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13 Smart Ways to Boost Workout Intensity

Looking for better results from exercise? Well look no further — these 13 techniques will add some sizzle and substantial results to any workout routine in need of a reboot.
13 Smart Ways to Boost Workout Intensity
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Longing for the good old days when every workout felt fresh, challenging, and left a welcomed soreness for the next few days? It’s easy to get stuck in a exercise routine that's, well, simply a routine. While going through the motions of a "ho hum" workout may be better than no workout at all, this uninspired approach won't likely lead to significant improvements either. From supersets to adding instability, read on for 13 scientifically-backed ways to get the most out of your gym time.

Kick Your Own Butt — Your Action Plan

Exercise programs need to be modified regularly in order to see and feel continual results, but it can be difficult to adopt and stick with a new exercise routine [1]. The solution: A proactive plan of action that injects new life into a boring workout routine and provides motivation to do more than simply "get to the gym." Here are 13 techniques that can help anyone break through a fitness plateau and find satisfaction in a challenging new exercise regimen.

1. Watch the clock. Workouts often suffer from too much time spent chit-chatting and too many trips to the water fountain. Research shows short, intense workouts offer the best results, so grab a stopwatch and use it to tell you when it's time to work and time to rest. Also remember to pack your water bottle so that you can stay hydrated with zero travel time. For a killer workout pace, try allowing just 60 seconds of rest between each set to add a cardiovascular element to the workout. This increases fat-burning while packing on lean muscle.

2. Superset strength and cardio. People often think of strength training and cardio exercise as two separate beasts, but this doesn't have to be the case. Adding a cardio interval such as jumping rope, or 20-second sprints will rev the metabolism while still allowing for added strength [2].

3. Strike a pose. Maybe this isn’t exactly what Madonna was singing about, but striking a strength training pose may be the remedy for a stagnant workout routine. Contracting a muscle and holding it in a flexed position (aka isometric exercise or static holds) provide strength and endurance benefits that can’t be achieved through traditional isotonic exercises (i.e. lifts that are in constant motion). Test it out with a stability ball wall squat that will engage the thighs and glutes. Start with a goal of 30-seconds and work towards holding this static position for longer periods of time as strength and muscular endurance improve.

4. Skip the machines. While exercise machines do make resistance training user-friendly, they simply do not get the job done like free-weight exercises. Lifting with free weights will incorporate more stabilizing muscles and therefore burn more calories than their weight machine counterparts. The same can be said for bodyweight exercises, which can be more effective for core strengthening and calorie-burning than workouts done on machines [3].

5. Add instability. A good workout doesn't need to look like a performance from Cirque du Soleil, but a little balancing act might go a long way. Exercises that require balance stimulate more muscle recruitment, specifically core muscles, than the same exercise done in a stable position [4]. This is rather intuitive: Is a squat standing on the floor as challenging as one standing on a wobble board? Of course not. The good news is most stable exercises can easily be geared up by adding a BOSU or stability ball (just be sure proper form is never compromised).

6. Train one side at a time. Can’t help but favor your dominant side? Using exercises that force each arm or leg to work independently will help balance muscular development and equalize strength. A pistol squat or single-arm push-up are great examples that also strengthen the core. Work towards performing sets of 10 reps per side for each exercise.

7. Get explosive. Old school bodybuilders fed their muscles a diet of slow, heavy lifts to build bulk and strength. Now research shows explosive movements such as box jumps, kettlebell swings, and plyometric push-ups can achieve a greater response from something called fast-twitch muscles (the ones used during quick, powerful movements) [5]. Bonus: Fast-twitch fibers have greater potential for growth when compared to slow-twitch fibers.

8. Add resistance. Get ready for some pretty heavy stuff: A recent study showed that exercisers who lifted a heavy weight for just 8 reps burned double the calories of those lifting lighter weights for 15 reps. Try implementing this rule of thumb: Keep adding weight (in small 2-5 lb increments) to an exercise until achieving 3 sets of 10 reps becomes very challenging (as in almost impossible to squeeze out the final rep!). Practice with that weight until 10 reps becomes too doable and then add a few more pounds of resistance.

