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Classic Exercise Variations That Keep You From a Plateau

As you go about your weight lifting program, chances are that at one point or another, you’re going to run into a plateau.  Plateaus are very common among more advanced trainees as the more experience they have in the weight room, the more their body has come to know and expect what’s going on.

Beginners often don’t come across a plateau nearly as quickly because their body is so new to exercise in itself that almost any stress you throw at it will have it adapting and getting stronger. Once you’ve been on a workout for a longer period of time though, your body realizes how to handle various stressors and adapts at a much quicker pace. Because of this reason, it’s vital that you are frequently changing some aspect of your program around in effort to prevent the plateau from occurring in the first place.

There are many ways that you can go about making changes such as varying the rep range scheme you are using, varying the exercise order that you go about your workout with, as well as varying the number of total sets you are performing. Note though that rep range and total sets do tend to correlate together, that is the higher the rep range, generally the fewer total sets you will perform. The entire volume of the workout needs to always be kept in mind, so this is something that you shouldn’t overlook.

Now, another way you can help prevent a plateau from occurring is by making simple changes in some of the exercises you’re already doing that will enable you to hit the muscle from a slightly different angle, ‘shocking it’ and getting it responding again. This is a good option for those who are making okay progress with their workout at the moment in that they aren’t stalled enough to completely switch over to a different program entirely, but they still are looking for something that will get their body progressing a little better than it has.

That’s where adding a small variation comes in.  Ideally what you would do is add one variation in for a couple of weeks, then switch off and add another variation (potentially on a different exercise altogether). As long as something is changing, that’s what you’re mostly concerned with.  This will prevent you from being stagnant, doing the same workout day after day.  Since it’s unlikely that you will be able to constantly be adding more weight to the bar with each and every workout you do, this is a nice way to change the angle a little so you’re still getting stronger.

Here are some variations on classic exercises that you should consider. 

Bench Press Variations

The bench press is an absolute must when it comes to upper body workouts.  It’s going to stimulate the chest muscles, the biceps, as well as the triceps, and depending on the type of bench press you’re doing, you might also hit the shoulders slightly.
Basically, this is one of the best compound movements that will get you seeing results.  It’s also a lift that people do tend to get stuck on at some point, struggling to lift more weight.

When this happens, there are some options as far as trying to push past the plateau.  First is having your spotter help you through the higher weight, hoping that you’ll eventually be able to build up enough strength doing that alone.
Next, you can also try drop sets where you lift your highest weight and then immediately move to a lighter weight while completing a second set.

This can help increase the muscles ability to withstand fatigue and you might get strong enough using this technique to push you over the edge of moving up to that next weight category. If those fail, then you are best advised to implement a variation, giving the straight bench press a break for a short period of time before coming back to it again.

Many people do find that after a layoff, they come back stronger, thus are then able to bust the plateau and increase the weight.  Since the variations allow you to still work the muscles used in the bench press in a compound fashion, it is what you want to be doing while laying off the standard bench press.

Close Grip Bench

The close grip bench press is a good way to place a little more pressure on the triceps muscle.  With this hand positioning, you will put more stress on them and less on the chest, so this is an ideal option when you’re also looking to build up this smaller muscle in the arm.

The nice thing about using this exercise is that since you will still have the chest in there helping you out, you will be able to lift a higher amount of weight than if you were doing a strictly isolated tricep movement. This allows for greater strength development as well as a higher calorie burn during the workout.

One thing to keep in mind with this movement is that it does tend to be a bit stressful on the elbow joints, so if you suffer from tennis elbow or any other elbow injuries, you’ll want to proceed with caution.

Underhand Grip Bench

The underhand grip bench is another variation you can do that will again put more emphasis on the tricep muscle, but also work the biceps to a greater extent as well. This is good for individuals who want to do more of a specialization workout focusing on arms without taking a break completely from their chest. Since the arms are a muscle many people do want to bring up after they’ve developed the chest muscle to their satisfaction, this variation is ideal in this situation.

Incline Bench Press

Finally, you have the incline bench press.  Many individuals also will include this as part of their upper body workout with the bench press, but it can also be done on its own when you’re laying off the standard bench for a short period of time. The incline bench press is going to hit the shoulder muscles much more, so that’s something to aware of.  If you attempt to do a heavy incline press and then move directly to a shoulder press, you’re going to find your shoulder press lift suffering. Most of the time you will choose between these two exercises in your workout, doing the shoulder press if you strictly want shoulder stimulation and doing the incline press if you want shoulder with chest stimulation.

Squat Variations

Like the bench press is one of the main exercises to focus on during your upper body workouts, the squat is the king of the lower body workouts.  Working the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, this lower body movement is a fantastic way to add muscle mass, build strength, as well as crank your metabolism into high gear.

Making sure it’s included as part of your program is a very smart plan if you’re hoping to get maximum results from your training plan.  The two big variations on the exercise that only involve where the bar is placed on the body include the back squat and the front squat.  With the back squat, the bar will be placed over the shoulders, while with the front squat it will be placed across the front of the body, running across the collar bone.

These two different placements will offer a different loading pattern, altering the direction of the force on the legs (front squat will stimulate the quads more while back squat will hit the glutes and hamstrings to a greater extent).
Here are a few others variations to consider.

Sumo Squat

The sumo squat is performed simply by taking a wider stance with your feet and then turning them out slightly.  This causes there to be a higher degree of stressed placed on the inner thigh and glute muscles, giving that area of the leg a greater workout.
When first performing this variation, be sure you decrease the weight you typically lift slightly, since the body will not be used to this pattern of movement and could be slightly weaker.  Also note that the bar is placed across the back during this movement, resembling that of a traditional squat.

Split Squat

Moving on, the split squat is a really good way to work the glute and hamstring muscles and is more of a cross between a squat and a lunge. To perform this, you place one leg up behind you on a box or bench with a barbell across your back, keeping the standing leg directly in front of you, knee straight.

From there, you are to begin to lower the body down to the ground, bending the standing leg while keeping the body upright. Lower as far as you can go, then rise up once again until you are in the standing position to complete the rep.
This is another movement that will really test your balance abilities as well, so be sure you are starting off with just the bar for the first few sets to allow your body a chance to get accustomed to the exercise.

Bent Over Row

The bent over row is one of the main movements for working the back muscles. Like the bench press, sometimes you get ‘stuck’ at a weight and need to find a way to change the movement slightly so you can keep progressing despite the plateau in weight.

Here are a few options.

Underhand Row

The traditional row is performed using an overhand grip, but you can also perform the row using an underhand grip. In doing so, you’ll hit the lats while also working the biceps to a greater extent.  Most people are slightly weaker in this position, so just watch out for that as well. Start with a slightly lighter weight and then work your way up from there.

Seated Cable  High Row

While the traditional row is performed on a strictly horizontal plan, the seated high cable row is performed on an angle and will work across a different pathway of motion. You will work the erector muscles in the spine slightly more while performing the movement in this fashion, especially if you focus on making sure you go through the entire range of motion.

One Arm Twisting Seated Row

Finally, another variation you can do is a one arm twisted seated row.  To perform this you will sit in front of the cable row machine and holding the handle with one hand, pull directly back, twisting to one side as you do.
This will call into play the muscles surrounding the hip as well, including the quadrates lumborum and the psoas major. After doing one side, make sure you perform the movement on the other as well to help balance out the muscles.
So, next time you’re experiencing a plateau, make sure you keep these variations in mind.  Don’t add all the variations at once – rather implement one into your workout at a time so you’re in a constant state of change.

Setting it up in this way will help ensure that you don’t hit a plateau and that you are getting a very well rounded approach to your workout program.

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