When it comes to gaining muscle and size, progressive overload is the king! Without implementing progressive overload to your training program, your body will not need to adapt and therefore will not get bigger and stronger. And let’s be honest, that’s what the majority of us want when we go to the gym and train, we want to build muscle, we want to get strong and we want to get jacked! But without progressive overload we cannot do this.
You see it all the time, guys doing the same workout they’ve been doing for years, 5 times a week, simply maintaining what they have and never progressing. Or your get the guys who make up their workouts up on the spot just doing what they feel like that day. Let’s be honest, they never feel like doing legs! Everyone has the capacity to progress in the gym, you simply need to know the right tools, and progressive overload is certainly one of those tools.
What is progressive overload?
In principle, progressive overload is the process of continuing to increase the demands on the musculoskeletal system in order to make gains in muscle size, increase strength, power and endurance. Put simply, to get bigger and stronger, you must continue to keep adding weight to your lifts in the gym, to stimulate muscle growth and make the muscle work harder. If you don’t do this, your muscles will just adapt to what you currently lift, resulting in no gainz!
Let’s use an example of a certain exercise with progressive overload. Let’s take the squat. One of the best exercise out there to get bigger and stronger legs.
If you do 3 sets of 10 reps of barbell back squats on 80kg for several weeks, eventually that weight will become easy for you to perform with that amount of sets and reps. This is because all the muscles in your legs (hamstrings, quads, glutes, calf’s etc.) have grown in size from when they first started and have stopped getting bigger, you’ve hit a plateau. The muscles have adapted to the weight that you have been lifting, they will no longer grow or get stronger unless you add on more weight, or change other variables, which we will explain later in this article. You need to place more demand on these muscles until you reach your genetic potential.
Now there are many ways you could overcome this plateau, on the back squat.
- You could increase the weight and do 3 sets of 10 at 82.5kg.
- You could increase the rep and do 3 sets of 12 at 80kg
- You could add a whole other set and do 4 sets of 10 at 80kg
These are all ways that you are progressively overloading the muscle and this is what we are now going to talk about.
How to create progressive overload?
There are a number of ways to create progressive overload, to help you continue to make gains in the gym.
1. Increase the weight- As explained above, the first thing to do before changing anything else is to add weight to the bar. It doesn’t have to be just barbell exercises either, for example, a good indicator of knowing when to go up in weight was if you were doing 8 reps on 20kg dumbbell chest press. If you can get in 9 reps comfortably, go up to 22kg and see if you can get the 8 reps on this weight. That right there is progressive overload people.
The speed on which you can increase your lifts will all depend on your training experience. Complete newbies to the gym can add weight onto the bar on a week by week basis. The intermediate lifter who has been lifting for a few years, could maybe add weight to the bar every month or couple of months. When you get to the advanced stage and have been in the lifting game for a while then adding weight to the bar becomes extremely challenging and you may look to change other variables.
2. Increase sets- The next step to take would be to increase the amount of sets you do within that exercise. We normally get beginners to start on 2-3 sets but once they become comfortable with that, we would then increase that to 3-4 sets, or maybe even 5. One of the best ways to increase your overall training volume and progress in the gym is to add another set. Your overall training volume is very highly associated with how jacked you can get. This study by James Krieger, showed greater muscle gains in people who performed multiple sets.
So if you looking to build a lot of muscle and you’re in doubt add another set.
3. Increase reps- You can then increase the amount of reps you do within that set. Generally speaking, reps between 1-5 will be performed at a heavier weight increasing strength. Although training between 6 – 12 reps is probably the biggest bang for your buck if you want to get jacked. Why because it allows you accumulate enough training volume and lift heavy enough weights
It is important to work in between all these rep ranges when training in the gym, and “mixing it up” depending on what you’re training for. If you’re training to increase strength, then the majority of your training will be made up of 1-5 reps, whereas if you’re training for muscle hypertrophy, the majority of your training should be made up of reps 6-12.
4. Increase frequency of training- Once you’ve done the above 3, the next best option is to increase the amount of times you go to the gym. For example if you do an upper body and lower body split, training twice a week, and have increased the above 3 variables yet are still not gaining, then you need to hit those muscle groups more frequently.
For natural trainers, it is much more efficient to train muscle groups more frequently throughout the week. I mean if you think about it logically who is going to have the bigger chest.
They guy who benches 52 times a year or the guy who benches a 104 times a year?
If you’re still religiously following a bro spilt or you have one whole workout dedicate to arms and calves, then you are missing out on a lot of muscle.
This study shows that you should be working out your major muscle groups at least twice a week.
Organise your training so you are hitting the main muscle groups twice a week and leave the bro splits to the bodybuilders.
For smaller muscle groups that recover at a faster rate like biceps and calves, you could bump this training frequency up to 4 times a week, and see a significant increase in muscle.
5. Increase and add new exercises to your program- We normally get beginners to base their training around the 4 big lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead/military press) unless they have any reason why they cannot do these moves. We will then add in some isolation exercises such as leg extensions, lateral raises and bicep curls. And also bodyweight exercises such as chin ups, dips and press ups.
Now it’s important to add weight, set, reps to all these exercises, but it’s also important to change these exercises around every 4-6 weeks. This will allow you to bring up lagging body parts and hit new exercises that could increase your chances of more gainz.
Another bonus of this is it keeps your training fresh and stops it from getting boring. When people do the same programs with the same exercises, they will get bored really quickly and lose motivation because their body will adapt to it, stopping your progression. So change it up!
Make sure you enjoy your training.
Getting big and jacked should be fun!
6. Increase intensity- The final point would be to increase your intensity. We see too many people in the gym these days talking, on their phones, taking long rest periods and simply not training hard enough. If you want to build slabs of new muscle then you have to take your body places where sometimes it may not want to go.
When you see people in great shape, it’s because they’ve worked hard for it, for several years. Don’t train to failure on every set of every exercise, but challenge yourself, make progress, and note things down. What is the point of simply turning up and doing your time in the gym because you have to? Not only will you feel good for pushing yourself, but you will look good, of course over a period of several months and years. Building the body of your dream requires time, dedication and consistency!
Take a look at your current training program and decide what you need to use above in order to progress in the gym. Take each of the above points one at a time or even try them all at once, it depends on what you feel you need to change in order overcome a recent plateau you’ve hit. Some may only apply to your current training, for example if you’re training for strength you may not need to increase your reps, or decrease your rest time, but you may just need to increase the weight you are lifting. On the flipside, if you’re training for pure muscle growth, one of the best ways to achieve this is to increase your overall training volume, so maybe add an extra set to the exercises you are doing at the moment.
But please bear in mind, ANYONE can progress in the gym. ANYONE can get bigger and stronger providing they abide by the above points of progressive overload. Listen to your body when you need to increase any variable, but also listen to your body when you need to rest, because you can train all you like in the gym but you must rest your body appropriately, or you won’t grow. Likewise you need to nourish your body and muscles with the right food and supplements, or you won’t be able to recover efficiently.
Don’t just read this blog, but read it and apply it to your training. We hope by reading this blog we can help you overcome many plateaus to come and continue to help you grow and make the gains you so desperately want!
About The Author
SJ Fitness believe in a No FAD, No GIMMICK, No BS approach to getting clients into great shape without all the “bro” advice. We have been there done that and bought the bro t-shirt and it got us nowhere. We are now dedicated to learning from the best in the industry and rely on science for results instead of gym gossip. If you want to find out more about us check out our brand new website