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10 Exercise Variations for Greater and Faster Results

author image Ashley Lauretta
Ashley Lauretta (formerly Erickson) is a freelance writer and fitness enthusiast based in Austin, Texas. Her writing appears in Women's Running, Women's Adventure, Competitor and more. Ashley is a proud alumna of the University of California, San Diego.

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10 Exercise Variations for Greater and Faster Results
Photo credit: Ashley Lauretta

It’s easy for a fitness routine to become, well, routine and start to feel stale, causing results to stall and your motivation to die. Sometimes it can feel like you’ve tried every move -- maybe one too many times -- and nothing with your fitness level or weight loss is changing. Thomas Tanner, B.A.Sc., CSCS, is a trainer at Pure Austin Fitness in Austin, Texas, and he understands the frustrations that people often feel when they get stuck in a fitness rut. In the following slides, he demonstrates variations on classic moves -- both with and without weights -- that are sure to kick up your workout and help you achieve greater and faster results.

Exercise #1: Squats
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Squats have a reputation as a lower-body exercise exclusively, but this move is definitely a full-body workout. When executed with proper form, squats not only utilize your glutes, but also your abdominal, back, shoulder and arm muscles. HOW TO DO THEM: Start by standing, then hinge your hips back and bend your knees as if you were sitting in a chair. To ensure you have correct alignment and reduce the chance of injury, rely primarily on your hips as you sit back, making sure your knees are tracking over your ankles and your heels are firmly planted. Once your thighs are parallel to the floor (or lower if your flexibility allows), pause then rise back up to standing.

Related: 16 Exercises From the World’s Best Trainers

Squat Variation #1: Add a BOSU Ball
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Adding a BOSU Ball to your squat routine definitely kicks up the difficulty. Not only does it increase your core strength by requiring extra stability, keeping your balance also recruits additional muscles in your legs. Proper form is even more important when performing squats on the BOSU ball, so it may take time for your squats to be as deep with this variation. Personal trainer Thomas Tanner says, “Adding a BOSU ball to the standard squat increases both the difficulty of the exercise and the work performed by activating multiple lower-extremity stabilizers and core muscles.” HOW TO DO IT: As you stand on the BOSU ball, place your feet parallel to each other near the edges (but not on the edge). Your feet should be hip-distance apart and slightly turned out. You’ll sit back just like in a normal squat, but your balance will be challenged due to the unstable foundation. You may not be able to go as deep as you do with normal squats, but just make sure that you maintain proper form throughout.

Related: How to Do the Squat Challenge

Squat Variation #2: Add a BOSU Ball and Barbell
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This move is performed the same way as a regular squat on a BOSU ball, only you’ll add weight with a barbell. By adding weight, you’ll see even more muscle development and strength gains. As opposed to a weighted squat, the added challenge of stability that the BOSU ball provides means you’ll work your back, core and shoulders just as much as your legs. HOW TO DO IT: You can either hold the barbell across your upper back or the front of your chest. However you choose to hold it, make sure your back stays straight as you lower yourself down. Again, you may not sit as low as you do when you’re standing on the floor; just make sure you’re hinging at the hips instead of bending from the knees.

Related: One-Leg Squat With a Band

Exercise #2: Lunges
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Lunges can be performed either stationary or walking. Though lunges work many of the same muscles that squats do, the added mobility they require means these muscles are challenged differently due to the additional range of motion. HOW TO DO THEM: From a standing position, take a large step forward with your right leg as you bend both knees. Both of your knees should be at 90-degree angles with your left knee under your left hip and your right knee over your right ankle. From here, you can either continue bending and straightening your legs for each rep (staying in place) or switch legs and walk forward as you continue your lunges.

Related: The Benefits of Lunges

Lunge Variation #1: Add a Side Stretch
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This may seem like a minimal addition to a lunge, but its benefits definitely bring greater results by recruiting your oblique and lower-back muscles. Personal trainer Thomas Tanner incorporates this move into his clients’ workout regimens and says, “Adding a side stretch to the standard forward lunge displaces your center of gravity, thereby increasing the involvement of core and stabilizer muscles.” HOW TO DO IT: As you descend into a lunge with your left leg forward, raise your arms up over your head and hold your right wrist with your left hand and stretch to the left, keeping your lower half in perfect alignment, especially your hips. When you step forward on your right leg, grab your left wrist with your right hand and stretch to the right.

Related: 14 Muscle-Building Tire-Training Moves

Lunge Variation #2: Rotate With a Medicine Ball
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This weighted lunge variation is a great way to add difficulty and work those shoulders. The rotation adds additional movement that requires core stabilization and increases the balance needed to complete the move properly. Your shoulders and back will feel the rotation and added weight, recruiting more muscles. HOW TO DO IT: Start standing as you hold a small weighted medicine ball straight out in front of your chest. As you step forward on your left leg, rotate the medicine ball to your left side, keeping your arms straight and your hips level. Step up to standing and bring the medicine ball back to the start. Repeat on your right leg.

