5 Ways to Upgrade Your Strength Workout

Challenge your muscles in new ways to see bigger gains. Credit: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

It’s easy to get caught up in the gym bro culture of “if the bar ain’t bending, you’re just pretending.” The truth is, only lifting the heaviest possible weights can restrict your health and fitness gains. You need to hit your body with multiple training methods to keep improving. That doesn’t mean drastically changing your current workouts, or even the exercises. Try these five strength-training variations, and you’ll make any move more challenging.

1. Add Bands

Adding a resistance band to the bar you're lifting is a smart way to crush strength plateaus and challenge your range of motion from a different perspective. Attaching a band to a barbell means the resistance will increase as the band stretches further along in your rep. That makes your "lockout" the hardest part, but leaves the first half virtually unaffected. Anchor the bands with a heavy weight or dumbbell on the floor. To ensure tension throughout the lift, loop the band around the end of the bar multiple times until it's short enough to be tight at the bottom of the move. This works well for the bench press, squats, seated chest presses (anchor the bands behind you), and deadlifts.

2. Try Paused Reps

Removing the momentum from any exercise instantly boosts the difficulty. Since you’re no longer able to transfer force by using your muscle reflex (like bouncing out of the bottom of a squat), each rep almost feels like its own set, and moving the weight asks more of your muscles. Because of this, it’s best to decrease the weight by at least 15 percent for the same rep range you’re used to lifting. Using this method for the big compound movements like squats, the bench press, and overhead presses will deliver huge benefits.

One note of caution: Be sure to control the descent during pause reps. Lifting with tightness in both directions will ensure your safety. 

3. Slow Your Negative Reps

Applying an exaggerated negative phase to your reps will not only make lighter weight feel heavy, it will make your strongest muscle fibers work harder than they ever have (so, slowing down when you lower into a squat or bring the bar down to your chest for a bench press). If you’ve only focused on the contraction and “lifting” phase of a rep, slow negatives can hit like a brick wall the first time you try them and be quite the humbling experience. Try them for exercises like squats and bench and overhead presses. Your goal: A four-second negative rep before exploding to the top.

4. Scale Up to 1.5 Reps

Doing one-and-a-half reps works well for push movements. For example, doing a squat, bench press, or overhead press with 1.5 reps create 50 percent more time under tension, and also doubles down on one muscle group as a byproduct (a set of 8 reps of 1.5s will make the chest feel like it did 16 reps). Follow these steps for a successful 1.5 rep:

  • Unrack the weight and lower slowly.
  • From the bottom position, explode only to the halfway point of a full extension.
  • Lower the weight to the bottom of the rep again.
  • Finally, explode all the way to the top. That’s one rep.

5. Use Extended Sets

Less weight and more reps can be a useful tool to create muscle. A simple way to extend your set without dropping too much of the weight you’re lifting is by performing a ladder. To do them, load the bar with your approximate 12-rep max. Start by doing 2 reps. Rest for 10 seconds, and then do 3 more reps. Rest again for 10 seconds, then do 5 more reps. Rest for 10 seconds, and finish off by doing a full 10 reps. These mini breaks give your anaerobic energy system just enough time to partially recover and crank out a few more reps. And this particular ladder allows you to do 20 reps with your 12 rep max (2, 3, 5, 10) before taking a full rest. You'll test your muscular endurance and your psychological fortitude at the same time.