3 Simple and Effective Methods to Increase Workout Intensity

Most of the time, when I write about programming, I’m trying to argue that less is more. I really believe that optimal training involves balancing work and recovery, and that many lifters underestimate their recovery resources.

But sometimes, you don’t care about optimal. Sometimes you just want to smash some weights, push yourself to the absolute limit, and enjoy that accompanying endorphin rush and feeling of accomplishment that comes with a killer training session. I’m a big believer in having fun in the gym, too, so I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way to train (as long as that’s not how you train all the time).

If you want to kick your training up a notch, here are three…unusual ways to turn up the heat.

1. Progressive Movements In Drop Sets

“Progressive movements” refers to pairs or series of exercises that are similar in many ways, but allow you to use varying amounts of weight. For example, the front squat and back could be considered progressive movements: they’re both squats, but you can use more weight on the back squat.

Progressive movements make for killer drop sets, because the intensity stays high all the way through the drop set. In traditional drop sets, when you use the same movement all the way through, by the time you get to the end, the weight is so light that you probably don’t have to try very hard to complete the reps, even if you’re very tired. But if you switch to a progressive movement at that point instead, you’ll still have to dig deep to finish the workout. Here’s an example:

  • Squat 405×5
  • Squat 315×8
  • Front squat 225×10
  • Front squat 135×12

If you perform that drop set straight through, with no rest, I guarantee that by the time you get to the end your quads, glutes, and lungs will be screaming for mercy.

Here are some other progressive movements:

  • Barbell row — deadlift — shrug
  • Overhead press — push press
  • Curl — partial curl (typically called 21s)
  • Dip — pushup
  • Lat pulldown — chin or pull-up

2. Upper/Lower Supersets

Traditional supersets typically involve either two movements for the same muscle, or two movements for antagonistic muscles (e.g., biceps and triceps). Supersets are great intensifiers because they allow you to take shorter rests between movements, but they also usually limit the amount of weight you can use on each movement.

There’s no rule that’s forcing you to use this kind of superset, though! In fact, I find that upper/lower supersets are the most intense supersets, because not only are you getting very little rest — you’re also training your whole body, and you’re not limiting the weight you can use on either movement. There’s also no limit to the number of combinations you can make, so you can work this strategy into almost any kind of training session.

Here are some of my favorite upper/lower supersets:

  • Squats and chins/pull-ups
  • Deadlift and bench press/overhead press
  • Any quad/hamstring isolation movement and any bicep/tricep isolation movement
  • Any upper or lower movement and any ab movement

The last one is a little bit of a stretch, as I wouldn’t consider the abs part of your upper or lower body — but they can pair with almost any other exercise you do in the gym.

3. Timed Total Reps

This one is simple, too: instead of programming a certain number of sets and reps, choose a number of total reps you want to complete for a given movement. Then, complete that many reps in as little time as possible, regardless of how many sets it takes. I suggest you start with a pretty high number — think 50 reps, not 20. You can do this one backwards, too: set a time limit and try to complete as many reps as possible in that amount of time.

The most important thing with this is to stay mindful of your technique. It’s very easy to get caught up in a race against the clock and get sloppy with your execution, and that’s a quick route to injury, especially if you’re using this technique with compound movements like the squat or deadlift. You’ll be stronger and healthier for slowing down a bit and doing the exercises properly.

Again, remember that these intensification techniques are best when used sparingly, not as the cornerstone of your training. It’s just too hard to recover and progress when pushing your body to the absolute limit all the time. But sometimes, you need that physical and mental challenge to stay motivated or excited, and at those times, these methods can be a heck of a lot of fun — and make you a heck of a lot stronger, too!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.