Make your exercises harder to make your skills easier


I’m not a sadistic coach; I don’t subscribe to the idea that just because it hurts it’s good for you, or that more pain = more gain. But I’m not an easy coach either; I don’t like accepting any less from people than what I think they are truly capable of and I understand the place that discomfort has in training. I joke in the gym that I can make anyone bad at an exercise they thought they were good at, but it’s not really about undermining people. It’s much more subtle than that: if there is a way to change an exercise to expose a weakness, then surely the potential strength gain is not only increased overall but in the most effective way possible?

Anything, any way. Truly “functional” movement isn’t always optimal.

Which leads to the title of this article. Bodies are clever (I say over and over again). The human form is capable of Incredible things and the more we use it in extreme ways the more ways it will find to work around any underlying deficiencies which may be present. Think about it: your body is a survival machine, if it’s running from a predator or working to lift a heavy object off of a loved one, is it really going to let “gluteal amnesia” or a “scapular dyskinesia” or “poor” thoracic mobility get in the way? If gets the job done, however it can.

Fast forward to the artificial movement environment that is gym or sports training. It’s unnatural to lift huge weights overhead in the blink of an eye;  to walk the length of a field and back on your hands; to hurl yourself through the air performing multiple twists and rotations and stick a perfect landing on two feet; to bend your spine enough to kick yourself in the back of the head. These are extreme sporting movements, but really we can extend this to many exercises. How many cable pulley machines, rowers, or for that matter, laptops, have been in our natural environment for the majority of human evolution? Training yourself to accomplish these feats or use these objects is amazing but to your homosapien form it’s all the same: do or die regardless of the ultimate cost.

Doable doesn’t equal desirable

Ok so I’ve digressed a little, but I hope you’re still with me because I’m making my point: Just because you can do an exercise and do it fast or heavy, doesn’t mean that you’re using your body in the healthiest and most efficient way possible.

Some people argue that this doesn’t matter either way, if someone is managing to do the movement then is it really important that they’re not doing it “Right”? I assert that it is.

It matters because this is a vulnerability in terms of the body’s susceptibility to injury and potential overload of structures that are not being used or supported correctly. But for a lot of gym goers who just want to get on with things this can seem like a somewhat abstract rationale for changing what seems to work. What really matters to a lot of us is our progress, and it’s only when it suddenly stalls we start looking around desperately for answers as to why. And that’s why we want to look a little bit more closely at how it is that we do each of the exercises we perform when training to get better at any skill. If it’s easy, ask yourself: “have I found a shortcut to make it that way, and if so, how do I make my exercises the best tool to identify and overcome MY weaknesses?” Or in other words: How do I make my exercises harder so that the resulting adaptation ultimately makes the skill I’m training easier?

Challenge to change

So how do we get more from the exercises we’re doing? What kind of harder is better? I’ve given five ways to boost the difficulty of any exercise below:

  1. Focus on form.  Be honest, use a mirror, a phone or even another human to examine how you are performing your exercise and what the rest of your body is doing to make it work. Remember that technical failure, that is a break down in form, can happen a lot sooner than absolute failure, where you just can’t do any more.
  2. Slow down your exercises and make them more intentional.This will allow you to focus on your form and build control strength in your small stabilising muscles as well as drilling  good motor patterns for when you are moving faster or with a bigger load later on. Research also shows slow eccentrics are a great way to build shear strength and muscle size.
  3. Work you sticking point. This is a technique classically used with exercises such as a squat or bench press where a lifter will isolate the part of the movement which they find the most challenging and work from that position. However it doesn’t have to be a big strength exercise and you don’t need a lot of equipment to do this. If you notice that there is a place where you lose balance or core control during any of your exercises try breaking down the movement and going back and forth in that more limited range, really forcing yourself to do it well. This method could be used either to prep yourself for the main movement (activation and single leg balance drills), make the whole exercise more challenging (for example doing 1 and a ¼ squats) or as a finisher for your workout. Be prepared to feel a deep burn
  4. Stop and hold. This is related to the previous two points but I still feel it needs to be taken separately. Think about just how many positions you move through easily in any of your skills.  By stopping progressively at different points it is possible to explore where exactly the weak links in the chain might be. Once you’ve found the most challenging positions either work on being able to hold them for progressively longer or find a regression or similar movement in which you can spend time holding and building endurance. This can range from something as simple as a mid position push up, hanging L-sit using a box to self spot your feet, or an front rack or overhead barbell support.
  5. Squeeze your butt; keep your ribs down. DO IT NOW!Focusing on a strong gluteal contraction and using your core to stabilise your spine and rib cage in movements as diverse as the pull up, squat, press or plank will help to ensure the best possible alignment of your joints and recruitment of the muscles crossing them. EMG studies have also shown that neural drive to larger more powerful muscles is increased on activation of the stabilisers and core.

You spend a lot of time and energy in the gym to get better at the things you want to do. Make that time effective: excise in the ego, suffer through the subtlety and reap the rewards. No matter what though, remember to enjoy the process; sometimes the journey is all we get.