30+ Tips to Increase Strength Training Intensity

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nossmf
nossmf Posts: 9,638 Member
edited January 2023 in Fitness and Exercise
Brothers and sisters of iron, welcome!

Resistance training is a wonderful method to increase strength, improve muscle tone/size, and work off some aggression in a positive manner. (I would get in trouble tossing *insert source of annoyance* around, so instead I will toss around some heavy pieces of iron.) Newcomers to the sport will often see very rapid improvements, while experienced veterans can continue to improve though usually at a much slower pace. But eventually everybody will reach a point where their gains slow or stall, and they want to improve their performance in the weight room.

Often, magazine or internet articles imply there are only two ways to improve when lifting weights: increase the weight, or increase the number of reps. Some articles will have additional methods, saying, “Here’s the TOP 5 ways!” or “Click here for the TOP 7 methods!” Well, in this thread I have compiled together THIRTY methods. At the same time, reading through the MFP forum threads, many times I have observed somebody asking a question along the lines of one of these two examples:

“When I try to lift the next higher weight, I struggle. What can I do?”

…or…

“I work out at home, and I do not have access to heavier weights. What can I do?”

The good news is that in both scenarios, the lifter can in fact increase their capacity to lift weights. Lifting heavier is only ONE method to increasing INTENSITY. It is through increasing intensity that I improve as a lifter. Over the last decade and a half of lifting weights, I have read about or been told about many alternate methods to increase intensity. I have compiled them together into a single thread, first as a list of ideas, followed by a little more description how each idea works.

Here’s the safety portion of this discussion: please do not try to add EVERYTHING AT ONCE! Pick an idea which intrigues you, try it out to modify a single exercise, see how it feels. If you like it, keep it; if not, try something else next week. Over time you may add several methods. Not all these methods will work for everybody, and not every method will work for every body part; you may use one method for legs, another for shoulders.

I am not going to discuss in this thread whether you should be lifting for sets of 5x5 or 3x10. Click here for a wonderful collection of various ready-made exercise routines from which you can select one to try.

Whether the forum moderators choose to sticky my thread, or I can simply bookmark the thread for easy reference in responding to future posters, I hope you enjoy reading what follows. Please note that I am NOT a certified fitness instructor, trainer, doctor, or anything else; I am merely an avid enthusiast. If anybody wants to correct an item or has an additional method of which I haven’t thought, please add your thoughts below. I am always eager to learn more.

Let’s define some common terms everybody needs to understand before we begin:

Rep: Lift the weight once, put it back down.
Set: Performing one or more reps in a row before releasing the weight to rest.
BB: Barbell, the long metal pole you can slide weights onto either end
DB: Dumbbell, a weight designed to be held in one hand
Cable: A machine using cables and pulleys to lift plates. The end of the cable which the lifter holds is free to move through a wide range of motion in all directions.

1. Increase weight per rep
2. Increase reps per set
3. Increase sets per session
4. Increase number of exercises per session
5. Increase number of sessions per week
6. Increase time per rep
7. Change tempo of rep (up fast, down slow) (all reps or alternating)
8. Lift for time, not reps
9. Decrease rest time
10. Active rest time
11. Change equipment (BB – DB – cable – band – machine)
12. Change angle of exercise
13. Change depth of exercise
14. Change exercises
15. Change order of exercises
16. Change routine
17. Supersets, Trisets, Circuits
18. Compound sets (same body part)
19. Drop sets
20. Paused reps
21. 1.5 reps
22. Explosive reps (jumps, toss medicine ball)
23. Tabata Intervals (20 seconds hard as possible, 20 seconds rest)
24. EMOM (variable rest)
25. Isometric Hold
26. Pre-exhaust
27. Single limb reps
28. Change hand/foot position
29. Proper isolation (no swinging/cheating)
30. Exercise partner

How do I implement these ideas when exercising? Let’s take a closer look at each idea…

1. Increase weight per rep
The single most common method used in the weight room. A good rule of thumb is to increase the weight slowly over time, by the smallest amount possible. Often this means 5# for upper body lifts, perhaps getting away with 10# for lower body lifts (or 5# per leg). If you have access to smaller increments, say 1# or 2.5#, this is when you use them.

