Progressive Overload: Building Real Strength Is More Than Just Lifting Heavier

The most important factors to make progress in your training are in this order:

  1. perfect technique
  2. consistency
  3. exercise selection

If you don’t do the right things the right way often enough, you’re just not going to get stronger.

And the stronger you get, the more muscle you can build.

But to keep getting stronger, you need to have a program that’s focused on progressive overload.

The problem is, when most people hear the term “progressive overload,” they think one thing:

Go heavier.

It makes sense. If you go heavier, then you’ll get stronger, right?

Trust me, I’m a fan of adding weight to the bar, and it’ll take you a long way, for awhile. But adding more weight isn’t the only way to make progress. In fact, after you’ve been training for long enough, it’s arguably the least useful method due to the diminishing returns.

See, you can’t just add 5 pounds to every movement forever. If it was that easy you’d be deadlifting an apartment complex after 5 years of training.

So what ends up happening is you get to a point where you start to sacrifice technique in order to get a few more pounds on the bar. This beats up your joints and wears you down, and eventually you run out of ways to compensate. You end up either injured or plateaued.

Progressive overload simply means that you have to gradually stress your body past it’s current abilities in order to keep moving the needle. Think about coaxing out gainz, not sledgehammering them out.

Don’t get sucked into just hammering square pegs into round holes with nothing but a sore back and busted up shoulders to show for it. Here are my top 5 ways to train progressively for the long haul:

1. Add Reps

There’s a common misconception that strength only happens in the 1-5 rep range. Maybe this is due to outdated charts still being handed out in undergrad kinesiology programs, but if you can front squat 225 for 5 reps right now and in 8 weeks you can get a perfect 10 with it (God love you for front squatting for anything over 5 reps), you got unequivocally, irrefutably stronger.

This means that if you add reps with the same load, then you’ll get stronger.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to add 2 reps per week to an exercise.

Exercise like chin ups or single leg squats, where you’re handling your whole bodyweight, just adding a single rep from one week to the next can be enough.

Let’s say you dumbbell press the 75’s for 3 sets of 6. Rather than moving up to the 80’s for an ugly set of 4, look at the increase in the amount of poundage handled over a 4 week period by sticking with the 75’s and adding 2 reps per set:

Week 1: 75 pounds x 3 sets x 6 reps=1350 total pounds

Week 2: 3×8=1800

Week 3: 3×10=2250

Week 4: 3×12=2700

In 4 weeks, you’re moving twice as much weight in the same amount of sets! That’s a significant amount more work being done, and your body needs to adapt by getting stronger.

This beats the hell out of the old school, grind out as many as you can get each set, which fries your nervous system, beats up your joints, and brings progress to a standstill.

2. Add sets 

Just like adding weight, you can’t add reps linearly forever. But you can still increase your training volume by adding sets. Using the above example of 75 pound dumbbell presses and adding a single set per week, you can see how quickly the work piles up:

Week 1: 3 set x 6 reps=1350 total pounds

Week 2: 4×6=1800

Week 3: 5×6=2250

I’m a big believer in sticking to lower volume in general to avoid overuse injuries and to keep you feeling fresh, so I don’t tend to go much higher than 4-5 sets on most exercises, in most programs, most of the time.

My favorite progressive overload method is actually a combination of adding sets and reps with the same weight, which sets you up for a smooth uptick week to week.

Week 1: 3 sets x 6 reps

Week 2: 4×6

Week 3: 3×8

Week 4: 4×8

Week 5: 3×10

Week 6: 4×10

Week 7: 3×12

Week 8: 4×12

Using the above example of dumbbell presses, from week 1 (1350 pounds lifted) to week 8 (3600 pounds lifted) you’ve increased your work by over 2 and a half times!

3. Increase Your Range of Motion

Full ranges of motion not only stimulate your muscles more, but they make you more resilient to injury. Your brain is a pretty efficient governor switch to keep you from hurting yourself, and training through full ranges of motion teaches it that you’re strong and capable in the end ranges.

By simply progressing an exercise like a split squat to a rear foot elevated split squat, or a trap bar deadlift from the high to low handles, you’ll be progressing an exercise by increasing the range of motion. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that this is more work, thus causing a bigger training stimulus.

4. Increase Time Under Tension

Slowing down your reps and adding pauses increases the training effect.

Think again about your dumbbell bench press: If you can press 75’s for a set of 8 with perfect technique, maybe add in a three second lowering phase on each rep. That set will increase from 15 seconds or so to about a 45 seconds. The increased time under tension is going to elicit a hell of a of a stimulus.

Or maybe you keep the same tempo up and down as you’ve been doing but hold a five second pause at the bottom of the 4th rep, then continue the set.

This is a safer way to train as well, as you’re using maximal tension in your whole body to control every iota of movement. This keeps your muscles doing the work and saves you from getting loose and bouncing off of the passive structures of your joints. 

The options here are endless, but here are some of my favorite exercises and how I like to fit iso holds and tempos in to hammer progressive overload to get more out of lighter weights.

5. Density

How long does your training session take you? An hour? Maybe an hour and a half? What if you start shaving time off little by little?

Knocking out your entire training session in less time is progressive overload. This can be as easy as cutting down on the small talk between sets or timing your rest periods.

Maybe you add some of the methods above: you add a few sets, reps, or pounds to your workout but you complete it in the same amount of time as you did previously. That’s progressive overload too: you did more work in the same amount of time.

You can do this for your entire training session, or set aside density blocks where you focus specifically on doing more work in the same amount of time or the same amount of work in less time. 

Adding weight is one way to build strength. It’s tried and true, but constantly chasing PR’s every time you’re in the gym can beat you up and isn’t realistic. By utilizing these methods, you’ll get stronger, which eventually leads to handling bigger weights.

Then continue to challenge those the same way. This is how you keep progressing for the long haul.

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