To optimize your fitness, you really want to develop a comprehensive approach to exercise.
Ideally, you need to do a variety of exercises and avoid doing the same ones all the time as this will lead to a relative tolerance; you will not provide your body with the variety of stresses it needs to continuously adapt, improve, and grow stronger.
The basic idea is that you need to provide your muscles with a wide variety of exercises to keep building them. As a general rule, I recommend including aerobic and anaerobic high intensity exercises, strength training, core exercises, and stretching.
Low impact exercises like yoga also have their place, and I highly recommend walking more each day—ideally somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 steps each day. This is not your exercise, but non-exercise movement that you also need to stay healthy.
But you can also switch up your routine simply by slightly tweaking how you perform an exercise. By making small alterations, you can keep your routine fresh and challenging to avoid hitting a plateau.
Time Magazine1 recently ran an article that included several suggestions, which I’ve summarized and expanded upon below, for a total of seven simple exercise modifications that can bring your exercise routine out of a rut.
1. Add an Unstable Surface
The BOSU ball consists of a flat platform on one side and a rubber dome on the other (resembling half an exercise ball). The BOSU is a relatively inexpensive piece of fitness equipment that can dramatically expand your workout repertoire by allowing for lots of variations to virtually any exercise.
Instead of doing your exercises on the floor, simply do them using either the flat or domed surface of the BOSU, both of which provide you with an unstable surface. This forces your body to engage muscles that tend to be underused.
In the video below, fitness trainer Jill Rodriguez demonstrates beginner’s, intermediary, and advanced versions of the following exercises using the BOSU. Do 10-15 reps for each exercise:
- Squat: For a beginner’s BOSU squat, perform a basic squat standing on the domed side. For intermediate level, add a small hop as you raise yourself out of the squat. For a more advanced squat, flip the BOSU and perform the squat balancing on the flat platform.
- Burpee: To perform a basic burpee, drop into squat position with your hands on the domed side of the BOSU ball. Step back one leg at a time, and then step back in one leg at a time; finish by standing up and raising your arms. You can increase the pace as you go.
The intermediate burpee involves a hop. Place your hands on the BOSU and jump both feet straight back. Jump both feet back in, then jump up, raising your arms.
For the advanced version, flip the BOSU over so the flat side is facing up. Place your hands on the flat side, drop your chest to the ball, jump both feet back and return, then stand up and lift the BOSU ball above your head.
- Plank knee tuck: Beginners, start in regular pushup position with hands on the domed side. Bring your right knee forward toward your right elbow. Then switch legs, bringing your left knee toward your left elbow. That’s one rep.
The intermediate is the same exercise but with a cross-over, so your right knee goes toward your left elbow and your left knee toward your right elbow. For the advanced version, add a small hop when you switch feet.
- Oblique crunch: Lie back across the domed side of the BOSU ball. With your hands behind your head, lift up and bring your right elbow toward your left, reaching across your body. Lower yourself down and repeat on the other side.
The intermediate version involves lifting the opposite knee as you come up and reach across to the side, touching your right elbow to your left knee, and vice versa.
For a more advanced version, place your right hand out to the side and straighten your right leg, and raise your left arm out beside your head. Then reach up, touching your toes to your hand, keeping both arm and leg straight. Repeat on the other side to complete one rep.
- Pushup walk-over: Beginners start on your knees with one hand on the dome and the other on the floor. Do a pushup, knees on the floor, then walk your hands over to the other side and repeat.
Intermediate is the same exercise but on your toes, with your legs straight. For the advanced version, add a small hop as you cross over the ball.
2. Add an Incline or Decline, or Shift Your Hand Positions
Bodyweight exercises are great because you can do them anywhere, anytime, and you don’t need any costly equipment; your own body provides all the resistance needed to challenge your muscles.
Simply changing the position in which you perform the exercise can keep the challenge up as you get stronger and fitter, without adding hand weights.
For example, placing your feet higher than your hands when doing a standard pushup will place additional weight on your chest and ab muscles, thereby increasing the challenge. All you need is a bench, stool, or other level surface that is about 12-16 inches high. Place your feet on this surface and perform your push-up.
In the following video, fitness trainer Darin Steen demonstrates a number of different pushup techniques, using both stable and unstable surfaces, and different angling techniques.
You can also switch things up simply by changing the placement of your hands when doing your pushup, as your hand position dictates which muscle groups are targeted. For example, instead of the traditional hand placement (slightly wider than shoulder-width apart), try widening their stance to work your chest and shoulders.
