The phrase “Progressive Overload” gets thrown around in the fitness space like singles at a strip club.
But what is it?
But before I jump into that, let’s look at your workout and the history of your progress.
When you first started in the gym, you could see shit was working. Each workout you got a little stronger, you might have felt a pump once, and you flexed anytime you passed by your reflection.
Times were good.
But then as you got better at lifting things welp…things started to suck.
Months pass and frustration increases because what you were doing before just isn’t working.
So what gives, did you hit your genetic potential?
Not even somewhat.
You’re just missing out on the secret to building muscle and strength; progressive overload.
I’ma show you how to relight that motivational flame and help you add as much muscle and strength as your little heart desires.
Progressive Overload: The Muscle Building Secret
WHY DOING THE SAME WORKOUT DOESN’T WORK
Remember the good old days when you had time to play video games?
I do, and it was glorious.
Now when you played those games I’m guessing you fought some end level boss to get to the next level. Otherwise you’d be playing the same guys on the same level and that shit would get old real quick because there was no challenge.
That’s kinda how your workout is. If you’re doing the same reps with the same weight, eventually your body is going to get bored because there is no challenge. It already built up the muscle and strength needed to lift that weight.
There’s no reason for your body to progress because it can handle the stress you are giving it through your workout.
Just like the video games you enjoyed, you need to hit the next level to see results.
WHAT IS PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
I could give you a boring ass definition of progressive overload from Wikipedia but I’m not. You can do that on your own time. I’ll give you a real world analogy.
What’s the difference between you and Tiger Woods?
You can say the money, fame, and a certain fondness for sticking his dick in anything that has a pulse. Which would be accurate, but at one point in your golfing career you were both the same.
When you started playing golf you prob made a bunch of progress right off the bat. We’ll call this newbie gainz. Then eventually your skills plateaued because of school, family or you just didn’t care to be a pro golfer.
Tiger on the other hand ,went through those same newbie gainz, but when he plateaued he pushed himself just a little more to gain the next level of skills. And he kept repeating that process.
This is the process of progressive overload. Each session/plateau you progressively add a little more towards the goal.
Basically, if you do a little more than last time, that’s progressive overload. In your case with the gym, you can add progressive overload in the form of more weight, reps, sets, frequency, time under tension, or less rest time between sets.
Hell you can even do this with cardio too, by increasing speed, distance, time, adding hills or resistance with a weighted vest.
WHAT PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD ISN’T
Progressive overload is not jumping from workout to workout. It’s actually the opposite.
Building muscle is the practice of increasing stress, not “shocking the muscle” with new exercises.
If you want to build your Aesthetic Physique, workout hopping is not the way to go.
Find a program you like and implement progressive overload like I’ll describe in a sec.
LEVERS OF PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
When it comes to progressive overload there are a few levers you can adjust to increase the challenge.
Weight: Arguably the most used and abuse lever. The concept is simple, add more weight to the bar.
Reps: Increase the number of reps you can lift a certain weight for.
Sets: Increase the number of sets per exercise.
Time Under Tension: Increase the time your muscles need to support the weight.
Rest Periods: Decreasing the time between sets.
Training Frequency: Adding another day of hitting a muscle group without being debilitatingly sore.
Each week work one of these levers to add progressive overload to your muscles.
But this is when it starts getting hairy because a haphazard approach could lead to gainz in the short term. Unfortunately, muscle isn’t built in the short term, it’s a long term project so you’ll need a plan.
THE PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD METHOD
Now we have all the boring background crap outta the way, let’s make some gainz, shall we?
There’s a few different methods for ensuring progressive overload in your workouts. The most basic one is called a Single Progression method.
Single (or Linear) Progression Method: Basically each workout you increase the weight on a lift.
Let’s say you can bench 225 for 8 reps.
Week 1: 225 for 8 reps
Week 2: 230 for 8 reps
Week 3: 235 for 8 reps
On paper this is pretty sweet. But for anyone that has ever lifted a weight ever, you know damn well shit doesn’t go that smoothly.
Eventually, you’ll hit a point where you can’t get 8 reps with good form. You’ll get 5 solid reps and 3 cockeyed-am-I-gonna-die reps.
Side Note: IMO this is a piss-poor way to progress. It’s very short sighted.
This is where it starts to get interesting.
Double Progression Method: In this method you increase reps first then weight.
Say you can bench 225 lbs for 8 reps.
Week 1: 225 for 8 reps
Week 2: 225 for 9 reps
Week 3: 225 for 10 reps
Week 4: 235 for 8 reps
Week 5: 235 for 9 reps
I like this method much better than the SIngle Progression because it allows you to get stronger and “milk” the results from a certain weight.
