As fitness clients make progress toward their health and fitness goals, they often want to keep progressing and making greater performance gains. Finding new ways to challenge clients is not only fun, but can infuse even more creativity into your program planning. It is possible to make exercises harder without defaulting to increased resistance. Try these eight tactics with your clients to make exercises more challenging.

1. Change the balance, surface, or stance.

The training surface matters and clients often don’t think of performing the same exercise on a less stable surface or with fewer points of contact (think standing on one foot), or adjusting the width of the stance (narrow vs. wide vs. staggered).

You can facilitate an increase in effort and difficulty by using BOSU balls, balance pads, single-leg stance, narrow stance, and/or stability balls in place of flat surfaces or a general bilateral stance. A simple push-up becomes increasingly difficult if it is performed with each hand placed on a balance pad or if one foot is elevated off the ground. The same can be said for using a stability ball to perform a dumbbell fly as opposed to a standard bench or other solid surface.

Note: Using an unstable base is mostly beneficial for upper body exercises. Beyond improving or addressing ankle instability, using an unstable surface for lower body exercises could incur more risk than it is worth. Be judicious in your choice.

2. Focus on eccentric.

In the concentric (muscle shortening) phase of an exercise, the client is overcoming gravity. In the eccentric (muscle lengthening) phase of an exercise, the client is resisting the gravitational pull (in most cases). The eccentric strength is greater than that of the concentric strength, so loading the eccentric phase and focusing on slowly returning the weight to the resting point of a movement, we require greater work from fewer muscle fibers. The result? Increased tension, which leads to overload, which leads to improved strength and muscle fiber enhancement.

3. Use a new implement. 

t’s no secret – a dumbbell feels different than a kettlebell and a barbell feels different than an EZ curl bar. Sometimes simply changing the implement is the best way to offer a new challenge. The client often has to shift their stance, center of mass, range of motion, etc. If your client is used to performing dumbbell curls, for example, switch it up and incorporate an EZ curl bar into the mix.

4. Reduce rest time.

By reducing rest time, muscles (ATP) don’t recover as fully in order to prepare for the next set. If your client normally takes 45 seconds of rest in between consider dropping that time by 15 seconds. Be mindful though that this shifts the resistance into more of an endurance range, so you may have to drop the weight a bit as well.

5. Asymmetrical loading.

Using an asymmetrical loading tactic introducing a destabilizing torque on the body. This forces the client to engage the core more thoughtfully and consistently. For example, instead of doing a bilateral dumbbell fly, try one-armed on a stable surface. The same could be applied to movements like bent-over rows, squats (use a split squat instead with a dumbbell in one hand), single-arm Romanian deadlift (RDL), etc. Most exercises can be performed asymmetrically.


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6. Drop sets.

Something like this also gets the heart rate up a little higher than with traditional resistance training methods. There are different approaches to incorporating drop sets. The most obvious is to drop weight by a small percentage once they client hits failure. But when you think outside the box, the same theory applies if you have the client perform an exercise such as a squat and then immediately perform a set of jump squats upon failure. Using this tactic, the client will fatigue their muscles to a greater degree.

7. Change the angle.

No denying it, a decline bench press feels different than a traditional bench press. Sometimes adding an incline or decline to a common movement is all the challenge the client needs to recruit different muscles and achieve greater gains.

8. Get dynamic.

Throwing in some dynamic plyometric movements into a program introduces a different training stimulus – the recruitment of power vs the recruitment of strength. This also has an additional cardiorespiratory benefit as the heart rate tends to climb rapidly with explosive movements, which means they are more metabolically demanding than traditional tempo-based resistance training movements.

Challenging fitness clients isn’t just creative, it’s necessary regardless of their goal (fitness, weight loss, general health, strength, power). Progressive overload and varying the training stimuli consistently results in greater physical progress. Ultimately, improvement is the desired outcome fitness clients seek.

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Erin Nitschke

Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at