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How To Get Stronger Using Lighter Weights 

By: Zack Mathews, NASM - CPT, CES, & PES. PN-L1

You want to be smart with your training and you want to set yourself up for long term success in the gym.

I call this longevity based strength training and one of the best ways to do that is to learn ways to make lighter weight feel heavier.

When you start implementing some of the tips below, you will get stronger and build muscle while making life easier on your joints.

You still should be phasing your main lifts correctly and lifting heavy, but sprinkling these techniques into your workout will make you feel great and test you with a new challenge.

  1. Tempo Training
  2. Paused Reps
  3. 1 1/2 Rep Exercises
  4. Segmented Reps
  5. Shorter Rest Periods
  6. Drop Sets
5 ways on how to get stronger using lighter weights

Tempo Training To Get Stronger

If you look around the gym, odds are most people are training with the exact same tempo.

Down for one second, up for one second.  That’s a rep.

Rinse and repeat.

There is a whole new world of gains, and an opportunity for you to come back here and tell me that you hate me, when you start incorporating different tempos into your workout.

Workouts that add tempo might look a little different than what you are used to, so let’s break down how they work.

Here is an example of a squat with a 4:0:2:1 tempo.  What this means is:

    • The first number represents the eccentric (lowering) of the exercise.  In this case, you will be squatting by taking 4 seconds to get to the lowest point you can with proper form.
    • The second number represents the pause after you finish the eccentric.  When it says 0, like in this example, you won’t pause at all, you will go right into the third number.
    • After the pause, if there is one, you will start the concentric movement, which is bringing the weight up.  The 2 seconds here will tell you how long it should take for you to get back to the starting position.
    • Lastly, the fourth number represents the pause at the top before you start your next rep.  Here you will rest for 1 second to compose yourself, grab a new breath, and then start the next rep.

If you have wanted to learn how to get stronger squats, try this technique of slowing it down and see your legs grow!

Think about how much more tension you are creating when you slow things down. 

Instead of a rep taking 2 seconds, you are flirting with 7 seconds in the squat above.

If you’re not used to training like this, your body could see amazing changes by doing a phase of tempo training.

The science is there to back it up as well.  A study done by Schoenfield in 2015 showed that training with reps ranging from 0.5 - 8 seconds resulting in similar muscle growth.

Check out the study here.

If you can gain muscle by putting less stress on your joints, it seems like a win to me. I love using tempo training with push-ups and wrote about it in my article about 18 variations of push-ups to gain strength and build muscle.

Paused Reps

Think about this scenario because I know we’ve all seen it.

You’re at the gym and see someone bench pressing a good amount of weight.

3 plates each side, a solid 315.

The person lifts the weight off the rack, drops it down, the bar bounces off his chest, and back to the top for one rep.  He repeats for a few reps and then racks the bar and is pumped up after his set.

Which he should be because 315 is impressive.

Could he have made that lift more challenging?  Easily.

Adding pauses at the hardest part of your lift is a humbling experience and is a great way to make lighter weight feel heavier.

Adding a 1 - 2 second pause at the bottom of the bench press or at the bottom of your squat makes the lift waaaayy more difficult.

You take out any momentum you had with the eccentric part of the movement, making the concentric portion harder.

Let’s go back the example of our bench press man lifting 315 by bouncing it off his chest.

Do you think he could lift that weight if he did a 2 second pause when the bar was a couple inches above his chest?

Maybe, maybe not.  But we do know it would make the lift exponentially harder with that weight.

And it’s safer since it’s making the lifter recognize when they need to pause, thus creating the need to have more control with the bar.

1 1/2 Rep Exercises Make You Have To Use Light Weight

This next tip on how to get stronger is great because it follows our goal of gaining muscle by making lighter weight feel heavier. It also helpful if you have a crowded gym or are traveling and have limited equipment in a hotel facility where you might not have the heaviest weight you would need for a normal rep.

Incorporate an extra half rep into each rep to create more tension on your muscles.

Let’s look at how this would work for a bicep curl.

A 1 1/2 rep dumbbell bicep curl would look like this:

    • Lift the dumbbell all the way up with good form as you normally would.
    • Instead of going all the way back down, stop half way.
    • Once you’ve stopped half way, go back up to the top.
    • Finish by going all the way back down to the beginning.

The peak contraction is at the top of the bicep curl when you are squeezing, so with this extra half rep, you are doubling the amount of squeezes you get at that position.

The half rep is making you do the hardest half of an exercise twice.

