals who are working with a personal trainer have paid for a privilege at the gym. In other words, their needs are just a teeny tiny bit higher for the duration of their paid-for session. From the outside looking in, you may have no clue why that person is paying for a training session. From the inside out, I can tell you that those individuals, who make the intense commitment to pay for training, have something specific that they really need help with. It may be accountability or it may be something much more worrisome such as vascular disease or osteopenia. Either way, these people are contributing to what keeps the gym doors open for all; the bottom line (…and no, not all of them are more financially capable than you so dismiss that judgement right away).
Trainers who are with their clients should not ignore the standard rules of sharing and demonstrating respect for others, but they might be a little more assertive about asking permission to use a machine that you were just on. They’re not trying to be rude or reduce the importance of your workout, they’re just trying to do their job and make sure that their client’s significant investment proves worthwhile.
3) Don’t Come Into a Group Class Super Late
At most gyms, group exercise instructors actually have the right to deny you permission to participate in class, if you’re over 10-15 minutes late. Yup, you heard me right. They are allowed to dismiss you because it’s not going to be very safe for you to jump in after the warm-up. You become a liability to the instructor AND yourself.
I have had plenty of people join one of my Spinning® classes over halfway through. Out of respect for them, I don’t yell through my mic “HEY YOU! GET OUT OF HERE! YOU’RE TOO LATE!” But, I do have to hop off my bike and go speak to them personally. Frankly, it’s annoying.
Even the people who meet my refusal and warnings with a “Don’t worry, I will get warmed up before I start following along,” don’t properly warm up. This takes me beyond my former level of annoyance to feeling genuinely infuriated. Warming up is essential.
Have you ever had a moment as a parent/guardian/friend/significant other when you see a loved one doing something that’s so blatantly harmful that it makes your skin itch? That’s how it feels to be an instructor watching an unruly participant just follow their own whim. If they’re not going to listen to professional guidance, why are they even in class?! It’s like watching a child who is about to dart across the street without looking both ways. The natural urge is to yell “Stop!!! You’re going to get hurt!”
4) Waste not. For real.
I recently wrote an Earth Day article for Mad Dogg Athletics’ Spinning.com site. The article, Conserving Water by Skimping on Laundry, explains how the average top-loading washer can use up to 45 gallons of water! Industrial size washers, like most gyms use, require even more water to operate. So, next time you’re at the gym, try not to be so nonchalant about grabbing a stack of white towels for your sweat, the leg press seat, the exercise mat, your neck support, your second round of sweat, and everything else you can possibly use a towel for. I have a feeling you can make do with just one (maybe two).
Big box gyms are EXPENSIVE to operate. So the little things, like extra loads of laundry, do add up over time. As boutique fitness studios chip away at big box gyms, they struggle more and more. If you love your gym (or even your studio!) then try to help them reduce costs by not being wasteful. More importantly, you’re helping Mother Nature too.
5) The Gym is NOT the Place to Show off Your Goods
Believe it or not, the gym is not the place to flaunt everything that you’ve got. There are certain exercise classes and environments where sports bras, booty-huggers and mid-riff shirts are commonplace, and okay, it’s not exactly against the rules to wear these on the gym floor either. But, no one needs or wants to see your one-woman parade purposefully making a spectacle of herself.
Have you ever seen a beefed-up guy lift his muscle tank, flex his abs for the mirror and grin? Um…hello Mr. Obvious! While he may physically look like a cool drink on a hot day, vanity isn’t very attractive. Plus, distracted exercisers might drop a dumbbell on their heads!
Even more extreme is when people show off their…err…actual private parts. I kid you not. Once upon a time, there was a middle-aged man who would pull a recumbent bike into the middle of a heavy-traffic hallway at the gym. It was always after work when the gym was at its most crowded. Women would pass through the hallway, heading his way, and come out the other side with their faces grimaced in disgust. Mr. Perverted would pedal away on his bike with his male anatomy hanging out of his loose shorts. Eventually, gym management cracked down on him. Apparently, he thought the gym is a place for exhibitionism. Gross.
6) Staking Claim to Cardio Equipment is NOT Cool
We’ve all been in gyms during the hustle and bustle of the new year, when people are practically fighting one another for their favorite treadmill or elliptical. During these busy times, and even during non-peak seasons, it’s just ridiculously rude to stake claim to a piece of cardio equipment (i.e. placing your personal belongings on it) if you’re going to peace out to another part of the gym or do a substantial warm-up or workout elsewhere first. I’ve seen so many unnecessary disagreements arise between people because of this behavior. Remember the old “#1 Learn How to Share?” Yea….
7) Be Aware of Your Surroundings
Time and time again, people put themselves in harm’s way, and disrespect other people’s workouts, by not being appropriately aware of their surroundings. I have seen a pretty young woman vigorously swinging a kettlebell near an older man’s head. I have seen clients with their trainers doing traveling lunges only to have someone obliviously walk directly into their path, sometimes causing awkward and hazardous collisions. I have seen people so immersed in their personal world, (typically lost in blaring music through their Beats headphones), that they trip over another clumsy gym-goer’s heap of dumbbells.
Recently, I had an experience when I was working out in a plank position. A man came in front of me and started doing triceps kickbacks INTO MY FACE. Really?! You don’t realize that you’re about to smash my head in?
I get it, the workout zone can feel like a real, other-worldly state, but for your safety and the wellbeing of others, try to stay just a little bit aware of your surroundings.
8) Clean up After Yourself
Cleaning up your gym equipment helps other exercisers avoid tripping hazards. Duh.
Cleaning up is also about reducing the spread of germs. In short, don’t hack up a lung on a machine and leave your germs to fester. I saw a man literally blow snot into his palm, wipe it nonchalantly on his gym shorts, and then resume his workout. I didn’t want to go near that elliptical ever again…even after it was cleaned.
Help reduce gym intimidation and try to lighten up! Stalking around the gym like you’re on a mission to kill doesn’t help get you into the right mindset for your workout, and it doesn’t help the people around you either. This seems so obvious, but it’s amazing to me how many people find ways to gripe and complain incessantly while at the gym.
The music coming in through the sound system may not be your jam. You may have set a record for the worst day at work ever. You may be experiencing hormonal shifts during your workout and the mass of sweaty bodies moving around might not let you feel as invigorated as your body is implying you should be. Nonetheless, no one, I repeat NO ONE, should turn into a crazy person who is so sensitive that she takes out her frustration on those around her. Remember that insane gym ratyears ago who threw another guy off his bike during a group class? Yea…no one should leave the gym with a concussion and spinal injuries. Isn’t that exactly what we’re at the gym to avoid?!
10)It’s OKAY to Ask for Help
Many people are reluctant to ask for help. They worry that they will look foolish for not knowing how to adjust the treadmill’s speed or for not knowing the proper direction to face on the lat pull-down machine (facing in, always facing in). But, it’s so much better to ask for professional help and to stay safe. I promise, there are professionals at your gym who are available and willing to help. If they’re not, find a new gym. Plus, if you don’t ask for help, chances are you look exponentially more clueless because you’re doing an exercise wrong. Swallow your pride! Everyone has to start somewhere. You will be given respect for wanting to learn.