Progressing your Conditioning Exercises like a Pro!

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Do you know how to progress your dog’s exercises? As muscles become accustomed to the demand of a work out, you’ll need to introduce new challenges to make the muscles work harder – this is known as progressive overload. By increasing the challenge to your dog’s exercises you not only introduce variety to the workout but you also proof the behavior and challenge your dog physically and mentally! 

When talking to students and clients one of the most common questions I get is “How do I make exercises more challenging for my dog?” The answer is “lots!” There is a variety of ways to progress your dog’s exercises and in this week’s blog we’ll cover the myriad of ways!

Knowing when it’s time to progress an exercise

I often get asked when it’s time to progress an exercise. The truth is there is no clear cut answer as it largely depends on the dog, how long they’ve been doing the exercise, their age, training schedule, and experience. Generally speaking, if your dog can complete an exercise with good form and fully understands the behavior it’s time to start trying to add new variables. When working with puppies or senior dogs it’s important to evaluate your goals and the life stage your dog is at. With puppies we want to be cautious and make sure our puppies have the proper form and are learning the foundational skills. These skills are generally more important than progressing an exercise. Meanwhile, for our senior dogs are goals may be more about maintaining their condition and keeping them functional versus maximizing their power/strength for a sport. Remember, when progressing an exercise only change one variable at a time.  This not only sets up your dog for success but is also important from an injury prevention standpoint. 

Increasing Reps and Sets

To build muscle you don’t always have to add weight to increase challenge instead you can simply increase the number of repetitions. Reps, short for repetitions, are the action of one complete exercise, like one biceps curl.  This improves both muscle strength as well as endurance. With any new exercise, start with 5 repetitions and build up to 10 repetitions. Max number of reps: 15  

Sets are how many reps you do in a row between periods of rest. For example, two sets of six wraps around a cone means six consecutive cone wraps, a rest, followed by another six consecutive wraps. Start with 2 sets of each exercise. Progress to 3 sets depending on the fitness level of your dog. As a rule of thumb, I give a 1-minute break between each set to allow the dog to hydrate and rest. Decreasing the rest time between sets can introduce challenge to your dog’s endurance and aerobic fitness.  

Increasing the Frequency of your Workouts

You can increase the frequency of your canine conditioning sessions depending on your dog’s current activity level and sport training requirements. If you are taking a break from your sport training, you can increase your conditioning sessions from 3 to 4 or 5 days within a given a week. Remember, to always work with the dog you have in the moment! Similar to people, dogs can have good and bad days. What they were able to do in a conditioning session last week, may suddenly change the following week. Perhaps they had a big run the day before and are more tired than usual. This can happen!! So, if you dog is struggling with a conditioning set up that you have previously used with no difficulty, just make things a bit easier for the first set and progress in the next set. Remember, that your dog should get regular rest days to allow them to recuperate. It is during these rest days that our dogs actually build muscles so skipping rest days is detrimental to your longterm goals! I usually recommend a minimum of one day of rest with no structured activity or two rest days if your dog leads a very active lifestyle. 

Changing up the Equipment

You can alter the difficulty of the exercise by changing the surface or equipment your dog is using. A common go-to is to add instability –  when things are unstable the body calls upon muscles to help stabilize and maintain balance. You can also change the size of the equipment and the orientation to further challenge your dog. For some ideas on how changing up equipment can alter the challenge of the workout checkout this video:

Always make sure to introduce new pieces of equipment slowly in order to make sure they are comfortable and confident on them! When introducing new equipment I recommend that you start with a stable piece to ensure my dogs understand the correct posture and form. Once you’re sure your dog understands the exercise and is keeping your criteria up then you can begin to add instability. Monitor the introduction of instability carefully as if your dog loses their proper form and posture that’s usually a sign your dog is struggling with the exercise and needs additional work on the stable pieces. 

Speed / Intensity 

Speed and intensity both involve an added challenge to certain exercises. For example, if we are asking our dog to run onto a plank and find balance, it is much more challenging to complete this exercise if the dog runs onto the plank from 10-15 feet back (with more speed) versus sitting directly in front of it. Similarly, if we rev our dog up to try and increase intensity/arousal, this can add a new challenge to your dog as they have to go from that arousal state to a controlled state while maintaining balance and form on the exercise you are asking them to complete – NOT an easy task given that they have four limbs to try and coordinate! 

If we ask our dogs to collect/decelerate from speed, we are asking their muscles to contract and load in an eccentric manner. An eccentric muscle contraction is the motion of an active muscle while it is lengthening under load. It acts as a braking mechanism for the muscle and starts to slow movement down.  The faster the dog is going, the more work you are asking of the dog’s muscles to effectively slow down the dog. This type of muscle contraction requires much more muscle control on the dog’s part and is critical for quickly and safely decelerating and changing directions in your dog’s daily movements AND their sport specific skills. Remember, when adding speed to any exercise, progress slowly to minimize any potential chance of injury! 



Changing the height of our equipment can also make the exercise more challenging! The higher the equipment, the more difficult and challenging the exercise can be. This is because your dog will have to shift more weight to one end of the body. From a safety standpoint, I do not use pieces of equipment that are taller than the dog’s withers and for puppies I tend to use equipment that is no higher than their hocks. 

Range of Motion

You can also work going through a full range of motion with your conditioning workouts.  Range of motion exercise, also known as ROM exercises, refers to activity aimed to improving movement of a specific joint. The motion of a joint is influenced by several structures: configuration of bone surfaces within the joint, joint capsule, ligaments, tendons, and muscles acting on the joint. Going through a full range of motion will result in better muscle balance, joint stability, proper activation of the working muscles and overall better movement quality. 

For example, if you have an office job and sit a desk all day, you don’t regularly go through full ranges of motion at the hips, shoulders and thoracic spine. Eventually, you’ll notice stiffness and potential pain due to limitation. Therefore, it is important that we also get our dogs to move through their entire available range of motion. This is also an excellent way to further condition their muscles. Asking a muscle to complete a movement through its full range of motion can be harder than asking muscles to complete movement through a segment of its available ROM. E.g. deeper squats are harder than mini squats as you are asking for increased ROM.  There are also advantages to working a muscle through partial range of motion. When the range of motion is shorter, muscles are allowed to stretch and shorten more quickly which allows them to take advantage of your muscles’ elastic properties (e.g. mini squats). 

Plane of Motion

Dogs move in three planes of motion and it is important to provide your dog with strengthening exercises that work all three planes of motion.  Completing exercises in three planes of motion is often more difficult for the dog to complete and more strenuous than completing exercises in one plane of motion. Check out this chart below for the three planes of motions with specific conditioning examples

Final thoughts

As you can see, there are many ways to change/progress the difficulty of an exercise. Pick one and slowly progress. As you progress your variables and increase the challenge on your dog’s body, NEVER compromise form and posture for increased challenge. Meaning, your criteria in maintaining proper form and posture during each exercise must always be met!! This will avoid any potential injury to your dog. If you alter one variable and find the increased challenge is too hard on the dog, simply pull back a layer (as you would with your dog training), make it easier and try again. Our goal is to make our dogs successful!! If after 4-5 repetitions the dog is still struggling with an exercise, make it easier. 

If you need additional guidance on how to progress your dog’s workouts don’t hesitate to reach out Carolyn! She am more than happy to give advice on whether you’re ready to progress or workout and troubleshoot any problems you may have! 

Author: Carolyn McIntyre