20 Ways To Add Variation To Your Workouts
Do you hate exercise? Do you ever get bored of your workouts? Want to get a little bit more out of your home (or gym) exercise program? Are you struggling to stay motivated, engaged, and excited, but aren’t quite sure exactly what needs to change?
It doesn’t matter how optimal your workout program is. If you are bored to the point of not wanting to do it, something needs to change. However, we do not need to sacrifice effectiveness for novelty. A well-balanced program has a healthy dose of both. You can simply and effectively add variety to your workout program, while simultaneously helping drive positive fitness adaptations (9).
This article is simple: an amassment of 20 different strategies for progressing, advancing, and strengthening the quality of your workouts, body, mind, and performance. And, instead of making your program more boring, uninteresting, and grindy, you can use these ideas to make your workouts more enjoyable. After reading this article, you will hopefully have a different perspective on just what you can do to mix up workout progression in a fun and effective way. There is a lot to say about being dedicated and consistent, but having more tricks up your sleeve will allow you to train longer, train more consistently, and stay more engaged throughout your program (10).
This article is written as much for coaches as it is for the layperson. You can apply these strategies to help re-engage clients bored with a boiler-plate workout plan, or to add flavor to your own training program. Many of these tips are geared towards home workouts with limited equipment. This article was written with the minimalist home gym enthusiast in mind. However, you will have even more options for applying these strategies if you have access to a full gym.
There is much more to be said about each of these tips. However, for the purposes of this piece, I am just going to give you a general overview of each strategy, and how you could incorporate it into a program without needing to change everything about what you are currently doing. Let’s begin!
Strategy #1: The Creation Of Enjoyable Alternatives - This isn’t so much of a strategy, more of a general principle with which to guide your training. The importance of engaging in types of physical activity that you enjoy cannot be overstated. If you’re really new to exercise, you completely hate it, or you’ve tried to regularly follow a program multiple times and inevitably fell off, I cannot possibly stress this point enough. You need to find a form of physical activity that you like doing. If you are constantly forcing yourself to do workouts that you don’t like or are indifferent to, you are setting yourself up to fail.
I have had clients who run 5K’s, do rock climbing, go on walks, lift weights, use exercise bands, bodyweight exercises, yoga, group classes, and more. All of these strategies can and will produce long-term results in improving your health, wellness, and body composition. Too often, I see people overly concerned with starting the perfect program. You don’t need the perfect program. You just need ANY program that you will stick to. If you hate your current program, start making modifications that make adherence easier, right now.
Programming Tip: Intelligent variety is the lifeblood of a long-term training outlook. This isn’t to say you should do random workouts every time you train, but even doing that would be more effective than skipping the gym.
Strategy #2: Supersets. A superset (or is it spelled super-set? Super set?) is the completion of two exercises consecutively followed by a recovery or rest period. You can also do a “tri-set”, sometimes called a “giant set”, where you perform 3 or more exercises back-to-back (1). For example: perform 1 set of 10 pushups, and then immediately perform 1 set of 10 bodyweight squats. Supersets are best done in one of two ways: either opposing muscle groups (11), such as biceps and triceps, or with an upper and lower body exercise.
Programming Tip: Try incorporating super-sets near the end of your workout. I would generally avoid doing supersets for main lifts. There is research to suggest that supersets decrease peak strength performance (6).
Strategy # 3: Drop Sets - Drop sets are sets performed with descending load (2). You perform a set with a certain load, then reduce that load on subsequent sets. When we refer to “load” we are generally referring to the amount of weight lifted, however, load can also refer to the number of reps you perform per set.
For example, if you do not have a wide range of weights at your disposal, you could perform a set of 9 reps, then 8 reps, then 7 reps, with the same weight, as a means of decreasing load. The rationale behind doing this: your performance tends to peak at a certain point in a workout. Implementing drop sets lets you reduce load as peak performance potential drops, while still getting in more total training volume (training volume = sets x reps x weight).
Programming Tip: Doing too many drop sets too close to, or beyond failure can lead to more fatigue than you may want to generate from your training program. I have found that it makes more sense to use drop sets to squeeze in more reps in a shorter period of time at a progressively lighter intensity. Instead of the “go to failure, decrease load, go to failure, decrease load, etc” perhaps try “go until you feel the burn, decrease load, go until you feel the burn, decrease load, etc”).