2. Increase reps per set
Some programs call for using an exact number of reps, others give you a range, say 8-10. When you first increase the weight used, lower the reps to the bottom of the range. Over time, strive to increase the reps lifted towards the maximum of the range. When you can hit that max two consecutive workouts, you may be ready to increase the weight, drop the reps, and start all over.

Different rep ranges are sometimes considered “ideal” for different goals, with lower reps (1-5) suited for increasing strength, moderate reps (8-12) for increasing size, and high reps (12-20) for more endurance or tone, though every range does a little of all three, just varying proportions. Do not go above 20 reps in a single set without guidance from a trainer.

3. Increase sets per session
Beginner lifters are often encouraged to do a single set of an exercise while they get used to lifting. Over time you can add a second, third or more set to increase intensity without altering the weight. But as with increasing reps, eventually more does not necessarily mean better.

4. Increase number of exercises per session
Hitting the chest with two different exercises in the same workout session can increase intensity over using a single exercise, and three exercises even more so. But this can quickly cause your workout to grow very long. Unless you are very experienced or under supervision of a trainer, try to limit your sessions to an hour at most.

5. Increase number of sessions per week
Hitting a body part multiple times per week can elicit impressive gains. For this reason, beginners are often encouraged to perform full-body workouts 2-3 times per week, so every muscle is getting worked multiple times. Remember, though, that improvements occur not in the gym when we are tearing our muscles down, but during recovery between workouts, so hitting chest 7 days per week will hinder, not help. But for somebody who is lifting chest only once per week, increasing to twice per week, even if the second workout is lighter in intensity, can kick start improvements.

6. Increase time per rep
Instead of blasting through your reps as fast as possible, try slowing down. Take 2 seconds to lower the weight, 2 seconds to lift it back up. Try five seconds, or ten. You will probably want to LOWER the weight used with this trick, but trust me, you’ll feel it by the last couple reps!

7. Change tempo of rep
Along the same lines of increasing time, you can change the time of different portions of the rep. Try lowering the weight for five seconds but blasting the weight back up as explosively as possible, before slowly lowering once more. You can also alternate which reps are different; try three reps fast, one rep slow, three fast, one slow…

8. Lift for time, not reps
Instead of setting a goal of lifting for x reps, try setting a timer for 15 or 30 seconds. Then focus on getting as many good, quality reps as possible within that time. Next week, try to do more reps in the same amount of time. Only good reps count; don’t become reckless and just start tossing the weight around for the sake of moving fast, you’re begging for injury if you do this.

9. Decrease rest time
How long you rest between sets is highly personal. At the end of your rest period, you should feel ready for that next set, heart rate and breathing a little more normal than when your last set ended. Whatever your time is this week, next week knock off 10 seconds; for example, if you rested 2:00 minutes today, next week limit yourself to 1:50, the next week to 1:40. Don’t continue to reduce the time forever, just down to about half the original time. If you increase the weight, return to the original rest duration.

10. Active rest time
Most lifters spend their time between sets doing nothing but relaxing, whether talking, checking their phone, or simply breathing. But that time can be spent being productive doing additional exercises which do not detract from what you’re doing. For example, jumping rope between sets of bench presses, or pushups between sets of squats.

11. Change equipment (BB – DB – cable – band – machine)
The same exercise can be performed using a variety of equipment, all of them hitting the same muscle but often with slightly different emphasis. For example, a machine often has a single path of motion, allowing the lifter to focus exclusively on a single set of muscles; this is quite often perfect for beginners or for people rehabbing from an injury. But this limited path also limits muscle activation, as the tiny stabilizer muscles located on either side or beneath the bigger muscle are not being tasked with maintaining balance. By introducing more freedom of movement, a lifter forces these muscles to also work hard. The order of emphasis on these stabilizer muscles is the machine --> cable/band --> BB --> DB.

