4 Ways to Make Exercise Harder

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For many, the whole point or notion of going to the gym is to see how “hard” they can make it. To test the waters, and to find out just how far they can push their body.

To answer the question: what exactly is my outer limit?

In some ways this mentality – leaving the gym swimming in a pool of your own sweat or coming thiiiiiis close to throwing up a lung – serves as a right of passage to achieve gym-hero status.

While a part of me wants to (and to some degree can) respect this sentimentality, making exercise harder for the sake of making it harder can be analogous to playing tag with a pair of scissors in your hands.

With rare exceptions, it’s generally not a good idea.

This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t strive to push him or herself in the gym by any stretch. On the contrary, it’s just to point out that most people would be better served to focus more on quality of movement over quantity of movement.  And, rarely (if ever) is it in someone’s best interests to implement harder, more advanced techniques and protocols like adding chains or bands or conjugate periodization or Olympic lifting 0r juggling chainsaws without first having mastered the basics.

I know, I know:  doing your push-ups correctly isn’t nearly as fun as slapping on some chains and bench pressing till you can’t feel the left side of your face.

But I don’t want to play Debbie Downer here.  I want people to work hard, and I want people to push themselves.

That said, here are some simple ways to make your exercises a bit more challenging.

1. Uh, Add More Weight

This is my Captain Obvious comment of the day, and seems self-explanatory.  I always chuckle a little bit whenever someone says, “Tony, “X” exercise is too easy.”

Add some weight Sherlock…..;o)

I say this one with a grain of salt, though.

One of my golden rules with my athletes and clients is to never sacrifice form/technique for more weight.

The more advanced or the more time under the barbell someone has the more leeway they get with this rule. But for 90-95% of people, 90-95% of the time, this rule always applies.

Stealing a line from Mike Robertson:  There’s no such thing as perfect technique.

Anyone who says their technique is perfect is an asshole.  Point blank.  I know some really strong dudes (and gals) who have been training themselves (as well as other people) for a very long time who are still constantly tinkering with their technique.

Using myself as an example, I feel my deadlift technique is pretty solid – but I would never say it’s perfect.

As Robertson notes in THIS article, think of technique as something that’s on a spectrum.


How’s that for fancy schmancy graphics!

In the middle is what I like to refer to as “eh.”

In this realm technique isn’t horrible, it doesn’t make me cringe, but it’s certainly not impeccable.

As we move further to the right, the categories range from “acceptable” to “I want to make a baby with you.”

Ie: I don’t really want to make a baby with you. Come on, don’t be so presumptuous. You’re a little high on yourself, huh?

All it means, is that, you know, your form is really, really good.  Like, reaaaaallly good.  

So uh, do you come here often? Whatchu doin?

As we move in the opposite direction, to the left, we see the spectrum shift from “unacceptable” to “please, no, make it stop, my eyes, my eyes!”

In this scenario the athlete or client isn’t lifting with acceptable technique – why?

According to Robertson it boils down to one of three things (or a combination there of):

1.  They can’t get into proper position or posture

2.  The coach doesn’t know good technique him or herself.

3.  The coach isn’t coaching or can’t get their athlete/client to reproduce good technique.

All of the above are valid, almost universal truths – and should be addressed.

However, I also feel that sometimes we try to get too cute and make things more complicated than they have to be.

While I’m all for people making a concerted effort to increase the weight they’re lifting, sometimes, the progression is to DECREASE THE WEIGHT.

This section is a bit of a conundrum, sorry.  In one breath I’m telling people to increase the weight; and a few paragraphs later I’m telling them to take it off.

A bit of “user discretion” is advised here.  Let technique be your litmus test.  By all means, go out of your way to consistently increase the weight on the bar; but not at the expense of routinely allowing technique to break down.

2. Increase ROM

Another “well, duh!” way to make an exercise harder is to increase the range of motion of said exercise. This serves as a nice segue into why I love box squatting for beginners so much.  While it helps to pattern the hip hinge and allows trainees to learn to “use” the hamstrings and glutes more, the biggest advantage in my eyes is that it forces people to be honest with themselves with regards to hitting proper depth.

It’s amazing how many 400+ lb squatters (internet max) are reduced to an uncanny dose of humbleness when forced to actually squat to an appropriate depth.

They soon realize that they can’t squat nearly as much weight, because it’s, well, it’s harder!

Increasing the distance and thus total work being done will have that affect.

Another example would be to take your standard reverse lunge and perform them from a deficit.

3. Use Offset Loading

One of my favorite – and unfortunately lesser utilized – strategies is to implement more offset loading into one’s programming.

This has several advantages:

1.  It highlights and thus forces people address any weaknesses or imbalances that may exist between one side of the body and the other, as well as variances between limbs.

