You don’t go to the gym for big muscles. Ok, maybe you do but it’s not the ONLY reason you go there. You go there to promote your health and wellness, You go there for your brain, for your bones, for your hormone systems, metabolism; the list goes on. In other words you go there to ADAPT.
But, don’t worry we won’t judge you if polishing your guns is still in your Top 5!
Any exercise can be changed by modifying it’s volume, it’s intensity or it’s complexity. Status quo is the enemy. To make the most of the time and effort you commit to your fitness routine be sure to keep it fresh. Keep your body on its toes so it is never getting used to a routine. Perhaps the most important and most overlooked strategy is changing the complexity of your exercises. This is a great way to shake up the status quo. To stimulate your body to always adapt while also steering clear of the More is Better trap.
This takes some creativity but it is also the most fun. For a proof of concept do half of your favorite exercise eyes open and the second half eyes closed (being mindful of safety). Did anything feel different? Here’s another one - take off your shoes and notice how your body creates force differently when you are barefoot (again mindful of safety).
Other ways to add complexity include introducing a challenge to your balance by narrowing your stance or standing on a foam pad. Use a bigger range of motion than you previously did. Studies have shown that working your joints through a larger range (think bigger motions) leads to better and longer lasting strength gains. Prioritize complex over simple. Single joint movement studies have been found to produce no added benefit to individuals who are using multi-joint exercises. If only one joint is moving (like bicep curls) dream bigger and get other joints moving (pull ups instead?).
The failsafe way to feed your body complexity is to add new exercises to your routine. Kettlebells, Crossfit, yoga, pilates, boot camps, martial arts and Movnat are all exploding in popularity. You’ll not find many boring movements in theses systems. They all prize the complex over the simple.
None of this means we ignore More is Better completely, there is still a place for volume and intensity, we just kick them out of the driver seat.
Changing the volume means changing the amount of the exercise, typically doing more reps or more time. For example 20 squats might turn into 30 squats. This isn’t the most exciting variable but it can be important if you are new to an exercise and your still developing your skill or if you haven’t exercised for a while and you need to let your skeleton and connective tissues adapt to your new routine. When your body sends you signals such as reduced soreness, reduced fatigue and lowered cognitive load (meaning you don’t have to concentrate so much) then you are ready to turn up the volume.
Changing the intensity means changing the speed, weight or resistance. Careful, this can become a black hole sucking your time and effort. As if we were exercising solely to score more points on the weight stack. A high score is what you want on Space Invaders, not when you're trying to improve your health and wellness. This black hole distracts you from all the other health related goals you have. Still, we won’t throw this variable in the trash, it does have a place. In fact, the percentage of lean body mass you have (meaning muscle mass) is a good indicator of overall health, but lifting heavier and heavier won’t, by itself, give us all of the benefits we want. Again take cues from your body. When soreness diminishes, when you can inhale and exhale normally during the exercise, when you can control the weight and your body safely then you’re ready to kick it up a notch.
Remember keep it fresh and keep adapting.