Mail Bag – Question #2

Question: How do you keep your workouts interesting?

First off, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to check out my site, as well as for asking the great question.

A lot of trainers these days are trying to sexify their programs, but unfortunately for their clients, sexifying means tossing a bunch of random things into a program purely for the sake of doing so. You know what’s really sexy? Results are sexy, and you don’t get them by haphazardly throwing exercises together and calling it a program, so lets go over some things you can do to simultaneously make things interesting while at the same time setting your clients up for success.

Play with the variables

In a training program, you only have control over 5 things: the number of reps, sets, amount of weight being used, rest time between sets/exercises, and the tempo of the exercise, so it would behoove you to tinker around with these variables to challenge your clients in different ways. Has your client been doing 3×5 on the bench press, ramping up the weight each set with 90 seconds of rest in between sets? During the next phase of their programming, knock their rest down to 60 seconds and see how they respond. You could even keep the rest periods the same, but on their final set, have them see how many reps they can get with the same weight they previously used for 5 reps.

Here is another scenario for your mind. If you have a client that loves push ups but is so good at them that they knock them out with no problem, adjust the tempo. Have them lower for 3 seconds, pause at the bottom for 5, and then take 1 second to explode back to the starting position. Definitely something different, but you’re still keeping them on track by using the same exercise yet making that minor adjustment to one of the variables.

Don’t be afraid to play around with things, just make sure you don’t change everything all at once – pick one variable to adjust and stick with it for a few weeks, then adjust another of your choosing further down the line. Rinse and repeat, repeat, repeat!

Exercise selection

After 4-6 weeks of the same thing, most clients are ready for a change, and by thinking in terms of movement patterns instead of which exercises work which muscles, you can definitely give it to them without disrupting their progress. Here are the movement patterns you should be concerned with, and some of the exercises that correspond with them (keep in mind that there are also unilateral versions of many of the exercises listed below):

Knee-Dominant: Front/Back Squat, Forward/Reverse Lunge, Split Squat, Bi-Lateral Deadlift variations, Etc

Hip-Dominant: Good Morning, Single-Leg Deadlift variations, Supine Hip Extension, Etc

Vertical Push: Push Press, DB Military Press, Handstand Pushups, Etc

Vertical Pull: Chinups, Pullups, Lat Pulldown, Etc

Horizontal Push: Bench Press, Pushup, Dips, Etc

Horizontal Pull: Chest Supported Row, Cable Face Pull, 1 Arm Standing Cable Row, Etc

Bridging/Core Stabilization: Plank, Ab Wheel Rollouts, Side Bridge, Pallof Press, Etc

Alwyn Cosgrove, one of the best in the business at delivering results, states in his Program Design Bible that “the body adapts to the rep range the fastest and the exercise selection the slowest,” meaning that you really don’t have to change exercises all that often, but if it makes your client more likely to stick with your training program, then have at it (Cosgrove 44).

One way to do this would be to replace certain exercises with other exercises that adhere to the same movement pattern. For example, you could replace pushups with alternating dumbbell bench press. Both are horizontal pushes, but you’re providing your body with a different stimulus while at the same time providing some variety. The same process can be carried out for all the other movement patterns, so have a blast.

Circuit time!

I’m going to assume that most of your clients are interested in fat loss since that’s what almost everybody is interested in these days. If that’s the case, well then I have some suggestion that will certainly make things interesting; notice I said interesting and not fun – if they want fun you can take them to the circus!

At the end of a workout, you can have your client go through a certain number of exercises back to back with minimal rest and have them do it for time, for a certain number of reps on each exercise. For example:

A)    Burpees x 10

B)     Pushups x 10

C)    Mountain Climbers x 30sec

D)    Kettlebell or Dumbell Swings x 20 total or 10 each arm

Rest time depends on their level of conditioning. Repeat 2-3 more times.

You could also limit the circuit to 3 exercises and simply block off a period of time (lets say 10 minutes), seeing how many times they can go through the circuit in the allotted amount of time. In terms of circuit ideas, you are only limited by your imagination, even when the amount of equipment at your disposal is lacking. Weighted complexes are another route you could take, just make sure that they don’t go for reps at the cost of their form.

Hopefully that helped answers your question and gave you some ideas to take back to your own gym. Feel free to contact me via e-mail or leave a comment below if you have anymore questions  and I’ll be sure to get back with ya.