Strategy # 4: Jonny Reps - This is an idea that I came up with over the course of a few months while attempting to do the most pull-ups possible in 5 minutes. I found that if I kept my technique very clean, and stopped well before failure, then rested only a short amount of time before starting again, I was able to complete more reps, with better technique per rep, in a shorter period of time. One of the keys to Jonny Reps is staying well enough away from failure that your form doesn’t begin to suffer. Another is only resting minimally between sets.
Directions: Start a timer for 5-8 minutes. Select a weight that you can perform at least 20 reps with in a single set. Perform a set, keeping well shy of failure. This means that if you COULD do 20 reps, you may only choose to do 12-15 reps on your first set. Stop as soon as you feel signs of fatigue, which would be around an RPE of 6-7, (see RPE later in the article). Rest for 20 seconds. Repeat until the timer runs out.
It is important to note, you should NOT go to failure on Jonny Reps. The emphasis here is getting a bunch of good quality reps completed in a short amount of time, at a moderate intensity. Each subsequent week, I would recommend trying to beat your number of reps from the previous week. Or, alternatively, increase the weight and attempt to match the reps.
Programming Tip: Only increase weight / reps week-to-week if you are able to maintain good form throughout and do not need to significantly increase perceived effort to do so. At some point you will need to reset your rep / weight goals by 10-20%. When significantly more effort is required to beat last week’s performance, this is the ideal time to do a reset.
Strategy #5: AMAP - AMAP stands for “As Many As Possible”. This one is pretty self explanatory. AMAP sets are sets performed for as many reps as you can, usually stopping when you have reached a certain effort level, or when your form starts to break down. Generally, I would recommend performing an AMAP set as the last set of an exercise. For example, if I am doing push-ups, I may perform 3 sets of 15, and then go for as many reps as possible on the last set.
Programming Tip: Even though AMAP sets require you to go up until, or close to failure, this doesn’t mean to use poor form, or start reducing range of motion on the last few reps, On the contrary, if you are unable to perform another rep with good form and a full range of motion, you have already reached failure.
Strategy #6: RPE - RPE stands for “Rating of Perceived Exertion.” When using RPE, you are choosing a certain perceived level of effort that you will exert during a set, before you perform that set. So, if you are preparing to do a set at an RPE of 8, you want to select a weight / rep number that will take about an 8/10 effort. The actual science of RPE goes much deeper than this, but for this article, suffice it to say this: RPE is your own subjective rating of the difficulty of a set of an exercise on a 1-10 scale, with 1 roughly equating to “could do this all day” and 10 equating to “maximal effort”.
RPE is, in a sense, entirely subjective. It is your perception of the level of exertion you are putting in, NOT the actual load, sets, reps, or weight you are lifting. Therefore, the very meaning of RPE is up for interpretation. What matters most with RPE, is not that you are being as exact or precise as possible. What really matters is that your own internal measure of what “feels like an 8” is consistent. For example, if this week’s RPE 7 set is significantly harder than the RPE 7 from the previous week, one of those two RPE selections was likely not accurate.
There is so much more to say about RPE that cannot possibly be explored in this article. For a much more in-depth explanation, read this article, linked in the citations (7).
Programming Tip: Start to implement RPE in your program by trying out different RPE numbers for the same exercise. For example, say “I’m going to do a set of pushups and stop when I feel like I’ve hit an RPE 7”. Then, rest for an appropriate amount of time and then do a set after this that is an RPE 8. Your RPE 8 set should feel harder, and you should be able to perform more reps. If you cannot get more reps than your RPE 7 set, you likely underestimated the RPE of the previous set.
Strategy #7: Percentages - Sometimes, it makes sense to use percentages in your training. These are often expressed in the form of a percentage of your 1-repetition maximum on a given exercise. A one-repetition maximum is the most weight you can lift on a given exercise for a single repetition. Prilepin’s chart (8) is a classic example of this for barbell based strength training. However, you can implement percentages in other ways if you don’t have access to a large variety of weight options.
You can, for example, perform a number or reps equal to a percentage of the maximum number of repetitions that you can perform on a given exercise instead of a percentage of your maximum weight. Here is a strategy that I learned from my powerlifting coach, Nigel Morton (13) for bodyweight exercises (specifically pull-ups). Take half the maximum number of pull-ups that you can do in one set. Perform 3-5 sets of that many reps. Each week, add 1 rep to each set. Example: if I can do a maximum of 10 pull-ups, perform 3-5 sets of 5 the first week, then 3-5 sets of 6 the second week, etc. Once you are unable to add any more reps, test your max number of reps the next week and then restart the process, based on your new rep max.
