When I first started lifting weights I had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted to achieve. It was a lofty goal and unfortunately I didn’t have a clue about how to get from where I was then, to where I wanted to be.
Progressive overload was a phrase I’d heard often enough. I knew that to make progress I had to place an increasingly greater demand on my body and I knew I was going to have to lift some heavy weights to do that. I just didn’t know how I was going to manage it because, honestly, I was weak and the weights I was lifting were not heavy at all.
When it comes to making progress in the gym we can approach that in a number of ways. If you’re relatively new to lifting, here’s a few suggestions:
- Increase the weight on the bar
- Increase the number of repetitions (reps) per set with the same weight
- Do more work in the same time
- Increase the time under tension
- Increase the overall volume (Do more sets).
The simplest of these is the first.
Increase the weight on the bar
Once I’d figured out how important a progression was I set myself a simple task, to add weight every training session. Instinctively I knew that if I started too heavy, I’d hit a wall and plateau in a matter of weeks and that training with sub-maximal loads would prepare me for the heavier loads to come in the later stages of the program. I started out using significantly lighter weights than I was capable of on day one.
I’ll use bench press as an example. I started with just 30kg. You read that right, just 30kg (66lbs). When I began that program I weighed just 59kg (130lb) and I was weak. I performed 5 sets of 10 reps every week, no exception, and made just one change each week for a year. I added just 1 kg to the bar.
Typical progressions, such as Starting Strength (a superb approach, well worth exploring) advocate load increases of around 2.5kg (5lb) for upper body movements and 5kg (10lb) for lower body movements. On a personal level I found a greater degree of success with smaller increments. Fractional plates (micro plates) enabled me to add 1.0 kg, 0.5 kg or even just 0.25 kg to the bar and let me ride that linear progression pony until it dropped dead beneath me.
At the end of that year in the bench press alone I was lifting 52 kg (114 lb) more than when I started, 82 kg (180.4 lb), for the same 5 sets of 10. Still not ‘strong’ by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d made significant progress and I’d grown too. You can read about the full routine I followed at Dave Draper Online.
Let’s examine this from a numerical standpoint.
- 10x30x5 = 1500
- 10x31x5 = 1550
- 10x32x5 = 1600
Whilst there are many variables (i.e. bar speed, distance traveled and time under tension etc.), in the context of this formula we’re increasing the total load by 50 kg per workout. A simple comparison, but we know we’re lifting more weight than the previous training session.
Linear progression has been proven to work time and time again. Ed Coan, arguably one of the greatest powerlifters to walk the planet, was a huge proponent. However, if all we had to do was add weight every time we walked into the gym wouldn’t we all be bench pressing over twice our bodyweight and squatting and deadlifting over three or four times our bodyweight? There comes a point when we are simply unable add more weight to the bar and still lift it.
This is where some of the other methods come into play.
Increase the number of reps per set with the same weight
Another way of making progress is to use the same weight and add reps to each set every session. This increases the time under tension (more on that later) and the total load lifted. I once read an article that stated “If you want to have big triceps, learn to do sets of 20 rep dips with a 20 kg plate strapped to your waist. It doesn’t matter how you get there, just get there. By the time you do, you won’t need to worry about the size of the triceps.” What I discovered was, it isn’t the fact you can do 20 dips with a 20 kg plate strapped to you waist that gives you big triceps, it is all the sets and reps you have to do to get there that really count.
Adding reps this way is particularly good for lighter ‘assistance’ movements (the Bro stuff) like: curls, lateral raises, pull-downs or push-ups.
Looking at the math for pull-ups. With someone who weighs what I did, just 59 kg (130 lb) who starts out performing 3 sets of 3 reps:
- 59x3x3 = 531
- 59x3x4 = 708
- 59x3x5 = 885
They are adding 177kg per workout here, a greater increase than many can sustain in the early stages of training. When working with heavier weights where you might only be able to perform 1-5 reps, it can be challenging to add reps every session. In the early stages, if I find myself ‘stuck’ on a number for a while I extended the progression like this:
- Week 1 reps performed = 3/3/3
- Week 2 reps performed = 4/3/3
- Week 3 reps performed = 4/4/3
- Week 4 reps performed = 4/4/4
We are still adding reps, albeit to just one set at a time, starting with the earlier sets first, when we are most fresh.
For most people this can be slightly easier when combined with higher rep ranges with lighter weight as the total increase in load is smaller for each additional rep.
Do more work in the same time
This method hurts. I’ve used it during hypertrophy phases to increase muscle size and in my early Crossfit experiences when taking a structured approach to maximising work capacity. I alternated sets of 21, 15, 9 reps of Thrusters and Kipping Pull-Ups rather than simply hitting Fran juggernaut-hard every time I did it.
It can be as simple as starting by taking 3 minute rest periods between sets in session one and then reducing the rest time by 30 seconds every session i.e. 2 mins and 30 seconds in week two, 2 mins in week three etc. and so on until you are resting just 30 seconds between sets. In my personal experience this method works well for in short block of 4-6 weeks.
The type of progression can be extended by simply reducing the change made each session, for example: 2 mins and 50 seconds in week two, 2 mins and 40 seconds in week three, 2 minutes and 30 seconds in week four etc.
Make no mistake, this method can be painful (in a good way, you just have to embrace the suck) and it might be necessary to reduce the weights a little to begin with. Form can break down quickly, particularly when the rest periods are much shorter (30 seconds or less) and lactic acid builds, you’ll get a sweet, sick pump though, so… IG it?
