The 5 best ways to build muscle without lifting heavier weights

Woman performing renegade rows using a pair of dumbbells by a river in a plank position
(Image credit: Getty)

To build muscle mass, endurance, or strength, you should lift weights consistently, adopting the progressive overload technique (a gradual increase in intensity within a strength program), right? 

True, but there’s more than one way to increase muscle without lifting heavy. 

Whether you exercise at home or in the gym, there are some clever ways to increase the intensity of your workouts and get your muscles working harder. You can still work multiple major muscle groups using equipment or your body weight. But these five techniques move the body through resistance in totally different ways, allowing you to add versatility to your workouts while still reaching your body composition goals. 

Below, I cover five clever ways to build muscle without lifting heavier and why these tried and tested methods work. Grab the best adjustable dumbbells and read on.  

Reps vs weights 

If you’ve just started lifting weights, you’ll need to understand the difference between rep and weight ranges for types of training: strength, hypertrophy (building muscle), and endurance. 

Your rep range is how many repetitions you do of each exercise. To build maximal muscle strength, calculate the heaviest weight you can lift for an exercise (like a bench press) called a one rep max (1RM), and lift close to that number — roughly 80-100%. Traditionally, strength training adopts higher sets of five or six and lower reps of one to six.

If your goal is to build muscle mass — known as hypertrophy — you would calculate a weight between 60-80% of your 1RM and aim for three to four sets of higher reps between eight and 12. Endurance trainers could lift slightly lighter weights for much higher reps, working the muscles through less load toward fatigue. 

The rule of thumb is that to build bigger muscles, your body should feel challenged by the rep ranges and load. Either way, the last few reps of each set should feel tough to finish. While these are only guidelines, gym-goers, and bodybuilders have been training this way for years.

Progressive load  

a photo of a woman doing a deadlift

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Anyone trying to develop strength or muscle should adopt progressive overload. If your muscles aren’t feeling challenged, they won’t be forced to adapt, strengthen, or grow, and you could experience training plateaus. 

But increasing weight is only one overload method. You could also increase reps and change tempo, sets, and rest periods. Below, I cover five techniques worth adding to your exercise regime to spice things up, work muscles harder, and develop muscle growth.

5 clever ways to build muscle without lifting heavy

Adopt these next time you train.

1. Sets and rest

Sets are the total grouped number of reps per exercise. For example, if you’re training to build muscle, you might choose 3 sets of 12 reps per exercise. Without adding weight, you could increase the sets and reduce rest to add intensity.  

  • Supersets

Supersets combine two exercises performed back to back with a brief rest after, reducing overall rest while doubling the workload in one go. For example, perform 12 reps of a bicep curl followed by 12 tricep extensions straight after. You could opt for the same muscle groups, opposing, or a lower body-upper body split. You’ll also recruit smaller muscles for longer.  

  • Dropsets

These require you to decrease weight while increasing overall training volume, but it’s still no walk in the park. Drop sets are extensions of an exercise beyond your working sets and reps to reach burnout. Take the bench press. You’d complete 3 sets of 12 reps, then on the fourth, drop down in weight by around 10%. Continue until failure, then drop down again, and so on. 

  • Giant sets

Giant sets are an extended version of supersets, saving you time while overloading the muscles using three or more exercises in a mini circuit without rest between the moves. During giant sets, you’d perform a set number of reps for each move, then rest at the end of the last exercise before the next set. By ramping up the exercises to high intensity, you could also increase cardio fitness and work up a sweat.   

If your goal is strength training or testing your 1RM, you should rest a few minutes between sets to recover properly. Rest periods of 30-90 seconds are better suited to lower-intensity training like hypertrophy and endurance.  

2. Time under tension (TUT)

Time under tension (TUT) uses tempo to place your muscles under contraction for longer and make them work harder — a technique also used in high-rep endurance training. When coaches or personal trainers write programs, they might put 4-1-4 under tempo. 

Think of deadlifts — using that tempo, you’d lower to the count of 4, pause, then drive up for 4 seconds. 

By fatiguing the muscles for longer, you cause micro-tears (damage) to the fibers, which produces a hormone response — the growth hormone. To train for power, adopt a faster tempo that recruits the fast-twitch muscle fibers responsible for explosive movement. For hypertrophy, adopt a slower tempo, between 35-60 seconds per set. 

For example, if you time your deadlift to tempo 3-1-3, you’d spend 56 seconds per set if you programmed 8 reps per set (you can scale this depending on ability).

3. Complexes

A complex combines different exercises into one sequence or “flow” by tapping into time under tension and giant sets. Using this technique, you can program an intense full-body workout and work multiple opposing muscle groups in one go. 

Each exercise is performed in sequence, one after another, in a flow-like way, so you won’t put the weights down, rest, or change weight until you’ve completed each exercise. You can find our favorite 5-move barbell complex workout here, and check out the video below for an example.  

A complex is great for CrossFit when you work towards a time cap or for a set number of reps.  

4. Range of motion

Free weights like dumbbells or kettlebells are brilliant at increasing your range of motion further than a barbell could. In our barbells vs dumbbells debate, I bang on about the endless benefits of both, but free weights are super effective for muscle growth. They work muscles more evenly by encouraging a natural movement pattern and could help develop strength, coordination, and balance in your weaker areas.

Take a dumbbell bench press — you can lower the weight below the bench for a fuller range of motion before pressing the weight back up; this stimulates the muscles for longer and recruits more muscle fibers. 

My favorite example is the Arnold press, which works all three shoulder heads using palm rotation to stimulate the shoulder through its full range.  

5. Planes of motion

Like a complex or superset, I often group exercises that work the body in various planes of motion. These planes include sagittal (front and back movement like a front lunge), frontal (side-to-side like a lateral lunge), and transverse (rotation like a Russian twist). 

Functional training prioritizes exercises from each plane to work muscles more evenly, target more muscle groups, and activate smaller lesser-used muscles. For example, I could alternate two moves from different planes of motion — like lateral raises and front raises (see the video below) — which is a more efficient workout and works more muscles.  

The goal is to work more muscle groups in less time in various planes, making the exercise more challenging. 

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.