12. Change angle of exercise
Your body naturally is stronger when you push or pull from one angle than another. Think how often your mother told you to lift something with your legs, not your back. Science calls it mechanical advantage, where the way your muscles are attached to your bones means you can achieve greater muscular contraction in one plane than in an adjacent plane. For the rest of us who are not scientists, it means changing the angle of a lift can have immense changes in the intensity of the lift, even if the angular change is very small. Just 5 degrees different, and you can feel the difference! The next time you’re doing flat bench DB presses, try raising the head of the bench just a few degrees (one notch on a gym bench, or add a piece of wood under your bench at home). Or in the gym, try going from decline bench press to flat bench to incline bench, and notice how much harder it seems, even as the weight used decreases.

13. Change depth of exercise
How low should you move the weight? Get ready for lots of rage shouting if you want to start searching the web for the answer to this question! Some lifters claim a lift doesn’t count if you don’t go ATG (*beep* to grass) on squats, or the bar touching your chest on bench presses. Others will acknowledge physical limitations of individual lifters, either from injury or simply the way our bodies are put together, and would rather these lifters stop their movement at a certain point rather than risk further injury. But by increasing the depth of your movement… squatting just an inch lower or pressing the shoulder press machine an inch further…you can increase intensity.

14. Change exercises
Your body is a marvel of adaptation. With enough practice, it will figure out the best, most efficient way to perform a movement, making it easier over time. For lifters, this is both good and bad. The good is we become experts at a lift, allowing us to become stronger. The bad is we become experts at a lift, meaning the body knows how to do THIS lift well, but can we also do other, similar movements just as well?

By changing our exercise selection, we can shock our body out of the assumption “oh, it’s bench press day, I’m ready to give 85% since that’s all that’s required” and into “holy smokes, what was THAT movement? I need to figure this out, fast!”

Does this mean EVERYTHING has to change? Heck, no. In fact, often it’s best to keep most of your routine the same, just find one change you can make, like going from back squats to front squats while keeping the rest of leg day the same.

15. Change order of exercises
Along the same line of thought as above, sometimes you can keep the exact same exercises as before but do them in a different order. Instead of doing squats first followed by leg extensions, try doing the leg extensions first followed by squats. Just be ready to lower the weight of the new second exercise to account for being partially fatigued instead of hitting it when you are at your freshest.

16. Change routine
Contrary to an outside observer’s belief, lifting weights is just as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. You are exerting your will over the weight, over your body. But sometimes your mind can grow bored from doing the same thing day after day, week after week. Believe it or not, but a tired, bored mind will place limits on your physical improvements. In this situation, you may find it mentally entertaining to change up everything, going from one routine to a brand new one, or from full-body to push-pull-legs. This thread contains a huge variety of ready-made routines to peruse and explore.

17. Supersets, Trisets, Circuits
A superset occurs when a lifter performs one exercise, followed immediately by a second exercise before resting. Trisets use three exercises before resting, circuits four or more. Technically, any exercise performed in this fashion is a superset, but in the lifting world this term is used mostly when the second exercise targets a different body part, such as a squat followed by a pullup, or a DB bench press flowing into a DB row.

18. Compound sets (same body part)
A compound set targets the same body part twice (or more) in a row before resting. Be very mindful of fatigue if you choose to try this intensity method. Try making the second exercise something lighter weight, or one which uses better mechanical advantage. Go from bench press to pushups, or from pullups (where your body can swing freely and uses stabilizer muscles to compensate) to cable pulldowns (your body is motionless, only the weight moves).

19. Drop sets
Just because you cannot lift the weight a single rep more at the current weight does not mean you cannot lift anything at all. If you decrease the weight, you may be surprised you can pound out a few more reps, usually fewer than the first set. For instance, if you are doing DB curls for 8-10 reps, after you hit 10 pick up a lighter DB (try dropping by 10%-20%) and do another 4-6 reps. If you really want to challenge yourself, drop again and do 3-4 more. Continuing to drop until you cannot drop any further is sometimes called “running the rack.” You can use this technique in a variety of exercises, but it’s probably safest to limit to using DB’s and cables or machines; not only can the weight be changed quickly, but form breakdown due to fatigue is less likely to cause an injury.

