Rather than beating your head against the wall repeatedly trying to get a PR on your bench press, are there other ways to get stronger and fitter without just adding weight to the bar?
Adding weight is important, no doubt. The guy who can front squat 225 for 20 reps is going to be much bigger and stronger than the guy who has been doing a 3×10 with 95# for the last 2 years.
But there’s a balance.
For most of us, the weight we can lift is negligible. It doesn’t really matter.
We (I) might think it matters, but for 95% of us, it’s just our ego that we’re feeding, without thinking about long term success, health, and results.
External weight is the most obvious thing that we look for when determining if someone is “strong” or not, but unless winning your sport is contingent on how much you can pick up and put back down, you should start thinking of weight like a just another tool.
The painter uses different brushes, paints, and oils to accomplish his goal.
The master Pokémon Trainer catches and uses all different types and specialties. You can’t expect to just waltz in and beat the elite 4 using only ground type Pokémon. That’s rookie shit.
That’s why it’s so stupid to only pick kettlebell training, crossfit, yoga, machines etc. THEY’RE ALL JUST TOOLS to accomplish your end goal.
The only important thing is using the right tool at the right time. That’s the difference between a good coach and a mindless disciple.
So how can you get results without changing the weight?
This article is a follow up on Which is More Important – Rest Periods or Weight?
Increase Range of Motion (ROM):
If you bench press 100lbs with a range of motion of 6 inches, you can improve your strength levels dramatically by simply adding in a few more inches of range of motion. Or you can bro out, and keep half repping with higher weight until your shoulders hate you.
Hey, I’m not mad at that, I did it for years.
In addition to increasing the work you do, increasing the Time Under Tension (TUT), and gaining strength through a full range of motion, working the full ROM will actually help keep your joints and ligaments healthy, which is a highly-underrated way to get and stay strong.
We’ve all seen the half rep bicep hero, curling 50s (probably in the squat rack) and coming down to almost 90 degrees at the elbow. The problem with that (besides the obvious ones) is that he’s training strength in a shortened biceps position, so that when it comes time to do real work, like move a couch, when you must demonstrate strength in a lengthened biceps position (with the arm straight) you’ll have a much higher chance of tearing that muscle or tendon because of the discrepancy in strength.
If you took physics more than a few years back, let me hit you with a quick refresher. F=MA stands for Force = Mass * Acceleration. So if you’re able to accelerate the same load faster, you’ll be showcasing and building more force. This is great for athletes and anyone who needs to demonstrate more power.
Accelerating the weights doesn’t mean you’ll build more muscle though. You’ll be stronger and more powerful, but there isn’t a ton of carryover to size gains.
This style of lifting requires a good degree of control though, and one way to get that is to..
“Wtf bro….I thought you just said” – yea, I did, but it’s a little different.
By slowing down with the weights, specifically on the eccentric or ‘negative’ part of the movement, you’ll be able to build more control which leads to both size and strength gains. Lifting slow can also be the addition of pauses during a movement, like a pause squat – where you spend between 1-10 seconds in the bottom position of a squat. Lifting like this is challenging both mentally and physically, but can be some of the most productive training you’re not doing.
Getting stronger and more controlled in the weakest positions of the lift will develop the physical and mental strength to break through plateaus.
The reason you don’t see more people training this way is that it’s very difficult, and the results show up in 6-8 weeks, which is very hard for most people’s squirrel brains to understand.
If you want instant results, go get a tattoo.
Decrease base of support:
Another way to increase the challenge without adding weight is by making an exercise more unstable. This can be as simple as bringing your feet and elbows closer together in a standard plank, or as tough as putting your hands on a medicine ball for a pushup.
This one isn’t as obvious as some of the others, but has a great deal of carryover to total body strength and control, as reducing the support means that your internal tension must be greater to meet the higher demands.
If core strength is your goal, this option should be a go too.
Regular Lunge –> Skater Squat
The back foot never touches the ground. Only the knee.
TRX Reverse Crunch –>TRX Single Leg Reverse Crunch
Just like it sounds. Make those obliques work harder to compensate for decrease in stability.
Barbell Squat –>Pistol Squat
Single leg stability is an entirely different animal than lifting with both feet in a wide stance.
Increase mechanical load:
This is fancy talk for “lift less efficiently”.
An easy example of this is going from a flat bench to a incline bench or a seated shoulder press. As the angle of the bench increases, the weight you can use will decrease.
So if you’re crushing the heaviest weights in the gym on the flat bench, raise that angle up a few notches and see how it feels.
The TRX also offers an easy way to work this into your program.
To increase the mechanical difficulty on exercises like pushups, curls, and row, simply make sure your body is closer to being parallel with the ground.
This also offers a great opportunity to add in a unique finisher set called Mechanical Drop Sets. To do these, set up on a TRX in whatever exercise you want. Start in the most difficult position with your body closest to the ground, and as the reps become harder, simply step away from the TRX anchor point so that your body becomes more upright.
This brutal training method can yield great gains, especially when used as a finisher for your workout, while saving your joints and providing a ton of blood flow to the muscles you’re working. Intelligent training like this can be the difference between a full year of pain free workouts, or sitting on the elliptical waiting for your shoulder to heal from going to heavy on bench press – again.
Just because you’ve maxed out the dumbbells at Planet Fitness doesn’t mean that you’ve reached the peak of personal fitness.
Use one or two of these techniques next time you train and prepare to get humbled. By humbled though, I mean hyuuuuge. Obviously.