To build muscle mass, endurance, or strength, you have to lift weights consistently, depending on the technique of progressive overload (a gradual increase in intensity within a strength program), right?
True, but there is more than one way to increase muscle without lifting weights.
Whether you work out at home or in the gym, there are some smart ways to increase the intensity of your workouts and get your muscles to work harder. You can still work many major muscle groups with the equipment or with your own body weight. But these five techniques move the body through resistance in completely different ways, allowing you to add variety to your workouts while still hitting your body composition goals.
Below, I cover five smart ways to build muscle without lifting heavier and why these tried and tested methods work. Grab the best adjustable dumbbells and keep reading.
Repetitions versus weights
If you’re just beginning to lift weights, you’ll need to understand the difference between repetition and weight ranges for the types of training: strength, hypertrophy (muscle building), and endurance.
Your repetition range is the number of repetitions you do for each exercise. To build maximum muscular strength, calculate the heaviest weight you can lift for an exercise (such as bench press) called 1 rep max (1RM), and lift close to that number – roughly 80-100%. Traditionally, strength training adopts higher sets of five or six reps and lower ones of one to six.
If your goal is to build muscle mass—known as hypertrophy—then you’d weight between 60-80% of your 1RM and aim for three to four sets of higher repetitions between 8 and 12. Endurance trainers can lift slightly lighter weights for many higher repetitions, working the muscles from During load less towards fatigue.
The rule of thumb is that to build bigger muscles, your body must feel challenged by the repetition ranges and load. Either way, it will be difficult to finish the last few times of each set. While these are only guidelines, gym goers and bodybuilders have been training this way for years.
Anyone trying to develop strength or muscle should embrace progressive overload. If your muscles don’t feel challenged, they don’t have to adapt, strengthen, or grow, and you can experiment with stability training.
But being overweight is only one way to overload. You can also increase the reps, change the tempo, sets, and rest periods. Below, I cover five techniques worth adding to your workout regimen to spice things up, work muscles harder, and develop muscle growth.
5 smart ways to build muscle without lifting weights
Adopt this the next time you work out.
1. Sets and rest
Sets are the combined total number of repetitions of each exercise. For example, if you are training to build muscle, you might choose 3 sets of 12 reps for each exercise. Without increasing the weight, you can increase the sets and decrease the rest to increase the intensity.
Supersets combine two exercises done one after the other with a short rest afterwards, minimizing the overall rest while doubling the workload in one go. For example, do 12 repetitions of the biceps curl followed by 12 triceps extensions immediately afterwards. You can choose the same muscle groups, oppose them, or divide your lower body into your upper body. You will also recruit smaller muscles for longer.
These require you to lose weight while increasing your overall training volume, but it’s still not a walk in the park. Fall sets are an extension of a workout that goes beyond working sets and reps to reach exhaustion. Take a bench press machine. You’ll complete 3 sets of 12 reps, then on the fourth set, decrease the weight by about 10%. Continue to failure, then go down again, and so on.
Supersets are an extended version of supersets, saving you time while you overload the muscles by using three or more exercises in a small circuit without resting between moves. During giant sets, you’ll perform a set number of repetitions of each move, then rest at the end of the last exercise before the next set. By ramping up your workouts to a high intensity, you can also increase your cardio fitness and work up a sweat.
If your goal is strength training or a 1RM test, you should rest a few minutes between sets to recover properly. Rest periods of 30 to 90 seconds are better suited for low-intensity exercises such as hypertrophy and endurance.
2. Time Under Tension (TUT)
TUT uses tempo to put your muscles under contraction for longer and make them work harder—a technique also used in high-rep endurance training. When trainers or personal trainers write programs, they may put 4-1-4 under the cadence.
Think of a deadlift – With this cadence, you’ll lower to the count of 4, pause, and drive for 4 seconds.
Longer muscle stress leads to micro-tears (damage) of the fibers, which results in a hormonal response – growth hormone. For strength training, adopt a faster tempo that recruits the fast-twitch muscle fibers responsible for the explosive movement. For hypertrophy, use a slower tempo, between 35-60 seconds per set.
For example, if you timed the deadlift to a 3-1-3 cadence, you would spend 56 seconds per set if you programmed 8 reps per set (you can measure this by ability).
The compound combines different exercises into a single sequence or “flow” by utilizing time under tension and supersets. With this technique, you can program an intense full-body workout and work multiple opposing muscle groups at once.
Each exercise is performed in sequence, one after the other, in a flow-like fashion, so you won’t put the weights down, rest or change weight until you’ve finished each exercise. You can find our favorite 5 Barbell Barbell Moves favorite exercise here, and check out the video below for an example.
The compound is great for CrossFit when you’re working towards your maximum time or set number of repetitions.
4. Range of motion
Free weights like dumbbells or kettlebells are great for increasing your range of motion more than a barbell. In our discussion of barbells vs dumbbells, I’m talking about the endless benefits of both, but free weights are extremely effective for muscle growth. They work muscles evenly by encouraging a natural movement pattern and can help develop strength, coordination and balance in your weaker areas.
Take a dumbbell pushup — you lower the weight under the bench for a greater range of motion before pressing the weight back up; This stimulates the muscles for longer and recruits more muscle fibers.
My favorite example is the Arnold press, which works all three heads of the shoulder by using rotation of the palms to stimulate the shoulder through its full range.
5. Motion planes
Like a complex or superset, I often group exercises that work the body in different planes of motion. These include aircraft sagittal (forward and backward movement like a front lunge), In front of me (together as a side lunge), and browser (Turn like a Russian twist).
Functional training prioritizes exercises from every plane to work muscles evenly, target more muscle groups, and activate smaller, less used muscles. For example, I can alternate two moves of different planes of motion—like a lateral raise and a front raise (see video below)—which is a much more efficient exercise and works more muscles.
The goal is to work more muscle groups in less time at different levels, making the exercise more challenging.
Are you looking for more ways to build muscle?