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10 Tips to Make Your Workout More Challenging & Effective

You will not see results if your workouts are not challenging and intense. However, this article is not about explaining why you should increase your workout difficulty level. Instead, you will learn how to push yourself, safely, and earn each and every rep. Get ready to challenge your limits.

#1 | Learn to Train to Failure

This phrase can be highly subjective and is frequently the cause of injury and pain. Often times training to failure means to push for every rep no matter the cost! But that usually ends up in pain and misery. "Training to failure" should be a fine balance between pushing yourself and remaining injury free.

training to failure is pushing yourself to a point of mental & physical exhaustion but without losing stability through the core OR control of the intended muscle(s) being worked

Knowing which muscles should be worked, understanding and applying core stability, and having awareness and control of your body during exercise are all requirements of safely training to failure. However, we still have to push ourselves to feel stressed, uncomfortable, and exhausted if real progress is every going to be achieved. Again, it is a fine balance.

The remaining tips will help you train to failure more quickly and efficiently.

#2 | Increase Speed & Control Tempo

The speed of which you work through an exercise is the quickest way to train to failure. The faster you move, the quicker you will reach fatigue. However, this can also be the quickest way to hurting your back or tearing a muscle.

When increasing the speed of an exercise you are decreasing the tempo of three different phases.

  • Eccentric | down phase

  • Isometric | pause phase

  • Concentric | up phase

This can also be defined as...

  • elongated or lowering the muscle (negatives)

  • holding the muscle without movement

  • contracting or shortening the muscle

Control each phase of an exercise and DO NOT lose control of the intended muscle(s) being worked or stability through the core. You will significantly decrease your risk of injury while increasing your capacity for performance.

Watch this video for an in-depth look at what tempo is and how you can use it to challenge your workouts.

#3 | Increase Rep Count

Start small with 1-2 reps per exercise. Evaluate how your body feels in the next 24-48 hours post workout. During the following workouts continue to increase the rep count 1-2 reps (or more if not feeling challenged). If you are reaching 20+ reps for an exercise it is recommended to change other variables (such as resistance & tempo) before adding anymore additional reps. However, it does help to know the proper rep range for training different systems of the body...

  • Endurance | 12-20 reps

  • Hypertrophy | 8-12 reps

  • Strength | 3-8 reps

  • Power | 1-3 reps

Please note that each system also has to consider rest time to be effective. For example, when focusing on strength (and training to failure) it is recommended to rest at least 60 seconds before the next set. For endurance exercises the rest time is cut down to 30 seconds or less.

Keep a record of your rep count for each exercise and the resistance used, if any. This way you can consistently challenge your rep count from a previous workout.

#4 |Increase Resistance

Adjusting resistance during an exercise can help define how many reps will be achievable for that set.

Again, refer to the chart above to know which rep range should be targeted for your goals.

Make small adjustments when increasing weight. Even if you have performed an exercise at a much higher weight in the past you should always increase resistance in small increments relative to the exercise.

For example, some one who is performing a barbell back squat will increase weight by 10-20 pounds per set while that same person performing a barbell bench press would increase weight by 1-10 pounds per set. This is because typically you can lift a much heavier load with your legs than with your arms.

If the resistance added to the exercise causes a loss of control of the intended muscle(s) being worked or instability through the core then the weight was too much. Continue to follow the rules of "training to failure" with each tip.

#5 |Challenge Grip Strength

Your arm is only as strong as your grip.

Controlling your body throughout an exercise can be difficult. Now consider controlling the weight itself in your hand during an exercise!

With pressing movement exercises like a chest press or shoulder press squeeze the bar with your hands and control your wrist positioning. Try to prevent movement through the dumbbell as it touches your chest and presses back upward.

With pulling movements like a deadlift or pull-up wrap your fingers and wrist around and hold the bar in your palm. Press your palm into the bar before lifting the weight. You will feel a much greater control of the weight and your body throughout the range of motion.

Performing exercises specific to grip strength is important to be able to control heavier weights and higher repetition. Below you will find two of the most effective tools to aid in grip strength development.

Pinch Blocks | Pinch grip training is an effective way to strengthen your grip. You can use pinch blocks to build hand, palm, wrist, and forearm strength. These blocks come in different sizes and shapes. Picture below are standard blocks that can be found through Rogue Fitness here.

