How do you increase the difficulty of an exercise?
The first answer that pops into most peoples’ heads is simple—add more weight.
The larger the load, the more difficult the exercise.
However, there are many ways to increase the difficulty of an exercise outside of just increasing weight. The most obvious methods involve performing more reps and reducing your rest intervals, which are valid. However, your options for increasing the difficulty of an exercise extend well beyond that.
Examples include changing your base of support (stance), changing the tempo or speed of an exercise, using isometrics, altering the stability of an exercise, and/or increasing the complexity of the movement.
But first, why might you want to increase the difficulty of an exercise without increasing weight?
There are many reasons. Perhaps you only have access to a limited number of dumbbells or weight plates and you want to find a way to continue your progress. Perhaps you’re working around an injury and using more weight is unwise. Perhaps you’re looking to control fatigue. Perhaps you’re aiming to increase stability in a joint, and throwing on more weight isn’t necessarily the best answer.
There’s no shortage of reasons why someone might want to make a move more difficult, but not increase the external load.
Now, let’s get into the multiple ways you can make this happen.
Change Your Base/Body Position
Essentially, the base of support for an exercise is the total area between all points of contact between you and the ground or a grounded implement (BOSU ball, bench, etc.). Consider two popular Deadlift variations: the regular Barbell Deadlift and the Single-Leg Deadlift.
In the standard Barbell Deadlift, both feet are placed on the floor, generally slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. The base of support is the total area of both feet as well as the area between the left and right foot. In the Single-Leg Deadlift, our base of support is decreased dramatically. It only includes the area of the single foot in contact with the ground.
The laws of physics dictate that this will make the exercise tougher. Making a bilateral exercise unilateral will make it tougher, no doubt. Same goes for taking a two-armed movement and making it a single-arm movement.
Now that you understand the basic concept, here’s a simple progression of how your base of support can gradually be altered to make a movement more challenging (there are some exceptions to this rule and some movements may not be able to be performed from some positions, but this generally rings true):
- Prone (Lying on Your Belly)
- Supine (Lying on Your Back)
- ½ Kneeling (One Knee Down). Note: This one is up for debate on whether it makes things easier or tougher than a tall kneeling position. By definition of base of support, it is easier than a tall kneeling variation. But it really depends on the exercise being performed
- Tall Kneeling (Both Knees Down)
- Bilateral, Regular Stance
- Bilateral (Both Feet), Split Stance
- Unilateral (Single Leg)
Of course, not all can apply to every exercise, obviously you can’t do a Seated Squat, but you get the idea!
The Pallof Press is a good example of a movement that is made more difficult by following this progression, as demonstrated in the video above.
The simplest way to add complexity to an exercise is to add an additional element of movement to the equation.
One example is the Typewriter Pull-Up. By forcing you to move laterally with control at the top of the movement, the Typewriter Pull-Up is both more complex and more difficult than the standard Pull-Up.
Chaining exercises together will also increase the complexity.
For example, take the Barbell Clean. To make it more complex, we could add an Overhead Push Press after the Clean is executed, as demonstrated above.
This method is at the heart of a training tactic known as “complexes.” This entails stringing together many different exercises using the same implement back to back with little to no rest.
Adding complexity is a viable means of increasing difficulty, but whether or not it makes sense all depends on the context. What are your goals? Does adding additional elements of movement or stringing together various exercises back-to-back help you accomplish that goal? These are the questions you must consider.
Change Your Tempo
One of my favorite ways to increase the difficulty of a movement without ever picking up a heavier weight is by changing my tempo.
Slowing things down almost always makes thing exercises tougher. This works for so many different movements, and a near-infinite number of tempos can be utilized.
The next time you’re in the gym, slow down one of your staple movements and see what happens. Maybe on your next set of Push-Ups, feel how a three-second descent feels versus one at normal speed.
The eccentric portion of the exercise (the lowering or descent phase) is what actually causes muscle damage, so be careful with slow tempo exercises. For example, you probably don’t want to do a bunch of slow eccentrics during a workout if you know muscle soreness within the next couple days could be detrimental to your performance.
Change the Stability
Changing the stability of an exercise to enhance difficulty is a slippery slope, no pun intended.
Standing on a BOSU ball with one foot to do Biceps Curls isn’t going to accomplish all that much except maybe a sprained ankle. However, altering the stability may be appropriate in some situations. For example, if you are prone to ankle/feet/knee issues, it may not be a bad idea to do a few things barefoot on a unstable surface such as a foam pad.
Advanced athletes may also benefit from implementing things like a bamboo bar for presses and overhead carries.
Essentially, this is a lightweight bar you hang weights off of with bands. This greatly increases the stability requirement of just about any barbell movement.
For the beginner to intermediate athlete, focus on mastering the basics before you worry about altering your stability. Traditional barbell and dumbbell movements performed on solid, flat ground offer the most bang for your training buck.
Integrate Isometric Holds
This relates to tempo, but I feel isometrics deserved their own topic.
Isometric exercises are defined by the resistive force and the muscle force being equal. The result is a static, stationary position that usually requires significant strain to maintain. The Plank is perhaps the most popular isometric exercise in existence, but the applications don’t stop there.
Adding isometric elements to a movement can drastically increase the difficulty. For example, a Squat with a brief 1- to 3-second pause at the bottom can really spice things up and increase difficulty of a movement. Isometric holds can be used for many different movements and the pauses can be implemented at different points, depending on the exercise.
You don’t always have to add more weight to increase the difficulty of an exercise. While that strategy is appropriate in many situations, alternative methods can make a big impact.
Just remember, the underlying concept that will help drive you toward the results you want is overload. Slowly and methodically increase the difficulty of any given exercise, continually forcing your body to adapt to that increased difficulty. This can be through increased weight, changes in base of support (body position,) changes in complexity, slowing down the tempo, adding in isometrics, etc.
If you have any questions in regards to what is best for you specifically, shoot me a message on Instagram @johnpappfitness. Work hard and have fun!
Photo Credit: Ibrakovic/iStock, Rogue Fitness