20. Paused reps
Earlier we talked about slowing your movement down. This method uses a complete stop, usually at the bottom of the motion. For example, squat down, stopping at the bottom of your range of motion for five seconds before pressing back up. Friendly tip: you may want to lower the weight used by about 10%. You can also add additional pauses along the way. Try doing curls where you stop at 3/4 down, again at halfway, once more at 1/4 down.

21. 1.5 reps
Some parts of weightlifting movements are more difficult than others, often at the lowest point of the move. This method retraces this prime stretch of movement twice for every full rep. The way it works is you setup for a bench press, lower the weight as far as you can. When you push the weight up, stop at the halfway point and return to the bottom. Now press back to full arm extension. This counts as one rep.

22. Explosive reps (jumps, toss medicine ball)
Most of the time, a lifter always focuses on tight control. She may move the weight quickly, but always with a tight grip on the weight, just as gravity keeps a tight grip on the lifter. Sometimes, however, the key to explosive growth is through explosive movement. This may mean holding a light weight tightly and pushing so hard your feet leave the ground, but even better is slinging around a medicine ball, which resembles a beach ball in appearance but is far heavier, often heavier than DB’s. The best part is how it is designed to be SLAMMED into the floor, into a wall, thrown high into the air and caught on the rebound. Very therapeutic, and very effective.

23. Tabata Intervals (20 seconds hard as possible, 20 seconds rest)
Interval training is all the rage within cardio circles, but it can also apply towards strength training. The concept of Tabata Intervals involves short bursts of absolute effort, followed by equal periods of absolute calm. Do NOT try this method with heavy weights. The first time you try this method, select bodyweight exercises, whether pushups or air squats, before graduating up to using light DB’s or machines.

24. EMOM (variable rest)
Lifters usually keep their rest periods a set length, for instance resting 90 seconds between sets every time. The EMOM method stands for Every Minute On the Minute, which means rep one needs to occur exactly at the start of the minute. If it takes you five seconds to finish your reps, you have fifty-five seconds to rest before the next set; if it takes you forty seconds to lift, you now have twenty seconds to rest. This method usually is performed for a long time, say 10 minutes, meaning there will be ten sets of effort interspersed with rest. As the sets progress fatigue will set in, causing the lifts to take longer, leaving even less time to rest, increasing the fatigue even further. Keep the weights used light.

25. Isometric Hold
Isometric Holds involve lifting without lifting, as in not moving despite applying all the tension in the world to your muscles. You can do this by pushing against an immovable object like the wall, or pressing a weight beyond your abilities, such as a bar in a power cage pushing against pins which normally hold a bar up but now will keep it from moving up. The same principle could apply by holding super heavy weights above you, but this is just begging for injury when you drop the weight on your head, or your legs collapse beneath you. A person struggling to perform a pullup but unable to move any further up due to fatigue or lack of strength is performing an isometric hold.

26. Pre-exhaust
During compound movements (moves which involve more than one muscle), the stronger muscle often exerts more force towards making the weight move, even if the movement is designed to work the weaker muscle more. If only there were a way to tire out the strong muscle to prompt the weaker muscle to pick up the slack. Fortunately, there is a way, called pre-exhaust. There are two main ways to do this, either by saving exercises which emphasize the smaller muscle for later in the workout, or by doing an isolation move hitting the main muscle first, such as DB fly’s (focus: chest) before DB presses (with the chest tired, the focus can slide towards the front shoulders and triceps).

