Training Smart: 5 Ways to Increase Intensity

It doesn’t take years of training to realize that growth (what those in exercise science call “adaptations”) occurs when you are able to perform a movement with more weight. In that case, your muscles have actually gotten stronger by increasing the density and size of your muscle cells.

Of course, that often leads people to believe that the only way to improve is to consistently put more weight on the bar. Not only is that not true, but it can also lead to burnout and injury.

Growth and progress occur when your muscles encounter a different stimulus and adapt to it; the key is to consistently provide a new and novel stimulus for your muscles to adapt to. Sure, going heavier is one way to do that, but it certainly isn’t the only way.

Here are five ways you can add a variety of growth-producing stimuli to your routines in order to continue improving and avoid plateaus.

1. Supersets
A superset is a set where you do two exercises back-to-back for opposing muscle groups, without rest. Supersets ramp up the overall intensity of the workout and can improve metabolic conditioning, meaning you are able to handle more intense workouts. They are also great for someone training under a time crunch.

Set of ez-curl bicep curls followed immediately by a set of cable pushdowns for triceps.

Set of leg extensions for quads, followed immediately by a set of leg curls for hamstrings.

2. Compound Sets
A “compound set” is a broad term used when you perform two exercises immediately after one another without rest. While a “superset” is technically a compound set, the latter is typically performed with two exercises for the same muscle group in order to stimulate growth. You’ll feel an incredible pump with compound sets.

Set of lat pulldowns followed immediately by a set of bent-over dumbbell rows.

Set of military presses followed immediately by a set of lateral raises.3.

3. Drop Sets
A drop set is an extended set of an exercise with decreasing resistance. Given the high intensity of this type of set, a drop set is typically the last set of a movement. The purpose is to bring the lifter to momentary failure, so having a good spotter is key.

Set of 12 leg presses with 4 plates. As soon as the twelfth rep is done, a spotter removes a plate, 12 more reps are then attempted. As soon as the last rep (12 or failure) is performed, another plate is removed, and so on. A drop set usually involved three to five drops.

4. Slow Speed Reps
Slow speed training has been shown to maintain tension in the musculature and bring about new growth and adaptations. They are a great way to break up the monotony in training and add new stimuli. Slow speed reps are particularly good for those who have vulnerabilities to injury. Keep the pace steady and controlled. You’ll be surprised how quickly the weight gets heavy!

Barbell bench press with 65% of maximum weight, counting 12 seconds down and 10 seconds up.

5. Decreasing Rest Periods
The simplest way to increase intensity is to keep your training regimen the same, but to decrease the time between sets. Sounds easy, right? Well, the real battle is the mental game; it can be depressing to not be able to achieve the same reps in later sets as you normally do. But, that is all part of the physiology of shorter rest periods: The muscle stays engorged with blood and thereby responds differently, but still responds – with growth!

Sets performed at 30 seconds between sets rather than 2 minutes in single-joint movements (i.e., bicep curls, leg extensions).

Sets performed at 45 seconds to 1 minute between sets rather than 3 – 4 minutes for multi-joint movements (i.e., squat, deadlift).

About the Author: Bob LeFavi

Bob LeFavi, PhD, is a professor of sports medicine and Dean of the Beaufort Campus at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. He has been department head of health sciences and sports medicine at Armstrong State University and Georgia Southern University, Savannah, GA. Bob won the bantamweight class at the IFBB NorthAmerican Bodybuilding Championship and was runner-up at both the USA and National Championships. He also competed in the CrossFit Games as a Master’s athlete and has written over 750 articles in the popular press on training, diet, and fitness.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.