You can also decide to perform multiple sets for a percentage of the maximum number of reps that you can perform with a given weight. Example: I can curl 30 pounds for 30 reps. I will perform 3 sets with 70% of this maximum number of reps. This would be 3 sets of 21 reps.
Programming Tip: Perform in the 70-90% zone for strength goals, 50-70% zone for muscle growth goals, and under 50% for endurance goals. There are also “rep max calculators” that you can use to estimate your 1-rep max based on how many reps you can achieve in a single set with a given weight (12).
Strategy # 8: Ramp-Up Sets - I use the term “ramp up sets” to simply describe a training paradigm in which one performs increasingly difficult sets. These sets are usually performed until you achieve a “working” weight (or number of reps) that you then do for multiple sets. An example of this for barbell training would be as follows: Do a set of 10 with 45 pounds, then 5 with 135, 5 with 225, 3 with 275, 1 with 295, and then finally 3 sets of 5 with 315. The ramp up sets are essentially designed to build up to heavier sets, without burning you out.
An example of how you could implement ramp-up sets into a bodyweight exercise program would be as follows: Perform 5 pushups, then 10 pushups, then 12 pushups, then 3 sets of 15 pushups. The first few sets are essentially used to “warm you up” for subsequent sets.
Programming Tip: Ramp-up sets are designed specifically to NOT be fatiguing. They are essentially being done to PREPARE you to exert close to maximal effort, not to actually exert yourself heavily before you are warmed up. Go conservative with your weight / rep selections on ramp-up sets, at least at first.
Strategy #9: Progressive Reps- Progressive Reps differ from ramp up sets in that they are designed to build up DIFFICULTY, not simply to warm yourself up for harder sets. You can build up to a predetermined number or reps, OR you can build up until you achieve a certain RPE.
An example: I will bench press 135 for a set of 5, then a set of 6, then a set of 7, then a set of 8. Each set gets slightly more difficult, and is used as a sort of “soft test” to feel out your capabilities on that day. Effectively training like this requires a conservative choice for the rep / weight number of the first set, as you have multiple subsequent sets to perform.
Programming Tip: You can also use rep progression week-to-week in your training program. Example: week 1 = 4 sets of 6 reps; week 2 = 4 sets of 7 reps; week 3 = 4 sets of 8 reps, etc.
Strategy # 10: EMOTM / ENS / E2M - These stand for: Every Minute On The Minute, Every Ninety Seconds, and Every Two Minutes, respectively. The idea here is sets that start on timed intervals. If you do EMOTM, for example, you set a timer for 60 second intervals. You perform a certain number of reps every time the timer turns over to a new minute. You rest for the remainder of the minute.
For Every Ninety Seconds, you start a new set every ninety seconds, and forEvery Two Minutes, you start a new set every two minutes. Remember to keep the timer running throughout. You don’t stop the timer while you're performing reps!
Programming Tip: Add additional sets weekly to progress your program. Since the time investment of an additional EMOTM set is only 1 minute, you can add an extra set every week of a 4 week progression and only increase workout time by 4 minutes.
Strategy # 11: On / Off Intervals - On / off intervals (I also call these work / rest intervals) are timed intervals in which you perform an exercise for a predetermined duration of time, then rest for a predetermined duration of time. Some examples that I commonly use are as follows: 15s on 45s off, 20s on 40s off, and 30s on 30s off. During the “on” interval, complete as many reps as possible, then rest for the duration of the “off” interval. Repeat for the desired number of sets.
Just because you are using time as your measurement of progress doesn’t mean rep quality doesn't matter. You should never force bad form, or reduce range of motion in order to squeeze in more reps. Similar to all strategies on this list, this only works if your form and range of motion are locked in and stay consistent from rep to rep, set to set, and week to week.
Programming Tip: Start with a short work interval and a generous rest interval. Then slowly increase the work interval and / or reduce the rest interval with each subsequent workout. Example: Week 1 = 15 second work, 45 second rest; Week 2 = 20 second work, 45 second rest; Week 3 = 20 second work, 40 seconds rest; Week 4 = 25 seconds work, 40 seconds rest, etc.
