In 2020 the world took a huge shift (you could probably remove the “f” there if you wanted to) and it great affected the way we are able to exercise. At the time of this writing here in Alberta we are in our second “lockdown” where gyms are closed and many of us are struggling with keeping our exercise routines fresh and challenging. Many of us look at this and see it as an excuse not to exercise saying, “Well if I can’t lift as heavy I’m just not going to do anything”. Well just because we don’t have as much weight or equipment available doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to stimulate the muscle.

These principals we’ll be going through today can also apply to our regular workouts as well, seeing as far too often we keep ourselves in a bubble of consistency. We use the same weight, for the same reps, with the same breaks in between thinking we will see new results.

We need to find ways to change our exercise intensity to make for a more challenging workout routine, and create new stimulus for our muscle to develop and build strength/endurance. Today we are going to go through a few ways to change that up, and see great results!

Progressing or Regressing The Exercise

This one seems like the most obvious of the bunch, so lets get it out of the way. One of the best ways to add intensity to an exercise is by progressing the exercise to a more difficult version. Exercise progression adds new stimulation to an exercise and creates more demand on the body. While progressing an exercise you need to ensure you’re doing that exercise with good form before moving onto a modified version, bad form will carry over and create movement pattern issues and possible injuries later on.

For an example of this, we’ll take a look at a pushup. Pushups can be both progressed, and regressed fairly easily. If we’ve been doing elevated push-ups (a regression) than adding in a few Pushups from the ground is a way we can progress the movement. If we want to progress the Pushup, we can progress into a Spider Pushup (increasing core engagement) or we can do an Up-Down Pushup (increase movement with the upper body). While we will most likely not be able to do as many reps, there will be increased intensity to the exercise, making it more difficult and in turn producing greater results.

While training at home we may need to regress some of our exercises due to lack of equipment, but we can still have a lot of variety and mimic the intensity another way by…

Increasing Exercise Volume Load

Try as I may to separate these two items, they are so linked together that it becomes extremely difficult to talk about one without the other. Firstly, Load refers to how much resistance, or weight, we are using on an exercise. To increase the load we are using is relatively simple; just use heavier weights. Volume on the other hand refers to how much we are doing, or how many reps we’ve done. If we are looking to increase our training volume, we simply do more repetitions. Both of these ways are effective tools to increase intensity in our workouts, but how can we use these to help us with our at home workouts?

Well, when we typically look at volume we are looking at how many Sets we’ve done, multiplied by how many reps we’ve done (math, I know. Ugh). So if we are doing 5 sets of 20 pushups, our training volume would be 100 reps.

Now, If we factor in load to this equations and take a look at Sets x Reps x Weight we get our Volume Load (which can sometimes be referred to as Volume… the fitness industry has a million words for every concept, it gets confusing).  

So how this helps us with our training as we transfer this to an at home setting, we can take a basic math equation to simulate our volume load, and increase it effectively. For example let’s take a look at a typical workout set:

If we were doing 3 sets of 12 reps with 65ilbs then our Volume Load would be 2340ilbs of volume load. So, if we were to reverse engineer this based off of only having 20ilbs at home it would take us 117 reps to reach the same volume load which could be broken down into 9 sets of 13 or 3 sets of 39 (why’d I pick stupid numbers to work with…)

This can help us mimic the training volume we might be used to inside the gym despite not having the same weights. With that being said, no set is created equal. If we have an individual looking to build greater strength by dead lifting 500ilbs, we won’t get that same stimulus by doing 1 set of 10 reps with 50ilbs. When it comes to strength and endurance these are very separate goals to be training for, and we should be using as heavy weight as possible to help mimic that intensity and effort.

For general populations however, training with Volume Load and trying to increase that load is another way to increase intensity.

Sorry again for the math… 

Changing Our Speed 

Another way we can affect our exercise intensity is looking at how fast, or how slow we are performing a particular exercise. By changing the speed of an exercise we can dramatically change the intensity of our workout.

