There are plenty of ways to make weight training harder besides adding weight or reps. Here are eight ways to make your weight training sets more difficult. Only choose one for each set that you perform – don’t try to combine them all at once!
Ways To Make Weight Training Harder
- Emphasize the negative.
Count 6 or 8 seconds on the negative (eccentric) portion of each repetition. This works well on both dumbbell and barbell exercises, and it really makes bodyweight exercises (like pushups, lunges, or TRX rows) much more challenging too.
- Add an isometric hold.
Either at the end of the set, or at one or two spots in the range of motion (ROM) of each rep, do an isometric contraction. Isometric means you’re simply holding the position and flexing, but you’re not moving. Holding still against resistance makes your muscles work hard. Do this for several seconds, motionless, before finishing the rest of the movement. Isometric holds work well with lateral raises, ab crunches, bicep curls, and squats.
- Change the tempo.
Changing the speed of the exercise can make it much more challenging. If you want to slow it down, try a tempo between 4 seconds and 10 seconds for both the positive and negative portions of the movement.
Increasing the speed of your contractions will add difficulty too. Be sure that you don’t go faster than you can keep your form together! Speed squats, fast pushups, pulse calf raises, and fast triceps are some of my favorites. You’ll poop out fast, and recruit more muscle fibers!
Expert tip: If you want to get fancy and record what you’re doing, tempo is often written out as concentric (the lifting) first, then eccentric (the lowering) second. In other words, a 2:4 tempo means the lifting portion is performed for 2 seconds, and the lowering portion is performed over 4 seconds.
- Change the range of motion.
Instead of doing a full range of motion on every repetition, try doing a few reps at just the top half of the range, then a few reps at the bottom part of the move. Alternatively, do some reps in the middle ROM, without hitting the top or bottom of the move.
These types of ROM modifications are popular training techniques for power lifters and strongman competitors.
- Add manual resistance.
Adding extra resistance during parts of the move is another way to make your weight training sets harder. Get your personal trainer or training partner to be a “reverse spotter” – instead of helping boost the weight off, he or she will applying more resistance at a certain place in the movement. Your trainer can apply some hands-on resistance to the bar, the dumbbells, or your bodyparts that are moving. If you have never done this before, you’ll be surprised by how much this will change the feel and the difficulty of the exercise.
CAUTION: If you’ve never added manual resistance before, practice with your partner without weight to get a feel for the correct amount of “antagonism.” Don’t hurt each other!
- Change your base of support.
If you’re doing a standing exercise, try putting your feet closer together, or even stand on one leg, to challenge your stability. Another way to change your base is to perform the exercise on a less stable surface, like a swiss ball, a BOSU, or a foam pad.
While a more difficult base certainly makes the exercise harder, don’t make it all about balance. If your goal is to build strength, make sure you don’t make the lift so unstable that the biggest challenge is not falling over.
- Perform one-and-a-quarter reps.
To incorporate this technique, perform the eccentric phase of the move (the “negative”), and then lift the weight just a quarter of the range of motion.
Afterward, return to the starting position and perform the full range of motion of the concentric phase.
For example, squat down all the way, start to push up just one quarter of the way, squat back down to the bottom again, then stand all the way up. This adds time under maximum tension, and makes your weight training exercises much harder!
- Add partials at the end of the set.
Once you have finished the normal set, add partial reps (or “pulses”) in a narrower ROM (see #4 above).
You can vary this version even more by changing the range of your partials to slightly different positions with each rep or two. Be sure not to bounce or swing, just flex in a smaller range of motion. Tough stuff!
If you’d like some one-on-one coaching to improve your workouts, contact Basics and Beyond to schedule a time to talk about what we can do to help you get better!
Other ways to change up your workout and make weight training harder
- Supersets: two exercises for opposing muscle groups performed back-to-back
- Compound sets (that’s the official name, but I prefer the term “stacked set” to avoid confusion with “compound exercises”): exercises for the same muscle group performed back-to-back
- Heavy primary mover/light secondary mover. Examples: Rows/bicep curls, Chest presses/tricep extensions, Deadlifts/hamstring curls
- Pre-exhaustion (chest fly before bench press, for example)
- Insert 1-2 minutes high-intensity cardio between sets
- One set of pushups after every upper body exercise, one set of unweighted squats or lunges after every lower body exercise
- 21’s (7 reps at top half of range of motion, 7 reps at bottom half, 7 reps full range)
- 40 reps, rest as needed (i.e. 15 reps, rest a few seconds, 7 more, rest, 5 reps, etc. until you get a total of 40)
- Circuit-style: 45-second work, 1 minute rest (those minutes go by real quick after a few sets!)
- Super light weights — 50, 60, 100 reps — whatever you can get!
- Plyometric exercises before training a particular bodypart with weights: Jumps before squats, explosive pushups before dumbbell chest press)
- Heavy overhead lifts or deadlifts with odd-shaped and/or unbalanced objects: half-empty beer kegs, rocks, lumber, small furniture, etc. If you enjoy this kind of strongman training, you may want to check out MILO, a publication dealing with this type of strength training.