How do I make my workouts more challenging?

September 22, 2012

Q: I have been working out for about three months and was wondering what your thoughts were on how to make my workouts more challenging. At first everything was difficult, but it has become easy and not as challenging, so I began adding more sets, reps and cardio. Is this the right thing to do?

A: One of the biggest challenges of training new clients is teaching them to train efficiently to get the most out of their workouts. After all, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend in the gym, but rather what you do while you’re there. As the old saying goes, more is not always better; it’s quality that counts. Here are three things to be aware of while tweaking your program.

More distance vs. speed and intensity

Don’t fall into the trap of more is better when it comes to cardio; instead, focus on shorter, more intense sessions between 15-45 minutes for best fat-burning results. Too often people with good intentions believe that if they do massive amounts of cardio they’ll have a better chance of getting in shape, when actually they’re burning muscle and destroying the body’s ability to burn fat. Shorter, more intense sessions will burn fat and spare muscle, thereby accelerating your metabolism. Remember, bigger muscles burn more fat, and too much cardio can make you skinny-fat.

More reps vs. heavier weight

When was the last time you put half effort into something and got more results? That’s right - never. If you want to get in shape, you have to challenge yourself with weights heavy enough to create an intense muscle burn and light enough to practice great form. Lifting lighter weights and more reps won’t accomplish this goal. Remember, your body has no concept of how many reps you do, but it does understand how hard you have to work to get the job done. In other words, you can do 10 sets of 25 reps with light weight, or you can do three sets of 10 reps with challenging weight and get a much more effective workout in less time. If you have to swing your body and use momentum to complete the reps, the weight is too heavy, but if you feel like you can do two more reps, it’s time to add some weight.

More sets vs. adequate rest

It’s important to understand that rest is just as important as hard work. If you do too much and don’t take time to allow your muscles to recuperate, you will certainly overtrain. Beginner and novice lifters who have only been working out for one to five years can get away with a lot less and still get results, because their bodies are blank slates that will respond to almost anything. Experienced lifters who have been working out for five years or more may need a little more volume to get the job done, but they too must be sure to schedule adequate rest and not do too much. I like to start newbies out with full-body workouts with one exercise and three sets per body part and progress them to a three-day training split with three body parts per day and two exercises per body part. More experienced lifters may only do one to three body parts a day but do 10-15 sets each.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out