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If you think the only way to increase strength and muscle mass is by adding more weight to the bar then you are mistaken.
There are plenty of ways to progress without going heavier.
Here are some proven methods you should try:
#1: Increase the Number of Reps
Many lifters believe that sets of 3-10 reps is the optimal amount, but if you find that even after the 10th rep that you still have enough energy for a few more reps then what is the harm?
The weight hasn’t increased, but by increasing the reps you are putting more work in, this is called progressive overload and will certainly help build muscle and strength .
Of course you may want to rethink doing extra reps on every set. Otherwise you will be moving out of the muscle building range, but more into the muscle endurance range.
If you do it for a few sets, or for certain exercises then you will see the benefit.
#2: Add More Sets
Another method you can implement to experience progressive overload is by adding more sets to your workout .
Some would say that 3 sets of each exercise is the magic number, but there are plenty of programs out there that advocate more sets.
As long as you are not completing an excessive number of sets then you will surely see some benefit.
#3: Reduce Rest Periods
How long do you rest between sets? If it is 90 seconds or more then try to reduce the time to about 60 seconds.
By reducing recovery time your body will be less prepared and will be forced to make incremental adaptions, leading to muscle and strength gains.
#4: Increase the Range of Motion
Increasing the range of motion of each exercise performed will make the exercise harder to perform and ultimately will result in more gains.
Using the squat as an example, instead of squatting to parallel, or (shock) half-repping, try and squat all the way to the ground.
You may find that increasing the range of motion will cause a reduction in reps performed, but this just shows how much harder the exercises are to perform.
#5: Perform a More Difficult Exercise
This may sound obvious, but sometimes we get stuck doing the same workout regime time after time.
Instead of thinking about performing specific exercises, think of them as movement patterns instead.
For example, rather than thinking of a push up as a push up, think of it as a “horizontal push”. You can then find a more difficult exercise that uses the same movement pattern but is more difficult to perform.
If you perform a push up on an elevated surface rather than having all limbs on the ground you will make the exercise more difficult and therefore more likely to increase muscle and strength gains.
#6: Take Your Time
No doubt the last time you were at the gym you saw at least one person standing in front of a mirror performing endless bicep curls with questionable form.
Although one of our earlier tips was to increase reps, this does not mean to increase reps while neglecting form.
To get maximum resistance out of every rep they should be performed slowly, without using a swinging movement or momentum.
I do not mean “super-slow” training, but rather movements performed in a controlled manner using a full range of motion. These movements will increase strength and build muscle, while promoting proper form, which will help to avoid or at the very least reduce the risk of injury.
#7: Improve Your Technique
By practicing your technique you will be able to not only improve it with better form, but will also be able to make it more difficult without having to increase the weight.
#8: Add a Pause
A way to make an exercise more difficult is to add a pause during the movement.
For example, during a squat you can pause at the bottom before focussing on pushing the floor away. Rather than bouncing straight back up.
You can also add additional pauses during reps of certain movements, when appropriate of course. This will help to develop control, while building strength.
#9: Strengthen Supporting Muscles
While compound movements like the deadlift and bench press work multiple muscles they do not work them all, and these movements can benefit from isolation exercises too.
If you want to improve your bench press you should aim to strengthen your triceps, anterior delts, and mid traps.
For a bigger deadlift you should try to strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, low back, mid/upper traps, and your grip strength.
Once you understand what muscles you use when performing these big lifts you can work on the supporting muscles to increase your ability to perform them and your overall strength.
#10: Be Less Stable
By introducing some form of instability you can challenge your balance, and therefore make yourself work much harder.
Using a Bosu or stability ball, or even something as simple as standing instead of sitting while performing an exercise can add instability.
Please though, use a little common sense when adding instability to your exercises. We do not want any injuries occurring while attempting to squat while atop a stability ball.
While the tips above will help you to build strength and muscle mass without increasing weight I certainly would not recommend implementing them all at the same time.
Perhaps focus on one or two until you hit a plateau, then switch to another.
Remember to keep growing you can’t allow your body and muscles to become too comfortable.