The most popular — and straightforward — way to boost the difficulty of a weighted movement is to simply increase the weight. However, because of equipment or physical limitations, that’s not always possible — but there are definitely ways around this.
“First off, sometimes heavier weight is not available,” explains Dustin Hogue, trainer at Studio Three in Chicago, Illinois. “We live in a fast-paced, go, go, go world. This means that, at times, our workouts are relegated to something quick in a home gym with limited equipment.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a great workout at home just because you only have one or two sets of dumbbells. “Finding creative ways to progress and modify movements is one of the best ways to get the most out of what you have on hand,” he says.
Even when you have access to a full gym, sometimes one set of weights can feel too easy, but the next weight up feels too difficult, and simply increasing the rep count isn’t cutting it. “When we begin to fatigue from weight that’s too heavy or excessive repetitions, our bodies begin to break down,” Hogue says. “This leads to poor form and can cause injuries such as bursitis or tendonitis.”
Instead of powering through, you can actually modify the exercises you’re doing to get a more intense workout, all while keeping the same weight. Here’s how to supercharge your workout using the same load you usually do:
“My favorite way to make an exercise harder is to introduce some form of instability,” Hogue says. There are many different ways to accomplish this, but the idea is you do your usual movement pattern while simultaneously challenging your balance. “This can be as simple as taking a seated movement and making it a standing movement. Other options would be using a Bosu or stability ball or lessening the base of support by making it a single leg or split-stance movement,” he explains.
For example, you could try standing bicep curls instead of seated ones, weighted crunches on a stability ball instead of the floor, a half-kneeling Pallof press instead of the standard kneeling version or single-leg Romanian deadlifts instead of regular ones.
You might think pulsing is just for barre classes, but it’s actually a useful technique in weightlifting, too. “Pulses are another way to get a ‘burn’ without necessarily increasing full range reps or adding weight,” explains Chris Matsui, a certified strength and conditioning specialist at Fusion Performance Training in NYC. “To try it, at the bottom of the squat to go up and down a few inches before standing fully upright.“ By adding that extra half rep, you’re challenging your muscles to move through the most demanding part of the movement twice as many times, therefore seriously upping the difficulty.
This can be applied to virtually any weighted (or bodyweight) movement, from pushups to lunges to hip thrusts and more.
Another tool you can use is the rate at which you’re doing each part of a movement. “Modifying your tempo is a great way to progress your exercises,” Hogue says. “Simply slowing down the eccentric (lowering) portion of a movement is a great way to build lean muscle.” Think about the squat, for example. “If you slow down as you lower into your squat (four counts down and one count up), your glutes, hamstrings and quads are going to spend more time under tension. This gives each rep more bang for its buck and builds not only strength, but also muscular endurance,” Hogue explains.
Try it with bench presses, triceps extensions or any type of squat.
“By far, my favorite way to increase the intensity of an exercise is to incorporate isometrics at the midpoint, endpoint or both,” says Rachel Straub, MS, certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-author of “Weight Training Without Injury.” Isometrics are when you contract your muscle without actually moving, essentially pausing and tensing your muscles at a certain part of an exercise. “This simply makes the exercise more effective and can be a substitute to a traditional rep or weight increase at any time,” Straub explains.
For example, if you’re doing reverse flys, try pausing at the top of the movement and squeezing your upper back muscles for 3–5 seconds. It’s guaranteed to feel a whole lot harder and has the additional benefit of really honing in on the muscle group an exercise seeks to target, according to Straub.
A similar technique is to insert a pause at the bottom of a movement, like at the bottom of a squat, pushup or chest press for 1–2 counts. Why does it work? “Holding a position at a fixed joint angle increases time under tension at a weak point, which is very challenging,” Matsui explains.
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Most people take breaks between sets or circuits when working out on their own. Try cutting your usual rest period to just 30 seconds. According to Matsui, this keeps your heart rate up, which makes the exercise feel tougher to complete and means more calories burned from the workout as a whole — a win-win.