4 Ways To Scale Any Exercise
I hope you’re having a great week.
Can you relate to any of these problems?
You aren’t sure if your exercise program is well-rounded.
You’ve been stuck at a plateau for months and can’t bust through.
You travel often and need creative ways to make bodyweight exercises more challenging.
You’re tired of progressing only by adding more weight or more reps and are looking for fun new ways to challenge yourself.
If yes, the strategies below will break open a bounty of creative exercise modifications.
Whether you want to make a movement easier or harder, break a plateau, or simply spruce up your exercise routine, these strategies will be useful to you.
Let’s dive in.
Way #1: Relative Loading
What is a relative load?
Relative loading is the use of leverage to shift more weight onto the working muscles and joints in an exercise.
This can be done by changing your body angle or your joint angle.
Relative Loading via Body Angle
Your body angle is the relationship between your body and the floor.
Take pushups for example.
Performing a standard pushup with your hands on the floor and your body parallel to the ground demands your upper body to lift ~66% of your body weight.
When your hands are elevated on a bench, your weight shifts from your upper to your lower body making the exercise easier.
If your feet are elevated, more of your weight shifts onto your hands making the exercise harder.
The most difficult version of pushups is the handstand pushup where your body is completely inverted so that you are pressing almost 100% of your body weight.
Relative Loading via Joint Angle
Your joint angle is the position of your primary joints during an exercise.
In a standard pushup, your hands are directly underneath your shoulders.
In this position, you have an optimal mechanical advantage since you can move both your shoulder and elbow joints through their full range of motion and use your pecs, shoulders, and triceps to generate force.
This is called a bent-limb exercise.
But if you move your hands forward in the standard pushup position so they are no longer under your shoulders, the pushup becomes harder.
Your elbow joints can no longer produce as much torque and your triceps can’t generate as much force leaving most of the effort on your shoulders.
The same is true when you do an Iron Cross Pushup ― a pushup with your arms super wide putting your body in a T, or cross, shape).
Your chest goes into overdrive to compensate for your tricep’s inability to push as much weight in that position.
These are both examples of straight-limb movements.
Straight-limb movements are harder than bent-limb movements since they limit movement at one or more joints.
The primary muscles are either stretched or shortened beyond their natural resting length which makes it more difficult for them to produce force.
Way #2: Stability
What is stability?
Stability is the constant interaction between your centre of gravity and your body’s base of support.
Centre of gravity is the point at which your upper and lower body weight is balanced.
For women, it’s usually just below the belly button and halfway between the lower back and belly when standing upright.
For men, it’s slightly above the belly button.
Base of support is simply the surface with which the body is in contact.
Stability modifications tend to make your movements more functional and athletic since they demand more stabilization of your joints and recruit more of your core and balancing muscles.
The critical importance of stability
Longevity scientist and clinician Dr. Peter Attia is nuts about stability. And for good reason. As his website reads:
“Stability is truly the cornerstone upon which your strength, aerobic performance, and anaerobic performance relies. And when it comes to working on any of the other pillars, stability is critical for doing so safely.”
When you look at the sky-high mortality rates of falls in people aged 65+, the critical importance of stability only becomes more clear.
Stability Progression A: Base of Support
Wider base of support → makes you more stable and decreases the distance you need to travel to perform the movement → makes the exercise easier.
Narrower base of support → makes you less stable and increases the distance you need to travel to perform the movement → makes the exercise harder.
For example, perform a pushup with your hands at shoulder width and then close together with your thumbs touching.
Which one was harder?
Stability Progression B: Points of Contact
More points of contact → more stable → easier to perform the exercise.
Fewer points of contact → less stable → harder to perform the exercise.
One-arm pushups, pistol squats, and single-arm and/or single-leg plank variations are all examples of using fewer points of contact to increase the difficulty of an exercise.
You can also vary how much total surface area of your body is in contact with the floor to make movements harder or easier.
To make pushups easier, you can put your knees on the floor. Or to make them harder, you can go up on your fists or fingertips.
The same goes for squatting on flat feet versus squatting on your toes. Toe squats are harder because you’re less stable.
The use of surface area also applies to exercises which sit between two-limb and one-limb movements.