Until next time!

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  1. Jack says


    Regarding the comment from Alwyn Cosgrove about the body adapting to the rep range the fastest and not needing to change exercises all that often…….do you consider making small changes (by keeping the general movement patterns but changing something, be it incline, grip width or type, etc.) to truly be changing an exercise or merely altering it just enough to avoid stagnation and pattern overload while maintaining the gains made from previous versions?

    Put differently, lets say that you were continuing to see progress on a given lift, but you’d already been using it for quite some time (less likely the more advanced you are, I suppose). Would it still be a smart idea to alter things slightly (example: switching from a flat bench press to a 10 or 20-degree incline press) since it alters the movement pattern slightly and prevents one particular movement from being done over and over and over? This is assuming that you’re not competing in a competition where the initial lift is the one that will be used.

    I also have a few more questions, if you don’t mind…..

    snatch-grip deadlifts or snatch grip deadlifts from a deficit- while a still a deadlift, would you categorize these as more of a quad-dominant or hip dominant lift?

    Trap bar deadlifts- same question……I see some say that these are still a deadlift, and hence hip dominant, while others say that they are much more akin to squats, and thus quad dominant.

    Burpees and Mountain Climbers- Having interned at Cressey Performance, what is your general feeling on the low back flexion often seen with these? Is it not a big deal/perfectly fine for many folks, sine it is unloaded, or should it still be kept to a minimum and even left out for those who are flexion intolerant?

    I apologize for being so verbose and do thank you for your time. Any feedback would be appreciated, although I understand if you are swamped with work and don’t find the time.

    • says

      Hey Jack,

      Thanks for stopping by once again, and I’d be more than happy to answer your questions.

      In response to your first question, it all depends on how much you change things up. For example, if you go from doing wide-grip bench press to a close grip bench press, you’ve certainly changed the stimulus as a close grip focuses more on the tricpes than the chest, even though you’re still staying within the same movement pattern. While this is fine and dandy, if your goal is to have a stronger bench and your chest, not your triceps are your weakest link, then you would be focusing on the wrong thing entirely. In general though, small changes like the ones you suggested do change the exercise, but then again is there anything wrong with that? Not as long as you’re continuing to play with the variables in addition to changing the exercise.

      I will say this though, only because you mentioned it in the second part: if you’re continuing to see progress on a given lift, I wouldn’t change a thing as long as you’re making sure to address the imbalances that could occur overtime by doing one particular exercise. For example, if you spend your days straight bar benching until the cows come home, you had better be addressing your external rotation as well otherwise you could be setting yourself up for injury further down the line.

      For bilateral deadlifts (except for the Romanian Deadlift), I would say that they are more knee dominant than hip dominant, my reason being that even if your posterior chain is strong, you need that knee extension to lockout that bar, similar to squats. For single leg variations however, I would label them as hip dominant since you’re really taking the knee out of the equation for the most part.

      At Cressey Performance I haven’t seen burpees used as much as mountain climbers, but neither of them have been used to the extent that sleds, kettlebells, and medicine balls have in terms of conditioning, and I think injury prevention is one of the reasons for that. Fatigue tends to make everything worse in general, so if you take someone who already has questionable form and then stick them in a situation where its only going to get worse over time, then that is a recipe for disaster. I havent seen a single athlete do a burpee or a mountain climber, but some of the regular clients have been and they’ve been fine, mainly because the staff keeps such a watchful eye on them, correcting their form when necessary. Nor are they usually doing any one exercise long enough for form to beak down to such a degree.

      In general though, I think they’re great if you don’t have any back problems – just learn the correct form and go for it. I wouldn’t program that into someones program who has flexion based back problems, as the risk of getting injured by doing those exercises far outweighs the benefit, especially when there are other options.

      No need to apologize about being wordy, Jack. As you can see I am equally as loquacious*

      * I haven’t been able to use that word since I learned it a long time ago. VICTORY!

      If you have anymore questions, feel free to drop ’em on me.

      – Rog

  2. Jack says

    Thank you and then some for the very generous and thorough reply. Much obliged. And yes, bonus points for working in loquacious! It ranks right up there with logorrhea when ranking words that make my fellow gym goers put their corrugator supercilii to work (and potentially considering hurling a few nickels or dimes at my head, hah, hah).

    Have an excellent weekend, and thanks again!

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