Selecting the appropriate resistance for your clients is a very important part of personal training. If you go too light, the client will not make the necessary physiological adaptations to respond to the training. If you go too heavy, the workout might be too hard, frustrate them, or worse, hurt them.

Trainers should have some readily available tools in their toolbox to crank those working sets to the proper intensity for their clients.

Sometimes we may choose a weight we believe to be a challenge for our desired rep range, but it turns out to be a little too easy for the client. In most cases, we could simply add more reps, but it'd be more useful to keep the same weight, yet just incorporate some techniques that make your client's workout set harder and more intense.

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There are nine techniques I want to share, but before I get to them, a couple of notes:

  • If you cue your client during a set, keep them short and concise. If you need to provide a long, detailed explanation of what he should do, instruct while your client is resting in-between sets. Otherwise, give them the necessary instruction of what you expect before they begin.

For example, you might say, "I want you to complete 10 reps of this squat, but if the weight is a little easy when you get to rep 5, start doing one and one-quarter reps, which look like this..." At this point, you demonstrate what you want.

  • Try these on yourself first in your own workouts, so you can be aware of how they affect the difficulty of a set. A good rule of thumb in training, after all, is to avoid making clients try something you've never done yourself.
  • Let the client get about halfway through their set to ensure that it really is too easy before you implement one of these techniques for the remainder of the set.

Finally, you will only choose one of these cues to incorporate in each set, don't try to combine them all at once.

1. Emphasize the negative

Have the client count 4-6 seconds on the negative (eccentric) portion on each remaining rep. This works well on machine and barbell based exercises, and it really makes bodyweight exercises more challenging.

2. Add an isometric hold

Either at the end of the set or at one or two spots in the range of motion (ROM) of each rep, have a client do an isometric contraction. This is a type of contraction where the client is simply holding the weight and not moving, yet the muscle is working hard. Do this for several seconds, motionless, before finishing the movement. This works great on shoulder raises, bicep curls, and bodyweight squats.

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3. Go slower

Don't allow the client to rush through the concentric portion of the rep. Instead, have them intentionally slow down to make the weight challenging. Using a tempo from a 4:4 to a 10:10 count works well; the slower the client lifts, the harder it is.

Recall that tempo is written out as concentric (the lifting) first, then eccentric (the lowering) second. In other words, a 2:4 temp means the lifting portion is performed to a two count, and the lowering portion is performed to a four count.

4. Reinforce stricter form

If the client is using unnatural body movements or momentum to lift the weight, have them use very strict form to make the weight feel harder. This works well on curls, pushdowns, lat pull-downs, and rows. This seems obvious, but you'd be surprised by how many trainers overlook form as a way to add challenge.

5. Implement a full range of motion

Oftentimes clients get in the habit of shortening the range of motion to make the exercise a bit easier. It is human nature to do so. If the weight seems light, have them perform the full range of motion of the exercise while keeping safety and biomechanics in mind, of course. This works well on pull-ups, bench press, flies, curls, lunges, and squats.

6. Add manual resistance

If the weight is light, you can add in your own resistance, kind of like a "reverse  spotter"—instead of helping ease the weight off, you're applying more. Apply some extra weight to the bar, the dumbbell, their body, or the limb that's moving. If you have never done this before, you'll be surprised by how much this will change the feel and the difficulty of the exercise. This works well on machines, barbell, and bodyweight exercises.

7. Have clients stand on one leg or narrow their base of support

If it is a standing exercise, have them put their feet together, or even stand on one leg to challenge their stability. (Of course, keep safety in mind too, as well as the overall goal of the exercise.) At the same time, don't make it just about balance. If your goal is to build strength or increase muscular size with an exercise, but you make the lift so unstable it becomes a challenge just to balance, then you are being counterproductive.

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8. Perform one-and-a-quarter reps

This technique works particularly well with exercises that have a longer range of motion, such as squats, leg presses, and bench presses. To incorporate this technique, have your client perform the eccentric phase and lift the weight just a quarter of the range of motion.

Afterward have them return to the starting position and perform the full range of motion on the concentric exercise. For example, a client would squat down all the way, squat up just one quarter of the way, squat back down again, then stand all the way up. A set of 10 of these reps is considerably tougher than a traditional set of 10 reps.

9. Perform partials at the end

Once your client has finished the normal set, have them perform partial reps during the part of the movement where you think they need improvement. I find using my hands as a target for what the client should aim for often effective, so they know the new range of motion I am expecting. Plus, this keeps you involved with your clients.

You can even vary this range of motion a little bit by moving your hands to slightly different positions with each rep. This way, you keep your clients guessing what's next. Partials allow you to keep tension on the muscle your client is working, making the client really feel that muscle. This works well with biceps, flies, leg extension, leg curls, and most ab exercises.

Clients often assume that personal trainers just "know" how much they should lift on every set because of our knowledge and training. Unfortunately, new clients don't come with a guidebook that details their abilities on every exercise. Instead, we have to use the information available to make the best guess we can.

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