Developing bigger, stronger, shapelier muscles is why you lift weights. And the harder you can make those muscles work, the better the results. There are several ways to do this, the 2 most common being lifting heavier weights and increasing volume (adding more sets, reps, exercises, etc.). However, we all reach a limit to how heavy we can lift and how long we can train.
Thankfully, there are other ways to make your workouts harder without risking injury from lifting heavier and heavier weights – or spending hours in the gym.
Here are 3 of my favorite techniques to raise the intensity of my workouts to make them more effective for my muscles.
In this technique, you reduce the weight after reaching failure so you can continue doing more reps to keep the set going. Typically, you reduce the weight by 5-20 percent, but it will vary depending on the exercise, number of reps, and level of muscular fatigue.
You can do one, two, or even three or more drops in one set. If you want, you can even use a heavier weight than you normally would (using good form, of course), since you know you will be getting more reps with the drop sets. The pump you get will be amazing (and so will the burn!). I usually reserve this technique for the final set of an exercise, but I have used it for all the sets of an exercise to make that workout a real killer.
You can do drop sets for any exercise. If you’re using dumbbells, I recommend having the next pair or two of lighter dumbbells ready to go so you don’t have to walk over to the dumbbell rack only to find that someone else is using them.
What I love most about this technique is that it requires no training partner. You simply drop the dumbbells you’re using for a lighter pair and continue the exercise, or if you’re using a machine, set the pin to a lighter weight and continue the exercise. For barbell exercises, you would slide a plate off or change it for a lighter one, so having a partner would help, but you can still do it by yourself.
In this technique, you actually rest within the set so that you can get more reps and prolong the set. After reaching failure, you set the weight down and rest for 5-10 seconds, and then pick up the weight and do more reps.
You can do rest-pause sets for any exercise. For barbell exercises, re-rack the barbell after reaching failure (have a training partner handy if you’re doing bench presses, squats, or any other exercise where you might be trapped under the bar!), rest for 5-10 seconds, take the barbell off the rack and continue doing more reps. For dumbbell exercises, it’s as simple as putting the dumbbells down, resting, then picking them up and continuing the set. For machine exercises, return the handles or sled to the starting point, rest, and then resume the set.
As with drop sets, you can do multiple rest-pauses within a single set. I usually save it for the final set of an exercise.
This is one of my all-time favorites! In this technique, you do two exercises back-to-back with no rest in-between. For example, you would start with a set of bench presses, then move right into a set of barbell rows with no rest. That is one superset. Then you repeat for the allotted number of sets. The benefit here is that while you’re doing barbell rows for back, your chest is recovering from bench presses. Then, when you’re done with barbell rows, your chest is ready for the next set of bench presses.
There are several applications for this one technique. You can do opposing muscle groups, such as chest and back, or biceps and triceps. You can do a leg exercise and a shoulder exercise. You can also do the same muscle group, though that would venture into a pre-exhaust technique, which I’ll cover in the near future. But the key point is to not rest, or if you start to fatigue as you get deeper into the workout, rest very little (5-10 seconds) between the exercises of a given superset. You can rest 30-60 seconds in between completed supersets.
This technique is a great way to cut time, as you’ll be moving back-and-forth between exercises quickly, which further increases the intensity of your workout. It can be challenging moving between 2 separate workout stations in a crowded gym, so you might want to leave your water bottle or towel on the machines to prevent hijackers. With barbells or dumbbells, it’s best to have the selected weights all there in your workout area. Here’s a sample biceps and triceps superset workout using barbell, dumbbells, and cables. Do 3 sets of 10-12 reps for each exercise.
Lying Barbell Triceps Extension
Alternating Dumbbell Curl
One Arm Overhead Dumbbell Extension
Rope Triceps Pushdown
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One of the biggest names in the fitness industry, Nicole Wilkins is a world-record holding four-time Figure Olympia Champion and 2012 IFPA Personal Trainer of the Year. Nicole earned her BA in Wellness, Health Promotion and Injury Prevention at Oakland University. The owner and founder of nPower Nutrition, Nicole has helped thousands of people start living a healthier lifestyle and reach their fitness goals.