One of the main goals of strength training is to get stronger. For those new to the lifting game, getting stronger might seem easy; adding weight is often not a problem. For the more experienced or older lifter, it can be more difficult for a variety of reasons such as a plateau.
There may come a point when you’re pinned under the bar or compensations help move the weight from point A to point B. If these compensations keep happening, pain and injury are likely to follow closely thereafter. Training hard is great, but not at the expense of training smart.
If this sounds like where you are with your training, this piece will delve into two ways to increase intensity when you cannot add weight.
[Related: 9 ways to improve your bench press without adding weight]
These two methods involve taking a step back so you can take a step forward. Check your ego at the gym door, put your hard hat on, and let’s get to work.
Mastery of Form
The closer you get to your training max (i.e. pushing yourself), the likelier the chance that proper form might slip. That is fine occasionally, but becomes a problem when compensations in form become consistent. Small weaknesses and compensations may appear that are absent at a lighter weights. For example, struggling with lockout in the bench press or losing upper back tightness in the deadlift.
Someone who is training smart would incorporate accessory exercises that strengthen weak points to prevent compensations. The added strength can help reinforce correct movement mechanics so one can master the lift at higher weights.
Many lifters make the mistake of testing strength rather than building strength, myself included. Instead of concentrating on good technique, they will chase numbers. If this sounds like you, there is no shame in taking a step back to movements 101 to make sure you’re doing the exercise to the best of your ability and with good technique. Take mental notes (or actual notes) on how you’re doing, and at what weight you notice any form deviations. A training partner or coach can be helpful in spotting more nuanced weaknesses.
For example, if you’re having trouble losing tension at the bottom of your squat or getting out of the hole, adding pause training into your routine may be the answer. Reducing the weight and increasing time under tension (TUT) is a great way to strengthen weaknesses as well.
Rather than jacking up the weight, perhaps consider using tempo lifting. Each rep has four parts: The eccentric portion, bottom position, concentric portion, and lockout. A tempo lift is represented by how many seconds each part takes for you to complete.
For example, 2-1-2-1 for the bench press means: two seconds to lower the bar to your chest, then a pause of one second at the bottom, followed by two seconds to press the barbell up, and a one second pause at the top. Using tempo forces you to slow things down and focus on form. Any hitches will be easier to detect when moving slowly. Plus, you’ll have more TUT — a key factor in building strength and muscle. (1)
Slowing down and striving for mastery is an underrated form of improvement.
Increasing The Range Of Motion
Putting the muscle through a greater ROM not only makes the exercise more difficult, but increases your TUT — a driving force for hypertrophy and strength. It should be noted that increasing the range of motion doesn’t work for all exercises, particularly pressing exercises where an increase in range of motion (ROM) puts the anterior shoulder at risk.
For certain exercises like the deadlift, increasing the ROM with a deficit deadlift will work on weak points, such as being slow off the floor or locking out.
To perform a deficit deadlift, use an elevated surface of 2-4 inches. This small deficit disadvantages normal starting mechanics in order to create more off the floor strength in the standard deadlift.
Another example is the 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.
Utlizing an exercise by loading it the same way but with an increased ROM can increase your intensity. Reverse lunges, forward lunges, and elevated split squats are excellent examples.
When each leg is strengthened individually, it will have a carryover effect when you’re lifting with both.
There’s nothing wrong with training hard and pushing the boundaries, it is something pretty much all athletes in the gym should strive to do. Not having a plan to do so safely and in a controlled way can lead burnout, overtraining, and injury, all of which are preventable.
Add some training days that focus on form and increased range of motion when you can no longer increase the weight without compensating. Building strength rather than testing it all the time will benefit you in the long run.
- Wilk, Michal, et al. Physiological responses to different neuromuscular movement task during eccentric bench press. (2018) Neuroendocrinology Letters. Mar;39(1):26-32.
Feature image via James Cerbie’s YouTube Channel.