12 Exercise Swaps to Help You Break Through a Plateau
Last Updated: May 09, 2014
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You know the routine: squats, lunges, leg curls, pushups, etc. You don’t realize you’re on autopilot until halfway through your workout when you find yourself checking your phone, oblivious to the person waiting for you to finish your set. Not only are you bored, but so are your muscles. Doing the same routine for months on end guarantees you’ll reach a plateau. It’s time to shake things up with new approaches to the same old same old. On the next slides, top experts provide ways to swap out your tired workout with some fresh moves to build strength and stability and bust through plateaus to make strength, performance and stability gains.
OLD MOVE: SQUATS - NEW MOVE: FULL DEADLIFTS
There’s no reason to completely ditch squats, but alternating them with a similar move sparks motivation and hits muscles differently. The hips flex to a greater angle than in the squat, and the knees don’t bend as much in a full deadlift, says Irv Rubenstein, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and founder of STEPS Fitness, a science-based fitness facility in Nashville, Tennessee. “There’s more glute and hamstring development than most squats yield (unless you go really deep), plus some major core and low-back activation.”
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OLD MOVE: LUNGES - NEW MOVE: LUNGES FROM A STEP
This challenging swap requires core strength and stability. Lunge from a four- to eight-inch-high step and return to the step while holding balance on one leg (if you step off with your right, return with your right while balancing on your left), says exercise physiologist Irv Rubenstein. “It’s semi-plyometric, where you have to both absorb the weight of your body as it comes down from the step and then reverse the pattern by pushing yourself up so that you return to standing.” The higher the step, the harder you have to work all around.
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OLD MOVE: LEG CURLS - NEW MOVE: NORDIC HAMSTRING CURLS
Ditch the leg-curl machine for this challenging substitute. “Nordic hamstring curls have been shown to prevent hamstring injuries and even ACL injuries (a common knee affliction),” says exercise physiologist Irv Rubenstein. Start by getting in a high-kneeling position with feet locked down (place feet under the weight rack and kneel on a folded towel or pad), very slowly allow your body to go forward by extending your knees. Proceed slowly because charley horses can kick in, says Rubenstein.
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OLD MOVE: PUSHUPS - NEW MOVE: PUSHUPS ON TWO MEDICINE BALLS
Not for beginners, performing pushups while balancing each hand on a medicine ball calls for serious shoulder and core stability to prevent the balls from flying out from under you. “The control necessary to keep the balls from moving places greater demands on both the scapular stabilizers and the pecs (chest muscles),” says exercise physiologist Irv Rubenstein. For a slightly easier challenge, use one medicine ball and switch arms with each repetition.
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OLD MOVE: BICEPS CURLS - NEW MOVE: CABLE HIGH CURLS
Lose the dumbbells and grab a set of cables (tubing with a handle attachment also works) to target biceps. Elbows should be at shoulder level with the tubes or cables attached at eye level. Stand in a split stance for stability. If using a cable machine, use a stable stance facing forward in between the cables. This not only works biceps, but also it’s a major core exercise, says exercise physiologist Irv Rubenstein. The weight tries to pull your trunk forward (or sideways), which requires your spinal erectors and abdominals to contract to stabilize the spine.
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OLD MOVE: TRICEPS PUSHDOWNS - NEW MOVE: CLOSE-GRIP PUSHUPS
The closer you position your hands, the more you involve the triceps. So in lieu of traditional triceps pushdowns, or for times when a machine is not available, hit the ground and pump out close-grip pushups instead, keeping thumbs and forefingers touching in a triangle shape. “The closer you keep your elbows to your body during your pushup, the more workload you will put on your triceps,” says Molly Harrington, a New York-based certified trainer. “If they are too challenging, try them against a table or bench to decrease the intensity.”
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OLD MOVE: CRUNCHES - NEW MOVE: REVERSE CRUNCHES
The interconnectedness of abdominal muscles makes it nearly impossible to isolate a particular section. However, you’ll feel some exercises more in the lower area, such as with these reverse crunches, which trainer Molly Harrington recommends for a change from the usual crunch routine. Lie on your back on a bench and hold on to the bench behind your head. Keep your legs as straight as you can as you raise your feet towards the ceiling and then slowly lower them back down to the bench. “The sweet spot in this exercise is the tilt in your pelvis as you point your feet to the sky,” says Harrington. “Be sure to lift your butt off the bench at the top of the move, and then lower yourself slowly back down, keeping your back tight against the bench.”
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OLD MOVE: PLANKS - NEW MOVE: DYNAMIC PLANKS
Once you can hold a plank (using good form and without hiking up the hips) for a minute or so, it may be time to kick things up a notch by adding a balance challenge, says trainer Molly Harrington. “You can reach an arm out in front of you as you hold the plank, alternating sides, while holding your hips as still as you can. Do the same for your feet.” Also try planks with your elbows up on a fitness ball, or flip it around and place your feet on the ball and your forearms on the floor.
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OLD MOVE: ADDUCTOR AND ABDUCTOR MACHINES - NEW MOVE: SIDE LUNGES AND SUMO SQUATS
Ignore the anatomical drawings on the inner- and outer-thigh machines that make it appear the machine strategically blasts fat in these areas. It’s not so easy. “These machines target small, specific muscles groups and are the least-effective way to get the results you want, anyway,” says trainer Molly Harrington. Instead, practice side lunges or sumo squats, which activate larger muscles, burn more calories and require core activation while still hitting the targeted areas.
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OLD MOVE: SHOULDER PRESSES - NEW MOVE: ONE-ARMED PRESSES
Instead of an overhead barbell shoulder press or the two-dumbbell version, try the same exercise holding a weight on only one side, suggests Mark Nutting, CSCS, fitness director of SACO Sport & Fitness, in Saco, Maine. “Any time you load only one side of the body, you create an uneven load on the core, so it has to work extra-hard to keep the body stable.” If you find your normal weight poundage too difficult to do with good form, decrease the weight slightly until you get stronger.
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OLD MOVE: CHEST PRESSES - NEW MOVE: STANDING CABLE PRESSES
Trade your lying chest presses for a standing move that challenges your entire body, says CSCS Mark Nutting. “We’re usually standing when pushing or pulling things in real-life daily activities. So training in a standing position better prepares us for that by challenging the whole body from the ground up.” A standing cable chest press (or using fitness tubing), for example, requires the legs and core to stabilize in order to complete the chest press.
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OLD MOVE: DUMBBELL ROWS - NEW MOVE: COMBINATION DEADLIFTS AND ROWS
Combining a couple of moves not only adds interest, it also gets you out of the gym faster. “They offer more variety and a potentially higher metabolic demand (greater calorie burn during and after your workout),” says CSCS Mark Nutting. A Romanian deadlift combined with a bent-over row works well. Perform this by lowering the weight for the deadlift, then rowing the bar to your chest. You can also then stand up into a front squat followed by a military press.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
What do you think of these exercise swaps? Will you be incorporating any of these different moves into your routine? Are there any other moves you’ve swapped? Leave us a comment below and let us know.
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