If you are squatting, the hardest part is getting out of the hole.

So your 1 1/2 rep squat would be dropping all the way down, going up half way, then having to drop back down before you can come all the way up.

This technique is sure to get your heart rate up and your muscles burning!

Get Stronger With Light Weight Using Segmented Reps

Want to learn how to get stronger but also gain mental toughness while you’re at it?!

Try these.

Segmented reps are a technique rarely used.

It it because people don’t know about them?  Or because they suck and people avoid them?

Probably both.

The goal of segmented reps is to add 3 - 5 brief pauses on the eccentric (descending) and concentric (ascending) portions of your lifts to promote more time under tension, more blood into your muscles, and for a bigger pump.

Here is an example of a segmented split stance squat.  Speaking of split squats, if you need a great leg workout and you have back issues, check out my article with 12 effective leg exercises.

As you can see, I am stopping at 5 points on the way down, and 5 points on the way up.

If you try these and struggle with the 5 point stop, start at 3 and progress towards 5 over the next few weeks.

Adding more segments can be looked at the same way as adding more weight.

Another advantage of segmented reps is that it helps you build strength in your weak spots.

Most of us have a spot on certain lifts that is harder than others.

We will often push through that point, sometimes with improper form, to finish the lift.

With segmented reps, it’s forcing you to address those points head on.

If you have trouble in the middle of your squat coming back up, well have fun because you will be pausing right there with this type of rep!

The amount of tension you can create with all these stops is unreal, making this truly a great way to make lighter weight feel heavier.

Shorter Rest Periods

Changing your rep style isn’t the only way to make weight feel heavier.

You can also do it by manipulating your rest periods.

In a general sense, you can categorize reps and rest times into 3 different camps.

1 - 5 reps is considered maximal strength and should have a rest period of 3 - 5 minutes.  You use this phase if you want to get stronger.

6-15 reps is the muscle hypertrophy range and is the best if you want to build muscle.  1 - 2 minutes is an ideal rest time here.

Anything over 15 reps puts you in a muscular endurance phase and has your rest periods of less than 1 minute.

Depending on your goal and type of training you would enjoy, most people would pick one of these camps and stay in it.

With newer research coming out, it is showing that muscle gain can occur in all 3 phases. 

Here is a study done in 2017 showing that muscle hypertrophy was achieved with long and short rest periods.

Although that 6-15 is probably still the best for muscle gain, it only makes sense that muscle growth can occur in all phases.

If you are getting stronger with low reps, muscle growth is going to occur to help with the added weight you are doing on your lift.

Also, on the other hand, being able to maintain form and last 15+ reps is demanding on your muscles, and they will adapt if you train in this phase.

If you want to make lighter weight feel heavier, try training in the muscular endurance phase for a few weeks with the rest time of less than 1 minute.

I guarantee you will have to lower the weight from what you are normally used to doing.  You will fatigue faster and your high rate will be spiked quickly.

When it comes to deciding what rep range to be in, consider this.

The best rep range for you to transform your body is the one that you have not focused on recently.

If you are a powerlifter always hanging out in the 1-5 range, try a phase with high reps.

If you love the pump of high reps, try a 4-8 week period where you lifting heavy and work on your maximal strength and see what happens.

For the person who enjoys the bodybuilding type workouts that stay in the 6-12 rep range, try doing a bit of both maximal strength and muscular endurance in your workouts.

Drop Sets

The last way to make a normal rep feel heavier is to add drop sets into your training.

A drop set is when you perform a set of an exercise with a heavy load, ideally about 80% of your one rep max.

Right after completion, you drop the weight and continue doing another set. There is no exact amount of drops you should do, but a good rule of thumb would be to stop if you are at around 30% of your 1 rep max.

Usually with my clients, I will have them do the main lift, and do 2-4 drop sets to get them down to that 30% mark.

You don’t want to be doing this during every exercise, but adding them in from time to time is a great way to see some changes in your body.

A study about drop sets conducted in 2018 showed that this technique can help build muscle, strength, and endurance. 

How To Get Stronger Using Light Weight Conclusion

Next time you ask yourself how do I get stronger, think back to these tips.

Remember, every time you walk into the gym, it doesn’t have to be about lifting the most weight you possibly can.

That’s a recipe for disaster and you might eventually hurt yourself.

Be smart with your training by adding in the techniques above.

It will be a new, fun challenge for you, and your body will appreciate not having a heavy load placed on it workout after workout.

If you have any questions, please reach out below in the comments or leave me a message here.

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