Progressive overload is numero uno (translation: number 1) when it comes to packing on muscle and strength. You have to do more over time to continue getting bigger, stronger, and more powerful. I don’t intend on exploding anyone’s brains over this concept, but after watching how people choose to train on a daily basis over the last 20 years, that concept alone might be a game changer for some.
I first started training when I was 10 or 12 years old with the old sand filled weight set from Sears. Instead of following the simple chart of exercises that came with the weights, I thought I had the cheat code because I also had a subscription to Muscle & Fitness.
I mean, I had Shawn Ray and Kevin Levrone in my back pocket, so obviously I was going to follow their training programs instead of some stupid stick figure chart from a department store.
So onward I went in my quest to get “Cannonball Delts,” and “Thunderous Thighs,” but instead of getting either of those, I just got really fricken sore. And I never got much better at anything because I was doing a million sets of 20 different exercises each workout.
It wasn’t until high school when I got a job my first job in a gym and met this old dude (who in hindsight was probably younger than I am now) who was built like a brick shit house and always read a newspaper between sets of squats, bench presses, and chin ups.
He explained to me what progressive overload was, and I finally started to actually get stronger and build a little muscle.
Hitting puberty probably also helped, but that’s besides the point. What he told me to do worked, and it worked for a lot of people before him, and will continue to be the biggest factor in getting you stronger and building muscle too.
See, when you first start training, everything improves quickly. You can add 5 or 10 pounds to the bar every week. These newbie gainz are the greatest thing ever, and it’s so fun that you can’t wait until your next training session.
You’re able to do this because you’re getting more efficient at the movement. Just like any skill, the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the more you can challenge it.
The problem is, after awhile, you get stalled out. After all, if you could add 5 pounds every week to your front squat, and you started at 135×5, then it would only take 2 and a half years to front squat 800×5.
There’s a reason there aren’t more superhero looking MF’ers walking around. It just doesn’t work this way forever.
There are a million ways to set up your training program to keep getting stronger and building muscle, but, since I’m a simpleton, I want to shed light on the easiest one I know:
Add a set, then add a rep.
Rinse and repeat.
Let’s use DB bench presses as an example. If you’re currently pressing the 70’s for 3 sets of 6, then the next 4 weeks would look like this:
- Week 2: 70x6x4 (one more set)
- Week 3: 70x7x3 (back to 3 sets, but of 7 reps)
- Week 4: 70x7x4 (one more set)
- Week 5: 70x8x3 (back to 3 sets, but of 8 reps)
- Week 6: Plug in a new, “same but different” lift, such as low incline DB bench presses
It seems too easy, but in the first week, you’re moving a total of 1260 pounds (70 pounds x 6 reps x 3 sets), and in week 5, you’ve moved 1680 pounds. Thats a 33% increase in poundage lifted in 4 weeks!
It might not seem like a lot, but if your squat max went from a 315 to 420 in 5 weeks, you’d be ecstatic.
That’s what 33% improvement looks like.
I learned this from Dan John: work on coaxing your weights up. You can only add muscle and strength so fast, so don’t try to fry yourself every time out. Just add a set, then add a rep. It doesn’t matter what rep scheme you’re starting with. 3 sets of 8? Go 4×8 next week, then 3×9, then 4×9. You’re getting better, and it’s measurable.
3-5 sets seems to be the sweet spot for most people. Going much past that often leads to a decrease in the weight that can be handled, technique breaks down because of fatigue, and the work is generally not as high quality.
Stop winging it with your training. You spend too much of your money, time, and effort on your gym membership, commuting, and training, so maximize the return on your investments by having a sound plan, and then executing it!
P.S. If you’re looking to optimize your training and go into 2019 in the best shape of your life, I have 2 distance coaching positions now open. Contact me here, and we’ll set up a FaceTime or Skype call to see if it’ll be a good fit.