Increase the time under tension
There are three main ways to increase Time Under Tension (TUT):
- Perform more reps with the same weight (discussed above). If each rep takes 4 seconds to perform, adding 1 rep adds 4 seconds time under tension per set
- Increase the number of sets performed (discussed below). If each set of 10 reps take 30 seconds, adding one set increases the total time under tension by 30 seconds per set
- Reducing rep speed will increase the time it takes to perform each rep. If we increase the time it takes to perform each rep by 2 seconds, we add 20 seconds to each set of 10 reps, giving us a total increase of 50 seconds per set.
When we slow down the concentric part of a rep (the positive), we’re taking momentum out of the equation and forcing the muscle to contract more purposefully through a full lifting portion of the movement. If we slow down the eccentric part of the rep (the negative) we are forced to lower the weight in a slow, very controlled manner.
Slowing down the tempo of our lifts tends to result in increased soreness, particularly if we emphasise the negative, so ease into it a few sets at a time or else DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscular Soreness) will likely get the better of you.
We can also increase total time under tension with the next method.
Increase total volume
One of the simplest ways to increase volume is to increase the number of sets performed in each workout. If we are performing 3 sets of 5 reps (3×5) with a given weight we simply add another set of 5 reps (progressing to 4×5). It is generally easier to do this if the loads are sub-maximal i.e. you’re not training to or close to failure, so we can find a weight we can perform 3×5 with seems significantly more challenging by the time you reach the 5th or 6th set.
Another method involves getting your standard ‘heavy’ work sets in and then dropping the weight and doing additional sets of the same movement with a lighter weight and more reps in the same session.
- Bench Press 3×5
- Followed by – Bench Press 5×10
This method has been popularised by Jim Wendler with his Boring But Big template. I’m a big fan of Jim’s training philosophies and his 5/3/1 template is well worth checking out. His advice to ‘start light’ is invaluable and, in my opinion, can be applied to any endeavour you want to be sure of making progress in.
We can also add volume by adding additional movements. When we’re running a 5×5 for squats, we can add additional supplementary exercises that work a similar movement pattern, i.e. Leg Press, Lunges, Box Jumps or even Leg Extensions. They’ll still stress the target areas with the added bonus of hitting them from a different angle and reducing joint and connective tissue stress that some people experience repeating the same movements again and again.
A combination of methods is most commonly seen in undulating periodisation and the simplest way to implement it typically involves a focus on light, medium and heavy sessions, for example:
- ‘Light’ weight with sets in the 10-12 rep range
- ‘Medium’ weight with sets in the 6-8 rep range
- ‘Heavy’ weight with sets in the 3-5 rep (or less) range
This can be done progressively, over a period of weeks or months; blocks of Preparatory, Hypertrophy and then Strength training or on a rotational basis from session to session as more recently popularised with daily undulation progression (DUP).
In recent years I’ve become fond of a 4-5-6 progression through phases of power-building.
I’ll start with a weight that represents an approximate 8 rep max. In session one I perform 3 sets of just 4 reps. In the next (2nd) session, I use the same weight and increase the reps by one every set. In the third session, I add another rep to each set. In the forth session, I increase the weight and drop back down to just three reps per set. Simple, yet effective.
- Session 1 – 3×4
- Session 2 – 3×5
- Session 3 – 3×6
- Session 4 – increase the weight, drop back down to 3×4 and repeat the cycle.
Using this approach I am technically only ‘progressing’ every third workout. With weekly sessions that’s an increase in output every 3rd week which, once the weights get heavier, I find more manageable and realistic for me.
We can combine methods and adjust variables, such as:
- Session 1: Add weight
- Session 2: Reduce the rest period between sets
- Session 3: Add an additional set
- Session 4: Add an rep to each set
Tracking this can be a challenge and requires more thought and a calculator or spreadsheet (dive in if that gets you fired up, best avoided if not). Whist it can be fun to change things up once in a while and keeps things interesting, it can be difficult to tell if you’re making progress.
Busting through plateaus with a Re-Set
Regardless of methodology progress will stall at some point; we all plateau eventually. Sometimes we are able to push ourselves so hard that the slightest deviation (a few missed meals or a poor night’s sleep) mean we are unable to keep up the intensity, effort and focus required to keep performing at the same level, let alone make progress.
If you’re running a 3×5 and one week you only achieve 4 reps in your final set, you could try again the next week with the same weight. If you get 3×5 again, continue, but if not a re-set might be in order.
To re-set, we simply reverse the process: Decrease the weight on the bar, decrease the number of reps, increase rest time between sets, reduce the time under tension and reduce or the number of sets we perform and carry on. Often, the second time through allows you to break through the previous limit. We don’t have re-set too far and in most cases a 10% or 15% drop is a good place to start.
Pick your poison
No method is necessarily superior, they all work to some degree, at least for some time. Choose a method that you like the sound of, suits your personality and you have the equipment available to implement (no use trying to add 1 kg to dumbbell movements if your gym has fixed dumbbells in 2 kg increments) and stick with it until it no longer works for you, then either re-set or try something new.
Every time we do something more than we previously have we’ve increased the workload we have subjected our bodies to. We’ve improved. We’re stronger, faster and have increased our endurance or aerobic capacity. We’ve made progress.
Progress is progress is progress.
What methods have you used to keep moving yourself forward? Which ones do you like or dislike and which ones do you think work best for you?