Jeremy Ethier, kinesiologist, fitness trainer, and founder of Built with Science has made it his mission to help people train smarter. We've broken down his thoughts about the simple exercise you should add to your warmup for faster gains and how to wake up your glutes. Now, he's sharing five science-backed ways you can build muscle without having to lift heavier.
All of these methods comes down to the principle of progressive overload, which in practice means increasing the demands of workouts on your as it adjusts training. "When it comes to building muscle, we all know the importance of progressive overload. However, what most of us fail to realize is that the progressive overload principle isn’t limited to just adding more weight to an exercise," says Ethier. "By definition, it simply means doing more than you’ve done before, which places greater tension on your muscles overtime and causes them to grow."
Here are five ways to maximize your muscle growth without adding extra weight. This should be particularly helpful for those still training without access to a gym's full complement of equipment.
Vary Your Tempo
"By simply slowing down our reps, our muscles will now experience greater time under tension to stimulate more growth, even though we haven't added any additional weight," he says. "There is a threshold beyond which slowing down the speed of your lifts has a detrimental effect on hypertrophy."
If you go too slowly, however, Ethier says you may experience less muscle activation.
"A lifting tempo of roughly 0.5 to 3 seconds for the concentric [upward motion, for many exercises] and eccentric [downward motion] portions of your reps is best," he says.
Boost Your Efficiency
"You can use the same load and perform the same amount of reps, but with more efficiency, meaning that you’re lifting the same load but with better form, more control, and with better activation of the target muscle," he says. "The target muscle will still experience an increase in tension comparable to if you were to add more weight to the movement.
Shorten Your Rest Times
"If we can go from performing a dumbbell shoulder press for 10 reps at a certain weight with 3 minutes of rest in between sets, to now performing the same reps and weight but with just 2 minutes of rest, we’ll stimulate more growth due to the added metabolic stress," he says.
According to Ethier, you shouldn't decrease your rest times to shorter than 2 minutes after your main compound movements in the gym (like bench press, squats, and deadlifts or even bodyweight moves like pullups and pushups). For isolation movements (like curls), you can decrease your rest periods to 60 to 90 seconds.
Boost Your Range of Motion
"You can effectively increase both the stretch and the time under tension your muscle experiences during each rep, and as a result stimulate more growth without having to add any additional load," says Ethier.
This, of course, should only be considered if you can still perform the reps safely, with proper form. Don't attempt to go deeper on a squat than you can safely, for example, and be especially careful or even avoid this principle with exercises that involve your shoulders.
And this goes for lifting lighter weights with a higher rep range, which builds comparable muscle growth as heavier weights with a lower rep range as you’re pushing to or close to failure.
"You can just simply increase the numbers of reps you perform per set to maximize muscle growth," says Ethier. "As for how high to go, the threshold seems to be right around 30 reps or so."
How to Implement These 5 Methods
"I would recommend always starting with efficiency before moving onto the other methods," says Ethier. "So for example let’s say you can perform 3 sets of 15 reps of a weighted push-up and are now ready to overload it to stimulate some more growth. To do so, you should first start by aiming to perform those 3 sets of 15 reps with better form and with better activation of your chest. And only once you nail that down should you then move onto the various other methods I discussed to make the movement even more difficult."
The bottom line: tension is tension.
"Your muscles can’t tell whether you apply that extra tension on your muscle by lifting heavier or by using some of the methods, and although there does eventually come a point where it’s just more convenient to overload your movements by adding more weight, I hope you were able to see that there are nonetheless many viable ways that you can continue stimulating growth without the need to lift heavier," Ethier says.
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