In the most basic sense, exercising is about learning how to create change in the body, usually in the form of goals like weight loss, strength increase or in body composition change. Working out is nothing more than exaggerating everyday movements to create a desired change.

Intensifying normal activities through adding an overload stimulus to movements such as sitting up and down, standing, walking, lifting something off the ground, or lifting something heavy overhead is step one in creating changes to the body for your desired results.

Finding ways to create this overload stimulus is the main principle of working out, and is executed most efficiently and effectively – the way the pros do – in three main ways:

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1) Mastering compound exercises

2) Learning different program design variables

3) Learning how to change and manipulate these variables for the desired effect.

Compound movements are big movements that engage many large muscle groups across more than one joint. Examples of compound exercises include: the dead lift, barbell squat, bent-over rows, bench press and military press.

All of these exercises force multiple large muscle groups to work in order to create movement at the primary joint, while also effectively forcing smaller stabilizer muscles to contract in order to keep the body in proper position. For instance, in the barbell squat, the hip is the primary joint that is being moved, thus incorporating the primary muscle groups of the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings to perform the exercise.

Additionally, the knee and ankle joints are also being moved, which need to be stabilized by the lower leg musculature as these joints flex and extend during the range of motion. Likewise, the spinal column (also a joint) needs to maintain neutral position and therefore requires all the stabilizers of the core (muscles from the anterior as well as the posterior chain) to keep it in proper alignment.

When done with proper form, compound movements create the most strength, promote the most muscle hypertrophy, and will aid in fat burning much more effectively than would a single joint exercise, like the seated leg extension exercise.

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Once a novice lifter becomes familiar with performing these bigger movements, they can then begin to manipulate the complexity of the exercises. Understanding how to adjust variables will make an exercise more potent and effective by making the exercise more complex.

There are several different variables a person can change to make an exercise much more impactful. Ways that a person could intensify an exercise could be by adding or removing weight, increasing or decreasing the number of repetitions, changing the speed at which the exercise is done (cadence or tempo of exercise), performing super-sets or tri-sets, or changing rest intervals by increasing or decreasing rest accordingly.

By changing a single variable, an ordinary squat could become much more intense. For example, by changing the tempo of the squat and only focusing on the eccentric movement, or descent phase, muscle activation of the legs is taking place even while the muscle fibers are elongating.

This change aids in your ability to squat more that your normal loads, and makes the overload stimulus much more intense. Not only can a novice exerciser lift like a professional, but now they can begin to add in small variations to ordinary exercises in their program that make the exercises more effective.

It is the knowledge and understanding of when to manipulate these variables, that will truly take your training to new levels. Changing the intensity of an exercise should take place according to a person’s goals, which means if one is training for strength they should increase the weight (load) of the exercise, and if one prefers to train for endurance they would increase the repetitions before the load.

Knowing how and when to manipulate variables like sets, reps, cadence, rest, or load according to goals is the essence of resistance training program design, and is what ultimately will be responsible for taking your ordinary training to extraordinary heights.

For example, anyone can perform exercises like the barbell squat or the dead lift, but to truly make the most of these exercise, a person needs to master manipulation of training variables in addition to mastering their technique. An exercise becomes more potent if it matches a person’s ability and goals.

If you have no injuries and can perform a barbell squat of 100 pounds, for 1000 repetitions, then the adaption will no longer have the desired effect-the overload stimulus no longer exists. In order to make that exercise more impactful, a person could change a certain variable, such as cadence, in order to continue seeing results.

So, taking that same 100 pounds, and slowing down the descent (or eccentric) phase now makes the exercise a negative squat, forces the body to work much harder to perform the same movement with the same weight, and completely changes the stimulus on the body. And voila! The gains can continue!

Knowledge of exercise is the start of the fitness journey. But it’s the manipulation of the existing variables that make an ordinary exercise have more effect on the physiological changes of the body. By forcing the body to grow and adapt more rapidly, one will quickly realize their desired results appear much sooner, making the time in the gym become worthwhile. And isn’t that what we are all after? … The results!

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