Here are a few methods you can use to simply increase the intensity of your training and/or just change up your usual routine.
The Rest-Pause Method
This method (one of my favorites) revolves around working the target muscle group at a higher-than-usual intensity by performing multiple “sets” with little rest in between. This shouldn’t be done if you’re just getting into resistance training (less than 1-year experience), but if you’re experienced and ready for a challenge, adding in a rest-pause set to each exercise you hit during a session, maybe once every couple weeks, will add a new intensity to your workout. It goes something like this:
- Perform one set of an exercise (let’s say seated row, pictured above) to your goal number of reps (let’s say 8).
- Set the weight down, count to 15 or 20 seconds, pick it up, and perform another set – getting as close as you can to 8 reps with good form.
- Rest again for 15-20 seconds and perform a third set, again getting as close as you can to 8 reps (you shouldn’t be able to).
That “set” is now complete. Yes, you basically did three sets in one. After the first set, the ensuing sets should be progressively harder, and you usually shouldn’t be able to perform the same number of reps during the second two sets as you did during the first set.
Cluster sets are very similar to the rest-pause method described above, with a slight difference. Your goal when using cluster sets is to break up the set into smaller pieces by adding in intra-set rest periods between every couple reps. This allows more work to be done (mainly when using heavier weights) and more time under tension per set. It’s also a great strategy for focusing on technique and breathing. Here’s an example:
You’re performing sets with your 5RM on the bench press working on building strength. Most of the time, you’re likely going to hit 5 reps with good form. To turn this into a cluster set using the same amount of weight, you could break it up into “4 sets of 2 reps” and end up trying to perform 8 reps with that given load instead of the usual 5.
- Perform 2 reps with your 5RM.
- Rest 10 seconds.
- Perform 2 more reps.
- Repeat until you’ve reached your goal number of reps for that set.
- That’s one set, broken up into smaller pieces.
- Rest your desired amount (in this 5RM case, 2-3 minutes), and repeat.
“One and a Half Reps”
Performing “one and a half” reps is very popular among the high school athletes who desire a challenge (*much sarcasm*). It is truly a great way to increase time under tension (if you’re into that, which you should be), and more importantly, a great way to work on improving your strength at the different ranges of motion (ROM) of an exercise.
I’m going to use the barbell bench press as an example. This rep style may be used for someone who struggles with getting the bar to go low enough each rep. They might be able to go through the full ROM with light weights, but once the load increases, they resort to the classic “half-rep” I cringe just thinking about because either 1. they’re afraid they won’t be able to push it back up, or 2. they’re not strong enough in the bottom portion of the lift, but they’re strong enough in the top portion of it (technique could also be an issue, but let’s say it isn’t in this case).
To perform “one and a half reps” to improve their bench press, this person would want to:
- Lower the weight all the way to their chest (not bouncing, just barely touching).
- Push the weight off their chest about 6 inches and pause for a second.
- Lower the weight to their chest again.
- Push the weight all the way to the top.
- That’s one rep.
This can get really tiring, really fast, so don’t apply it to every set you perform during a given workout until you know how you feel after applying it to just one set of an exercise.
Drop sets are for the badass lifters who like a good challenge, after the challenge of completing their regular set is over. They’re easy to apply but difficult to perform. Always have a spotter when doing drop sets during an overhead exercise (like the bench press or shoulder press) to help you when you fail.
To perform a drop set:
- Complete your goal number of reps for a set.
- Immediately reduce the amount of weight by 25-50% (that part is up to you) and perform a goal number of reps again (or go to failure – which most people tend to do).
- Rest at least 60 seconds before performing the next set.
One important note – if you’re using this method to go to “failure” during your drop set, just perform the drop set on the last set of the exercise. If you’re doing 3 sets of 8, perform sets 1 and 2 as you normally would, and perform the drop set just on the third set before moving onto the next exercise or calling it a day.
If this isn’t challenging enough, feel free to incorporate any repetition tempo changes throughout these sets as well.