From planks and pushups to deadlifts and leg presses, some exercises are true workout classics. But if you’ve found yourself in a real rut after repping through these moves day after day, don’t sweat it. With a few simple tweaks, you can make your go-to moves way more challenging, target different muscle groups, or turn up the burn for your core—and, ultimately, freshen up your training for more engagement and results. Here, trainers share some of their favorite ways to mix up the most popular moves in the game.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Rachel MacPherson, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., is a strength and conditioning specialist with Garage Gym Reviews. Aleksander Saks, C.S.C.S., is a strength and conditioning specialist. Scott Strickland, C.P.T., is a personal trainer with Slayer Strength in Los Angeles.
Deadlifts are a super-versatile exercise, according to strength and conditioning specialist Rachel MacPherson, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., with Garage Gym Reviews. This compound movement uses a hip hinge pattern and engages several muscles in your body, primarily those in the back of the ( known as the posterior chain), she explains. This includes the hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, rhomboids, and core muscles. Deadlifts strengthen all of these muscles and improve posture. Here are MacPherson’s favorite ways to mix up the move.
The Variation: Slow Eccentric Deadlift
These deadlifts are all about focusing on the lowering phase of the movement. They help you gain strength and muscle by controlling the descent of the barbell, and engage your back, core, and glutes.
How To Do It: Begin by selecting a lighter weight than what you would typically use to perform eight to 10 reps. As you lower the bar, do so slowly, counting to four as you descend, and keep your back, core, and glutes engaged. Perform the rest of the rep as usual.
The Variation: Sumo Deadlift
Sumo deadlifts are less demanding on the lower back and spine and are great for anyone who finds that conventional deadlifts aggravate their lower back.
How To Do It: Stand in front of a loaded barbell in a wide stance with toes pointed out slightly. Your stance should be broad enough that your arms fall inside of your knees and your hands grasp the bar between your feet. From this position, perform your reps as usual.
The Variation: Stiff Leg Deadlift
Stiff-leg deadlifts are a hinge variation that specifically works your hamstrings. They provide a deep stretch under load, helping you grow hamstring muscle mass and improve hamstring flexibility and mobility.
How To Do It: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your knees almost locked out. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing your thighs (or hold a barbell with an overhand grip). Hinge at the hips, sending your butt backward, and let the dumbbells or bar trace along the front of your legs. Keep your knees almost locked out the whole time, contracting your hamstrings and glutes at the bottom of the rep to drive your hips forward and pull back up to a standing position.
The move you’ve been doing since elementary P.E. is almost a total upper-body exercise. Pushups primarily work the chest muscles, but also involve your shoulders, arms, abs, obliques, lower back, hip flexors, and more, MacPherson says.
Without any need for equipment, pushups can do wonders for muscle mass and strength—and they can lead to better posture, spinal stability, and upper-body bone density.
A few pushup variations can help you maximize your gains and keep your routine feeling fresh.
The Variation: Pause Rep Pushup
If pushups have become a breeze, try this pause-rep variation. It increases time under tension, which means greater muscle growth, MacPherson says.
How To Do It: Get into a high plank position, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lower your body until your chest is just above the floor. Pause and hold this position for a few seconds, then push back up to the starting position.
The Variation: Decline Pushup
Decline pushups are a more advanced variation for those who’ve mastered traditional pushups, MacPherson says. They target muscle fibers higher in the pecs and are great for anyone who wants to build strength with fewer repetitions.
How To Do It: Start in a tabletop position with your hands and knees on the ground, facing away from a bench. Extend one leg at a time to place your toes up onto the edge of the bench, keeping your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your spine neutral, engage your core muscles, and perform reps as usual.
The Variation: Narrow Grip/Triceps Pushup
You’ll feel the burn in the backs of your arms with these pushups. They activate the triceps more than the chest muscles! Research shows that muscle activation of pectoralis minor (upper chest), triceps brachii, and infraspinatus (mid-chest and rotator cuff) is greater during narrow grip push-ups than standard or wide grip ones, MacPherson says.
