Three ways to get more out of your strength-training program

They enable you to build your muscles without using heavier dumbbells.

Anyone who follows my column knows I am a big fan of strength-training in the form of heavier lifting and consistent progression of weight used. I’m not talking hoisting bodybuilding weight, as most of us are not competing powerlifters — but rather using weights that challenge your muscles and move you out of your comfort zone.

Muscles adapt quickly to stress, and increasing the weight of your lifts is key to improving muscle power, strength and shape. For a lean, sculpted body, I choose low-rep, heavier lifting over high-rep, light-weight lifting with most of my workouts.

But not everyone wants to or is willing to swing King Kong-size dumbbells. Arthritis might prohibit one from comfortably and safely working with such weight. High blood pressure is another consideration. And the fear of bulking up, albeit erroneous, keeps many women from putting down the five-pound dumbbells and grabbing the eights.

Luckily, there are other ways to increase the difficulty and effectiveness of lifts. May I introduce you to three formats I regularly torture my light-weight training clients with: Half-reps, slow-reps and pulses. These methods can be used with most lifts, but for the sake of this column, we’ll use the squat as an example.

Half reps: When strength-training, a standard rep means you perform one lift through a full range of motion. I invite you to add a half-rep in between each full rep. For a squat, you would start in an upright position. Lower into the squat, come up only half way, pause briefly, then sink back down into the full squat position before coming all the way up to a standing position. That counts as one rep. Twelve reps and your quads and glutes will be begging for mercy.

Slow reps: Here, you simply slow down the tempo of the lift. The longer your muscles are under tension, the harder they work and the greater the growth. Rather than taking 2-4 seconds to perform one squat, slow it down to 6-8 seconds. Be careful: Slow reps are harder than you might think, and I don’t recommend performing them with heavy weights.

Pulses: Oooh, these are flat-out evil. Pulses involve moving just a few inches below and above the point of maximum tension. (I particularly love using them for bicep curls, lunges and ab work.) Sink down into a squat, then “pulse” four times before returning to stand. That’s one rep. No bouncing! The pulse is a controlled, focused motion that will effectively annihilate darn near any muscle group involved. Eight to 10 reps of pulse squats, and your legs will demand you cease such lunacy.

The above formulas are also great with body-weight exercises: Tricep dips, V sit-ups, lying knee tucks. If you are feeling particularly masochistic, try half-rep and slow-rep push-ups.

Always, common sense is a must. Start with light weights — lighter than you normally lift — and only increase the weight when you no longer feel challenged by the half-reps, slow-reps and pulses. If any of the formats above cause pain outside of the general lactic acid burn associated with fatiguing muscles, stop at once.

Stimulate growth by incorporating these methods into your light weight strength routine. Your muscles will love you for it.

Catherine Bongiorno is a personal trainer, nutritional therapist and owner of Lift To Lose Fitness & Nutrition. Email her at or visit for more information.

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