If you want to get bigger, you’ve got to get stronger, period.
It’s no secret that progressive overload is the most important factor in any training program when the goal is muscle size.
The problem becomes, however, that when I (or any other coach) say “you’ve got to get stronger”, most people assume that it means to lift heavier; it doesn’t.
Progression is not about adding 5 pounds to the bar, it’s about getting better. As long as you’re getting better, chances are, you’re getting bigger.
Although the main goal is, in fact, to add more weight to the bar, there will come a time in your training where you’ll feel as if you’ve been stuck using the same weight for the last 12 months. When that happens and you feel as if you’re not progressing enough to grow, start focusing a bit more on the following progression techniques.
Not only will this ensure that you’re getting better, but all of these strategies will help when it comes down to adding weight to the bar, later.
1. More Reps
Other than slapping another 5 pound plate onto the bar, increasing the number of reps you perform is the simplest and most effective method of progression.
If you pushed 225 pounds for 10 reps during your last bench press session, and this week you manage to push it for 12 – congrats - you’ve gotten stronger.
Weight (x) Reps = Total Volume
225 x 10 = 2,250 lbs
225 x 12 = 2,700 lbs
Adding reps, however, has its limitations. This is due to intensity (or the amount of physical power that the body uses when performing an activity).
What this means is simple: despite an increase in total volume, if the weight is not challenging enough, there will be a point of diminishing returns.
According to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, you would have to perform 3x the total volume, when using a lighter weight, to get the same exact results you would from a moderate load.
With that in mind, progression through increasing reps is best up until you’re able to move a weight for 15 repetitions. Increasing reps any further than that and intensity is too low to maximize growth.
2. More Sets
If the goal is to increase total volume, then surely the number of sets we perform are important.
In fact, we have evidence showing that multiple sets are associated with 40% greater hypertrophy than 1 set.
That said, if you’re someone who’s currently training for 1-2 sets per exercise, then increasing the number of sets you perform will result in more muscle growth. The reason for the increase in muscle mass is simple: total volume is increased when we add sets without sacrificing load used or reps performed.
Similar to increasing repetitions, however, adding sets also has its limits.
A more recent study measured the dose response between 3 training groups; 1 set; 3 sets; and 5 sets. They concluded that 3 and 5 sets produced significantly greater gains than 1 set and that 5 sets produced slightly greater gains than 3 sets.
So although increasing the number of sets is a viable option, the more sets we add, the less effective it becomes. This is why most programs cap their sets at about 5 per exercise; anything over that is unnecessary.
At this point you’re probably wondering how - if we’re increasing just the sets, not the reps or the weight – is this making me stronger?
The answer is very straight forward. If you can pull 405 pounds for 6 reps on the deadlift for 1 set but not 2, and you work your way up to being able to perform the same 6 reps on your second set, viola, you’ve gotten stronger.
3. Higher Frequency
Another simple but effective method for adding volume, without adding more weight, is increased frequency.
When volume is equal, training 3 days per week produces greater muscle growth than training once per week. This is, in my opinion, due to the repeated bout effect and training induced protein synthesis.
However, since we’re discussing progression, the reasoning for including frequency is twofold: first, splitting your volume up into 2-3 separate training days will decrease the amount of time you spend training in a fatigued state. Secondly, the neuromuscular adaptations from performing specific movements more frequently will allow you get better at the lifts, faster. The more regularly we perform a lift, the more efficient we become at it; the more efficient we become, the more we can lift, and so on.
Before you decide to start bench pressing 5x per week, though, consider this: a recent meta-analysis concluded that although training a muscle-group twice per week is superior to training it once per week, whether training a muscle group three times per week is superior to twice-per-week remains to be determined.
What I recommend is simple: if you’re hitting a muscle group once per week, start training it twice; if you’re training it twice, bump it up to 3x. Anything higher than that is probably not going to give any added benefit.
4. Training Density
Training density refers to the total volume completed within a certain timeframe.
For example: if you perform 5 sets of 10 reps in 30 minutes, your training density for that that particular workout would be 50 repetitions.
Say you walk into the gym and perform a total of 5 sets on the bench press for 10 reps each, using 225 pounds, and it takes you 30 minutes to complete. If you can manage to perform the same amount of volume (sets x reps x weight), in less time, you’ve progressed.
Increasing training density can be done by simply decreasing your rest periods a little more each session. For example, if you’re resting for 120 seconds between sets of squats, perhaps knock that down to 110-115 seconds next time you’re squatting.
5. Increase Force
Mass being the amount of weight used and acceleration referring to the concentric portion of the lift.
It’s no secret that it takes much more force to push 225 pounds off of your chest in 1 second than it does to grind it up for 2-3 (seconds). Thus if last week you cranked out 10 reps of 315 on the squat but the last rep was a grinder, and this week you moved the same 315 x 10 but the last rep went up with ease, you’ve gotten stronger.
Once you reach a point in your training where you’re no longer able to add weight to that bar, weekly, focusing on increasing force would be a viable option. Say, for example, you manage to hit your prescribed numbers on the bench press but the last 2 repetitions felt extremely difficult; next week, instead of increasing the weight, keep it the same until you’re able to hit the prescribed numbers with more ease.
6. Lifting Lighter Weight
If the goal is to increase total volume, but adding another 5-10 pounds to the bar isn’t feasible, then go lighter. Not only will you acquire the adaptations associated with the lighter load (i.e. hypertrophy, increased lactate threshold, etc.), but those same adaptations will play a positive role in your heavier load training.
I would also add that, in most cases, increasing reps will make for an increase in volume even if the intensity and/or the number of sets have been decreased.
225x5x5 = 5,625 lbs of volume
185x8x4 = 5,920 lbs of volume
135x15x3 = 6,075 lbs of volume
7. Beyond Failure
When’s the last time you saw someone performing single-arm curls with a 75 pound dumbbell and using good form?
I can answer that: never.
Believing that you’re “not progressing” with your smaller lifts because your bench has gone up 10 pounds in the last week and you’ve been stuck curling the same 30 pound dumbbells for the last month, is silly.
Think about a bench press: you’re not only using one of the largest muscle groups in the body – the chest – you’ve got assistance from the triceps, the shoulders, and if your form is dialed in, the core and some leg-drive. Do you think it’s fair to compare that with a single-joint exercise that targets one of the smallest muscle-groups we train directly?
This is why, when it comes to small isolation lifts - since we are limited to the amount of weight we can increase - adding reps would be our best bet.
But if you’ve been training for long enough, you know that it’s easier said than done. Especially since there is a cap on how many repetitions we should work up to.
This is why where I recommend beyond failure training.
Failure: The point where you cannot complete another repetition with strict form.
The beyond failure techniques I am going to share will allow you to add total volume, without increasing weight, by pushing beyond the normal limits of muscular failure through extending work sets.
Beyond Failure Training:
Note: these techniques should seldom be used (e.g. on the last set of your last exercise, on small isolation lifts only, etc.).
If you’ve been training for less than 2 years and are finding it damn-near impossible to add weight to the bar, then you may want to consider the fact that it may be due to your training program (or perhaps even your nutrition). If that’s something you’ve considered, then download my free 12 week course and never second guess your training again.
Finally, regardless of the training program you follow, if you want to get bigger, you’ve got to get stronger better. As long as you’re getting better, rest assured that you’re on the right track. After all, the best indicator of growth is progress.