9. Complete the circuit. Quickly moving from one exercise right into the next is a great way to create a time-efficient, cardio-focused workout [6]. When setting up a circuit, just be sure to slot exercises that target different muscle groups back-to-back to avoid burnout. For example, perform squats before a chest press, and then a deadlift followed by a plank. This gives each muscle group enough time to recover while the next body part is targeted.

10. Aim for failure. Failure occurs when a muscle is so spent it can’t complete one more repetition of an exercise (while maintaining proper form). Read: The muscles actually fail to contract any more. Good news is, the struggle is well worth the effort. Research suggests training to failure can increase strength and improve the body's ability to build lean muscle [7]. One way to reach failure is through super-slow movements using relatively light resistance. Slowing down the tempo of each rep causes greater muscle contractions and has been shown to increase strength gains. Think about taking 10 seconds to complete a single push-up for 10 seconds. (Beginners: Be sure to try this one with a trainer first to ensure proper safety!)

11. Write it down. Remembering every exercise performed, every repetition accomplished, and every weight selected during a previous workout is nearly impossible. Without a record of past workouts it’s also difficult to see measureable progress. Using a workout journal or fitness app provides motivation to rock every workout. "Do more, or do it better" becomes an achievable goal.

12. Find a partner. People who have an exercise partner are more likely to get active and stay active than those doing it on their own. Finding a workout buddy instantly increases the accountability factor and provides increased motivation to work harder during an exercise session [8]. Plus, exercising with others is a lot more fun!

13. Make it social. Not sure the world really needs to hear the details of your exercise goals or weight-loss targets? Apparently it does! Research shows that social support gained through vocalizing health and fitness goals increases the likelihood of those goals being achieved [9]. So make a few goals public with friends, family, or anyone else who will listen, and then get it done! Posting specific goals on social media outlets enlists hundreds, if not thousands, of instant accountability partners. Try slacking in a workout when the "Twittersphere" is waiting to hear the results!

Ready to ramp things up? Just remember not all techniques will work overnight, and some might be more effective than others depending on a variety of personal factors. Keep an open mind, listen to your body, and don’t forget to eat right and get adequate rest.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Noam Tamir and Rob Sulaver

Have a favorite workout technique we missed? Tell us in the comments below or tweet the author @greenfit_health.

Photo: Bigstock

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Works Cited +

  1. Attrition and adherence of young women to aerobic exercise: lessons from the WISER study. Arikawa AY, O'Dougherty M, Kaufman BC, et al. Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN. Contemporary Clinical Trials, 2012 Mar;33(2):298-301.
  2. Aerobic exercise does not compromise muscle hypertrophy response to short-term resistance training. Lundberg TR, Fernandez-Gonzalo R, Gustafsson T, et al. Sweden University. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 2012 Oct 25.
  3. Swiss ball abdominal crunch with added elastic resistance is an effective alternative to training machines. Sundstrup E, Jakobsen MD, Andersen CH, et al. National Research Centre for the Working Environment, Copenhagen, Denmark. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 2012 Aug;7(4):372-80.
  4. Core stability exercise principles. Akuthota V, Ferreiro A, Moore T, Fredericson M. Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Aurora, CO. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 2008 Feb;7(1):39-44.
  5. Preferential type II muscle fiber damage from plyometric exercise. Macaluso F, Isaacs AW, Myburgh KH. Department of Physiological Sciences, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Journal of Athletic Training, 2012 Aug;47(4):414-20.
  6. Physical performance and cardiovascular responses to an acute bout of heavy resistance circuit training versus traditional strength training. Alcaraz PE, Sánchez-Lorente J, Blazevich AJ. Kinesiology and Biomechanics Laboratory, Department of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, Universidad Católica San Antonio de Murcia, Guadalupe, Murcia, Spain. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2008 May;22(3):667-71.
  7. Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. Burd NA, West DW, Staples AW, et al. Exercise Metabolism Research Group, Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. PLoS One, 2010 Aug 9;5(8):e12033.
  8. Aerobic exercise is promoted when individual performance affects the group: a test of the Kohler motivation gain effect. Irwin BC, Scorniaenchi J, Kerr NL, et al. Kinesiology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2012 Oct;44(2):151-9.
  9. Social support and efficacy cognitions in exercise adherence: a latent growth curve analysis. Duncan TE, McAuley E. Oregon Social Learning Center, Eugene 97401. J Behavioral Medicine. 1993 Apr;16(2):199-218.

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