“Put some weight on the bar!” It’s shouted across weight rooms around the country and usually signifies that whatever someone just lifted was too easy or light. That is the prototypical way to add intensity on a given exercise. Just add more weight.
However, at a certain time, just adding weight to the bar isn’t prudent anymore, as things like technical breakdown can occur. One of the basic principles of exercise is that of progressive overload. Your body won’t adapt and get bigger and/or stronger unless you place a large enough demand on it and overload your muscles. But, we need to figure out other ways to drive up the intensity of the movement, without simply throwing more plates on the bar.
So how do we do that?
One of the easiest ways to add intensity to your basic exercises is to alter the tempo of the movement. For most, we just do the exercise in front of us, which doesn’t normally include any set tempo scheme. We just move the weight.
By manipulating the concentric and/or eccentric parts, we change how hard the actual exercise is. An example of this would be doing Squats on a 2-0-2-0 tempo, meaning a 2-second lowering portion (eccentric), followed by no pause (we’ll get to that later), then 2 seconds to stand back up (concentric) with no pause at the top.
This creates more time under tension for your muscles, which equals more strength and more muscle gain. Raise your hand if you want those two things.
Pauses are literally where you stop during an exercise for a specific amount of time, usually 2-3 seconds. The most common portion of a lift to throw in a pause? The bottom, or hardest portion, for example the bottom of a Push-Up or Squat, or the top of a Pull-Up.
These force you to maintain tension throughout your entire body as you hold everything tight. Additionally, a pause eliminates the stretch reflex, or that bounce feeling you get from the muscles as you move through a range of motion. Eliminating that “bounce” creates the need for more strength. More strength equals more gains, and we’ve already established that we’re after more gains.
Using 1.5 reps is a way to add more work instead of more weight. In the case of a Squat, you would go all the way into the bottom of your Squat, come halfway up, then back into the bottom, only to finally come all the way to standing. Sounds like a ton of fun.
Similar to tempo, we’re increasing the amount of time our muscles are under tension by doing that extra half of a rep. Additionally, since we have come out of the weakest part of our movement, we’re going to see more strength gains as well.
Density is all about doing more work in less time, which can easily ramp up the intensity of an exercise. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes, work within a certain amount of reps, and see how many sets you can fit in that given time. Then, the following week you aim to do more sets than before. Try pairing opposite exercises in a superset when adding in density. This way there is a little recovery time in between sets.
In addition to doing more work in less time, creating more overall volume, you are forced to take less rest time between sets. This will hinder your body’s ability to recover fully from set to set, making each one subsequently more intense.
Negatives solely focus on the lowering portion of the movement. There are some exercises where overloading the lowering or eccentric part of the movement can lead to larger increases in strength.
One exercise in which to often use negatives is Pull-Ups. The actual pull-up part of the exercise, where you lift yourself up to the bar, can be a challenge, but rather than eliminate the exercise all together, we use negatives to develop the strength and control to eventually be able to do a Pull-Up.
One thing is crucial—master the basics of each lift before you venture into some of these alternative loading strategies. Then add one of these to your training and get ready for more gains and plateau-busting training sessions.