To increase strength, mass, or even make cosmetic changes to your physique, you need to keep one thing in mind: Progressive Overload.
Although a term not used liberally in gyms and forums, it's actually the most fundamental principle of bodybuilding.
Put simply, progressive overload means that you must demand more of your body over time if you want it to respond by getting bigger and stronger.
To drive home the importance of this principle, in a previous article titled Are You Exercising or Training?,I wrote that, “training is focused on making progress every workout”.
But in response to that, one reader shared some valuable wisdom in the comments section by noting that you simply cannot add weight to your lifts every single workout.
And I wholeheartedly agree. So it seems as if some clarification is in order.
The problem with lifting heavier
Although I have a great affection for them, I have one major gripe with programs like Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5×5.
And that is that they're hinged upon increasing weight on the bar each and every workout.
While this is the most straightforward way of achieving progressive overload, not everyone can handle those physical demands (even if they are drinking a gallon of milk a day).
In the past, I've followed these programs exactly, and while I did get a little stronger, I didn't progress anywhere near as fast as those plans laid out.
Not to mention it was taking me over 45 minutes just to complete the squat portion of my workout.
Adding 5 lbs per workout to a load that nearly killed me 48 hours prior lead to a lot of pacing back and forth and psyching myself up between sets.
So with that being said, why is it that I'm encouraging other lifters to go after progressive overload every workout?
My reasoning has two parts.
1. It's all about mindset
As I've said, it's extremely unlikely that you'll increase the weight on the bar every workout for long periods of time.
If you start conservatively and work up slowly, you'll be able to keep pace for a while, but you'll eventually stall.
Once you hit this initial sticking point, results won't come at a blistering pace anymore.
But despite the slowing progress, it's essential that you go into the gym with the intent of lifting more.
You can't for a single second think: “Last workout was hard, I'll just do the same exact workout today.”
That's the antithesis of progressive overload.
If you allow your mind to be defeated, your body will do as it's told.
Every fiber of your being must be determined to improve in one way or another.
Think about MMA fighters. In the pre-fight interviews, both guys know they're going to win.
Obviously that isn't possible, but they have to win in their mind if they have any hope of winning in the octagon.
So setting your mind to the task of progressive overload should be your focus. But sometimes that just isn't happening and the weights come out victorious.
Below are some obvious and some not-so-obvious methods of progressing in your workouts.
2. There are numerous ways to achieve progressive overload
I need to discuss the granddad method first because it's the one that should be your long-term focus.
Lift more weight for the same number of reps
Grabbing a heavier set of dumbbells or sliding another plate onto the bar is the bread-and-butter method of progressive overload.
This should be your go-to technique when you're first starting out and your body is able to make quick adaptations.
In practice, increasing weight is best used for heavy compound movements.
Adding 5 lbs to a set of squats is a relatively small increase, and you'll be much more likely to handle a slight weight increase than you are to perform additional reps or sets.
To illustrate, adding 5 pounds for 3 sets of 5 is a total volume increase (weight x reps x sets) of just 75 lbs.
Contrast that with an extra rep on a compound movement and you're looking at lifting somewhere between 225 and 405 lbs more than the previous workout. For a single additional rep!
How to implement
Keep sets, reps, rest periods, and lifting speed the same as the previous workout, but go up to the next smallest increment in weight. And this is one case where smaller is actually better.
Olympic lifters and powerlifters use fractional plates to consistently push progressive overload.
You'll aim to get all of the prescribed reps with this new weight (i.e. 3×10).
But if you miss some, just repeat the weight in subsequent workouts until you hit them all. Then go up in weight the following session.
But it isn't always possible to lift more weight each workout
While becoming stronger is absolutely the end goal (say adding 50 lbs to your bench press by this time next year), there are other ways to go about it than adding 1 lb per week.
As I explained in My Low T Journey Series, I'm not the type of person who just made progress like crazy in the weight room.
Even as a newbie, my gains were much, much slower than average.
Given my body's less than stellar response to training, I wasn't able to add weight every workout, and had to learn and rely on more delicate techniques for progressive overload.
Here are ways you can gain progress that aren't tied to simply lifting more every workout.
Lift the same weight for more reps
The next best way to achieve progressive overload is to eek out an extra rep with the same weight that you lifted the previous workout.