We typically see individuals speed up the movement of their exercises, going as fast as they can through their sets to get an increase in their cardiovascular system, going faster is always better right (well… wait and see). This increase in our cardiovascular system while also using resistance training is typically associated with Metabolic Conditioning, which has been popularized by Crossfit, but is used in almost every style of training. When speeding up the exercises however, we typically see a decrease in form, and a decrease in total muscular activation. However, if we’re looking to get a good sweat on in very little time this can help us, especially in a home gym setting, below I’ve included a few ideas of workout structures that can be highly effective for people, keep us challenged, and change things up

As Many Rounds As Possible (AMRAP) – Complete as many round of your exercise circuit in a set time frame.

Every Minute On The Minute (EMOM) – Complete the exercises as quick as you can within a minute, before repeating these exercises again as soon as the next minute begins.

Chippers – Complete a large amount of repetitions for each exercise (or distance) for a give time. Try to beat that time each time repeating the workout

Interval Training – Having a set time for your exercise to rest ratios, this can vary quite a bit depending on your level of intensity. Some examples of this include: 20 sec on + 10 sec rest, 1 min on + 30 sec of rest, 30 sec on + 30 sec of rest.

Speeding up the exercises however isn’t the only way we can increase exercise intensity. We can also slow the different phases of exercise as well. By slowing down the exercise, we put the muscle under tension for a longer time which create more fatigue, and can also help build up more strength. We look at exercises in 3 phases, we have the eccentric (going into the movement; squatting down), we have the isometric portion (non-moving end of exercise; holding the bottom of the squat) and we have the concentric portion (coming out of the movement; standing back up). If we elongate any portion of those movements, we can dramatically affect the way we increase the intensity of this exercise. Think of this, for the next set of squats we do, count out 3 seconds to get to the bottom of the squat, count 3 more seconds in that hold, and count to 3 seconds as we come back to the starting position, and repeat 5-10 times.

The time under tension is an extremely effective way to create not only better movement patters and muscle awareness, but it’s been shown to be an effective way to build strength and muscle mass as well regardless of our fitness level. If we are looking for a way to increase intensity, without having much for equipment, this is a sure fire way to get things moving in the right direction. 

Rest Breaks

While exercising we have a tendency to rest maybe a little more than we should. Whether it’s getting more water, finding that perfect workout tune, or simply replying to that one text (and the next… and the next…), we have a tendency to let that time slip away from us and in turn affect our exercise intensity. When working with heavier weights or higher outputs we may need longer rest breaks to let the body recover and be able to utilize the energy systems properly for our next sets, but for generalized fitness we shouldn’t be taking very long for our rest at all.

Aiming for shorter rest breaks between our sets is a great way to increase our exercise intensity, even getting to the point of implementing multiple exercises in a row without rest (superset, giant sets, circuits, etc). This will create more muscle fatigue, as there is less recovery time, and a great implementation of our cardio system, as we don’t stop moving. Having a set rest time is one of the best ways to keep our workout efficient and on track.

On a side note, I can’t stress enough how important it is to set up a distraction free workout. We need to stay focused at the task on hand by having a water bottle ready; music playlist set and turn the phone off or onto airplane mode. If we are at home we should find a space that we cannot be interrupted easily, which is tidy and ready to go. Exercise intensity can completely fall apart if we aren’t focused!

Final Point

While taking a look at exercise intensity there are a lot of factors that come into play here. Exercise progressions, Increasing the load/volume, Adjusting the speed of exercise and reducing rest break are all major factors but there is one underlying key to the intensity we haven’t touched on yet. That key is effort.

We can have the best set up in the world, we can have the perfect program, but it means nothing if we don’t put the effort in. Yes, it is hard work to see changes in our body, and yes, it is hard to increase our exercise intensity but if we put in the effort and remember why we are doing this, we can continue to see awesome results.

Both in, and outside of the gym. 

Rich Hill

CSEP – Certified Personal Trainer

RK Athleticshttps://linktr.ee/RK_Athletics