How to improve your strength without lifting heavy

Posted on October 28, 2020 by

Often the first thought for people who want to get strong is “let’s go to gym and start lifting heavy”.

They bench press, squat, deadlift – maybe even try the currently popular power cleans and snatches. They’re committed, very enthusiastic & well-motivated, so just keep increasing the load almost every session… for two weeks.

Then they start noticing some injuries start to appear, sore elbows, clicking knees, a continually stiff lower back etc. These gym goers start to get confused as it dawns on them that they can’t train this way for very long so they start to lose motivation.

It’s a common theme for all sorts of gym goers to suffer from this overzealous training in the gym. From the young age groups who are in danger of overload resulting in overuse syndromes or imbalance injuries, to older age groups who being less elastic are prone to acute sprains and strains.

Similarly, athletes coming back from injury after a long break or coming back from retirement are also very motivated, and they may even have good technique. They too may find themselves starting to go too heavy, too quickly instead of establishing (or re-establishing) a robust body first, a strong base for the future heavy weight.

There are a number of methods that can help you to reach your goal. There should always be a ‘goal’ for different ‘blocks’ of training; either to learn the technique, improve your max strength, strength endurance, or in some cases hypertrophy.


Slow the movement down!

Tempo (or speed) of the movement is often the last manipulation people use to get what they want out of training. In strength training it’s referred to as time under tension (TUT).

For example, starting in a squat with a tempo of eight seconds down, eight seconds up (8/8) sounds hard, right? Well yes, it is, and you will also notice you may not be able to do much more than lift the bar to start off.

Progression of the sets and reps for this slow tempo training can be the following two-week blocks;


Weeks Sets Reps
Week 1-2 3 5
Week 3-4 3 6
Week 5-6 3 8
Week 7-8 4 6
Week 9-10 4 8


To progress after you have reached the 4×8 stage, start to reduce the TUT from 8/8 to 5/5 and 3/3 which will allow you to slowly increase the weight.

Perform this protocol twice per week for two weeks. After two hard weeks take an easy week with using just 3 sets of 10 reps normal speed with medium weights to have a recovery for your central nervous system.

Another good example of tempo manipulation is to use the ‘bottom position’ in a movement to increase time under tension. For example, pausing at the bottom of your regular squat or bench for five seconds. If you really want to be mean to yourself do this in a slow squat or bench press with the additional pausing at the bottom, so five seconds down, five second pause, five seconds up (5/5/5).


Benefits of Tempo Manipulation for strength:


1. It improves your max strength without using heavy weights too soon

Research supports the following:

  • Extended TUT will start to recruit fast twitch fibres later in the set once the slow twitch ones are oxidised
  • Slow eccentric movements increase lactate accumulation and increases growth hormone release allowing increased strength and better recovery
  • Low weight, high reps are just as good at producing strength & hypertrophy (muscle growth) as high weight and low reps


2. Very little chance of injury

In fact, the blood flush you get helps nutrient flow into areas that do not have great blood-flow like knees & elbows.


3. Your technique will improve under TUT

It does this two ways – physiologically and cognitively.

  • Physiologically – During 8/8 TUT the major muscle groups are getting fatigued and then the small support muscles that are predominantly slow twitch and very fatigue resistant start to work. It therefore teaches you what to switch on, how to switch on and what to strengthen but in a friendly environment of light weight on the bar.
  • Cognitively – As you have so much time in the positions of the movement this allow you to establish the feeling of what a truly good technique is.


4. It prepares muscles, ligaments & joints

For extra load in future.


5. It improves your muscle endurance

Sets on minimal weight can be difficult, but you can’t get something for nothing.


Using tempo manipulation gives you time to learn a great technique in the movement, switch on the right muscles and make them stronger, stimulating super muscle endurance that prepares your body to lift heavier, 2-3 months down the line.




  1. Adam, A. & De Luca, C. J. Recruitment order of motor units in human vastus lateralis muscle is maintained during fatiguing contractions. Journal of Neurophysiology. 90, 2919-2927
  2. Gabriel, D. A., Kamen, G., Frost G. 2006. Neural adaptations to resistive exercise: mechanisms and recommendations for training practices. Sports Medicine. 36 (2): 133-49.
  3. Schoenfeld, B. J. 2013. Potential Mechanisms for a Role of Metabolic Stress in Hypertrophic Adaptations to Resistance Training. Sports Med doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0017-1
  4. RD Calixto, R. D. et al. 2014. Acute Effects of Movement Velocity on Blood Lactate & Growth Hormone Responses After Eccentric Bench Press Exercise in Resistance-Trained Men. Biology of Sport. Dec; 31(4): 289–294. doi: 10.5604/20831862.1127287
  5. Morton, R. W., et al. 2016. Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men. Journal of Applied Physiology Jul 1; 121(1): 129–138. doi: 1152/japplphysiol.00154.2016
  6. Burd, N.A., et al. 2010. Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS One Aug 9; 5 (8): e12033. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012033
  7. Johnson, M.A., Polgar, J., Weightman, D. & Appleton, D. 1973. Data on the distribution of fibre types in thirty-six human muscles: An autopsy study. Journal of the Neurological Sciences. Volume 18, Issue 1, January Pages 111-129org/10.1016/0022-510X(73)90023-3

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1 Comment

Garry Temple

A great article !!
Thanks Guys
Level 4 Athletics Coach

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