Strategy # 12: Myo Reps - I first heard about Myo Reps from Barbell Medicine. To quote them: Myo-reps involve first performing an “activation” set, where a relatively lower load is lifted to near-failure, typically in the 12-30 repetition range. Then, a series of lower-rep “back-off” sets are completed with the same weight, e.g., 3-5 reps. These sets are repeated using 20-30 second rest intervals until the individual can no longer complete the targeted number of reps. (4).
The idea behind Myo reps, is to essentially to keep completing repetitions with short rest periods until you can no longer complete at least 3 reps with GOOD FORM. Myo reps generally work best at or near the end of your workout, with exercises where you have already established solid technique.
Programming Tip: Myo reps are useful when you are short on time. They don’t need to be progressed from week-to-week. Therefore, you can perform them the same way each week, increasing or decreasing intensity and number of reps / sets completed based on how you are feeling on each individual day.
Strategy # 13: Progression To More Difficult Exercises - This is something I often use for bodyweight exercises. You start with a variation of an exercise that you can already safely perform for multiple sets of at least 10 reps. Once you are able to hit certain rep goals, you will progress to a more difficult version of that exercise.
Example: start with kneeling push-ups. Once you can complete 5 sets of 10 reps in a single workout with good form, progress to deficit kneeling push-ups. Once you can perform 5 sets of 10 reps of deficit kneeling push-ups in a single workout with good form, progress to negative push-ups. Once you can perform 5 sets of 10 reps of negative push-ups with good form in a single workout, then progress to full push-ups. Etc, etc, etc...
Essentially, instead of adding weight to increase the difficulty of an exercise, you are moving to more and more difficult versions of said exercise.
Programming Tip: The amount of sets and reps that each individual will need to “make the jump” to a harder exercise variation is highly dependent on the exercise, the individual, and their training experience. In general, I find it effective to start each subsequent progression with about ½ the number of repetitions the individual was able to perform for multiple sets on the previous, easier exercise variation. So, if you can do 5 sets of 12 reps on kneeling push-ups, start with fewer sets of 6 reps on deficit kneeling push-ups, and then progress reps / sets from there.
Strategy # 14: Pause / Tempo Work - Exercise tempo refers to the speed in which you perform the exercise. Using pauses and adjustments in tempo speed in order to modulate training stress can be an effective way to drive progression. Consider this: performing the same exercise at a more controlled tempo, or with one (or multiple) pauses during each rep, is harder.
You can use this to your advantage when you don’t have access to much equipment. Examples: Change your normal bodyweight squats into 2-second pause squats. Pause and hold for 2 seconds at the bottom of each rep. This creates more time under tension. Another example, using tempo: Adjust your tempo speed to make each rep harder! Perform each rep with a 3 second down, 2 second pause, and 3 second up tempo, for example. This, again, makes the reps harder and also forces you to be more precise with your form.
Programming Tip: Dust off the tempo strategy once you have already hit a stall in progressing a non-tempo exercise. For example, once you are having trouble adding more reps to your push-ups, de-load, switch to tempo push-ups, and then begin progressing the tempo work similar to how you would progress any other exercise (by increasing sets / reps / resistance over time).
Strategy #15: Shrinking Rest Intervals - I use these when I am strapped for time, but I’m REALLY not feeling into the workout. Essentially, begin with a LONG rest interval, probably more than you need. Then shrink that interval progressively as the sets go on. Example: start doing sets of 10 on situps with a 150 second rest time. Drop 10 seconds off the rest time after each set. Once you are no longer able to maintain good form for the prescribed amount of reps and / or reduce rest time, you are done.
Programming Tip: Since you are only stopping once you get fatigued, and predicting when this will happen isn’t an exact science, it may work best to simply play with the reduction in rest time from week-to-week. For example: Week 1= start with 120 seconds of rest between sets and knock 15 seconds off of each subsequent set; Week 2 = start with 150 seconds of rest and knock 20 seconds off of each subsequent set. Play with different options, and see which option(s) gets you more total reps before fatigue, then apply them accordingly.
