The approach you take to progressing the difficulty of your workouts is one of the most important aspects of any program. Unfortunately, the most common approach is one of the biggest limiters of people’s results, and is even the cause of countless injuries.
A Flawed Approach
The mistake? Incorrectly thinking that results come from doing better exercises, not doing exercises better. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely a place for progressing to more challenging exercises, but the bulk of your results (or at least of those who get the BEST results) comes from mastering the basics. Even if the exercises do change, it’s the quality of the movements, not the type of movements you do that will make the biggest difference.
If focusing on the basics sounds boring, think again. Anyone who has ever spent a fair amount of time practicing yoga can attest that even the most basic poses (downward dog for instance) have so many layers of details to learn that you could spend years trying to master them without feeling stagnant. And each time you make a breakthrough, that exercise will feel brand new to you. This is a lesson in itself, to focus on the feel of every movement rather than just trying to get to the end of the set. The more you immerse yourself in every exercise, the more engaging (and less boring) it will be.
How do you know if you’re “immersed” enough in your exercises?
When you’re doing an exercise, are you observing every possible sensation in your body? Can you tell which muscles are firing more or less intensely than others? Have you even inquired as to what muscles SHOULD be firing more or less than others on that exercise? Do you notice when a movement feels natural and smooth compared to rigid and forced? Are you aware of how you’re breathing during the most intense part of a set when you are nearing your limits?
These are the types of things you should be honing in on and noticing at all times – not just counting reps or thinking about how much more you have left to do before you’re done. When you learn to redirect your focus like this, you’re almost guaranteed to find yourself enjoying your exercise more than ever and becoming steadily more connected and in tune with your own body.
Otherwise, taking the same poor movement quality from one exercise to the next is just a sure way to increase your risk of injury without increasing your chances for better results (in fact, you’ll most likely be making even more mistakes on the harder exercises, thus leading to LESS results over time).
So how do you know when it IS time to progress to a new exercise or switch things up?
There’s no concrete answer to this, but if you really are tuning in more deeply to every movement you do, then you’ll be able to tell very quickly if you progress too quickly and find yourself doing an exercise that you can’t properly perform. My advice is this: add in new exercises when you either feel like you are losing excitement for your training or that you are truly ready for something more challenging, but never fall into the trap of thinking that you can ever “outgrow” seemingly simple and basic exercises (there are TWO reasons to change exercises: progressions, which are based on difficulty, or rotations, which are based on cycling between different movements, basic or otherwise). And always remember…
The greatest catalyst in creating change is execution, not completion.