Those who are new to training see significant improvements in muscular strength and endurance quickly throughout the first several weeks of a structured exercise program. But as you become more experienced, those gains begin to slow down. This becomes even more true when you don't have access to heavier weights or various equipment for a completely new workout or program.
Our bodies are brilliant and continually adapting to the stress we place on them during our workouts. To keep our bodies progressing, we have to consistently overload them to adjust to the new stress (which leads to the results we are all striving for). Progressive overload is a straightforward but crucial concept, laying the foundation for a successful training program.
Most people think the only way to apply this rule is either by adding weight, completing more reps, and or reducing your rest times. While these are very effective methods, they are not always realistic or accessible, often leading to ego-lifting and injury if abused for too long.
Besides the apparent lift more weight and do more reps, here are some strategies that you can use to train smarter and keep progressing towards your fitness goals regardless of your equipment:
1. Use Tempo to increase Time Under Tension (TUT)
The tempo is an effective way to apply the principle of progression. Time Under Tension is simply the time it takes to complete a repetition or set. Slowing down your eccentric (or lowering) Tempo or adding pauses in select parts of the movement will create a positive training effect leading to higher demands on your muscle tissue. Start by adding a 3 or 4-second lowering tempo to one or more exercises in your workout.
Let's take the squat, for example; take 3 to 4 seconds to lower down to the bottom of your squat, exhale and push back up.
Taking the same squat and adding a pause would look like this; take 1 or 2 seconds to lower down to the bottom of your squat, brace your core and legs holding the bottom position for 2 to 4 seconds, exhale and push back up. Another option would be to hold the pause in the middle of the movement; take 1 second to lower down into your squat, push up halfway and hold for 2 to 4 seconds, then exhale and push back up.
2. Use Unilateral Training to increase Time Under Tension (TUT)
By splitting the body into left and right sides (unilateral), you are nearly doubling the amount of time it will take to complete one set of an exercise. That means your heart rate, metabolism, and muscle tissue are buzzing for a more extended amount of time. This is a very straightforward technique that I've found especially beneficial for clients who want to lose weight and improve body composition—not to improve sports performance.
Unilateral training is a critical tool for developing balanced strength and stability. You do almost everything in sports in a split stance or by pushing off one leg from a parallel stance, so it just makes sense to train your body that way. The unstable nature of unilateral training develops stabilizers and small muscle groups that you can't hit with standard exercises, but that is critical for injury prevention. It also balances strength so you can sprint, change direction, and produce force equally on both sides of your body.
Unilateral exercises like side planks lunge variations, single-leg squat variations, single-arm rows, overhead presses, rear foot elevated split squats, and single-leg hip thrusts don't require much equipment or load (and are very challenging). Combine these exercises with other strategies in this article, and you will be set up for success!
3. Increase the Range of Motion (ROM)
Reaching a full range of motion on every exercise you perform helps ensure that you're targeting the correct muscles and preventing unnecessary strain and injury. If you're looking to gain strength, hitting a full range and even adding more range of motion can be an excellent tool for progressing an exercise.
Using a more extensive range of motion recruits more muscle fibers and motor units (total muscle in your body), which creates a training effect that will increase muscular strength, definition, and size.
Let's take the reverse lunge as an example. If you start on an elevated surface (4 to 6 inches), it requires you to cover more distance down as you lower your back leg into the lunge. This will make the exercise more demanding without adding more weight or reps.
4. Add a Resistance Band
Only have light dumbbells and a resistance band? Combining the two will increase the difficulty and overall load of the exercise that better strength training effect.
Dumbbell Squat with Band
Dumbbell Squat with Band
Dumbbell Floor Press with Band
5. Add a little Speed & Power
Often an overlooked aspect of training, adding speed and power movements into your program gets your muscles and nervous system working uniquely and will also increase your heart rate more quickly, increasing cardiovascular conditioning and power output.
The most powerful way to add speed and explosive power is through plyometric training. Some explosive movements can apply to sport-specific practice, like squat jumps, uphill sprints, single-leg bounding, or medicine ball throws. If you're going to progress to using plyometric movements, make sure you focus on landing properly and incorporating a dynamic warm-up. Complete lower rep ranges (3 to 6 reps) and shorter sprint times (15-20 seconds) with these movements. Focus on your technique and moving explosively—quality over quantity.
If you have struggled with pain or injuries, stick with some of the other strategies above, or incorporate low impact speed and power movements like the kettlebell swing.