Strategy #16: Shrinking Or Expanding Reps - Just like shrinking rest intervals, you can do the same, OR the reverse with reps per set. If you are going to use shrinking reps, start the first set with a reasonably high number of repetitions, an amount that is somewhat difficult, and then cut the reps with each subsequent set. I often do this with pull-ups, starting with perhaps 10 reps, then doing 8, 7, 6, etc.
If you want to perform expanding reps, you add reps each set. Start with a low rep number, and add 1-3 reps with each subsequent set. Example: perform a set of 4 lunges, rest for 2 minutes, then perform 6 lunges, rest for 2 minutes, perform 8 lunges, then rest for 2 minutes, etc.
Programming Tip: Set yourself some rep goals weeks in advance and then hit them each week. Make sure these goals start off conservative, and then progress to a new personal best after several weeks. Don’t train until failure.
Strategy # 17: Plus (+) Rep Sets - Sets that are performed for a minimum of a certain number of reps, but then you keep completing repetitions until you get to the point where you are either fatigued, or hit a certain RPE. For example, if you assign yourself a set of 10+ reps. On this set, you perform 10 reps, and then continue performing reps until you have hit fatigue, an RPE assignment.
Plus (+) rep sets can be pushed really hard, where you continue the set until you are extremely fatigued, or they can be pulled back on a bit and ended at a lower intensity. Plus (+) reps sets are different from AMAP rep sets, in that you don’t need to go to failure, and that they can be modulated week-to-week. Some weeks, I will really push my + rep sets hard. Other weeks I just want to get a rep or two beyond my current rep assignment. The choice is yours. Do whatever you’re feeling, and have some fun with it!
Programming Tip: Perform multiple sets of an exercise, and then on the last set do a + rep set. This set is done not to induce fatigue or failure, but just squeeze out a few more quality reps. Then, you can use this as data for gauging how many reps you may be able to do next week.
Strategy # 18: Heavy / Light / Medium Days - You don’t ALWAYS need to be giving 100%. There are studies that show different levels of stress on the body may be beneficial for producing different adaptations (5). It makes sense to mix them up! Note: this does NOT mean the workouts should be the same difficulty, just with different percentages and rep schemes. Oftentimes, I see people doing sets of 5 one day, sets of 10 another day, and sets of 15 a third day. Working in multiple rep ranges is good, however, you should also be working in multiple intensity ranges.
The concept of a heavy / light / medium training strategy is to subject yourself to varying levels of intensity. A way you can do this at home: If you max number of push-ups is 20, day one (heavy) could be 5 sets of 12, day two (light) could be 3 sets of 8, and day three (medium) could be 4 sets of 10. You are varying the load and reps, but also the difficulty. If you were to perform 5 sets of 12 on the heavy day, but then 7 sets of 8 on the light day, you would not be as effectively utilizing this technique, as the difficulty of those two set / rep schemes is too similar.
Programming Tip: The heavy day should always be the first training day of your week. This allows for fatigue dissipation throughout the week, and to maximize performance / progress by not generating excessive soreness.
Strategy # 19: Accumulation Goals - If you want to do a lot of total reps, but aren’t sure what rep scheme you want to use, accumulation goals may be for you! Simply select a total number of reps, time, or distance (for cardio goals) and you’re off! As long as you get there, 3 sets of 20 is the same as 20 sets of 3. The goal is to just accumulate a certain amount of reps / time / distance. Easy, simple, and fun! You can get as creative as you like with how you do your reps.
Programming Tip: Try giving yourself progressively larger accumulation goals from week-to-week.
Strategy # 20: Cardio / Plyometric Supersets - As previously discussed, a super set is when you perform two or more exercises back to back, with no break. Cardio and / or plyometric supersets are when you perform a normal strength exercise, and then immediately perform a plyometric (explosive) or cardio (exercise where increasing heart rate is the goal over muscle activation) exercise afterwards, with no rest. For example, you could perform a set of squats (strength), then immediately afterwards do jump squats (plyometric). You could do push-ups (strength) and then immediately do high knees (cardio). Training like this can shorten your workout time, and also generates adaptations you would not normally get from standard strength training.
Programming Tip: Try making the reps / weight on the strength lift the primary goal, with the cardio / plyometric superset being a secondary priority.
There you go. I hope you find some of these tips helpful and can use them to spice up your workouts! If you have any questions about any of these strategies, want to critique or insult me, or want to inquire about my fitness coaching services, please email me at JonnyReps@gmail.com.
Have a great day!