Related: 12 Cable-Machine Moves That Build Muscle and Torch Calories

Exercise #3: Crunches
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Crunches are one of the most widely used way to target your abs, and the number of variations on this classic move are nearly endless. When doing crunch variations, you can engage specific abdominal muscles depending on how you execute the move, but the basic form of this move requires keeping your lower back on the ground. HOW TO DO THEM: Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Bring your hands behind your head. Contract your abdominal muscles as you raise your head, neck and shoulder off the floor, making sure your neck stays straight and that you’re not pulling on the back of your head. Slowly lower down so that you’re hovering above the floor and repeat. For this exercise, all the movement should come from your abdominal muscles, not your neck.

Related: 6 Gym Exercises You Are Doing Wrong -- and How to Fix Them

Crunch Variation #1: Add Leg Extensions
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This variation increases the difficulty of the move and helps target additional muscles in your core, lower back and backs of the legs, meaning results will be felt even faster than its traditional counterpart. HOW TO DO IT: Start lying on your back and extend your right leg straight to the ceiling. Contract your abs and reach your right hand up to your right foot without straining or bending your neck. Lower slowly down and repeat before switching legs.

Related: The 41 Hardest Core Exercises

Crunch Variation #2: Mason Twists With a Medicine Ball
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Adding Mason Twists to your ab routine is a great way to give your neck a break and decrease the stress on your shoulders. You’ll still work your center abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis) as crunches do, but the twisting motion includes effort from your obliques as well. And if you also add a medicine ball, your arms will get a workout too. HOW TO DO IT: Start seated on the ground with your knees bent. You can either plant your feet on the ground or hover them a few inches from the ground for greater difficulty. Holding a medicine ball at the center of your chest, rotate the ball to one side and then the other, engaging your core muscles the entire time.

Related: Why Crunches Won’t Give You Flat Abs -- and the 12 Moves That Will!

Exercise #4: Push-Ups
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Push-ups are so common because they can be done almost anytime and anywhere. When done correctly, you’ll engage your core and lower back, improving your posture and increasing your results. As with any exercise, doing fewer reps with correct form is more important than increasing your reps before you are ready, so pay close attention to technique when adding variations to avoid injury and allow for maximum results. HOW TO DO THEM: Begin in a plank position with your body weight supported by your feet and hands. Your body should be in a straight line from your feet to your head and your hands should be under your shoulders. Lower your chest to the ground without losing the straight line of your back and keeping your elbows in toward your side. Push back up to the top and repeat.

Related: 30-Day Push-Up Challenge

Push-Up Variation #1: Elevate Feet With a Box
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To really blast those shoulders and triceps, elevate your feet using a box or step and perform a decline push-up. The higher your feet are elevated, the more difficult this exercise becomes. HOW TO DO IT: Your form and the process for these is the exact same as a standard push-up, only you’ll start with your feet on top of a step, box or bench. Make sure you’re lowering your chest to the ground and not your hips or belly.

Related: 10 Push-Up Variations for a Stronger Body

Push-Up Variation #2: Add Weighted Rows
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For this variation, your wrists will receive less stress as you hold a dumbbell with each hand. The dumbbells not only add weight, but using them for the rowing motion increases the work your back, shoulders and triceps do. Additionally, rowing allows you to increase the weight more quickly than if you were pressing or curling the weight. HOW TO DO IT: Once you’ve completed a standard push-up, lift one of the weights off the floor and up to shoulder height before setting it back down. Do the same on the other side before lowering down for another push-up.

Related: The 15 Toughest Do-Anywhere Workout Moves

Exercise #5: Step-Ups
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Step-ups are a great way to build your leg muscles -- specifically your glutes and hamstrings. Though your core is activated, to get the most out of the move it’s important to have the leg that’s stepping up do most of the work and not push off too much from the ground. This move is also a great substitute for the stairs while still giving you some cardio and strength training for your legs. HOW TO DO THEM: Get a step or a box that’s no taller than knee high. Step up with your right foot onto the box or step, leaving your left foot suspended behind you. Step down and land on the left foot before switching legs and repeating on the other side.

Related: The 16 Most Effective Fat-Loss Moves

Step-Up Variation #1: Add Single-Leg Push-Offs
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To take your step-ups to the next level, add a push-off at the end to add the joint-strengthening benefits of plyometrics and increase the workload required of your muscles. This explosive movement will work your quads and the entire back of your leg. The higher the box or platform, the more difficult the move will be, so start with a lower step or box. HOW TO DO IT: From standing, step onto the box with your right leg. Push up off your right leg and jump straight into the air above the box. Land back on the box on your right leg, then step down and repeat on your left leg.

Related: Top 15 CrossFit Body-Weight Exercises You Can Do at Home

Step-Up Variation #2: Add Dumbbells
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Personal trainer Thomas Tanner says, “Adding weights to the step-up exercise increases the workload and positive stress placed on the muscles and joints of the lower extremities.” Use your upper body to keep the weight of the dumbbells from swinging forward while still getting the added benefit of working each leg separately and equally. HOW TO DO IT: To add resistance to a step-up, simply hold dumbbells at your side while performing the move, which will require more balance and add a level of difficulty.

Related: 16 Essential CrossFit Moves

What Do YOU Think?
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What move(s) do you think you’ll try next time you work out? Have you already added any of these variations to your usual routine and noticed results? Are there any other variations on squats, lunges, crunches, push-ups or step-ups that didn’t make our list? What are your favorites? Share with fellow readers how you change up your routine in the comments below!

Related: 20 Best Body-Weight Exercises

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