How To Do It: Start by getting into a plank position with your hands directly below your shoulders. Slide your hands just narrower than shoulder width and align them with your chest. Perform reps as usual, sending your elbows back behind you as you bend your arms and lower to the floor.
Squats help you build powerful legs by targeting a whole bunch of muscles, from your glutes and quads to your hamstrings and calves. But if you typically stick with standard back squats, you’ll be surprised at just how challenging the following variations can be, suggests strength and conditioning specialist Aleksander Saks, C.S.C.S.
The Variation: Pistol Squat
Consider this bodyweight squat variation an expert-level exercise. It not only requires significant leg strength, but a good deal of balance and ankle mobility, to boot. The payoff: You’ll light up your core as you maintain balance.
How to Do It: Start by standing on one leg, extending the other leg in front of you and holding your foot up off the floor. Squat down as low as possible on your standing leg, keeping the extended leg lifted. Extend your arms for balance. Repeat on the other side.
The Variation: Pause Squat
Similar to regular squats, paused squats target the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, with increased emphasis on strength throughout the full range of motion. You can perform these bodyweight or weighted.
How To Do It: Perform a regular squat, but pause at the bottom of the movement for a count of two or three seconds before rising back up. This removes the kinetic energy stored in the tendons, increasing muscle activation and the intensity of the movement.
The Variation: Goblet Squat
Goblet squats, of course, engage the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Plus, since you hold the weight in a front-loaded position, they also require extra upper-body engagement (think free core work!).
How to Do It: Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell close to your chest with both hands. Squat as usual, keeping the weight evenly distributed through your feet and maintaining an upright torso.
The leg press is a popular piece of gym equipment for all fitness levels and can help build killer lower-body strength and muscle. As a bonus, this machine lends some stability, lowering your risk of injury, Saks says. If you want to get the most out of the leg press, Saks recommends these remixes.
The Variation: Single-Leg Press
This switch-up involves pressing with one leg at a time and primarily targets the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, depending on your foot positioning. Since you’re working to stay balanced, it also engages your core. Single-leg presses are great because they can help even out any strength imbalances you might have.
How To Do It: Perform the leg press using one leg at a time. While you’re working out one leg, you’ll either place your other foot on the ground, on the seat, or on the machine’s platform so it doesn’t interfere with your range of motion.
The Variation: Wide-Stance Leg Press
One of the easiest ways to switch things up on the leg press is to experiment with your foot placement. By taking a wide stance, in which your feet are positioned wider than shoulder-width apart, for example, targets the inner thighs and glutes.
How To Do It: Position your feet wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes slightly outward. Perform reps as usual, keeping both feet flat on the platform the whole time.
The Variation: Eccentric Leg Press
This switch-up increases the time under tension, which could lead to greater muscle gains. It works the same muscle groups as the standard variation but with a greater focus on control and the lowering portion of the movement, Saks says.
How To Do It: Position yourself in the machine as usual. Slowly bend your legs and lower the weight for three to five seconds before pressing it back up at your usual pace.
Planks are a staple core exercise for good reason, according to personal trainer Scott Strickland, C.P.T., of Slayer Strength in Los Angeles. They hit all 360 degrees of your midsection, all while getting your chest, shoulders, and even your glutes and legs in on the action. They’re also a go-to for building the strength needed to ward off back pain and improve posture.
The Variation: Spidermans
This is an excellent variation of the plank because it works the entire core, particularly your obliques. Of course, your shoulders, glutes, back, and chest will also work hard.
How To Do It: Start in a basic high plank position. Keeping your upper body still, pull your right knee toward your right elbow and then return to plank and repeat with the opposite leg.
The Variation: Shoulder Taps
This exercise will strengthen your arms (triceps) as your weight shifts to each arm as you keep yourself stable. This exercise will also greatly improve your posture and help with lower back pain.
How To Do It: Start in a basic high plank position. Keeping your core braced without swaying your hips, lift your right hand up and tap your left shoulder. Return to plank position and repeat with the opposite arm.