If you bring your hands together below your chest, you’ll work your triceps. You can also elevate one arm (place your hand on a yoga block, or lift it into the air, for instance), which will challenge your upper body even more.
Another great exercise is the pull up. Ideally use a wide overhand grip on the bar and make certain that you come completely down with your arms fully extended before you pull yourself up. Work your way up slowly but before too long you should be able to get up to 10. Varying your hand positions will provide variation here as well.
3. Make It a One-Sided Exercise
Besides adding an incline or decline, you can boost the intensity of your exercise by removing an arm or a leg and working one side at a time. This places all of your bodyweight on just one arm or leg rather than both. The featured article suggests a single-leg pelvic lift, performed as follows:
“Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place arms at your sides, palms face down. Extend one leg up toward the ceiling with foot flexed. Engage your glutes and lift the hips up as high as you can while keeping the upper back on the floor. Hold for 2 counts and then lower hips down. Complete 10 times, then switch legs and repeat.”
4. Add a Pulse or a Squeeze to Increase ‘the Burn’
The featured article suggests finishing each rep with a “pulse,” to activate your fast-twitch muscle fibers. Adding a slow, repetitive pulsing movement will increase the burn and bring your muscle to fatigue, which helps it grow stronger. Walking lunge with pulse is one suggestion, which is performed as follows:
“Step your left leg forward and lower your body into a lunge until both knees are bent at 90 degrees. Slowly pulse up and down by about an inch 10 times. Then, push through your left heel to return to standing; that’s one rep. Repeat with the right leg, and then do 3 more sets of 10 pulses on each leg.”
Making sure you’re “squeezing” the muscle at the end of each rep is a similar technique. One key principle that makes high intensity strength training so effective is that you’re really working the muscle to exhaustion—and then squeeze it just a little bit more.
Basically, once you reach exhaustion, continue trying to produce movement, even if it’s not “going” anywhere, for another five seconds or so. This allows your muscle, at the microscopic level, to access the maximum number of cross-bridges between the protein filaments that produce movement in the muscle, making it increasingly stronger over time.
5. Go Isometric
Isometric training is based on similar principles, but eliminates virtually all movement altogether, meaning you’re not pulsing but holding. Here, the key is to simply maintain one position for as long as you can. An exercise you may be able to do with ease, such as a squat, can become significantly challenging after just a few seconds when you stop moving and simply sit still in the squat position. In the following video, Hybrid Athlete demonstrates the isolated squat hold, or isometric squat.
6. Add Weight
An obvious way to ramp up the intensity is to add weight. If you’re doing bodyweight exercises, you could use free-weights or weighted ankle or wrist bands, for example. You can also use a kettlebell. Examples of exercises you can add weight to include planks, lunges, squats, deadlifts, push-ups, rows, step-ups, and presses.
In the following video, Darin Steen demonstrates several squat variations of varying levels of difficulty, including a goblet squat using a dumbbell. To perform it correctly, be sure to hold the dumbbell (or kettlebell) with both hands; your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outwards. Keep your back straight and push your bottom out behind you, as if you’re about to sit down in a chair.
Descend into squat position until your elbows reach the inside of your knees. Pause at the lowest point of your squat, and pressing your feet into the floor, return to standing position.
7. Slow Down Your Movements
Last but not least, boosting the intensity of your exercises can be as simple as just slowing them way down. By slowing down your movement and aggressively working your muscle to fatigue, you’re stimulating muscular adaptation that will improve the metabolic capability of your muscle and cause them to grow. Here’s a general summary of the key points to keep in mind when you’re doing a super-slow exercise:
- Begin by lifting the weight as slowly and gradually as you can. In the featured video, I demonstrate doing this with a four-second positive and a four-second negative, meaning it takes four seconds, or a slow count to four, to bring the weight up, and another four seconds to lower it. When pushing, stop about 10 to 15 degrees before your limb is fully straightened; smoothly reverse direction
- Slowly lower the weight back down to the slow count of four
- Repeat until exhaustion, which should be around four to eight reps (once you reach exhaustion, don’t try to heave or jerk the weight to get one last repetition in. Instead, just keep trying to produce the movement, even if it’s not “going” anywhere, for another five seconds or so. If you’re using the appropriate amount of weight or resistance, you’ll be able to perform four to eight repetitions)
- Immediately switch to the next exercise for the next target muscle group, and repeat the first three steps