This is more easily accomplished on higher rep sets because the percentage of the increase will be much smaller. As mentioned above, think of deadlifting 315 for 4 reps instead of 3.
That's an increase of 315 lbs on the total volume for that set alone – that's a big jump.
In contrast, if you were to perform hammer curls with 35 lb dumbbells for around 12 reps, by adding another rep you've only lifted an additional 35 lbs per arm.
That's much more manageable than going up to the next dumbbell and lifting an extra 5 lbs for 12 reps. There you're looking at a 60 lb increase in total volume per arm.
How to implement
Simply aim for another rep with the same weight you used the previous workout. It doesn't have to be an extra rep on all sets of every exercise, either.
Just getting an extra rep or two on a couple sets throughout your entire workout will add up over time if done consistently.
Perform more sets
Sometimes you're just in a rut. Maybe after several consecutive workouts, benching 205×5 for 3 sets is just all you have in you.
The goal with this technique is to increases the total number of reps for a chosen exercise.
Performing more reps than your body is used to, even spread out over additional sets, is still a form of progressive overload.
How to implement
Perform your planned workout and then tack on an extra set or two. These don't have to be complete sets either.
Doing a single, double, or triple will give your muscles the additional stimulus they need to adapt and get stronger.
Try this technique for the next few workouts until your “extra” reps add up to the ability to do another complete set or go up to the next weight.
Lift the same total reps in fewer sets
This was a favorite lifting method of the Austrian Oak. Arnold recommends working on decreasing the number of sets required to perform 50 pull-ups.
If it takes you 10 sets of 5 to get 50 pull-ups and you work systematically until you can do 5 sets of 10, you're forcing your body to do the same amount of work in less time.
The result: progressive overload!
How to Implement
For the pull-up example above, try a rep scheme similar to this.
Workout #1 – 5,5,5,5,5,5,5,5,5,5
Workout #2 – 6,6,6,6,6,6,6,6,2
Workout #3 – 7,7,7,7,7,7,7,1
Workout #4 – 8,8,8,8,8,8,2
Workout #5 – 9,9,9,9,9,5
Workout #6 – 10,10,10,10,10
This technique would also work for barbell exercises. If you can squat a weight for 5 sets of 3, and work your way up to doing the same 15 reps but in only 3 sets, you're subjecting your body to progressive overload.
Lift with better form
Chasing progressive overload can become extremely dangerous when moving up in weights before you're actually ready.
While sliding on additional plates may be a huge boost to your ego, it's also a foolproof recipe for injuries.
If you had to cheat the hell out of 220, what makes you think 250 is going to go any smoother?
On most of the occasions when I've hit a new PR, the performance just didn't feel honest. Maybe the descent was too fast, range of motion a little short, or the form was just plain ugly.
How to implement
Whenever I hit a PR that seems a little shaky, I always like to repeat the lift the following workout, but with my focus on having much better control of the weight.
Once I get a clean set, I feel confident enough to move on to the next weight.
This may not be quite as fun as moving up in weight every workout, but your long term progress will more than make up for the small hit to your ego.
Add or improve on an accessory exercise
Let's say that you've maxed out your main lifts and attempting any additional weight or reps just isn't going to happen.
You can still find ways to improve your performance by adding an exercise.
Adding accessory exercises will safely provide the extra stimulation needed to help your body adapt and perform at a higher level the next time around.
How to implement
Imagine you give your squat workout everything you have and you've just broken even with your previous workout.
That's fine, you can focus the rest of your effort on getting stronger at lunges, back extensions, leg extensions, or hip thrusts.
You'll still be applying the principle of progressive overload to exercises that will carry over to your main lifts without risking injury.
Pre-exhaust target muscles
For a long time I was stuck doing sets of ten on pull-ups. That isn't great, but it isn't bad considering I couldn't do one when I started.
But to get over this hump, I started pre-exhausting my lats with pullovers.
This allowed me to push my back further than I was able to before, due to taking the relatively weak biceps out of the equation.
Not only that, but getting a good pump and full stretch in my lats prior to pull-ups helped me get “in touch” with my muscles on a much deeper level.
With my lats already awake, I could feel them working through the entire range of motion much better than before.
This helped shift more weight from my arms to a much stronger muscle group.
After a few weeks of working my back in this manner, I was able to get out of my rut and perform multiple sets of 13 even when I skipped the pullovers.
