Posted by on May 30, 2014

Strength Training
Adam Duggan is a coach and writer living in Tennessee. Keep an eye out for his upcoming Fitocracy Team Fitness class! This post was originally published on his website, The Aesthetic Build, which is dedicated to the pursuit of the “aesthetic” physique: a physique that is strong, well developed, in proportion, and healthy.

I’m going to make an assumption that most of you reading this site are interested in gaining (or maintaining) muscle mass. Great. Me too.

With that in mind, let’s talk about one of the major training principles to building not only bigger, but stronger, muscles.

Progressive Overload

The idea of progressive overload is very simple. Lift more weight for the same amount of reps, progressively, over time. Simple, eh?

Sure,  sure. That is one way of overloading progressively…

But is there more?

Yes. Isn’t there always?

Lets think about the ways we can “progressively overload” a muscle.


Progressing via “more reps in the same amount of time”

Progressing via “more reps in the same amount of time”

Let us count the ways…

  1. Lift more weight for the same amount of reps as a previous training session
  2. Do more sets (adding volume via sets) of an exercise than a previous training session
  3. Do additional exercises (adding volume via additional movements) for a given muscle than a previous training session
  4. Do the same amount of weight with less rest than a previous training session (progressing by accomplishing the same workload in less time)
  5. Similar to above, accomplish more reps in a given period of time

“Why the simple is still simple even though it looks like it’s getting progressively less easy?”

While I’m certain you could continue to list ways to progressively overload a muscle, there is a reoccurring theme. Progression. Moving forward. Stressing a muscle more than previous sessions. Forcing a muscle to adapt to the fact you are making it work harder via training.

You see, progressing, like many things in life, drives an adaptation. A change. In our case, that change is a bigger muscle. A stronger muscle.

When to use different methods of progression:

I am a firm believer in the “keep it simple stupid” method of strength training, fat loss, body re-composition, etc. If a simple solution gets you to your goal, do not make it more complex.

Unfortunately, almost inevitably, the simplest methods will eventually run their course and other slightly more complex methods need to be introduced to continue progressing.

First, add weight to the bar…

I recommend that your first priority should be adding weight to the bar whenever possible. I would argue that this is the most straight forward, simplest to implement form of progressing.  Milk this form of progression for all it’s worth. There are many programs out there that will show you ways to add to the bar (maybe not every week) consistently over time. I would recommend that you research “Wendler 5/3/1” by Jim Wendler. “Starting Strength” by Mark Rippetoe, and Stronglifts. Each of these programs focuses on adding weight to the bar by manipulating different variables. Each of these programs has you “progress” over time. That’s a check in my book for a solid program. Remember, don’t make it more complex than it needs to be.

Next? Experiment!

Originally I was planning on putting a list together of when to add what progression into your training routine. However, the more I thought about it the more I came to the realization that it’s really person dependent. If you don’t handle a high training volume well, then you wouldn’t want to go that route, now would you? If you were constrained on time, you wouldn’t start adding more sets or exercises to your workout. This is where you need to modify your program to best suit what you prefer and what is feasible for your situation.

The take home message is two-fold. Add weight to the bar whenever possible for as long as possible. Always focus on progressing in some form or fashion.

Featured photo courtesy of Flickr user jerryonlife, used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 license

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