It’s easy to get stuck in an exercise routine that's, well, a routine. While going through the motions of a "ho-hum" workout may be better than no workout at all, getting stranded on a plateau means you could stop seeing improvements, and nothing is less inspiring than that. The good news? There are lots of easy ways to inject life back into your workout. Here are 13 of our favorites.
1. Watch the clock.
Workouts can suffer if you spend too much time chit-chatting or hiking to the water fountain. Keep a close eye on the clock to make sure you're not spending too much (or too little) time resting—hitting the sweet spot will lower your risk for injury, as well as make your workout as effective as it can be. Depending on what your goals are, the right amount of rest time could be anywhere from one minute to five.
2. Skip the machines.
While exercise machines do make resistance training user-friendly, free weights are your best bet if you want an extra-intense session. Without the help of a machine, you'll engage more stabilizing muscles during each rep and work your body way harder. The same goes for bodyweight exercises, which can be more effective at strengthening the core than workouts done on machines. Swiss ball abdominal crunch with added elastic resistance is an effective alternative to training machines. Sundstrup E, Jakobsen MD, Andersen CH. International journal of sports physical therapy, 2012, Oct.;7(4):2159-2896.
3. Combine strength and cardio.
People often think of strength training and cardio exercise as two separate activites, but they really don't have to be. Adding cardio intervals (like jumping rope or running 20-second sprints) into your circuit will rev your metabolism while still building strength. Aerobic exercise does not compromise muscle hypertrophy response to short-term resistance training. Lundberg TR, Fernandez-Gonzalo R, Gustafsson T. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 2012, Oct.;114(1):1522-1601. Win-win.
4. Hold your pose.
Contracting a muscle and holding it in a flexed position (a.k.a. isometric exercise or static holds) provides strength and endurance benefits that can't be achieved through traditional isotonic exercises (i.e., lifts that are in constant motion). Test it out with a stability ball wall squat. Start with a goal of staying static for 30 seconds, but increase that time as your strength and muscular endurance improve.
5. Embrace instability.
Your workout doesn't need to look like a performance from Cirque du Soleil, but a balancing act can go a long way. Exercises that require balance stimulate more muscles—especially in your core—than the same exercise done in a stable position. To test this, try doing simple exercises like squats or push-ups on a BOSU or stability ball.
6. Train one side at a time.
Performing unilateral exercises that force each arm or leg to work independently (think: pistol squats or single-arm push-ups) will build strength faster on each side than bilateral exercises that work both sides of your body at once (standard squats or push-ups). Plus, if you strongly favor your dominant side, you can use unilateral exercises to help balance muscular development and equalize strength across your body.
7. Add resistance.
There's a lot of debate about whether lifting heavy weights or light weights is more effective. The most recent research suggests they're equally effective, so long as you're working your muscles to exhaustion. But you'll exhaust your muscles sooner with heavy weights (maybe after 10 reps instead of the 25 or so with lighter weights), and harder work in less time means maximum intensity.
8. Build a circuit.
Quickly moving from one exercise right into the next is a great way to create a time-efficient, cardio-focused workout. Physical performance and cardiovascular responses to an acute bout of heavy resistance circuit training versus traditional strength training. Alcaraz PE, Sánchez-Lorente J, Blazevich AJ. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 2008, Aug.;22(3):1533-4287. When you're creating your circuit, though, make sure to slot exercises that target different muscle groups back-to-back to avoid burnout. For example, perform squats before a chest press, and then a deadlift followed by a plank. This gives each muscle group enough time to recover before they're used again.
9. Get explosive.
Old-school bodybuilders fed their muscles a diet of slow, heavy lifts to build bulk and strength. But explosive movements like box jumps, kettlebell swings, and plyometric push-ups target fast-twitch muscle fibers, which produce more force than slow-twitch fibers. The effects of endurance, strength, and power training on muscle fiber type shifting. Wilson JM, Loenneke JP, Jo E. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 2012, Dec.;26(6):1533-4287. Preferential type II muscle fiber damage from plyometric exercise. Macaluso F, Isaacs AW, Myburgh KH. Journal of athletic training, 2013, Feb.;47(4):1938-162X. Working them could mean a stronger, more powerful you.
10. Aim for failure.
Failure occurs when a muscle is so spent it can’t complete one more repetition of an exercise while maintaining proper form. In this case, pushing your limits is well worth the effort—research suggests training to fail can increase the strength and size of muscles.
11. Keep track of what you're doing.
Remembering every exercise performed, every repetition accomplished, and every weight selected during past workouts is impossible. But without a record of your lifting history, it's difficult to see measureable progress. Using a workout journal or fitness app provides motivation to rock every workout, and you might find yourself doing better than you thought possible.
12. Find a partner.
People who have an exercise partner are more likely to get active and stay active than those doing it on their own. Finding a workout buddy instantly increases the accountability factor and has been found to make people workout harder and more often. Received social support and exercising: An intervention study to test the enabling hypothesis. Rackow P, Scholz U, Hornung R. British journal of health psychology, 2015, Apr.;20(4):2044-8287. Plus, it's way more fun.
13. Make it social.
Not sure the world really needs to hear the details of your exercise or weight-loss targets? Apparently it does! Sharing goals and accomplishments on social media is motivating for you and for the people around you. What's social media good for if not providing hundreds of accountability partners, right?
Originally published December 2012. Updated May 2017.