Exercise is a structured way of providing a stimulus to the body in order to improve mobility, increase strength & endurance, decrease disease risk and improve overall wellness. The threshold of what constitutes exercise differs from person to person and depends on factors such as fitness level, age, weight, health and strength. What one person considers grueling might be a warm-up for someone else. Regardless of fitness level, the only way to improve is to continuously push yourself.
Exercise increases the workload the body is capable of handling. As strength and endurance go up, the body becomes accustomed to a constant workload; what was once sufficient is no longer enough to cause gains. To see improvements in physique, performance and health, you need to constantly increase intensity.
1. Less Rest Between Sets. The difference between cardio and weightlifting is rest. With weightlifting, you'll rest for a few minutes between sets while cardio forces you to constantly move for a certain period of time. Due to the difference in rest, cardio keeps heart rate elevated while weightlifting is much less intense. One way to increase weightlifting intensity is to decrease the amount rest you take between sets. First, get a baseline of how much time you're actually resting between sets. Next, start decreasing rest time by 30 seconds until the workout starts feeling more intense. One minute between sets is enough to take care of jotting down notes in a workout journal or adjusting the weight on the bar, yet keeps intensity relatively high. If one minute seems too hard, even smaller decreases result in increased intensity.
2. More. A simple way to increase intensity is to do more work. There are two main ways to accomplish this in weightlifting: more weight or more repetitions. You should attempt to either increase the weight or up the number of repetitions completed per set. In a cardio routine, doing the same amount of work in a shorter period of time increases intensity. For example, if you ran two miles in 12 minutes this week, attempt to do it in 11:30 next week. Keeping track of exercise numbers (sets, weights, repetitions, mileage ran) in a workout journal makes increasing intensity much easier.
3. Change Your Workout Routine. If you've been using the same workout routine for awhile, it might be due for a refresh. There are an endless amount of ways to revise a workout routine. Here are a few:
- cycle between a full body, split and circuit training routine - read more
- add new exercises
- switch the order of exercises
- switch from dumbbells to bars to machines
- do different forms of cardio (running, swimming, biking, rowing, stair climbing, sprints, sports)
- use bodyweight exercises (push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, squats)
- get a free workout routine
4. Supersets. A simple set is a group of repetitions performed successively on a certain exercise. For example, a typical workout consists of 3-4 sets of squats in which you perform 8-12 repetitions per set and rest for 1-3 minutes between sets. One way to increase the intensity is to convert each simple set into a superset. A superset is two or more exercises put together in a single set without any rest. Pick any two exercises and do them successively. For example, superset the squats from above with 20-30 repetitions of jump roping. Once you've completed the squat repetitions, immediately move on to the jump rope without taking any rest between the squat and jump rope. There's no limit to the exercise combinations in a superset; the two (or more) exercises making up a superset don't even need to target the same muscle group (squats & push-ups, bench press & sit-ups).
5. Proper Recovery Time. Though this step seems counterintuitive, it is necessary. If you're exercising too much, you won't see any gains. Exercise causes damage to muscle tissue which is repaired with an adequate amount of nutrients and rest. If you're working out too much and don't give the body a chance to repair exercise-damage, you'll never see any gains, and over time, performance decreases. Sometimes, the reason you can't seem to increase intensity is because you're not resting, or eating enough. Exercising too much, or overtraining, is detrimental to gains. There isn't a rule or guideline telling us exactly how much exercise is too much, but there are a few signs you should watch out for: excessive soreness, low energy levels and exercise-related injuries. You're the best judge of when you've reached the point of too much. The best way to avoid this is to be aware of what the body is saying. If you don't feel like exercising one day because of low energy levels or excessive soreness, skip the gym. Sometimes, taking the day off does more good than forcing yourself to go.
The Bottom Line
Constantly pushing yourself is the only way to see improvement. If you're always lifting the same amount of weight, running the same distance and using the same machines, you'll never realize the true potential of positive change. Progress is never ending and only stops when you fail to set high expectations for yourself.