5 Ways to Make an Exercise Harder Without Adding Weight

When people think of making an exercise harder they often think they can only add more weight. Sure adding plates to your bench or squat may lead to gains but eventually you may hit a plateau.

But some people aren’t looking to add more weight to their lifts, they just want to become better humans and feel like the worked hard.

Here are a few ways you can make an exercise harder without adding more weight in your hands. In fact, you may have to decrease the load for a few of these.

1. Eccentric Accentuated

Any exercise or movement can be broken down into three contraction types; eccentric, isometric, and concentric. We will discuss an isometric contraction later and the concentric contraction is typically what people would consider the “positive” part of the lift. For instance when you stand back up from the bottom of a squat or push the bar off your chest on the bench press. The working muscles contract to move the joint.

The eccentric contraction is actually as the muscle lengthens or as you lower into a squat or lower the bar to your chest.

By accentuating the eccentric contraction you can increase the total time under tension that the muscle experiences. This can create more work within the set and has been known to make a lifter or two sore because the eccentric contraction is well known for causing a lot of micro trauma that is necessary for growth.

Here is a video of me using eccentric accentuated push-ups.

2. Pause Reps

Pause reps a great tool for building strength, primarily because it eliminates the stretch reflex of the muscle. Basically the stretch reflex is a response when a muscle in stretched rapidly, energy is stored in its elastic components (tendons) allowing it to produce more force.

Unlike when you pull on a rubber band and it maintains the “energy” stored in it’s components, the human body begins only stores that energy for a very short period of time.

So when you pause at the bottom of a rep, all you have to move that weight is the strength of the actual muscle. Pause reps are also good at teaching lifters and even the regular joe how to maintain tension throughout the entire lift.

My recommendation is between a 3-5 second pause. Here is what a pause rep scheme with the back squat will look like.

3. 1.5 reps

One and half reps can be a sneaky and brutal way to accumulate volume within your training.

Think about it, 2 reps is really 3. And 6 reps is really 9. The volume can add up really quick and have the working muscles screaming for help as the metabolic demand becomes greater.

If building muscle is your goal, this is a challenging way to make an exercise harder without adding a bunch of weight to the bar.

Stick with between 6-10 reps per set with this. One rep means you move the weight down into the bottom position, start back to the top position and at about half way you reverse course back into the bottom position before returning to the top.

4. Increase The Range of Motion

A fully stretched muscle is at it’s weakest, therefore increasing the range of motion of an exercise is a quick way to make things more challenging. It also can lead to more work being done within the rep and set.

One of my favorite ways to increase the range of motion requirements of an exercise is with the front-foot elevated split squat. By elevating the front foot, you increase the range of motion possibility on the front knee.

For the bench press, dumbbells is an easy way to increase the range of motion demand.

Just about any exercise can be manipulated to include greater range of motion, it’s just whether you can handle or control that range of motion.

5. Raise Center of Mass

The lower your center of mass is to the ground, the easier a movement becomes.

For example, look at some of the most agile athletes in sports. Many of them were the shortest guy on the field while the big tall guy struggles to make cuts.

By raising the center of mass during strength training we create more instability and therefore more inefficiency, making an exercise harder.

An easy example can been seen below in the split squat. The exercise is easier with the weight hanging down by the sides and becomes increasingly harder as we move the weight into a front rack or a barbell on the back. To take the difficulty one step further, you can move the weight to overhead.

Weight Hanging Down By Side
Front-Rack Position-raises the center of mass
Overhead Position-increases the instability of the exercise by raising center of mass