27. Single limb reps
Most of the time, lifters move their limbs in unison…both legs together, both arms together. This technique asks you to move one limb at a time. For the upper body, you can either hold a weight in each hand but hold one limb still while the other moves or keep one hand empty while the other works. In this second scenario, gravity will try to torque, or twist, your shoulders in the direction of the weighted limb; brace your core to prevent this rotation. For legs, be prepared to be shocked how weak a single leg behaves in comparison to acting as a pair. If you question this to be true, look up videos of a pistol squat. Even massively strong bodybuilders often struggle to perform this deceptively simple move!

28. Change hand/foot position
Small adjustments in hand or foot position can affect intensity. This might mean moving hands/feet closer together or further apart, or it can mean rotating the hand or foot slightly. DB movements can be done with hands facing towards your feet or towards each other; feet can be pointed straight ahead or angled outwards up to 45 degrees. Lunges can be altered by moving the forward foot straight forward, straight to the side, or at any angle in between. Presses or rows can occur with the elbows tucked close to the rib cage or flared out up to 90 degrees.

29. Proper isolation (no swinging/cheating)
In a perfect world, a lifter would move the weight through a single path of motion, with the rest of the body remaining perfectly still. However, we are all humans, and subject to being sloppy. Whether because of fatigue, unfamiliarity with a movement, trying to move a weight too heavy for our current capabilities, or simple lack of discipline, we can move in all sorts of unintended ways. Your knees flare too far forward during a squat; your hips sway as you curl a DB up, trying to cheat through that last rep or two. In very specific situations this can be intentional…but leave that to a trainer to tell you when to cheat in this manner. The rest of the time, we should attempt to keep strict form.

Sometimes simply paying attention can correct us, but other times we can use a little assistance. If your shoulders move your elbow forward when doing curls, stand next to a wall and keep the backs of your arms pressed against the wall while you curl. If you cannot squat with good form, lower the weight until your form is once again perfect. Trust me, leave your ego at the door when you enter the weight room. Not only will the chance of injury go way down, but a lifter with proper form at lighter weight is stronger in many ways than somebody lifting twice the weight with lousy form, cheating their way through reps.

One other tool which gets a bad rap in the weight room: the mirror. There will always be some lifters posing for the camera (even if only in their own mind) or trying to subtly check out the hottie at the next station over. But a mirror also provides instant feedback on form, at least from the perspective of you the lifter. For other perspectives, this leads us to our last method of increasing intensity…

30. Exercise partner
Working out with a partner, whether a friend or a trainer, provides numerous benefits. First and probably most importantly, a partner will make it less likely you will skip a workout by holding you accountable. During your lift, your partner can monitor your movement to ensure you are lifting safely with proper form. And let us not forget how invigorating it can be for somebody to be encouraging you when fatigue tries to slow you down. Healthy competition is very real in the weight room, provided you remember it is ok to admire lifters who are stronger or have a physique you desire; but compare yourself only to yourself. Are you lifting better than this time last week? (Remember, better can mean heavier, or more reps, or with better form, or simply not letting life stop you from being in the weight room in the first place.)

*****

You may notice I did not mention another popular technique, which is the use of stability balls, those half-circle, half-board units which a lifter stands upon, wobbly, while lifting. I did not mention this for the simple reason that I consider it too dangerous for the average lifter, too many chances of twisting a knee or ankle wrong. Think it’s bad falling to the ground with a twisted knee? Try doing it while holding something heavy, often in a compromising position such as over your head or across your shoulders. Not for me, thanks. If a trainer asks you to try while they monitor, go for it, but otherwise just say no. There are too many other worthwhile ideas you can incorporate into your workout.

If you are still reading this, thank you for your patience. As was the case for my first fantasy novel, I wrote them both (novel, article) more for myself than for anybody else. I just hope somebody finds it useful. I know I did, just in writing it.
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Replies

  • ythannah
    ythannah Posts: 4,368 Member
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    Thank you! As an older, female, home gym lifter this is incredibly valuable information.

    Bookmarked. But it needs to be a sticky on here.
  • AnnPT77
    AnnPT77 Posts: 32,741 Member
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    ythannah wrote: »
    Thank you! As an older, female, home gym lifter this is incredibly valuable information.

