Written by Lee Boyce | Photography by Paul Buceta
Switching up your workouts and exercises comes with a host of benefits. It can help you conquer plateaus, prevent injuries from overuse, and give you a much-needed mental boost to avoid getting bored or complacent. One of our favorite ways to switch things up is to level-up our current routines, and that’s where the following four exercises come in. These graduated versions of tried-and-true go to’s can change everything you thought you knew about their basic movement patterns, while spicing things up and opening up a world of new challenges. Be warned, these exercises aren’t for newbies, but don’t worry: We’ve provided options for baby steps so you’ll be well on your way, on your timeline.
Iron Cross Plank
The standard plank can become a little redundant, and by now, we know that adding more time to the plank is hardly an indicator of how strong or good quality that plank might be. It can be cumbersome to find ways to add load to the plank pattern, and it usually takes a partner to help with that, so here’s a better idea: Change your base of support.
Pointing the fingers outward and using a wider hand position makes the iron cross plank an instantly more challenging variation that doubles as a way to take you one step closer toward the planche hold (one of the most badass bodyweight movements of all time). This supercharges a standard plank by asking the trunk to become even more responsible for the holding position, especially the shoulders, chest, and arms.
In your high-plank position, space the hands out farther until you reach a comfortably challenging width, and turn the fingertips out towards the sides. Keep the elbows slightly bent and contract the glutes to engage the core further. You’re a rockstar if you can hold this position for 30 seconds. If that’s a piece of cake, progress the movement by elevating the feet onto a low platform.
1.5 Rep Squat
For an impressive set of legs—both in aesthetics and performance—the squat is the gold standard. But depending on the lifter’s skill level and anatomical structure, developing muscle or improving technique to create strength might not be accessible throughout all phases of the movement.
The science behind the 1.5 rep squat is simple: The knee has to get into deep flexion twice for every rep, meaning the quadriceps will have to double their efforts on each rep. This is a great way to build strong quads while focusing on form, patience, and technical mastery through both phases of the movement. Breaking the squat pattern down into its components can better manipulate progression to the usual squat pattern, while forcing the lifter’s form to remain honest.
Begin with feet hip-distance apart and hold a barbell in a racked position. On the eccentric phase of the squat, sit back slowly and controlled until you reach your full depth (A). Extend the legs just to come up halfway, then stay for a distinct pause (B). Return to the depth of your squat once more (C), then ascend all the way back to standing (D). That’s one rep.
Can’t Master the Exercise Yet?
Simply focusing on controlled negative reps and a full pause at the bottom of each rep will bring you well on your way to eventually doing this movement.
Push-Up with Single-Arm Deficit
Push-ups can be a love/hate move for women, but if your usual set has started feeling like child’s play, you might want to try this progression on for size. Giving one arm a deficit can be just the ticket to greater single-arm strength and more gains. This movement doubles as a wicked core blaster, too, since each rep essentially asks the lifter to do a one-armed plank to finish each push-up.
In this move, you’ll press up from your push-up, but the fun won’t stop there. Continue pushing with the mounted hand, so that the other hand leaves the ground. Touch the shoulder of the mounted hand for balance and stability. You’ll have to press slightly across the body to make this transition smooth. Prepare for a major hit in the chest and shoulder of the mounted side, based on the extra work required on each rep.
Set up a wide-stance high-plank beside a platform no more than one foot high. Place one hand on the platform, and one on flat ground. In the push-up, after the body reaches full depth (A), the idea is to press back up with both hands until the hand planted on the floor is locked out (B). Continue pressing until your hand leaves the ground so you can place it on your shoulder (C). Try sets of 6-8 reps per arm.
Can’t Master the Exercise Yet?
Regress the movement by keeping both hands planted and performing push-ups without making use of the deficit.
Flexed Arm Hang
If you’re well on your way to your first bodyweight pull-up or chin-up, you’re likely ready and willing to get yourself over the edge and make it a reality. Using isometric holds can be a great way to attack that goal without using any forms of “assistance” to get there. Here’s the science.
In 99 percent of pulldown and pull-up patterns, the amount of time the lifter spends with the bar in contact with the torso is minimal, typically a glance off the upper chest before the eccentric phase begins. Though this is perfectly acceptable, it does very little to exploit the strength the lifter can produce at those end ranges. For that reason, emphasizing that by way of hammering away at the top end with a long, strong isometric hold can force a lifter to work to the limits of her contractile strength to stay in position, and in doing so, can exploit one of the weakest points of her pull-up or chin up.
Performing this with an overhand or underhand grip is your choice, but what matters most is that good form is used. It’s a big no-no to do this with the shoulders creeping up toward the face; the shoulders should remain depressed, and the neck long. If you can do this for a 30-second hold while respecting the rules, you’re probably very close to being able to perform your own full rep.
Can’t Master the Exercise Yet?
Focus on sets of eccentric-only chin-ups by using a box or step and “hopping” up to the top position, working hard to lower your body as slowly as possible to a full hang.