When you make exercise part of your daily life, you'll eventually reach a point where you want your workouts to be more intense.
You may be hitting a plateau and struggling to make progress or you may just be getting bored at the gym. Regardless of the reason, altering the intensity of your workouts can have a huge payoff.
The challenge is figuring out how to vary your intensity in a way that works for you and matches your goals. It's easy to get stuck in a routine of doing what's familiar.
Here are 5 ways to get out of that rut and accelerate your fitness progress.
Defining Workout Intensity
There are several aspects of workout intensity that can be called out. As a baseline definition, we're going to consider intensity to be a measure of how hard your body is working during physical activity. Heart rate, muscle fatigue, and respiratory rate are bodily expressions of intensity; generally speaking, a higher heart rate, lactic acid build-up in your muscles, and breathing and sweating heavily will all correlate with a more intense workout.
Tactic 1: Use a Fitness Wearable to Identify Patterns
What I love most about using WHOOP is that it helps me identify patterns in my workouts and pinpoint routines that keep my heart rate elevated for sustained periods of time. I'm primarily a weightlifter. Weightlifting is great for building strength, but it doesn't always lend itself to a particularly intense workout, even when you're working toward hypertrophy.
With a wearable fitness monitor like WHOOP, I can spot patterns in my workouts. I'm armed with data about my workout intensity that I can use to recalibrate my workout routine.
For example, with strain data in WHOOP, I realized early on that I tended to have a week of intense workouts followed by one to two weeks of moderate workouts. Looking back at my workouts, I realized that I would do powerlifting movements a few times in one week, and then for a week or two, I'd focus on hypertrophy training.
This helped me identify that with my current fitness level, powerlifting once a week helps me keep my workout level consistently intense without overtraining and hurting myself. My hypertrophy training days felt every bit as intense, but without data to show how my heart and respiratory rates responded to them, I wouldn't have known that they were less intense than powerlifting days.
Another way to leverage this data is to set goals for yourself, such as keeping your heart rate at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate for 30 minutes if you're doing a lifting session or at 80% for 20 minutes during a cardio session.
Tactic 2: Integrate HIIT
HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, is a method of exercise in which you move through a sequence of workouts with minimal to no rest between sets. This keeps your heart rate elevated and forces your body into overdrive.
HIIT may feel intimidating if you're just getting started or if cardiorespiratory endurance is currently a weak point for you. But, keep in mind that the point of HIIT is to force strain– if you're not able to hit a certain number of reps or need to adjust set targets at first, that is fine! You can always work your way up to the full routine.
A HIIT routine may look like this:
- Pushups: As many as you can do for 30 seconds
- Jumping Jacks: As much as you can do in 60 seconds
- Mountain Climbers: As much as you can do for 45 seconds.
- Rest for 60 seconds max, then repeat 2-3 times.
This post from Men's Journal contains a few other HIIT sample workouts you can adopt into your workout routine.
An Underrated, Modified Version of HIIT
One thing that I like to do during my workouts is using a modified version of HIIT.
Between sets, rather than taking a minute to rest, I'll do 30-45 seconds of a core workout followed by 15-30 seconds of rest before doing my next set. For example, on chest days, I'll do a set of bench presses, get down on the floor and plank for 45 seconds, rest for a few seconds, and then go into my next set of bench presses.
It's not as intense as doing a full, looping HIIT routine, but it lets you keep your heart rate up without over-straining your targeted muscles between sets. I also use this as a way to keep my core activated since I basically never have a standalone day for core work at the gym (but that's an article for another day).
Tactic 3: Always Keep Progressive Overload in Mind
One of the most common downfalls I see in the gym (and have been guilty of myself) is finding a weight to rep ratio that's challenging but still comfortable.
What I mean by that is when you lift a weight that you can consistently crank out 6-10 reps per set, and you repeat this weight and rep amount from session to session.
This is one reason why I recommend carrying a notebook with you when you work out and keeping a log of the exercises that you're doing each session, along with the weight you're lifting and your rep and set counts.
As a general rule of thumb, if you do the same weight and reps two weeks in a row, the next time you do that same exercise, you need to increase either your weight or your reps.
For example, let's say that last week on chest day you benched 150lbs, and did 4 sets of 8, 8, 6, and 6 reps. This week, you again put 150lbs on the barbell and started your 4 sets. Rather than repeating 8, 8, 6, and 6, try to aim for 10, 10, 8, and 6. Alternatively, try adding 2.5 or 5lbs plates on each side of the bar and doing 155lbs or 160lbs for 8, 8, 6, and 6.
Even if you only do more weight or higher reps for your first set, you're still making progress toward progressive overload. The goal is to prevent yourself from being in a comfort zone of "challenging but not challenging enough to affect change."
With progressive overload, one thing that's important to keep in mind is that you always need to be listening to your body. If you're inflamed, tired, or have tight muscles, increasing your load may not be possible on a given workout. That's okay. Don't injure yourself just for the gains. Just try again the next time.
Tactic 4: Add Resistance Bands
There are some brands that would want you to believe you could replace every machine or free weight with resistance bands and be well off.
What resistance bands are great for, however, is integrating variable tension into your workouts.
It's a basic principle of physics, but the more your stretch a resistance band, the more resistance it provides. Because of this, often, when you're at the top (or full expression) of a movement, a band's resistance will be at its highest. This means that you have to better activate your muscles to complete each rep, and it gives you additional force to resist as you come out of a movement.
You can add resistance bands to everything from pushups to hack squats to curls. If you're adding a resistance band to a machine or free weight, just make sure it's anchored evenly on both sides of the movement and isn't going to get snagged on any mechanisms.
Also, use a light resistance band. Trust me. It's better to start with a band that's too low resistance and then shorten it or move up to a thicker band than to strain too hard and hurt yourself or not be able to control your movement with a thicker band.
Tactic 5: Prioritize Compound Movements Over Isolated Contractions
In general, a good strategy for lifting is to start your workouts with compound exercises and then finish off with isolated exercises.
For example, let's say that you're going to the gym for back day (my favorite). Rather than starting with something that isolates your delts, lats, or erector spinae, you'd want to start your routine with something like deadlifts or rows that are going to work the majority of the muscles in your back. After a few sets of these compound movements that work most of the muscles in your back, then you would switch to exercises that target smaller muscles with isolated movements.
Using this principle as a starting point, you can seek to make your workouts structured in favor of compound movements. Because compound movements target more muscles within a muscle group, the exertion factor tends to be a bit higher.
If you're unsure what workouts to do or where to start, one really simple way to work more muscles at a time is to opt for free weights instead of machines whenever possible. By using free weights instead of machines, you're going to be forced to activate stabilizing muscles and smaller muscles that may not be necessary when using a machine.
With free weights, especially if you're still a beginner, make sure you understand the movement of the workout well. Never fling weights or lift so heavy that you have to arch or swing your body in unnatural ways– proper form is a must. Otherwise, you're setting yourself up for an injury. You'll probably be lifting lighter weights with free weights than you'd expect while maintaining proper form. That's okay. Never lift more than you can lift correctly!
Workout Intensity Matters
When you try out these strategies for making your workouts more intense, you'll notice the difference. Increasing intensity and being willing to experiment with your workouts is huge for pushing past plateaus or increasing the speed of your progress.
If you're trying to lose weight, an increase in intensity is also going to correlate with an increase in calorie expenditure. If you're trying to build muscle, varying your intensity is a great way to enter hypertrophy territory. If you just want a rush of endorphins to fuel your creativity and problem solving, an intense workout is great for that too.