For this, I like to work in rep brackets rather than just a target number of reps per set. Instead of saying 3 sets of 10 reps, I would give my clients something like 3 sets of 8-10 reps or change the desired reps in each workout within that bracket.
This way you have a range to progress and you know where the ceiling is to increase the weight. Once you hit the top of the range on all your sets, drop the reps to the bottom of the bracket and increase the weight.
This is the best for busy individuals with time restriction to their workouts. It takes an extra min to add another rep to each set.
Triple Progression Method: In this method you first increase the reps, then sets and finally weight.
Bringing back our benching example:
Week 1: 225 for 3 sets of 8 reps
Week 2: 225 for 3 sets of 9 reps
Week 3: 225 for 3 sets of 10 reps
Week 4: 225 for 4 sets of 8 reps
Week 5: 225 for 4 sets of 9 reps
Week 6: 225 for 4 sets of 10 reps
Week 7: 235 for 3 sets of 8 reps
Good thing weights don’t have nipples because they’d be chafing. With this method you are really “milking” the weight before bumping it up.
For this method I would still keep the rep bracket and only increase 1 set before increasing the weight. Depending on how many exercises you do this on, you can easily add another 10-15 mins to your workout.
WHY IT WORKS
Each of these methods works because they are adding slightly more stress than the previous week.
Going back to our bench example of benching 225 for 8 reps.
Week 1: 225 for 8 reps (225×8=1800 lbs moved)
Week 2: 225 for 9 reps (225×9=2025 lbs moved)
Week 3: 225 for 10 reps (225×10=2250 lbs moved)
Week 4: 235 for 8 reps (235×8=1880 lbs moved)
Week 5: 235 for 9 reps (235×9=2115 lbs moved)
Week 6: 235 for 10 reps (235×10=2350 lbs moved)
For the first 3 weeks the total weight lifted (sets times reps times weight lifted) increases. Then we take a little dip in total weight lifted for an increase in the bar weight.
Now you might be saying that in week 4 and 5 you’re lifting less total weight than you were in week 3. So that’s not progressive overload, right?
Wrong. It still is. Thinking it’s a loss is short term thinking. Remember, building muscle and strength is a long term project.
I like to think about it by comparing reps. Weeks 1 and 4 you are lifting for 8 reps. But in week 4, you’re lifting more weight than you did in Week 1. So that’s a win. Same goes when you compare weeks 2 and 5, as well as 3 and 6.
So over the course of 6 weeks you increased your training volume and your ability to lift heavier weights. From a goal perspective you increased muscle and strength. Not a bad day at the office if I say so myself.
With weight lifting you have to take a step back to take two forward. There’s no way around that.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU USE PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
The first week of a new workout is the feeling out process.
Finding the right weight for each exercise, how the exercise sequence flows with the flow of everyone else in the gym (i.e. are you waiting on equipment) and learning the right form for new exercises.
Let’s assume we are using a double progression method here.
So for week 1, I always tell my clients do the workout as-is and aim for the lower end of a rep bracket.
In week 2 you’ll know what to expect and we can start pushing a little more. Try increasing reps on all sets.
Week 3 through whenever: Once you can hit the top of the rep bracket on all the sets. Increase the weight and drop the reps back down.
Now if you change your workout every 4 weeks you probably won’t be able to see the increase in weight right away. Odds are you’ll still be trying to increase the reps by the end of the fourth week.
Which is fine. It’s still progressive overload and you’re still getting closer to your goal.
If you like your workout, stick to it. There’s no harm in going 6-7-8 weeks with one workout program. If anything you’ll get really good at those particular lifts and not to mention stronger.
After about 12 weeks or so, I would say you need to switch the exercises up a little just because you’ll be building weaknesses in the areas that aren’t the focus of your particular workout. Plus, if you’re doing something like heavy squatting for 12 consecutive weeks your hips and knees will need a break.
WILL YOU PROGRESS EVERY WEEK?
Some workouts are just going to suck.
Others are going to be a cake walk.
The fact of the matter is that you have a lot of shit going on in your life which can drain some gym energy. The important thing is to try to do more each week.
Sometimes you’ll get there. And the more and more you advance into your weight lifting career the harder it is to make progress.
If you’re a gym noob, I would expect week over week improvement for the first 6 months or so.
If you’re a little more advanced I would expect every couple of weeks you’ll see in increase.
If you’re advanced, first off I have zero idea why you’d be reading this, but anyways…If you’re advanced once every couple of months seeing an increase.
And that is progressive overload. Now go build some muscles.