Using a cable machine in the gym

Mixing up your workouts: small tweaks can improve muscle and strength

Posted by for Workouts

This Instagram video shows that small tweaks to your workout routine can have big improvements. 

We’re sure you’ve heard of the idea of ‘mixing up your workouts’ – chopping and changing the exercises you choose or the number of reps you perform. Often, it’s a technique recommended as a way to keep you motivated and stop the monotony of picking up a weight 12 times then pausing and repeating. It can also help to push you out of a strength plateau by challenging your muscles in a different way.

But it doesn’t take huge adaptations to reap these benefits. According to the Instagram page @muscleandmotion – which has over 1 million followers for its videos on anatomy and biomechanics – even changing the piece of kit you use can help build more muscle. In a video, it shows two variations of a tricep kickback – one with a dumbbell and the other with a cable

It explains the difference between these two seemingly-identical moves: in the dumbbell exercise, the most resistance occurs when the arm is almost straight. At the beginning of the movement, when the arm is bent there is actually no load on the triceps.

During the cable exercise, the most resistance is when the elbow is bent to 90 degrees. Essentially, what is easiest in one exercise is hardest in another. And that very simple tweak can challenge the muscles in important ways.

Why does switching up strength exercises matter?

Studies back up the impact of loading the muscles differently. For example, research from 2019 found that varying joint angles during a workout can enhance muscle activation. The study involved a group of participants performing nine sets of bicep curls in a neutral shoulder position. The other group performed three sets in the same neutral position, three in shoulder extension and three sets in flexion. The latter group had significantly higher activation despite not doing any more work, suggesting that using different angles can increase muscle damage and growth with more efficiency. 

There are different theories about why it works, but the muscle being loaded at different angles and lengths seems to allow slightly different areas of the muscle to work, improving overall muscle strength.

That’s good news if you want to get strong without burning out by continuously doing more. It also means that you can stick to the fundamental exercises while still challenging the muscles a little differently - because the basics are always best.

“Different equipment engages the muscle differently, even if it’s the exact same exercise,” concludes the post by @muscleandmotion. “But when we think about the importance of variations, we often leave the equipment out of the equation. Keep on challenging your muscles in different ways – it’ll help you move better.” 

3 ways to tweak your training

Kettlebells

If you consistently use barbells and dumbbells, try opting for kettlebells. They are designed with uneven weight distribution, which can make them more functional (and an extra challenge).

Cables

We’ve just seen how differently cables can work the body, so try swapping them in during RDLs, lateral raises and, of course, tricep kickbacks. The added benefit is that you can change the height of the cable machines to switch up the training even more.

Unilateral exercises

Working one side at a time means your stronger muscles can’t take over – try swapping your overhead press for a single-arm overhead press and see if you notice yourself balancing out (and improving) your strength. 

For more technique tips, sign up to the Strong Women Training Club

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).