5 Ways to Make an Exercise Harder Without Buying Heavier Dumbbells

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When it comes to times of quarantine, it's important to work with what you have.
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While people flocked to the grocery store for toilet paper, there simultaneously occurred a very different kind of panic-buying situation — The Great Kettlebell Shortage of 2020, as some call it.

Retailers sold more kettlebells in a day than is typical for an entire month. And as demand increased, supply for home workout equipment (including dumbbells, resistance bands and even treadmills) went on back order almost instantaneously.

Coupled with gyms being closed, many exercise enthusiasts (and even personal trainers) have found themselves stuck between too-light dumbbells and a hard place. How are we supposed to keep fit — let alone build muscle — without the equipment?

Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Can You Really Build Muscle Without Heavier Weights?

Though famously sculpted bodies have been chiseled without weights (think: Herschel Walker's 1,500-push-ups-a-day regimen), the popular belief is that you must use heavier weights if you want to gain muscle mass. But that isn't always the case.

In a small October 2015 study of 18 experienced weight trainers and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, half of the group did high-load/low-rep training, and the other half did the opposite. Even though certain aspects of strength increased in the high-load group (like the max squat), the net muscle gain over eight weeks was essentially the same for both groups — with a significant endurance edge attributed to the group doing 25 to 35 reps.

Changing your fitness routine can take a major psychological adjustment, though. Many people feel dependent on the gym and the equipment, says Lisa Ann, certified personal trainer and body transformation coach. The good news is that you don't have to rely on heavier and heavier weights.

"Some of the best physiques I've built as a trainer have come through body-weight movements, yoga postures, repetition fatigue and HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts," she says.

How exactly do you make your at-home workouts match the grueling intensity of a gym, sans equipment? Here are five ways to feel the burn without shelling out for a heavier set of dumbbells.

1. Do More Reps

As the above study mentioned showed, higher reps is a proven way to induce hypertrophy and develop muscle. When you've finished an exercise and still feel like you could do more, add a few additional reps to each set — enough to where your last two are difficult but doable.

But you can only add so many reps to your sets before you burn out or get bored, and that's where the following tips come in.

2. Add Pulses

Reducing your range of motion makes for a harder workout, says Michelle Miller, certified personal trainer and founder of My First Workout. "Your muscle is constantly working throughout a pulse workout," she says.

With a pulse rep, you don't have the fraction of rest time that you would in a normal rep. For example, when you drop into a squat, come up only part way, lower back down, then come all the way up. Depending on your fitness level and strength, you can add more pulses.

Miller typically adds this method to the end of a full range of motion set because it increases time under tension (see #4 on the list for more on that). "That's the key to hypertrophy," she says, "not necessarily the amount of weight being lifted."

She also recommends pulsing at different spots within the full range of motion: top, middle, bottom, top half or bottom half.

3. Perform Hybrid Exercises

Combination exercises, often called compound or hybrid exercises, combine two or more exercises into one, "which makes for a more challenging workout," says certified personal trainer Cary Raffle.

"If you can't increase the weight on your squats and lunges," he says, "try combining them with upper-body exercises like push-ups, pull-ups and rows." Common hybrid exercises include burpee tuck jumps, glute bridge to sit-ups and step-up to kickbacks — but the variations are only limited to your creativity.

Raffle also recommends decreasing the stability of an exercise for a harder workout. In lieu of balance boards and stability balls, you can balance on one leg, stand with your feet close together or switch seated or supine exercises to standing ones.

4. Focus on Eccentric and Isometric Contractions

Eccentric contractions — the portion of an exercise when you muscle lengthens — are associated with greater strength and mass gains compared to concentric contractions — the part where your muscle shortens.

Even if your body is the only thing you have to lift, you can still pack on mass by slowing down. Miller uses eccentric reps as a standard training practice, but she adds a twist.

"The goal is to slow down one or both of the phases, and to pick three places within your eccentric phase to stop and briefly hold [isometrics] before resuming to starting position," she says.

You can also maintain an extended hold halfway through a move (ex. 10 seconds at the bottom of a lunge or the top of a glute bridge). Holding an exercise for longer is a great way to build strength and stamina without having to increase the weight.

5. Get Your Head in the Game

At-home workouts can get a bit repetitive. Same home, same time, same equipment — right? That's why Ann recommends shaking the 'blahs' out of your system and setting clear intentions for a high-energy home workout.

"To be successful with minimal equipment," Ann says, "you have to set the intention and atmosphere for your workouts." She has clients amp up the music, open windows for a fresh breeze and write out their workouts before they begin — "which helps to have a focused training session," she says.

Ann also recommends deep breathing for several minutes before you exercise. The more present you are in your workouts, the more neuromuscular activation (mind-body connection) you'll have in each of your exercises, Ann says.

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