    Bookmarked. But it needs to be a sticky on here.

    I'm sure you know to nominate it here:

    https://community.myfitnesspal.com/en/discussion/10260479/nominate-posts-for-announcement-status-stickies#latest

    . . . but others may not know. ;)
  • Retroguy2000
    Retroguy2000 Posts: 1,556 Member
    edited November 2022
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    Impressive list. I may have thought of one you missed though.

    Myo-reps

    I use these for arms at the end of workouts.

    Here's a description via Google:

    Myo-reps involve first performing an “activation” set, where a relatively lower load is lifted to near-failure, typically in the 12-30 repetition range. Then, a series of lower-rep “back-off” sets are completed with the same weight, e.g., 3-5 reps. These sets are repeated using 20-30 second rest intervals until the individual can no longer complete the targeted number of reps.
  • krupp2016
    krupp2016 Posts: 1 Member
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    I am 80 soon. I have bands, ball, weights, stationery bike and dont know where/how to organize a workout to increase/maintain strength and balance. Can anyone help??
  • AnnPT77
    AnnPT77 Posts: 32,741 Member
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    krupp2016 wrote: »
    I am 80 soon. I have bands, ball, weights, stationery bike and dont know where/how to organize a workout to increase/maintain strength and balance. Can anyone help??

    You'd likely get better input if you post your own thread, rather than posting on this only loosely related one. If you're in the US, AARP and Silver Sneakers have some videos. Here, there's this, about strength work:

    http://community.myfitnesspal.com/en/discussion/10332083/which-lifting-program-is-the-best-for-you/p1

    I'd post more ideas, if you start a thread where it's the topic. (I'm F, 66.)

  • nossmf
    nossmf Posts: 9,638 Member
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    I knew I forgot one...

    31. Combining Exercises
    Sometimes you can combine two exercises into a single motion, such as DB squats pushing up into a DB shoulder press. The ultimate example of this idea is the burpee, which combines an air squat, a pushup, and a standing high jump into a single sequence.
  • Retroguy2000
    Retroguy2000 Posts: 1,556 Member
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    Not just that one...
  • nossmf
    nossmf Posts: 9,638 Member
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    Please enlighten me/us, @Retroguy2000. I'm always game to learn or be reminded of something I neglected to mention.
  • Retroguy2000
    Retroguy2000 Posts: 1,556 Member
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    It was in a reply you apparently missed.

    Myo-reps.
  • nossmf
    nossmf Posts: 9,638 Member
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    Ah, I did read that reply. Your most recent words "not just that one" led me to believe you had other, additional items. My mistake. Thanks for the response.
  • Retroguy2000
    Retroguy2000 Posts: 1,556 Member
    edited November 2022
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    I thought you missed it because you didn't acknowledge Myo-reps, then you came back with one you had forgot and you listed that as #31.
  • nossmf
    nossmf Posts: 9,638 Member
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    My numbering was not meant in any way to slight nor ignore your contribution, but rather just a continuation of the number of ideas I could remember. If I were able I would add both ideas (yours and my late addition) to the original list to total now 32...silly one-hour limit to edit...
  • Retroguy2000
    Retroguy2000 Posts: 1,556 Member
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    Cheers.
  • DoubleG2
    DoubleG2 Posts: 123 Member
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    @nossmf Nicely organized and documented. Thanks for taking the time to post this,
  • nossmf
    nossmf Posts: 9,638 Member
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    Bump for new year.
  • nossmf
    nossmf Posts: 9,638 Member
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    Six month bump for start of summer gym bunnies.
  • nossmf
    nossmf Posts: 9,638 Member
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    Bump for the New Year resolution's crowd.
  • nossmf
    nossmf Posts: 9,638 Member
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    Bump for the "Get fit for summer" crowd and the recent crop of new MFP members.
  • themommie
    themommie Posts: 5,014 Member
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    Thank you for sharing. I just started lifting weights a couple months ago . I am already seeing some progress but trying to learn all I can. This was very informative