If you are banging out the same sets of push-ups or squats every trip to the gym, I have bad news: You're wasting your time. Functional exercises — lunges, dead lifts, pull-ups, planks, push-ups, and squats — are the best way to get fitter, but the body adapts to them incredibly fast. It seems counterintuitive, but as muscles become more efficient at the movements, workouts yield fewer and fewer benefits. What is required? Constantly varying the moves. Do so and you'll continue to see strength and performance gains. Here are six methods I use to mix things up.
Tweaking hand position during upper-body moves completely changes the muscle groups you engage, and it's a great way to zero in on smaller, hard-to-target muscles. For push-ups, try sets with the fingers facing out sideways, with palms staggered, then a final set with palms overlapping on the ground below your chest (the most difficult variation). To scale up a plank, keep your back flat while walking hands forward as far as possible; hold for as long as you can. For pull-ups, continually test new grips. My go-to variation: Stand directly under a bar and turn your body 90 degrees, so that your shoulders are perpendicular to it. Grab the bar with a staggered grip and pull yourself up, first to one side of the bar, then the other; switch hand positions with each rep. While regular pull-ups hit the upper back, and chin-ups rely on the biceps, this variation targets the entire upper body.
Add a Deficit
Increasing your range of motion is one of the simplest ways to stretch and strengthen muscle fibers. Deficit exercises make that easy: Stand on weight plates for a move like a dead lift, which will require you to lift and lower the bar an inch or two farther than normal, engaging more of your glutes and hamstrings in the process. Or place weight plates under palms for push-ups, allowing your torso to lower farther and forcing you to use more chest and shoulder power to push back up.
Make the Weight Unwieldy
Rather than using a bar to squat or holding dumbbells at your sides during lunges, try hugging a heavy medicine ball, kettlebell, or sandbag to your chest. These weights are awkward, and to stay stable, every muscle in your core will have to kick in. Mastered this already? Hold the ball, bell, or bag overhead as you squat or lunge. Everything is harder with a weight raised overhead.
Slow Down — Way Down
Spend 30 seconds on one squat. (Lower for a count of 15, then rise for 15.) Or take 10 seconds to complete a single push-up. I guarantee you'll feel more spent than if you rip through 30 reps of the exercise. Anytime you keep your muscles under tension for an extended period, you fatigue the fibers faster — and that means they'll build up faster, too.
Try sets of 10 jumping squats and lunges, focusing on exploding up as high as you can and immediately doing the next rep. You can mimic the same movement for push-ups and pull-ups by pushing or pulling so forcefully that you're able to clap your hands at the top of a rep. (Try stringing together one or two at first.) Moving slowly during an exercise builds muscle endurance, but turning it into a swift, full-power movement trains your nervous system to fire faster, which will make you quicker at anything you do.
Mess with the Reps
No one is ever psyched to knock out 50 reps of anything. But you can trick yourself into doing a lot of volume fast, and be less bored, with a ladder-rep scheme. There are any number of variations, but I come back to these two often: For the first, pick a pair of exercises — say, kettlebell squats and push-ups. Do 10 reps of squats and one push-up. Then immediately do nine squats and two push-ups, then eight and three, and so on until you get to one squat and 10 push-ups. Guess what? You just cranked out 55 reps of each. For another variation, choose three movements — pull-ups, sit-ups, and lunges work well — and set a timer for five minutes. Perform three reps of each exercise, then six reps, then nine, working continuously and increasing the reps by threes until time runs out. Try to push the reps a bit higher each time you do the ladder. As with all these variations, you'll get a lot more done in less time.