How to Use Exercise Progression in Your Workouts

Group of women warming up before yoga class

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Is it really so bad to do the same workouts all the time? If you have a physical trainer, she has probably urged you to change things up to avoid boredom and weight loss plateaus. But that's not the only reason trainers design a program that has a variety of exercises. It is also to help you progress. To change your body, you need to change your workouts.

Progressing Your Exercises to Counter Adaptation

The theory of exercise adaptation says that lifting the same weights for the same exercises every week will keep your body in the same place. To make progress, you need to change things.

The bottom line is, once you master something, you need to do something to make it harder. One of the easiest ways to do that is to try new variations of traditional exercises. The good news for those who aren't crazy about change is that progressing can come in a variety of ways.

You can change weights, repetitions, intensity, speed, duration, exercises, and more. You only have to make one change to make a difference, although more is often better.

Ways to Progress Your Exercises

Some basic ways to change what you're doing are:

  • Change your position. Look for ways you can change your position to make moves a bit different. If you usually do regular squats, try taking the feet wide and the toes out in a sumo squat to fire different muscle fibers. Change your chest press by going to an incline. Change your arm position during push-ups and try a staggered version.
  • Change the type of resistance. If you usually use machines, try free weights or cable machines. If you always do free weights, try some of your exercises on machines. Movements will always feel different when you change the resistance. Resistance bands offer a variety of ways to work your muscles. Take your usual chest press and move it to a standing position with a band chest press. Take a boring dumbbell fly and turn it into a rotating fly with a band.
  • Go from two legs/arms to one leg/arm. One of the most interesting ways to change exercises is to use only one arm or one leg at a time. This makes almost any lower body move more intense. One-legged squats are much harder than regular squats. One-legged deadlifts challenge the standing leg in a whole new way. Even upper body moves get more challenging when you switch to one arm at a time as in this one-armed chest fly or this one-armed triceps push-up.
  • Add a balance challenge. Even more challenging than unilateral exercises is using something unstable like a ball, foam roller, BOSU Balance Trainer, or inflatable disc.
  • Do more compound movements. Doing two exercises at once can save time and add a new dimension to your workouts. Try doing a squat, curl, press to target the legs, biceps, and shoulders. Try a rear lunge with a row to work the back and the legs.

Compound exercises are actually a form of metabolic conditioning, allowing you to burn more calories and get more out of your exercise time.

Those are just a few ideas on how to change your strength workouts. You can also follow some of the basic exercise progressions in upper body progression and lower body progression workouts. These types of workouts have a series of exercises ranging from beginner to advanced, allowing you to see simple ways to challenge your body without having to completely change your workouts.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."