Split squats and Bulgarian split squats have you squat with one foot flat on the floor while on the toes of the other foot. In the case of Bulgarian split squats, your rear foot is also elevated causing a relative load (Way #2) that further increases the difficulty.
Archer pushups demand you to push with one hand flat on the floor while on the fingertips of the other hand. They also use relative loading to increase the difficulty on one side of your body at a time.
These exercises are harder than the two-limb version (i.e., standard pushup) but easier than the one-limb version (i.e., one-arm pushup) making them the perfect stepping-stone to the advanced one-limb movements.
Stability Progression C: Static vs. Dynamic Base of Support Contact
Removing your points of contact from the ground during the movement makes the exercise harder by increasing the stability required.
For example, compare a split squat with a lunge.
The movement patterns are almost identical, except both feet remain on the ground for a split squat whereas you are removing a point of contact by stepping forward or backwards with a lunge.
Since both feet are on the ground the entire movement, the split squat provides a static base of support whereas a lunge creates a dynamic base of support making it more difficult.
When your feet leave the ground, the exercise is more challenging.
Stability Progression D: Asymmetrical Loading
An asymmetrical (or uneven) load is when one side of your body has more weight on it than the other side.
A simple example is walking while carrying a dumbbell in one hand.
This movement creates tipping and rotational forces that require greater midline stabilization.
A single-leg hip hinge such as the cross-body one-arm single-leg deadlift (1SDL) creates uneven loading that requires your body to cope with rotational forces.
A slightly easier variation of the 1SDL is the two-arm single-leg deadlift (2SDL) since the load is distributed more symmetrically.
Stability Progression D: Unstable Surface
Dynamic, fluid surfaces are more unstable and make exercises significantly more challenging.
This is why running on sand is harder than running on pavement and a plank with your feet on a stability ball is harder than when they’re on the ground.
Use stability balls, balance pads, and balance boards to add more stability work to your exercise program.
Just be careful.
Rule #1 of any exercise program should be to not get injured.
Way #3: Tempo
Tempo refers to the speeding up or slowing down of a movement.
There are 4 distinct parts of an exercise you must understand before leveraging tempo.
The eccentric is the negative or “lowering” portion of an exercise when your muscles lengthen under tension.
Like hitting the brakes on your car, this is the deceleration phase of a movement. Your muscles are strongest during this portion of the movement.
Eccentric-Concentric Transition Period
The eccentric-concentric transition period is the moment between the eccentric and concentric phases of an exercise. It is the midpoint of an exercise.
Pausing at this transition creates an isometric contraction known as an isometric hold.
The concentric is the positive or “lifting” portion of an exercise when your muscles shorten under tension.
Like hitting the gas on your car, this is the acceleration phase of a movement.
Transition Period Between Reps
The transition period between reps is the time between each repetition of an exercise.
Putting It All Together: Tempo Progression In Action
Here’s an example of how you can use tempo to increase the difficulty of the standard pushup:
Lower your chest to the floor over 3 seconds (eccentric)
Pause for 1 second at the bottom without resting on the floor (eccentric-concentric transition)
Explode back up to the starting position (concentric)
Pause for 1 second at the top before performing the next rep (transition period)
But before using tempo progressions, ensure you can perform the movement in question with perfect technique using the following tempo:
2-second lowering (eccentric)
1-second pause (eccentric-concentric)
1-second explosive positive (concentric)
1-second transition (transition)
When you’re ready for tempo progressions, here are 3 strategies you can try.
Tempo Progression A: Go Faster To Boost Power
Training for max power requires performing explosive work for 10 seconds or fewer or 5 reps or fewer.
For example, you could perform sets of 3-5 jump squats with a few minutes of rest in-between with the intention of getting as much height as possible on every rep.
Power exercises take advantage of the stretch reflex. This is when a muscle rapidly lengthens and then quickly reverses its action such as with sprinting and jumping.
You can also train for power by performing basic exercises such as pushups, squats, and lunges as fast as possible.
Training for power endurance requires performing explosive work for 20 seconds or longer or 10 reps or more.
For example, you could perform as many jump squats as possible in 30 seconds. Just don’t increase your speed if it means sacrificing your form or range of motion.
To reduce your risk of injury, master the exercise at a slow speed before progressing to a faster speed.
