When it comes to preserving and building muscle mass and getting stronger there is one thing that makes more of a difference than anything else.
This thing is progressive overload, the continual increase in stimuli which forces your body to adapt over time by getting bigger, stronger, faster or leaner.
As without applying progressive overload to your workouts you’ll forever struggle to build your ideal body and instead will stagnate as you continue to spin your wheels.
The key to making this work is to not do the same thing over and over.
You see once your body adapts to a stimulus i.e. the weight on the bar by getting bigger or stronger it no longer has a reason to continue adapting as it can deal with the current stimulus.
To overcome this and force it to continue adapting you need to consistently apply progression to your workouts. It’s this that’ll give your body the signal it needs to change.
This could mean increasing your reps or sets, your workout load, volume or frequency or even reducing your rest periods.
But how do you know what to choose?
It’s about finding the method that allows you to continually push close to your limits to extend them without drastically increasing your recovery needs, workout length or disrupting your ability to apply overload.
In this article, we’ll look at 7 ways to apply progressive overload to your workouts, before picking a couple and showing you how it might look in the gym.
Ok, so we know what progressive overload is and how important it is to your workouts and your ability to build or maintain both muscle and strength.
It’s now time to look at how to apply the different methods to your workout. Please note this list isn’t exhaustive but instead covers 7 of the most common methods of overload.
One method of overload is to manipulate your lifting tempo to increase your time under tension. This would be done by slowing down the speed you do your reps.
For example, if you normally lift with a 2-0-2 tempo you could try switching to a 3-1-3 tempo instead, slowly increasing the time as you progress.
Using the bench press as an example a 2-0-2 tempo would mean taking 2 seconds to press the bar up, spending 0 seconds at the top and then taking 2 seconds to return the bar to your chest.
Whilst this can be an efficient method of increase overload during your workouts it can be unsustainable over the long-term for a few reasons:
Another way to apply overload is to increase your workout stimulus by decreasing your rest times. This could be done by resting for a shorter time between sets and/or exercises.
However, whilst possible this method has a few big drawbacks:
Another method of overload is to increase the number of reps you do in each set for each exercise. For example, if you’re currently doing 3 sets of 8 reps and you can do this with the current weight, then in your next workout you’d try and do 3 sets of 10.
You could then continue increasing your reps like this every time you hit your goal. This can be an effective method of overload, but it also has its issues:
In the same way, you can increase your reps, you could increase your sets instead. For example, instead of doing 3 sets of 8, you could do 4 sets of 8 instead.
Depending on your workout split and training frequency you could increase the number of sets on one, a few or all exercises. However, you need to be aware that like with increasing your reps, increasing your sets also has it’s drawbacks:
You could also consider training more often to apply progressive overload to your workouts. If you’re training 3 times a week this would meaning adding another workout for 4 weekly workouts.
I know I’ve mentioned it here, but in my opinion, this is one of the least efficient ways to apply progressive overload:
You could also consider increasing your workout stimulus by adding more exercises to your existing workout. For example, if you’re doing a full-body workout you could add in another 1 or 2 exercises for the areas you feel are lagging or would prefer to work on more.
Again, this method of progression has a few issues:
Finally, you could add weight to your exercises slowly over time. You’d do this by increasing the amount you lift every time you hit your set and rep goal on an exercise.
For example, if your goal is 3 sets of 10 reps with 50kg on the incline bench press when you can successfully do this you would increase the weight to 52.5kg or even 55kg depending on how easy it was.
This is one of my favourite ways of applying overload, however, as with all the other methods it has a few issues:
As you can see each method of overload has a point of diminishing returns, where your workouts become too long, the training too demanding or the load unmanageable.
This is because the secret to consistently being able to apply progressive overload to your workouts is by using a combination of methods. The most popular, and in my opinion effective, way of doing this is to increase both the weight you lift and the number of reps you lift it for.
You would do this in an alternating fashion over time. First, you would increase the reps, then when you hit your new rep goal you would increase the weight.
This increase in weight will naturally decrease the number of reps you can do, which will force your body to adapt by getting bigger and stronger so you can do the reps.
Once this has happened, you’ll increase the weight again.
This means you’ll be continually working within a given rep range and slowly increase the weight you lift over time. Here’s how it might look if you were doing the squat for 3 sets of 8 reps with 70kg.
In this example, you’ve hit your set and rep goal, so we need to increase the number of reps for your next workout. You will generally open up the rep range to 2 below your original target i.e. 6 – 8.
This is because an increase in weight will reduce the number of reps you can do and by giving yourself a lower target you allow yourself the space to build up to 8 reps before increasing the weight again.
This means in your next workout you would aim to do 3 sets of 6 – 8 reps with 72.5kg.
In this workout, you were able to squat for 3 sets of 6 reps at your new weight of 72.5kg. This means in your next workout you’d keep the weight the same and try to get more reps. It might look like this:
As you can see you’ve still applied progressive overload and have got a little stronger. You would expect in your next session or 2 to hit your goal of 3 sets of 8 reps, at which point you’d increase the weight to 75kg.
You’d then continue slowly in this fashion, increasing the weight, building up your reps, then increasing the weight again.
Now, it’s important to note that all exercises and people progress at different rates.
As a rule of thumb, you can expect compound exercises to progress faster than isolation exercises but outside of this you might see your squat progress quickly but your bench more slowly.
It’s also important to realise that your progress will be non-linear meaning some days you’ll be weaker, others stronger and some the same. Look for a general overall upward trend in strength to know you’re getting it right.