There’s an endless debate that goes around in the fitness world when it comes to building muscle and getting results from your training program -- volume vs intensity.
But, this debate ignores the true core principle of progress in the gym (and ultimately you getting results during your transformation challenge) -- progressive overload (i.e. making your workouts more challenging).
Without progressive overload, you can do as much or as little volume (or intensity) as you want and you still won’t get results.
Progressive overload holds that over time training must become more demanding on your muscles.
Typically, individuals take progressive overload to mean that you have to keep adding weight to the bar, which is true in a sense.
Over the course of your training career, you should be adding weight to the bar. However, adding weight to the bar isn’t the only way to make your workouts more challenging. There comes a point in every trainee's career where adding weight to the bar isn’t as easy as it once was.
Plus, with more people training from home than ever, they may not have access to the near limitless amount of weight that big box gyms have.
So, how can you make your workouts more challenging besides adding weight?
7 Tips to Make Your Workouts More Challenging
#1 Slow Down the Eccentrics
The eccentric is the portion of the lift where the muscle is elongating, such as when you’re descending into a squat or lowering the bar to your chest during a bench press.
Muscles are stronger during the eccentric phase of the lift (meaning you can lift more during an eccentric than you could during the concentric), and they’re also known to offer more muscle-building benefit.
Many individuals simply bang out their reps in piston-like fashion using a 1 second lowering and lifting tempo, but to increase the challenge of your workouts (and make lighter weights feel heavier), start slowing down the eccentric phases of your lifts.
Instead of lowering the weight in 1 second, take 2-3 seconds (and up to 5 seconds!) to lower the weight. You’ll gain better control of the weight, ensure you’re muscles are doing more of the work (as opposed to your joints, ligaments, and connective tissue), and reduce the risk of injury!
Just be warned, using slower eccentrics will lead to some pretty serious DOMS if you’ve never tried them before.
#2 Incorporate Pauses
Pauses are another way to increase time under tension on the working muscles, and they also help make the muscles work harder by eliminating the stretch reflex (which also helps save your joints and limit the risk of injury).
A hallmark example of this technique is the paused squat, in which you lower into the “hole” and then hang out there (remaining tight) for a second or two, before powering yourself back up to the top.
Pauses are great for developing explosiveness and really “owning” the weight as opposing to relying on the elasticity of your muscles to move the weight up and down.
Pauses are also a great way to increase the challenge of bodyweight exercises, such as push ups, pull ups, and dips, which may have become too easy for you.
#3 1.5 Reps
The 1.5-rep technique is yet another way to make your workouts more challenging, without necessarily having to add weight.
The concept is simple enough -- lower the weight, raise it halfway, lower it back down all the way, then explode to the top...that’s just ONE rep!
Again, sounds simple, but when put into practice you’ll soon realize it’s challenging not only your muscles but your cardiovascular system too.
This training technique is particularly gruesome (in the best way possible) on exercises like Bulgarian Split Squats, inverted rows or pull ups.
1.5 reps are great for helping lighter weights feel heavier as they increase time under tension, generate tons of metabolic stress (which helps build muscle), and reduce the amount of weight needed without sacrificing the muscle-building potential of an exercise.
#4 Escalating Density Training
Training density is defined as the amount of work done per unit time. By increasing training density, you’re ultimately forcing your muscles to do more work, which makes your workouts more challenging.
There are two ways to increase training density:
- Do more reps in the same amount of time, or
- Do the same amount of reps in less time
Typically with density training you set a time limit and perform one or two exercises. You perform as many quality reps as you can during the time limit without going to failure. Record your reps and weights and try to improve the next time you do that particular workout.
For instance, you can set a training block time limit of 5 minutes and see how many clean pull ups you can do.
The next time you perform this same exercise, you can try to perform more “clean” reps during the 5 minute time limit or try to perform the same number of reps in less time.
Either way will make your muscles work harder, which drives progress and results!
Rest-pause is a style of training that has been around for decades and has been used successfully by individuals to build muscle and strength.
Instead of performing traditional straight sets where you perform an exercise, rest 2-3 minutes, perform another set, rest 2-3 minutes, and perform a final set, you’ll perform 3-5 “mini-sets” which are separated by 20-30 second mini-breaks.
By condensing the rest periods, you’re condensing your training time, inducing high levels of fatigue in muscle fibers, and doing more “hard reps'', which benefits hypertrophy. Another added benefit of rest-pause training is that the truncated rest periods also help deliver a bigger pump. You’ll also find that your concentration is greater as is your mind-muscle connection since you don’t have time to dawdle in between your working “sets.”
Here’s how rest-pause looks in practice:
- Select a weight you can perform for 8-10 reps.
- Perform a regular set, pushing for as many quality reps as possible. When you feel like you miss the next rep, rack the weight.
- Rest 20-30 seconds, pick up the weight and perform as many quality reps as possible stopping when you feel you may miss the next rep.
- Set the weight down and again rest 20-30 seconds, and perform a final set for as many quality reps as possible.
Keep in mind, rest-pause induces high levels of fatigue both in the muscles and to your nervous system. As such, you only need to do one rest-pause set per exercise, you don’t need to do three complete rounds of rest-pause as you would three traditional sets.
The beauty of the rest-pause training is that it condenses rest intervals so that you get the benefits of the traditional straight set training method in a shorter amount of time, without sacrificing any of the muscle growth potential!
#6 Superset Weights & Cardio
Let’s be real, most of us loathe cardio.
We’d rather be hitting the weights and getting a pump than slogging out yet another session on the treadmill.
But, cardio is an important part of your exercise regimen, if not for its fat loss benefits than certainly for its cardiovascular benefits.
Fortunately, to get the benefits of cardiovascular exercise, you don’t have to have a dedicated “cardio” session. You can incorporate it right into your resistance training or circuit training session.
One of the simplest ways to do this is to superset a resistance training exercise, like push up or pull ups, with a cardio exercise, like jumping rope.
By supersetting non-competing exercises, you’re getting the benefits of cardiovascular exercise without limiting your performance on the strength-building movements. Supersetting exercises also reduces how much time you spend in the gym, giving you more time to tackle the other important things in your day!
#7 SQUEEEEZE the Muscles
Earlier we discussed the importance of focusing on the eccentric portion of the lift, as it offers the most muscle-building “bang” per rep.
Now, we’ll discuss another important phase of the lift that not only makes your workouts more challenging but can help you get better results (as well as a stronger mind-muscle connection).
Typically, during a rep, individuals lift the weight and then immediately lower it. However, try holding the peak contraction (the squeeze) for an extra second or two on every rep. You’ll immediately notice a stronger contraction, on the verge of cramping, as well as a better mind-muscle connection and bigger muscle pump.
Holding the squeeze also induces more fatigue in the muscles, and when combined with a slower eccentric, makes for a 1-2 punch that will leave your muscles weary, but in the best way possible!