How to implement
If you need a little something extra in your routine, hit some leg extensions before squats, cable crossovers before bench, or lateral raises before your presses.
Just make sure you do your best to lift the same on your compound movements. You don't want to jeopardize the foundation of your workout by going too hard on isolation movements.
For example, if you're stuck pressing 115 x 5, you can start off your shoulder workout with a few sets of lateral raises.
After the isolation exercises, the goal is to still get 115 x 5 on presses, despite the additional work beforehand.
Get all your reps and you're ready to skip the lateral raises and move up in weight the next workout.
Decrease rest periods
If you're familiar with the work of the late Vince Gironda, you'll know all about high density training.
Vince was famous for popularizing the 8×8 rep scheme and his preferred method of progression, decreasing time between sets to around 15-30 seconds.
While you don't have to use that exact rep scheme or such short rest periods, it's still a very useful tool for applying progressive overload.
When you lift weights, you're fatiguing muscle fibers. When you rest, a portion of those muscle fibers are recovering.
By shortening your rest periods, you're reducing the number of muscle fibers that can recover.
This allows you to tap into additional fibers on subsequent sets.
How to implement
Let's say you're repeating last week's workout today.
If you kept everything the same including the exercises, weight, sets, and reps, but decreased every rest period by 5-10 seconds, that's progressive overload.
Doing the same amount of work in a shorter period of time is more taxing on the body, and will result in further adaptation.
Keep decreasing your rest periods over several workouts until you're breezing through them with around 30-45 second breaks, then you can increase the weights the following workout.
Add a Shocking Principle
When I was first getting into bodybuilding back in the late 90's, shocking methods were all the rage.
Similar to the training methods of the 1970's, almost everything written seemed to talk about making a set as difficult as possible and going well beyond concentric failure.
As these techniques are rooted almost entirely in bodybuilding, the recent popularity of powerlifting and athletic training has caused them to fall out of fashion.
But even though they're less popular today, they can still be just as effective. A few examples are:
- Drop sets
- Cheat reps
- Partial reps
- Static contractions
- Slow negatives
If you get stuck on a certain weight and reps, try adding one of these techniques to add a little additional stress to the target muscles to blast through plateaus.
How to implement
Let's say that week after week, all you can manage is 3 sets of 10 with 130 lbs on lat pulldowns. To work around this little roadblock, try adding a drop set to your routine.
On your last set of 130×10, you'll finish all of your reps and immediately drop the weight to 110 lbs and perform as many reps as you can.
Once you fail again, you'll take the load down to 90 lbs and eek out a few more.
All of this should be done with as little rest as possible.
You'll find that this technique works best on machine exercises where you just have to move the pin rather than changing plates on the barbell.
After battering your muscles with drop sets for a few consecutive workouts, you should be able to handle more weight on your sets of 10, or lift the same weight for additional reps.
Know when to back off
Progressive overload isn't a linear process and you can't keep doing more and more and more forever.
There's a fine line between being a pussy and being smart about your training and recovery.
And to develop a great physique, you absolutely must flirt with that line.
Making progress in the gym means forcing your body do things it isn't used to, and that requires working with extremely challenging weights and thriving near the point of overtraining.
But if you've tried everything in your power and still aren't making progress, stop beating yourself up.
If you push too hard, you're begging for an injury and nothing kills long-term progress quite like injuries.
If you get to a point where progress has stopped, it's time to plan a light week or even a week off.
During recovery weeks, I like to do 3 full body workouts with lighter weights just to keep from getting tight.
And I find that I'm almost always stronger after this recovery period.
Now if I could only get in the habit of planning them proactively…
Don't forget what bodybuilding is all about
While all of these techniques will absolutely work, they shouldn't cause you to lose sight of the big picture.
If you're pre-exhausting muscles, doing drops sets, and striving for extra sets, all with very short rest periods, chances are you aren't lifting as heavy as you could be.
And that's what bodybuilding is all about – lifting heavy ass weights!
When you go over your training journals, you should see a steady strength increase from year to year.
So keep your eyes on lifting heavier weights over time, even if your goals lean more toward aesthetics than athletic performance.
I can't stress long term progress enough.
Just remember that no one on this planet has ever gotten jacked from a single workout.
It's the guy making small, strategic increases, day in and day out, who will come out on top.
Be that guy.
All the best,