Monthly Archives: February 2014

Increasing Intensity Without Increasing Load

This is an article I originally posted on, and thought it would be a great piece for the blog audience as well so I apologize ahead of time if some of the terminology is a bit too ‘medical’.


I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to challenge my patients and athletes, but without overloading their joints and tissues.  Many of them want to really push themselves, but sometimes they are at that point in their lives or careers where it’s just not appropriate for longevity sake.  In this article I’ll discuss some of the strategies I use to get the most out of strength training without overloading the weakest link.

There are 4 basic ‘solutions’ to this problem that I will use.  I think the best way to cover these would be to describe a couple cases for the lower body and upper body:

Case 1:  Active military gentleman with 2 episodes of disc hernation and radicular symptoms within a two year period.  Both episodes were brought about with heavy lifting, but he also spends quite a bit of time sitting in the back of a helicopter in a seat that’s about 6″ off the ground (his knees are practically in his face).

I worked with him after the first incident, cleared his movement and had no symptoms.  He resumed weightlifting and all other previous activities. After 6 months in the clear he went back to heavy squats and deadlifts, and after 2-3 months of that began noticing the radiating pain into his left leg again.

This guy is an absolute beast when it comes to his fitness level and his form has always been very good.  But because of his past and his work demands, this is a guy that I want to limit the load he is using, as well as the positions he puts himself in.

Solution #1 – Move from bilateral stance to split or single leg stance

This one is pretty obvious in that there is no way he is going to load single leg activities the way he can load a traditional squat or deadlift.  Single leg deadlifts and squats are great options here because of the extra stabilization needed just to balance and control the trunk.  There is only so much weight you’re going to pull with these single leg movements.

Solution #2 – Asymmetrical loading

An example of this would be a single leg deadlift in which the weight is held in the opposite hand (of the stance leg) so the trunk must work in an anti-rotation manner as well as anti-flexion (see video above).  Another great example would be a front squat with a kettlebell in one hand (see picture below) using either the traditional grip or bottoms up.  The demands on the core can be quite high loading in this manner so the athlete gets a great workout with less overall load.

Single Arm Kettlebell Squat

Solution #3 – Postural Assist

Split squats or rear foot elevated split squats (REESS) are ideal for this type of athlete because the positioning makes it easy to maintain an upright spine and therefore decrease the shearing type loads you would see with a traditional squat where the trunk is angled forward.  Mike Boyle (one of the top strength coaches in the world) has talked extensively about this and thus his programs have moved from back squats to front squats to RFESS over time.  This type of squat can easily be asymmetrically loaded as well (different weighted dumbbells in each hand).

Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

Solution #4 – Bottoms Up

There are many reasons I like kettlebells, and the ability to go bottoms up is another one of those reasons.  I can instantly make any kettlebell exercise much more challenging to the athlete’s grip and stability.  The video above showing the KB front squat is a great example, plus I will frequently use this with Turkish Get-Ups, various carries, and presses.

Double Bottoms Up Kettlebell Squat


Case 2:  This is more of a general example here as I work with a number of adult athletes post rotator cuff repair looking to return to their sport and the gym.  Unless they are competing in powerlifting or weightlifting events, I really don’t need them putting a whole bunch of weight on the bar to bench or shoulder press any longer.

My #1 job is to protect the repair while they are seeing me in PT, but also when they are beyond my care.  Job #2 is to give them tools to enhance performance and get them back to the sports they enjoy.  Again I believe this can be done using the ‘Solutions’ mentioned above.  Here are some examples for the upper body (although in the clinical or performance setting I would never really divide them up this way).

Solution #1 – Move from bilateral to single arm exercises.

The same idea applies to upper body as lower.  The amount of stabilization and balance needed to perform single arm presses (horizontal and vertical) is going to make it quite difficult to really load up with weight.

The single arm bench press is one of my favorites.  I have the athlete scoot their hip and shoulder off the bench so they really have to fight the weight pulling them off the bench.  I usually have to start athletes at about 50% of what they could dumbbell bench using the traditional two arm method.  Athletes are not always happy about going down in weight but they feel right away this is going to make them work.

Solution #2 – Asymmetrical loading

In the case of upper body pushing and pulling, the ‘solution’ of asymmetrical loading is usually just a version of ‘Solution #1’.  Another way to inject greater asymmetrical loading into singe arm lifts would be to have the athlete lift from a single leg stance position.  This isn’t something I use real often but there have been times I’ve had to be cautious with someone’s shoulder and wanted to increase intensity without increasing load.  Single leg/single arm kettlebell presses fall into this category, as well as single leg rows (hamstring killer!).

Can’t believe I couldn’t find a better picture than this!

Solution #3 – Postural Assist

In this instance, requiring the athlete to stand to overhead press (or go tall or half kneeling) brings a lot of postural and stability requirements to the table.  It makes it more difficult again to really load up the lift when they don’t have a bench to press into.

Solution #4 – Bottoms Up

Same thing again using the kettlebell bottoms up to work the grip harder and force great stability from the upper quarter.

Single Arm Press – Now that’s a picture! That KB is 55 KG by the way

Now don’t get me wrong, I still love to see big lifts.  There are just times when the person in front of you needs less loading so be creative and use these techniques to help create an optimal environment to make gains without risking injury.