I’m often asked how to increase the intensity of a strength training workout to maximize results. It’s important to understand that intensity is relative, as what may be hard for you will be easy for someone else. Often when I advise clients to do high-intensity strength training, they remind me that they’re not very strong. Regardless of your current level of strength, you can make your training high-intensity relative to your abilities. If you’re going to make time for a workout, make the time work for you—meaning, if you’re disciplined enough to exercise, do so in such a way that will maximize your results.
With respect to strength training, the important thing to remember is to manipulate different variables that will force your body to work with greater loads. Strength gains occur when you require your muscles to adapt progressively to a higher level of resistance. This occurs when you increase the intensity. If you never increase the intensity of your training, your muscles adapt to the routine and you will eventually cease to progress.
Let’s look at two effective ways to increase the intensity of a strength training session. Remember, strength training can mean weight training with barbells and dumbbells, exercising with bands and tubing, or even cleverly using your own body weight. All of these forms of training can and will increase muscular strength, if done properly. Again, muscles gain strength when you require them to adapt—they will only adapt when you give them a challenge.
The first way to increase the intensity of a strength training workout is to increase the level of resistance. If you’re working with dumbbells, barbells, and machines, this means increasing the actual weight. If you normally do a 100 pound bench press, increase the weight and you will naturally have to decrease the repetitions, as the work will be more intense. By doing a maximum of 6-8 repetitions at 120 pounds, the intensity is greater than if you do 10-12 repetitions with 100 pounds, for example. I always encourage clients to do as many repetitions as they can with proper form. If you are contorting your body to squeeze out another repetition or two, you are likely doing more harm than good. Let it go; if you blow out your shoulder, you will miss more than those last two repetitions.
Add the smallest increment of weight possible to avoid injury. To increase your triceps press from a 10 pound dumbbell to a 15 pound dumbbell is a 50% increase all at once and could be too much for your tendons and ligaments. Instead, advance from a 10 pound dumbbell to a 12.5 pound dumbbell and use this load until you can surpass it.
For the purpose of strength training, always select a weight load with which you can only manage 8-10 repetitions, MAX. If you can do more than 10 repetitions, add the smallest possible increment of weight at a time until you find a load that brings you to failure by the 8th-10th repetition. I often go even heavier, reaching failure by my 5th or 6th repetition. Experiment with different loads.
A second way to increase the intensity of a strength training workout is to decrease the rest periods between sets. This is a strategy that I use when I am crunched for time and need to squeeze a 90-minute workout into 45 minutes.
When you decrease the amount of rest time between sets, you automatically increase the intensity, and you will elevate your heart rate more so than you would doing high-weight, low-repetition sets with a 45-60 second rest period between sets.
When you decrease the amount of time between sets, you naturally will have to work with less weight or even do drop sets, which are consecutive sets with no rest in between whereby you decrease the load incrementally until you can no longer move. Doing the former, you would select a weight slightly lighter than your normal working weight. After doing a set, wait only a brief period—maybe 15-20 seconds—before doing your next set.
A good example of drop sets is doing a biceps training exercise called, “running the rack.” Stand at the dumbbell rack and do biceps curls using your heaviest weight. After each set, immediately grab the lighter pair and execute another set. For example, if you start with 25 pound dumbbells, you’ll drop to 22.5, 20, 17.5, 15, 12.5, 10, 8, and 5 pounds, with no rest in between sets. By the time you get to the 5 pound dumbbells, you will barely be able to squeeze out 6-8 repetitions.
These are two easy ways to increase the intensity of a strength training session. There are many other options, but experiment with these over the next few weeks and let me know how you do!