How to Increase the Difficulty of an Exercise Without Adding Weight

In the flow of group circuit training, with rest intervals being minimal and the ability to access certain weights at a given time may be compromised, it is good to have strategies to consistently challenge yourself; as well as an understanding as to what the purpose is of certain aspects of the workout.

Progressive overload is the principle that drives muscle growth and strength improvements. If you aren't exposing your body to a stimulus slightly greater than what it is accustomed to, you aren't giving your muscular system any reason to adapt and grow. But increasing the weight that you're using isn't the only method of progressive overload and if you aren't comfortable pushing the envelope with heavier dumbbells, you can still increase the training stimulus in another way.


The Eccentric portion of an exercise is when the muscle is being lengthened (i.e. when you are descending into a squat, when you are lowering a barbell to your chest during a bench press, when your knee lowers to the ground during a lunge or split squat). Your muscles are nearly twice as strong during this portion; meaning you can lower twice as much weight as you can squat or press. The concentric portion of an exercise is when the muscle contracts and is shortened. As a coach, we can prescribe different eccentric and concentric tempos to target different training effects.

Slow Eccentrics (2-5 seconds) and end-range pauses serve multiple purposes:

1.) Increase time under tension and allow for a different method of overload than simply adding more weight, sets, or reps Time under tension is the duration that a muscle is under strain during a set. If you’ve been performing 3 sets of 10 goblet squats at a consistent one second down, no pause, one second up tempo, without increasing the amount of weight you’re squatting with, you can increase the difficulty of the exercise by performing those same 3 sets of 10 but with a two second down, one second pause, one second up tempo. This will essentially double the length of the set from about 20 seconds to 40 seconds. On paper the sets and reps will look the same, but your quadriceps are increasingly challenged and the demand on your core is greater as it has to maintain spinal stability for twice as long.

2.) Clean up technique It is very difficult to squat slowly, control the movement, and pause at the bottom when you are not in the correct positions. It can also allow you to really hone in on a certain technique cue during a movement like a squat (i.e. drive knees out over toes, screw your heels into the ground, maintain an upright torso). This heightened focus can also improve your mind-muscle connection; an idea that when you're able to focus on the targeted muscle during an exercise and feel it contract, the stimulus for growth is greater.

So next time you find yourself in class with a 20lb dumbbell on an exercise that you know you can do So next time you find yourself in class with a 20lb dumbbell on an exercise that you know you could be using a 30lb weight for, shift your focus to varying tempos to reap multiple benefits.

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Brendan Aylwardknowledge