If you've been training for an while, you'll reach a point when adding more resistance to certain movements just isn't going to happen.
You might just be dealing with the natural challenge of plateaus, or your body may be telling you that adding more weight simply isn't a good idea at that time. It's important to listen to your body during these periods, and you can respond in one of two ways. You can be stubborn and try to add resistance anyway, which many times will lead to burnout and/or injury. Or you can be smart and utilize progressions that still increase the challenge of your training but do not increase the weight load.
When adding more weight to the bar is your only method and measurement of progression, your progression will inevitably come to a screeching halt at some point. You will also miss out on equally (or even greater) strength and hypertrophy adaptations that come when implementing other methods of progression to an exercise. Below are four strategies that smart trainees can utilize to progress their training when adding more weight just isn't an option. After using them, you'll likely find you're bigger, stronger and in less pain than before.
1. Pump Up The Volume
To grow stronger and build more muscle, the body (including the muscles, tendons and nervous system) must experience an overall greater workload through time.
Although adding more weight is the most simple and common way to do this, you can also adjust the volume of your training. Here we are talking about increasing your reps and/or sets to drive adaptation. Simple, right? Yes, it is.
You can simply perform more reps per set at the same resistance (10 reps of 225 pounds versus 8 reps of 225 pounds), or you can tack on an extra set or two of the same movement at the same resistance (4 sets of Squats for 5 reps at 315 versus 3 sets at 315). But an even more powerful way to increase your volume is to utilize intensity-boosting methods that result in more volume. These methods include rest pauses, drop sets and partial range of motion reps.
You can utilize the Rest Pause technique following the last scheduled set of an exercise. When you reach that final set, perform the target number of reps as you would with a normal set (let's say it was 6 reps in this case). After completing your 6th rep, rack the weight and rest for 15-20 seconds. Immediately following that brief rest, perform as many clean reps as possible using the same resistance. For most people, this is usually 2-5 reps. After those additional reps, you can even take another 15- to 20-second break and see if you can then squeeze out a few more reps. This is known as a double rest pause. Rest pauses allow you to increase your volume and workload without a big additional time commitment.
Drop sets are a variation of rest pause sets. During the final scheduled set of an exercise, complete the target number of reps and rack the weight. Now you are going to reduce the resistance used by 10-20% before completing another set of as many good reps as possible. Again, you can do this twice for a double drop set.
An example might look like this:
- Last set of Front Squats = 225 pounds for 6 reps
- Drop set 1 = 200 pounds for as many good reps as possible
- Drop set 2 = 175 pounds for as many good reps as possible
You get some extra rest as you reduce the weight between drop sets.
Partial Range of Motion Reps
When you can no longer move a resistance through a full range of motion, you can still add to your workload by completing partial range of motion reps (also known as "partials.")
No, this isn't "cheating"—it's simply performing more work than you otherwise would have.
There are two ways you can use partials. The first is to complete the target number of reps with a certain load and then immediately complete as many good partial reps as possible. The other method is a form of a rest pause where you would complete the target number of reps and then rack the weight, rest for 15-20 seconds, and then complete as many good partials as possible.
Unless you have a spotter to help keep you from getting crushed under the bar, you want to perform your partial reps in the strongest range of movement during a given exercise. Let's use the Front Squat as an example again. You would complete the target number of reps through a full range of motion. When it's time for your partials, you would complete as many reps as possible through just the top half of the Squat (so you'd only get about half as deep as you would on a normal rep). You could do the same for the Bench Press, using the top half of the range of motion for the partials.
If you do have a spotter, you could use the bottom range of motion for both the Squat (coming out of the hole to half way up) and Bench Press (coming off of the chest to half way). This will be much more challenging and when you are done, you will not be able to rack the weight without the assistance of a spotter (or two or three). But, if you have some strong training partners who you trust to give you a great spot, these type of partials can be an extremely powerful way to progress your muscle strength and size.
2. Tempo For More Time Under Tension
Intentionally slowing down the eccentric (muscle lengthening) and/or concentric (muscle shortening) component of a movement creates an overall greater time under tension (muscular contraction).
