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10 Tips for Safely Increasing the Difficulty of Your Workouts

In order to make progress in an exercise program, you need to smartly push yourself out of your comfort zone. If your exercise routine is always comfortable, it’s likely not challenging you. Walking the same route through the neighborhood or performing the same strength-training program week after week will eventually lose its impact.

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On the positive side, exercise becoming easier means you’ve progressed in your level of fitness. For example, your heart rate won’t get as high as you climb those hills, and the weights will start to feel lighter and lighter.


Fitness Plateau

If you find yourself exercising regularly but don’t seem to be making any progress toward your goals, you might be on what is called a fitness plateau. In this case, it’s probably time to increase the difficulty of your workouts. The following tips will help you safely take your cardio and strength-training workouts to the next level.


How to Boost Your Cardio

Incorporate interval training.

This is an advanced form of cardio training that involves performing short periods of high- or near maximal-intensity exercise, alternated with periods of active recovery. For example, instead of steadily running around a track, you would sprint, then jog, then sprint again.

You can also modify this to match your fitness level by switching out the sprinting for jogging and the jogging for walking. Interval training comes in many forms, but you can start by adding short periods of higher-intensity work into your current workout.

Train other elements of cardiorespiratory fitness.

If you typically perform steady-state exercise – for example, 30 minutes on a treadmill or elliptical trainer at a moderate pace – it can be fun and beneficial to focus on things like agility, coordination, reaction time, speed and power. To do this, you can try out plyometrics (jump training), ladder drills and cone drills.

Adding a variety of types of movement will enhance your fitness and athleticism.


Engage your arms.

Many personal trainers recommend that you avoid holding the handrails when you’re exercising on the treadmill or other piece of cardio equipment. That’s because involving the entire body in movement burns more calories and enhances benefits related to posture and balance. To take this a step further, purposefully engage your arms during cardio workouts to increase your heart rate and provide a slight boost to the heart health-related benefits of your workout.

Incorporate hills or inclines.

Adding incline to a cardio session increases the intensity of your workout without you having to move more quickly. In addition, climbing hills, whether on a treadmill or outdoors, works your muscles in different ways than moving on flat ground.

For example, walking on an incline activates the hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles. If you walk, jog or cycle outdoors, doing so in a hilly area can provide a natural means of adding intervals to your workout, as you will work harder going uphill and get some active recovery on declines and flat ground.

Wear a weighted vest.

For some people, the above strategies may be too intense. If you’re a newcomer to exercise, are coping with injury or pain or are simply uncomfortable with the higher-intensity strategies, walking while wearing a weighted vest is a great option. The additional weight can lead to increases in cardiorespiratory fitness without the need for inclines or faster walking.

It’s important to do some research or talk to a personal trainer before choosing the most appropriate vest that will help you safely reach your goals. To ensure proper body mechanics and safety, a weighted vest should not exceed 10% of your bodyweight when performing cardio exercises.


How to Boost Your Strength Training

Lift heavier weights.

While increasing weight seems like a straightforward solution, it's vital to increase the intensity of your strength-training program with purpose and a plan. One way to do this is called the double-progression training protocol.

Let’s assume you're performing 10 repetitions of the bench press exercise with 100 pounds. Using this protocol, you continue with this weight until you can perform 15 reps. Then, increase the weight load by 5% to 105 pounds, which will likely decrease the number of reps you’re able to do to 10 or 12. Stick with that weight until you again reach 15 reps, then increase the weight again. This process ensures you are being progressively challenged by safe increases in exercise intensity.

Add combination movements.

These exercises work multiple muscle groups simultaneously and not only add intensity, but also challenge your coordination, balance and stability. Examples include combining squats with an overhead press, lunges with a biceps curl and Romanian deadlifts with an upright row.

Slow down.

Slowing down the performance of an exercise increases the intensity and forces you to stay more focused on the movement. During a set, you can alternate performing two reps at your normal pace with two reps at a slower pace. Or, one adaptation strategy to try is lifting a weight at your normal pace and then lowering the weight very slowly.

Change from passive to active recovery.

Between sets, many people will sit on the bench, take a sip of water and simply rest until they begin the next set. Instead, try pedaling on a nearby stationary bike, performing some jumping jacks or jumping rope. This will keep your heart rate up and increase the overall intensity of your workouts. If this is too intense for you, try simply taking shorter breaks between sets.

Add some instability.

Reducing the stability of your base by standing instead of sitting for a set of biceps curls or performing dumbbell chest presses on a stability ball instead of a bench adds a balance challenge and increases the difficulty of each exercise


Cardio & Strength Training Strategy

Focus on the mind-muscle connection.

Exercise can have meditative qualities, and that extends far beyond the yoga studio. When performing a strength-training exercise, think about the working muscles. Imagine them contracting and think about how they produce the movement. When walking or riding an exercise bike, focusing on the repetitive motion instead of watching TV or listening to a podcast can turn a simple workout into a form of mindful meditation. The point here is to focus on the task at hand and contemplate how what you’re doing is good for both the body and mind.