When it comes to making process with your exercise routine, especially strength training, what’s one of the top “rules” that you’re told? Usually, the first thing someone says is, “I have to increase my weights.”
While that is technically a correct answer and is part of what is referred to as “progressive overload” (subjecting your body to more stimulus then it’s capable of at that moment), it’s only one of many options that can be implemented to challenge your body.
In fact, there are times when merely increasing weights isn’t the smart move at all. Maybe you’ve maxed out what you’re able to do, perhaps you have an injury (or feel one coming on), or perhaps some of the lifts aren’t safe for you to push the envelope by yourself.
Increase Your Workout Intensity
I want to give you 6 different approaches that you can perform today that don’t require you lifting heavier weights – in fact, you’ll most likely decrease the amount used on a lift.
Shorter Rest Between Sets
This is one of the easiest overall methods to implement while comprised of several different modalities under the same umbrella. Let me lay out a few options for you we use at CK Health & Fitness.
Picking up the pace on a standard lifting plan
You have your “standard” lifting routine in place, and after you kill each set, you’re supposed to rest 60-90 seconds or 3-5 minutes…whatever the case may be.
Next time, try decreasing the rest time down 25%-50%. Instead of 60 seconds, your next set starts at 30 or 45 seconds. As I mentioned above, your weights will go down, but the intensity will actually increase.
This style of training also plays into the little to no rest between sets approach. In this scenario, you execute a group of exercises back-to-back without rest until you complete that group’s last exercise.
For example, your first group may be squats, chest press, and pullups. As soon as you finish your squats set, you would immediately perform a set of chest presses, followed by your pullups. Then…after your set of pullups, you would take a rest period before repeating the series or moving onto the next grouping of exercises.
These are two techniques that became really popular with old-school bodybuilding and are still used today. Supersets are simply when you piggyback a set of two exercises with no rest.
For example, you might do a set of curls, followed immediately with some cable pressdowns.
Dropsets, on the other hand, consists of a single exercise in which you perform non-stop sets while reducing the weight for each set.
You might be doing leg presses, and after your first heavy set, drop the weight down by a plate, perform another set, drop the weight again, perform another set. Rinse and repeat.
Time Under Tension (TUT)
This is another simple technique to implement. I say simple, but it’s far from easy. What you’re focusing on is not the time between sets like above, but instead the sets themselves. More specifically, the speed in which you execute each repetition.
Most of us blast through our reps. We don’t really give them our full attention; we don’t feel the muscles activate and engage correctly. We go in with the goal of moving the weight from point A to point B. What’s great about the human body is that it’ll do whatever it can to make that happen. What’s not so great is that it often calls in other muscles and compensations to move the weight.
By slowing down your rep speed and increasing the TUT, you’ll be better able to feel the intended muscle working, strengthen the mind/muscle connection (if lacking) and ironically increase the intensity on the muscle(s). Now…all that said, I’m not suggesting a super-slow rep speed. We’re not talking 30 seconds to perform a repetition – that’s not what we’re going after.
To implement a TUT approach, try a 4/1/4/1 rhythm. Using a bicep curl as an example, you would lower the weight for a 4-second count, stay in the extended position for 1 second, contract/lift the weight back up for a 4-second count and then squeeze at the top for 1 second. Repeat for the target number of reps. We’ve gone from what was likely 2-3 second repetition previously to 10 seconds in this example. Multiply that by the number of repetitions, and you have a lot more time that the muscle needs to work. Tada! Intensity. If you’re unsure about doing implementing this yourself, engage in a personal trainer like myself for guidance.
This strategy is slightly more advanced and takes a bit more planning. When I say that it’s more advanced, I mean it has to be used intelligently and strategically. This is a method in which you pre-fatigue (also known as pre-exhausting) a muscle so that it doesn’t contribute as much to another exercise. Why would you do that? Let me give you an example.
Say when you do a bench press, instead of your chest being the prime mover, your triceps try to take over the party (this is me…haha). To help mitigate that scenario, what you can do is pre-fatigue your triceps by working them out before your bench press so that they don’t have as much gas in the tank, and therefore your chest will have to pick up the slack. Again, your bench press weight will most likely decrease (at least until your chest assumes dominance in that exercise in the future). However, the targeted muscle (chest) will get the focus, attention, and intensity it deserves.
Just be careful with this approach. Using the example above, if you’re benching with less supporting players, you may find yourself tapping out sooner than anticipated. Have a spotter around if you’re performing an exercise where it’s a safety issue.
Finally, we have occlusion training, also known as blood flow restriction (BFR). There’s quite a bit of science behind this approach, and it’s often used during rehabilitation work since you can elicit some of the same effects of heavier training but with much less weight.
The high-level version is that we’re wrapping limbs (arms/legs) with enough pressure to obstruct blood flow to the veins. In a nutshell, the blood can get into the muscles but has a reduced capacity to get back out. When that occurs, you have a couple of things that are primed to take place:
- A build-up of lactic acid which can increase protein synthesis.
- Reduction in available oxygen to the muscles encourages more activation of fast-twitch fibers (those with a higher propensity for growth).
- Bonus – You get a killer pump 🙂
A couple of things to keep in mind if you want to give this a try.
- You’ll need bands/wraps. I have these and like them. They’re easy to use and pretty comfortable. BFR Wraps (Amazon)
- You can only use the method when training arms and legs.
- Placement should be around the top part of the limb.
- The degree of pressure should be around 6-7 out of 10. This is one downside since there’s no measurable way to know that you’re applying “x” pressure. You’ll need to use your best judgment.
- Use around 20-40% of your 1 rep max and shoot for higher reps 15+.
- Keep rest periods relatively short, about 30-45 seconds.
There you have it friend, 6 different ways to increase your workout intensity without adding a single pound to your lifts. Give them a try and let me know what you think!
If this is all a bit overwhelming for you, consider signing up for my Personal Training coaching and let me partner with and guide you along your fitness journey.