Tempo Progression B: Go Slower To Increase Muscle Work And Bulletproof Your Joints
Option #1: Isometric hold in the transition period
Perform an isometric hold in the transition period between the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (raising) portion of the movement.
For example, perform a 4-second hold at the bottom position of a pushup without resting on the ground before returning to the starting position.
Option #2: Slow down the lowering portion of the movement
Take 4 seconds before performing the concentric portion of the exercise. These 4 seconds can be split between the eccentric and transition periods of the movement.
In a squat, this could mean lowering to the bottom position over 3 seconds, pausing for 1 second, and then pushing back up to the starting position.
Slow lowerings are great for breaking plateaus and progressing to advanced exercises.
When I was a kid, I became strong enough to do pull-ups by only performing the lowering portion of the exercise at a slow pace.
I would stand on a chair to raise myself to the bar and then slowly lower myself to starting position. That’s one rep.
The same strategy can be applied to single-leg squats, one-arm pushups, and just about any other movement you’re struggling with.
Option #3: Set your intent
Studies show that performing the concentric (lifting) portion on every rep of an exercise with the intent of performing it as fast as possible will activate the most total muscle fibres.
That means performing your workouts with this focused intent can lead to greater gains in lean body mass.
Tempo Progression C: Get Stronger By Owning The Tops And Bottoms
If you want to get better at a specific exercise, focus on improving at the key points in the movement.
By mastering the top and bottom of an exercise (or the start and midpoint, depending on the movement), you’ll master everything else in between.
You can apply this strategy by performing isometric holds at the top and bottom of exercises such as pushups, squats, and pull-ups.
When performing isometric holds (pausing at a certain point in the movement) don’t just hold halfheartedly. Instead, try to create as much total body tension as possible.
Mastering your form and developing strength through iso holds is a great way to break plateaus or work up to moves you aren’t yet able to perform.
CAUTION: If you have a history of heart or circulation issues, consult a doctor before trying to maximize total body tension (or performing anything here for that matter).
Way #4: Range of Motion (ROM)
A full range of motion (ROM) is when an exercise is performed from the absolute top to the absolute bottom and back.
But ROM can be modified to make an exercise easier or harder.
Extended ROM is when an exercise is performed over a greater total distance to make the movement harder.
For example, performing push-ups on your fists or with your hands elevated on dumbbells is harder because your chest can travel a greater distance than it would in a standard pushup with your hands on the floor.
In other words, there is a larger range of motion.
To make an exercise more challenging, you can extend the range of motion and perform more work at the most difficult portion of that exercise with the 1.5 rep.
The 1.5 rep is when you lower yourself to the bottom of the movement, come back up halfway, go back down to the bottom, and then come all the way back up to the original starting position.
This can be done with just about any movement including pushups and squats.
Blocked ROM is when an exercise is performed with a different starting and/or end point than usual.
Constant tension technique
This technique is commonly used by bodybuilders to stimulate muscle growth, especially in lagging body parts.
You can apply constant tension to a pushup, for example, by starting halfway down and only moving between there and the bottom position. Since you aren’t resting at the top between each rep, your chest is under constant tension.
Two- or three-part block
You can also block ROM by breaking a movement into 2 or 3 parts and then performing a certain number of reps for each set within that range of motion.
Sticking to our pushup example, a two-part block would mean performing a certain number of reps in the bottom half of the pushup and then a certain number of reps in the top half of the pushup within the same set.
You could do the same thing with a three-part block by splitting the pushup into top, middle, and bottom thirds.
Blocking ROM might be the stimulus you need to strengthen sticking points and ignite new muscle growth.
Partial ROM is when an exercise is performed with a modified or shortened range of motion to make the movement easier.
With pushups, you might only lower halfway down before going back up.
With pull-ups, you could pull your body halfway up and then lower back down.
This strategy allows you to sneak in more total reps after you’ve fatigued (which may not be optimal depending on your fitness goals) or build up to a movement you aren’t yet able to perform.
Of course, the goal should be to perform exercises through a full ROM on a regular basis.
That’s it, folks!
I hope you have a great rest of your week and a fantastic weekend.
Please don’t hesitate to hit reply to this email with questions or if you just want to chat.
I always love conversing with and learning from Longevity Minded individuals!