1. Squats from 6 Exercise Progressions to Increase Intensity

6 Exercise Progressions to Increase Intensity

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1. Squats

Challenger of the quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes, the squat is the ultimate lower-body strength builder. It also helps to improve core strength and joint range of motion, and the number of ways it can be made more challenging are almost infinite. However, squats don’t have to be an exercise exclusive to the lower body… 

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Make it More Challenging— Squat to Overhead Press

Adding an overhead press to your squat makes the exercise more challenging by turning it into a compound movement. Combining these two exercises into one fluid motion will burn more calories and build more strength by stimulating the muscles of both your upper and lower body at the same time.  

To perform this exercise: Stand up straight and tall with your arms at your side while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Begin by performing a basic squat, making sure to engage your core and sitting back into your heals so that your thighs are parallel to the floor and form a 90 degree angle with your knees. As you begin to return to the starting position, slowly start to lift the dumbbells up towards your shoulders until your arms are raised and your elbows have formed 90 degree angles (your palms should be facing forward). As you make your way back to the standing position press your arms all the way up over your head to complete the overhead press. Slowly lower your arms back down until they have returned to your side and then continue to repeat the sequence for 10-20 reps, depending on your ability and fitness level. 

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2. Planks

If squats rule the world of best lower-body strength builders then planks are king of core. Forget crunches and sit ups and all those crazy abdominal machines, planks are one of the best exercises for building core strength and stability. But if by now you’re a planking pro and you can hang out in this position for a minute or more without breaking much of a sweat, it might be time to shake up your ship a bit…

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Make it More Challenging— Plank Walk-ups

Adding the “walk-up” element to this exercise will boost your calorie burn, provide an added challenge for you abdominal muscles, and give your upper body (especially your shoulder muscles) an extra blast, too.  

To perform this exercise: Start in low plank position. Concentrate on keeping your hips stable and your core tight as you lift up onto your right hand and then your left until you are in high plank position. Lower back down onto your right forearm and then your left until you’ve returned to the starting position. Repeat this sequence 10-20 times, depending on your ability and level of fitness.

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3. Push-ups

They require no fancy equipment or additional weight, yet push-ups are one of the most challenging upper-body exercises. Specifically, they primarily target the pectoral (chest), anterior deltoid (rear shoulder), and triceps muscles which means they’re exceptionally ideal for building total upper-body strength. And just like the squat, there are a number of different ways to make this already demanding move, even more difficult… 

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Make it More Challenging— Decline Push-ups

Decline push-ups don’t differ much from the ordinary version of the exercise, but elevating the feet creates a new angle and range of motion, which helps target different parts of the pectoral muscle.

To perform this exercise: Find a sturdy surface like a bench or a chair that you can place your feet on. (For an even bigger challenge, use an exercise ball.) The elevated surface should be behind you. Starting on all fours, lift up into high-plank position and slowly raise your feet onto the elevated surface, one at time. Your toes should be curled under. Once you’ve safely assumed the starting position lower yourself towards the floor (using the same motion as an ordinary push up and while concentrating on keeping your core tight and your spine in a straight line). Push  yourself back up to the starting position and repeat for 8-20 reps, depending on your ability and level of fitness. (This is an advanced exercise that should be performed only after having mastered the form for a regular push-up.)

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4. Bicycle Crunches

This is without a doubt one of the most popular abdominal exercises around, and for good reason too. One study conducted by researchers at San Diego State University found that compared to twelve other ab exercises, the bicycle crunch stimulated the most activity in the rectus abdominus, or the muscles that make up those highly-coveted “six pack” abs. This highly-effective ab exercise doesn’t have to be executed while lying on the floor, though… 

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Make it More Challenging— Mountain Climbers

Don’t worry, no climbing wall (or any crazy equipment for that matter) necessary. Mountain climbers mimic a movement similar to the bicycle crunch, but the benefit is that they get you up off of the floor (well, kind of) and moving more quickly. This high-intensity exercise combines the core and upper-body stability of the plank, the “crunch aspect” of the bicycle exercise, and best of all, gets your heart rate racing faster for an even bigger calorie burn.

To perform this exercise: Start on all fours in high-plank position. With your core engaged and your upper-body stabilized, draw your right knee towards your chest, letting it hover there (your right foot is still off of the ground) for a second before returning to the starting position and then repeating the movement with your left leg. Practice alternating between each leg slowly before picking up the pace and repeating the sequence more quickly for about 20-90 seconds, depending on your ability and level of fitness. 

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5. Dumbbell Bicep Curls

One of the most common and simple weight-lifting moves, the bicep curl targets the group of muscles between your forearms and shoulders. It’s a great move for building very specific upper body strength. But unless increasing bicep strength or mass is your primary goal (which would require some seriously heavy weights), there’s no reason not to move around a little more while you’re flexing your guns…    

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Make it More Challenging— Alternating Step Ups to Dumbbell Bicep Curls

Adding an alternating step-up to the bicep curl mix transforms this stationary upper-body strength exercise into a calorie-torching, total-body, cardio conditioning move. And the only extra equipment needed is an exercise step or a sturdy bench that you can step up on to. 

To perform this exercise: Holding a pair of light or moderate weight dumbbells at your side, start standing in front of an exercise step or bench (the higher, the more challenging) with your feet hip-width distance apart. Leading with your right foot and following with your left, step up onto the bench as you curl the dumbbells up towards your shoulders at the same time. Lower the dumbbells back down as you step back onto the ground and return to the starting position. Repeat the sequence for 10-20 reps (alternating between leading with your right and left leg), depending on your ability and level of fitness.

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6. Lunges

Like the squat, the lunge is another exercise that targets multiple lower-body muscles with just one movement. Not only are lunges great for building strength in the quads, hamstrings, hips, and glutes, but the exercise recruits core, calf, and even some back muscles for stabilization, too. It’s also similar to the squat in that there are plenty of variations that can easily turn it into a total-body compound movement…

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Make it More Challenging— Alternating Lunges with a Twist

Tossing up the lunge exercise with an added twist will force your core to work even more. Whereas with an ordinary lunge abdominal muscles are isometrically contracting for stabilization and balance, by twisting the torso they’re repeatedly lengthening and shortening, too. Plus, exercises that require twisting of the torso target both the internal and external oblique muscles and also help to increase joint flexibility and range of motion in the spine. 

To perform this exercise: Start standing with your feet hip-width distance apart. Lunge forward with your right foot so that your right thigh is parallel to the ground and forms a 90-degeree angle with your knee. (Your left knee should point toward the ground and also form a 90-degree angle.) Once in lunge position, while keeping your core engaged by drawing your belly button into your spine, slowly twist your torso slightly to the right. (This can be made more challenging by holding weights like a medicine ball, a kettle bell, or a pair of dumbbells.) Twist back to the center and then return to the starting position. Repeat the sequence on your left side and then continue to alternate between your right and left side for 10-20 reps, depending on your ability and your fitness level.

6 Exercise Progressions to Increase Intensity