2.  It increases total time under tension.  Performing 8-12 repetitions per limb essentially doubles the amount of time you’re under load.  It sucks!

3.  And most important of all, offset loading really forces people to address core weakness.

Performing a 1-Arm, 1-Legged (Offset) DB Romanian Deadlift is a lot more challenging on balance, body-awareness, and stability than one may think, as you have to pay much more attention to not tipping over.

The same principle can be applied to the upper body as well.  Try this:  perform a 1-arm (offset) dumbbell bench press.  Except here, take note of making sure to keep the contralateral side on the bench.

It’s a lot harder than you think!

4. Raise Center of Mass

This is one that my friend and colleague, Eric Cressey, highlighted in an article he wrote a few years back for T-Nation.

In short:  if you bring a person’s center of mass closer to the ground, it makes the exercise easier.  As Eric points out, “These guys all seek efficiency through stability, but in a resistance-training context where we’re attempting to get bigger and stronger (and improve our balance), we need to seek inefficiency through instability with our exercises by raising the center of gravity when appropriate.”

One of the easiest examples would be to take a standard Dumbbell Reverse Lunge and switch to something like a Barbell Reverse Lunge w/ Front Squat Grip.

By switching the weight from a lower center of mass (with the DBs at the side) to a higher center of mass (with a barbell up across the shoulders) you inherently make the exercise more challenging.

And That’s a Wrap

There are certainly numerous other ways to make exercise more challenging, but these were just a few to help you get started.

As it happens, if you’re looking for more top-notch progressions to make exercise more challenging or fun, in anticipation of the release of her brand new project, Lift Weights Faster, NEXT week, my good friend, Jen Sinkler, released THIS video today highlighting some doozies.

She’s a heckuva lot more good looking than myself, plus the video is FREE (with no obligations), so you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

You’re welcome….;o)

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Mike Anderson

    mike and tony 4eva

    March 11, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Reply to this comment

  • uriance88

    Tony, the "reduce weight for form" comment is probably the hardest thing for most people to learn. (as a 43 y.o. "lift for my health" kind of guy I see the young guys sacrificing form for a higher weight - meanwhile, I've deloaded my squat twice to work on form and depth and my quads have never looked better.

    March 12, 2014 at 9:50 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      With age comes wisdom.......;o) It's a tough sell for sure, but the sooner someone leaves their ego at the door and actually lifts CORRECTLY with a full ROM, the better results they'll (probably) see. The youngins just need to take their bumps and bruises along the way.

      March 12, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Reply to this comment

  • John J Brooks

    There is also unstable loads (chains, sandbags, slosh pipes, unruly toddlers) have to be used with disgression, but can be a great way to get folks to slow down and focus on their technique, understand stability and the premise of 'the body is one piece.'

    March 12, 2014 at 11:23 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Yeah, there are plenty of other options John, and unstable loads are VERY high up on that list. I was just getting long-winded and felt I was probably boring people to tears....haha.

      March 12, 2014 at 5:12 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Deeper! | Fun Intelligent Training

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    March 12, 2014 at 11:27 am | Reply to this comment

  • Megan

    Hey Tony - I've been reading for a while now and have an off topic question about deadlifts. I am a trainer at a very small Snap Fitness where we have 1 barbell and nothing I can prop it on for people who can't pull from the floor. What are your thoughts on teaching people to deadlift using a Smith machine? We will hopefully be moving to a bigger location this summer and will have a budget for some new equipment but for now I don't have a lot of options. And thanks for all the great info you provide here - I've learned a ton from your posts!

    March 12, 2014 at 8:10 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Hi Megan - Honestly, not a fan. Locking people into a fixed bar pattern isn't going to do them any favors, not to mention it was just feel awkward. I'd say your best option is: 1. "Elevate" the bar by placing plates underneath the actual plates on the bar. So, you'll basically place a plate on the floor on both ends, and just place the barbell on top. 2. Rack pulls. If you have access to a power rack (not Smith Machine), you can do these. 3. Maybe get some "training plates." Basically these are rubber plates that weigh 10 lbs each, but are the same size as a standard 45 lb plate. 4. Ask management to purchase a trap bar. They're relatively cheap ($150-$200). If they don't get it, buy one yourself (you can write it off on your taxes). Hopefully that offers a few ideas.

      March 22, 2014 at 8:47 am | Reply to this comment

  • Shane Mclean

    The barbell reverse lunge is one of the most challenging exercises I have done in the gym. Good stuff Tony.

    March 16, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tim

    We share very common philosophies in the sense that you should never sacrifice proper form in order to lift more weight. It's all about quality over quantity. Just to add to the discussion, another way to make exercise harder is to pause for a second at the top and bottom of a repetition. This quick pause eliminates any momentum that your body had forcing your muscles to work harder.

    March 28, 2014 at 7:57 pm | Reply to this comment

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