A little lifting may have improved your strength and shape to begin with, but what if your progress has stalled? Here’s how to make your workouts harder without going heavier…

Step away from the machines
Switch on your core by swapping machines for free weights. For example, a swap a chest-press machine for a dumbbell bench press. Even though you’re lying down with your back supported on the bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand means both sides of your body have to work independently. On a machine, you’re lifting the weight on a fixed plane of movement, and the stronger side of your body tends to take over while the weaker side wears out. Try these exercise swaps:

  • Swap the seated leg-press machine for bodyweight or barbell squats.
  • Swap the seated hamstring-curl machine for deadlifts with a bar.
  • Swap the seated shoulder-press machine for a standing dumbbell shoulder press.

Take shorter breaks
Cut your rest periods in half. The less recovery time between sets, the harder the next set will feel.

“This technique is great for breaking out of a training plateau because it forces you to work more of your body while performing the same exercise,” says PT Jeff Archer. “As the muscles become more fatigued because you’re not allowing them to recover fully, you begin to recruit additional muscles to improve stability and allow the mobilisers (muscles that produce movement) to focus on completing each exercise.”

Go against gravity
Gravity is a force to be reckoned with. It’s harder to do a bicep curl seated with the bench on a slight decline, so that you’re leaning back slightly (make sure your back is supported though), than it is to do a standing bicep curl. Similarly, a crunch on a decline bench is harder than a crunch on a flat floor. Try it and see.

Make yourself unstable
In the shoulder press machine feeling too easy? Sit on a stability ball and do a shoulder press with dumbbells. The instability of the ball will make it harder, as you’ll have to switch on your core to hold your body in position while you do the exercise. Use the ball for other exercise such as seated bicep curls or overhead tricep extensions with a dumbbell. You won’t need to lift much weight to feel the benefit.

Similarly, rather than doing normal bodyweight squats, challenge yourself to try single-leg squats balancing on a BOSU. Or ditch the seated leg-curl machine and instead lie on the floor with your heels on a stability ball and do hamstring curls, aiming to keep your hips up and level while you bend your knees to roll the ball towards you.

Slow it down
A fast workout isn’t necessarily a good workout. Instead, slow the reps down. This is known as increasing the time the muscles are under tension (and called ‘time under tension’). Lifting a lighter load slowly will get better results. Gently lift and push the weight with control for up to three seconds, pause for a second or two at the top, then lower the bar back down for a count of three.

Feel the burn
It’s a sad truth about exercise: when you feel like you can’t move, that’s usually when you’ll get the most benefit. Try the rest-pause technique to make this concept work for you. Pick an exercise. Do as many reps as you can until you feel fatigued, then rest for up to 10 seconds before performing more repetitions until you fatigue again. This leads to greater accumulated muscle fatigue and you’ll definitely feel the burn.

Use your body weight
Swap the chest-press machine for push-ups and you’ll find it’s way tougher to lift your own body weight. Or try body-weight pull-ups instead of doing a single-arm row.

If you can’t lift your own body weight during a pull-up, ask someone to hold your feet and give you a slight push. Or use the assisted pull-up machine, where you add some weight to help propel you up (it’s the only machine where adding weight will make the exercise easier).

Try supersets
Perform two exercises back to back without rest. This will boost the intensity of the session by increasing the training density, or the amount of work you do.

“Rather than resting, you can be exercising an alternative muscle group, which adds variety to your workouts,” says Archer. “This will keep you mentally engaged and keep your results flowing. You can superset with pairs of exercises or string combinations together. Try a sequence of push-ups, tricep extensions, bench press, dumbbell bench press and push-ups to whip your chest and the backs of your arms into great shape.”

This story originally appeared in our September issue. Words by Christina Macdonald.

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