This greater time under tension creates a metabolic environment that is conducive to muscle growth and adaptation. When a movement is taken from roughly 3-5 seconds of total contraction time to 6-10-plus seconds of total contraction time, there is a blood flow exclusion effect that creates a hormonal cascade. This helps trigger greater hypertrophic adaptations. Translation: bigger and better gains.
Throw in strategic isometric pauses during the most challenging segment of the movement and you are now enhancing your strength endurance as well as explosive strength at that specific point in the movement. Gaining strength and confidence in the hardest part of the movement will invariably allow you to move more weight throughout the entire movement when you go back to regular tempo / non-pause reps.
Along with this, the fact that you will be utilizing the same (or less) resistance when compared to regular tempo reps means the joints and working musculature experience less overall force and stress. Less stress allows the tissues to recover and stay healthy for the long term.
Utilize slower tempo and isometric work with your primary compound movements for a four- to six-week block to see significant improvement. Perform a movement with a 3- to 5-second eccentric phase and a 3- to 5-second concentric phase. Or you can perform a movement with a 2- to 5-second pause at the most difficult point of the movement (think the bottom of a Squat or Bench, or at the top of a Chin-Up or Row).
If you really want to up the intensity, perform a slower tempo movement and an isometric pause at the toughest part of said movement. You will really hate life when training with this method, but the strength and size it can bring about will more than make up for it.
3. Work Faster to Boost Density
Decreasing your rest time or challenging yourself to complete more work in less time is another method of smart progression. Known as EDT (escalated density training), this technique simply means you are doing more work in a given period of time than you were before.
This can happen in two ways.
First, you can either complete the same amount of work in a shorter duration (4 sets in 6 minutes versus 4 sets in 7 minutes, for example). Second, you can increase the work completed in the same duration of time (5 sets in 7 minutes versus 4 sets in 7 minutes, for example).
Less recovery time per given amount of work creates greater systemic stress on the body. This stimulus creates an environment for the body to respond by releasing hormones conducive to growth and adaptation, namely growth hormone.
Two of the best ways to take advantage of this method are timed block challenges and total work challenges.
Timed Block Challenges
Timed Block Challenges require you to select a specific amount of time (between 8 and 20 minutes) to complete as many sets as possible of preselected exercises and reps. Here's an example of a Timed Block Challenge:
- Set the clock for 15 minutes and complete as many rounds as possible of the following block. Rest when needed.
- 1a) Front Squat x5
- 1b) Inverted Row x8
- 1c) DB Split Squat x8/side
- 1d) DB Bench Press x10
The next time you perform this block, you would aim to complete more work in the same 15-minute span.
Total Work Challenges
Total Work Challenges require you to complete a pre-determined amount of work in the quickest time possible. Using the same block as in the previous example, this may look something like this:
- 1a) Front Squat 4x5
- 1b) Inverted Row 4x8
- 1c) DB Split Squat 4x8/side
- 1d) DB Bench Press 4x10
Complete all four sets as quickly as possible (without sacrificing form, of course) and record the time it takes you do to so. The next time you train through this block, aim for completing all four sets quicker than you did in the previous session. Once you have worked through the session three or four times, you can then think about increasing the load slightly and go for it again setting a new time.
4. Use Accommodating Resistance
Accommodating resistance will increase the amount of resistance used during an exercise, but not by adding more weight plates. Implements like bands or chains can be added to movements to provide an additional challenge at the point of the exercise where you are the strongest. Adding accommodating resistance shouldn't make it any harder to get through the traditional sticking point of an exercise. It simply makes the easiest range of the exercise, such as the final few inches of standing up on a Squat, more difficult.
The easiest way to take advantage of accommodating resistance is to utilize bands and/or chains. Movements such as Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Presses, Push-Ups, Inverted Rows and Hip Thrusts are best. As you move from the most challenging portion of the movement to the strongest portion of the movement, the bands stretch or the chains come off of the floor, increasing the resistance through that range.
Photo Credit: Mikolette/iStock
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