4 Ways to Make Your Exercises Harder

Sometimes, when life gets in the way, you’re forced to work out at home or while traveling. Or, you prefer to work out from the comfort of your own home but don’t have the means to purchase a ton of fancy equipment. How are you supposed to progress and make your workouts harder when you don’t have the luxury of a full gym?

There are many ways to make exercises harder WITHOUT changing the weight. These four ways are perfect for anyone who works out on the go, or only has one or two sets of dumbbells available to them.

Pause Reps

Pause reps are FANTASTIC for building strength. It’s just like it sounds-you pause your rep for 1-3 seconds in the bottom or mid-position of whatever exercise you’re performing. This eliminates all momentum and forces you to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers to get the weight moving again. While most people primarily use pause reps in the larger, compound exercises (bench press, squat, deadlift), you can pause almost any exercise to add a level of difficulty. Some of my favorite exercises to pause include:

  • Squats: squat down, pause for 1-2-3, come back up
  • Bench Presses/Floor Presses/Chest Presses: lower the weight to your chest, pause for 1-2-3, push the weight back up
  • Deadlifts: begin the pull, stopping the bar movement just below the knees, hold for 1-2-3, then finish the pull
  • Rows: pull the weight in towards your chest, hold for 1-2-3, release and straighten the arms back out
  • Push-ups: bend the elbows moving the body towards the floor, hold for 1-2-3, push back up
  • Chin-ups: pull the body up to the bar, hold for 1-2-3, and release back down
  • Bicep Curls: curl the weight in about halfway, hold for 1-2-3, then finish the curl and release
  • Hip Bridges: perform a bridge as normal, pausing at the top (when your  hips are at the highest point) for a count of 1-2-3, then release back down

Check out a video here

1.5 Reps (aka Half Reps)

Extending an exercise by adding a “half-rep” between full range-of-motion reps is another great way to build strength. You increase your time under tension, therefore using the muscles harder and longer. Be warned: these are tough! And they can REALLY suck sometimes! Which means doing them can also help build mental toughness! Again, you can add a half-rep to almost any exercise to increase it’s difficulty. Taking those same exercises from above, here’s how you would add a half-rep:

  • Squats: perform one full squat, come up halfway, lower back down, then complete the squat (stand back up)
  • Bench Presses/Floor Presses/Chest Presses: lower the weight to your chest, push the weight up halfway, lower it back down, then complete the press
  • Deadlifts: perform one full deadlift, lower the weight halfway down (about knee height), stand back up, then complete the deadlift (lower the weight to the floor)
  • Rows: pull the weight into your chest, extend the arms back out halfway, bring the back in, then extend fully (single-arm or both arms, it’s the same!)
  • Push-Ups: perform one full push-up, begin to push back up, stop halfway, lower back down, then complete the full push-up
  • Chin-Ups: perform one full chin-up, release your body halfway down, pull yourself back up, then complete the rep by releasing fully
  • Bicep Curls: perform one full curl, being to extend the arms stopping halfway down, then curl the weight back up, then complete the rep by full straightening the arms
  • Hip  Bridges: perform one normal bridge, lower the hips down halfway, then push the hips back up before releasing back down to the floor

Click here for a video!

Eccentric Reps

The eccentric part of an exercise is the downward portion of the exercise-typically, when the working muscles lengthen and resistance moves towards the floor. You want to aim for a 3-5 second eccentric phase. Start with 3 seconds and work your way up to 5. This will slowly increase your time under tension over time. For these, it’s helpful to have someone keep an eye on you to keep you honest-3 seconds is a lot longer than it seems!! Emphasizing this eccentric portion increases muscle growth, which leads to increased strength and power. You should definitely be taking advantage of eccentric reps if muscle growth and/or strengthening are your goals!  Just like with paused and 1.5 reps, you can do almost any exercise eccentrically. Let’s take a look at how to add eccentric focus to the above exercises:

  • Squat: slowly lower down for 1-2-3, then stand back up normally
  • Bench Press/Floor Press/Chest Press: slowly lower the weight towards your chest for 1-2-3, then push it back up normally
  • Deadlift: perform the deadlift as normal off the floor, then slowly lower it back down for a count of 1-2-3
  • Rows: slowly pull the weight in towards your chest for a count of 1-2-3, then release it as normal
  • Push-ups: slowly lower your body towards the floor for a count of 1-2-3, then push back up normally
  • Chin-ups: perform the chin-up as normal, then slowly lower your body back down, extending the arms for a count of 1-2-3
  • Bicep Curls: curl the weight up normally, then slowly lower back down for a count of 1-2-3
  • Hip Bridges: push the hips up as normal, then slowly lower them back to the floor for a count of 1-2-3

Eccentric Reps video here

Cluster Sets

Cluster sets are great for building strength. In a ‘typical’ workout, you perform the total number of reps right in a row, and rest between sets. During cluster sets, you rest between reps during a set. Rest time can be anywhere from 5-15 seconds-just enough time to allow the muscles to take a break, but not rest completely. You’ll be able to lift heavier weight for more reps with this added extra rest time. Typically, you’ll perform small sets of 2-4 reps. You can do almost any exercise as a cluster. A few examples of cluster sets:

  • 4×2-2-2-2, resting 10 seconds between reps
  • 3×3-2-1, resting 10 seconds between reps
  • 4×3-3-3, resting 15 seconds between reps
  • 3×1-1-1-1-1-1, resting 30 seconds

So, using squats as an example, you would do:

  • 2 squats – rest 10 sec – 2 squats – rest 10 sec -2 squats – rest 10 sec – 2 squats – rest 10 sec. Repeat this 4 times.

You are essentially doing 8 squats, but doing them in sets of 2 with minimal rest time between.

Cluster sets are great to add to your workouts if you’re looking to build strength and power. I would recommend starting with the larger, compound movements-squats, bench, deadlifts, etc-and once you get the hang of it, use cluster sets with your accessory work. Start with just one cluster set per workout. They are a little bit more time-consuming and stressful on the body!

Watch a video here

The next time you are working out at home or on the go, and you feel like your workouts are just too easy, try adding one of these options! You’ll not only increase the difficulty, but you’ll also increase overall strength and power. It’s a win-win! There are so many different ways to implement these four things. Get creative with it and have fun!

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