Fat Grips | Fat grips wrap around a variety of sized bars to increase the circumference of your grip. I wider grip lengthens the palm and hand muscles forcing them to work harder to maintain a strong grip. You can use them on any exercises that involves resistance and have a place to wrap the grip around. Find this item on Amazon here.

#6 | Time Under Tension (Partial Reps)

If you cannot finish the full range of motion of an exercise that does not mean you are done with that exercise.

The longer you perform an exercise the longer your body is under tension. Continue to add resistance to increase the tension and try to hold longer to increase the time. When the body is stressed under ever-increasing levels of resistance for longer periods of time the greater neuromuscular adaptations occur.

When neuromuscular adaptions occur our muscle become stronger and our tolerance for exercise increases. This results in an ability to control higher levels of resistance for longer periods of time which equals increased reps.

But how do you safely increase time under tension without risking injury?

As you reach the point of failure with the full range of motion of an exercise begin to slowly shorten the range. Consider a standing shoulder press. If you are unable to fully press the bar above head without losing control of the intended muscles or stability in the core then shorten the range of motion as you find that you lose that control. Eventually, you will find yourself just holding the bar at your shoulders. This alone should begin to stress your body and mind even further. BUT, make sure you are in a good position to rack or drop the weight!

#7 | Increase Range of Motion

Stressing the body during exercise can lead to a lack of focus and a decrease in the range of motion of said exercise. The burning of the muscles or difficulty breathing subtly leads your brain to tell your body to make the movement less stressful each rep. This is a natural occurrence as your brain is always telling you to "make things a little easier." It is trying to conserve energy!

But you will have to learn to override your brain. There are several ways to keep yourself honest during an exercise and maintain a full range of motion. To avoid losing track of the range of motion of an exercise use your environment and your own body to help maintain consistency.

For example, during a squat use a box lower to the ground and feel your butt touch the bench each rep.

During a dumbbell bicep curl allow the dumbbell to touch your hip before lifting it back up.

As you reach the point of failure and are unable to maintain control of the intended muscles or stability through the core then you will begin to decrease the range of motion and revert to partial reps as previously stated.

#8 |Decrease Rest Time

If you find yourself flipping through your phone or watching the television then you will probably benefit from decreasing the rest time between each exercise. It is okay to start the next set without feeling fully rested, in fact, it is strongly encouraged to challenge yourself while feeling tired.

Continue to focus on the "training to failure" rule learned previously. Although you are tired does not mean you are not focused.

Use a timer on your phone or a programmable gym timer to keep you honest between each set. Once you lose control of when you start each exercise, the fatigue and stress can build up quickly!

#9 | Create Instability

Balance is a key factor in developing body awareness and stability muscle strength but is often skipped for heavier weights and higher intensity exercise. However, balance helps improve the strength of smaller stability muscles of the body. Without strength in these muscles you will be unable to safely maintain control of resistance at greater loads. This is a primary reason for injury during strength training.

Below you will find two popular items that can be used to create instability and help train your body AND mind to balance.

#10 | Use a Time Interval or Heart Rate Monitor

  1. High-Intensity Interval Training | HIIT focuses on using your heart rate as a guide throughout a 15-20 minute workout. It will involve 15-30 second bursts of exercise with a shorter rest time between exercises. During exercise the goal is to reach 70-90% max heart rate while decreasing to 60-65% max heart rate between exercises. Using a heart rate monitor is essential to successfully perform high intensity interval training.

  2. As Many Rounds as Possible (AMRAP) |Pick a list of exercises with a rep count. Put 20-30 minutes on the clock. Ready. Set. Go! How many rounds (and reps) can you get through before the timer hits 0:00?

  3. Every Minute on the Minute (EMOM) |Pick a shorter list of exercises with a small rep count. Put 1:00 on the clock to repeat. Make sure you are able to complete the list with 10-15 seconds left over on the minute. Ready. Set. Go! Once you finish the list use the remaining time to rest. Once the clock resets the minute repeat the list again. If the clock hits 0:00 and you did not finish the round then you are finished! How many rounds can you complete within the minute?

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