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How To Level Up Your Home Strength Training Without Heavy Weights

While some gyms around the country have been able to open back up after initially closing because of the coronavirus pandemic, many gyms in harder hit areas are still shut down. Plus, now that we’re seeing the virus ramp up in different parts of the U.S., it’s possible additional gym closures are coming.

With this in mind, I’m sure many avid gym-goers are concerned about continuing to see results—particularly when it comes to strength training—while working out outside of the gym. Even if you only have a few lighter weights at home, rest assured that there are ways you can ramp up your training to keep making gains. Here, I’ll break down how to get the most out of home strength training—even without heavy weights.

First, Let’s Talk About “Intensity”

Before we head into all the fun ways to level up your workouts, let’s clarify one thing. Many people use “intensity” and “effort” interchangeably when describing their workout. (“That set was intense, bro!”) Unfortunately, these terms are technically not interchangeable in the weight room.

Intensity actually refers to the weight you are lifting and is often expressed as a percentage of your one-rep max (1RM). If you’re doing three sets of 10 at 65 percent of your 1RM, your intensity is set at 65 percent.

Read More: 6 Reasons Why You’re Not Building Muscle

Effort, meanwhile, is often expressed using the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale, which reports exertion on a scale of zero to 10. While a set of a move using light weight until failure may have the same RPE as a set of a move using heavy weight, the intensity is still different.

So, if you’re stuck at home with just your bodyweight, resistance bands, and a few dumbbells, there’s only so much you can do to increase the true, technical intensity.

However, you can increase your relative intensity.

You see, when we discuss intensity and base it off of your 1RM, we’re using your true 1RM, a.k.a. what you can do when you’re perfectly fresh. However, as you fatigue during exercise, your relative 1RM changes. (While your squat 1RM may be 300 pounds, you may only be able to do 250 pounds after you’ve exhausted your legs with a few sets.)

Therefore, the relative intensity of each exercise increases as you fatigue. This is why we term tactics like drop sets and rest-pause as “intensification methods;” because they are great at increasing the relative intensity of an exercise.

Knowing this, you can totally increase the relative intensity of home strength training; you just have to induce lots of fatigue.

Intensification Methods To Use at Home

Ready to get to work? Incorporate the following four intensification methods to your home workouts to build as much strength and muscle as possible.

1. Isometric-to-Dynamic Method

When it comes to at-home training intensification methods, my personal favorite is the isometric to dynamic method.

Essentially, you’ll perform a bodyweight exercise (push-up, lunge, etc.) and hold the position of peak stretch or tension for a given time period (I usually start at 30 seconds). After that hold, start performing full range-of-motion reps. This way, you carry some fatigue from the isometric hold into your reps, which increases the relative intensity of the exercise as you go.

Read More: How To Make 5 Classic Bodyweight Moves So Much Harder

The isometric-to-dynamic method is a great option for people who are already pretty strong at a given move. Otherwise, reaching fatigue can become quite the marathon.

2. Interset Stretching

Interset stretching is another go-to intensification method of mine when training at home. I especially like using this strategy for chest workouts.

Here, start with a set of 15 to 20 reps of pushups, for example. (Wear a backpack for extra weight or use a resistance band if you need some sort of extra resistance.) Then, immediately find a door frame, place your hands on it in a goalpost position, and lean forward until you feel a stretch in your chest muscles. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Then, immediately get back to your pushups. Repeat this for three or four total sets and have fun (you’ll understand what I mean by “fun” when you’re about halfway in!).

3.  Drop Sets

If you have a few pieces of equipment handy, you can also try drop sets. Drop sets refer to when you reduce weight as you fatigue throughout a set of an exercise. To utilize them, pick an exercise and perform it close to (or to) failure with a given resistance (dumbbell, band, etc.). Once you are no longer able to perform a perfect rep with that resistance, ditch the weight or band and perform bodyweight reps until you get close to failure on those, too.

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If you have multiple dumbbells or bands, start with the heaviest option and progress to the lightest before dropping to bodyweight. To try this with push-ups, use a weight vest or wear a backpack loaded with rocks or books and slowly pull weight out.

4. Cluster Set Training

One last method I like to use for home strength training is cluster set training. There are a few different uses of cluster training in strength and conditioning, but there’s one method I prefer for use at home.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pick an exercise you know you can do for 15 to 20 reps (like pushups, Bulgarian split squats, etc.)
  2. Grab a stopwatch or have a partner time you.
  3. Perform five reps, rest for 15 seconds, then perform five more reps.
  4. Continue this pattern for four or five minutes, or until you’re completely toasted.

The first minute or two of your cluster set will feel pretty easy. However, fatigue will accumulate and you’ll have a tough, tough time getting through those last few sets.

The Bottom Line

There’s no way to increase the true intensity of your home strength training workouts unless you have a sweet home gym. However, you can use various intensification methods to increase the relative intensity of just about any exercise you can do at home. To maximize your gains, make sure your nutrition is on point (hello, protein!) and get at least seven hours of sleep every night.


Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.

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