The main thing of the strength training game is progress, you know getting stronger. And the best way to do it is to add weight to the bar for the same or more reps. The body gets stronger and you’re one step closer to your health and fitness goals. When you’re beginning your strength training journey, adding weight isn’t an issue.
When you’re an older or more experienced lifer (like me), continually adding weight is harder to come by. There becomes a point where the weight doesn’t budge or you’re using less than stellar technique to move the weight from point A to point B.
Then it’s only a matter of time before an ego injury occurs.
Training hard is great but not at the expense of training smart. If this all sounds familiar, here are three other ways to progress your strength training when you cannot add more weight. These three methods involve you checking your ego at the door so you can start progressing again.
Let’s dive in.
When you’re pushing yourself and training close to the edge to get results, good form starts to slip. Now, don’t get me wrong, pushing to the edge is great occasionally but may become a problem when you’re doing it often. Weaknesses and compensations may happen that don’t happen at a lighter weight like struggling with a bench press lockout.
Many lifters make the mistake of testing strength rather than building strength. Instead of concentrating on good form, you’re chasing numbers in the name of progress and results. What you should be doing is concentrating on good form with the weight you’re using.
If this sounds familiar, make sure you’re doing the exercise to the best of your ability and with good form. Make mental notes on how you’re performing and whether the weight is causing any form deviations. When you’re good and the weight feels easy, it’s time for progress.
Increasing Time Under Tension
Time under tension refers to the time a muscle is held under tension during a set. The longer the muscle is held under tension, the stronger it becomes, and good things start to happen to your body.
Or instead of jacking the weight up and down consider tempo lifting. Each rep has four parts. The eccentric portion (lowering), bottom position, a concentric portion (lifting), and lockout (the end of the rep), and each of these numbers is represented by how many seconds it takes.
For example, 2121 squat—it takes two seconds to yourself into a squat position. Then a pause of 1 second at the bottom position, followed by 2 seconds to squat up and 1 second to pause at the top.
Using tempo forces you to slow things down and focus on form. Any hitches will be easier to detect when you’re going slow. Plus, you’ll have more time under tension, which is a key factor in building strength and muscle. (1)
Slowing down is an underrated form of progress. But wait there is more. Adding a pause in the lift usually in a difficult position adds time under tension and builds strength and mental resilience. You perform the exercise as normal with a 3-5 second pause but be warned this doesn’t tickle and a drop in weight is needed.
Increasing Range Of Motion
Note: This doesn’t work for all exercises, particularly pressing exercises where an increase in ROM puts your shoulders at greater risk of injury. Usually, this works with lower body exercises like the ones below.
Putting the muscle through a greater range of motion makes the exercise more difficult and increases your time under tension which is another way to progress when you cannot add weight.
An example of this is a Bulgarian Split squat as opposed to the regular split squat. The elevated surface increases the demand for hip mobility and puts the quads and glutes through a larger ROM.
Same exercise, same loading but the increased range of motion increases your intensity. You can do this with reverse lunges, forward lunges, and split squats by elevating the front foot. Again, drop-in loading is needed but this is made up by the increased ROM and time under tension. You can thank me later.
You cannot always add weight or increase reps with the same weight, but you still need to progress. Instead, add to your bag of tricks when you can no longer increase the weight without hurting yourself with these three methods.
Building your strength rather than testing it will benefit you and your body. And you’ll like what you will see.
1. Wilk M1, et al. Physiological responses to different neuromuscular movement tasks during the eccentric bench press. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2018 Mar;39(1):26-32.