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Progressive Overload: A Simple System

This article will piggy back off of the last one where we discussed consistency and progression. Consistency is a fairly simple concept, but to make showing up every day worth while, you actually need to progress in the gym. That is what this article is going to discuss in a simplistic way.

Progressive overload means increasing the amount of work being done over time. Although not the only way to do so, increasing the weight you are using is a very effective way to implement this concept into your training to see true results. Sounds simple right? But the tough part is to do this in a way that doesn’t stall out. So next, I will walk you through a very simple and easy to implement way to add pounds to the bar and muscle to your frame.

Let’s say you are working at 3 sets of 10 reps for any given exercise. The goal is to work up to close to a max for the first set (basically a 10 rep max). Then repeat this weight with the goal of hitting the same number of reps, but knowing you may not do so for all of the sets. If ever you are unsure as to whether you will hit the next rep or not, or your form starts to fall apart, rack the bar and call it there. Record the weight and reps for each set so you know what you are aiming to beat the next week. If you do not get all of the prescribed reps, repeat the same weight the next week. Eventually you should be able to do that weight across all sets. Once this is the case and you succeed at hitting 3 full sets of 10 reps, add 5-10lbs on that lift the next week.

Let’s use the barbell back squat for example, and this individual is aiming for 3 sets of 10 reps after warming up and working up to their working weight for the day, which is 200lbs.

Set 1: 200lbs x 10 reps

Set 2: 200lbs x 8 reps

Set 3: 200lbs x 7 reps

As you can see in this example not all reps were hit, which is fine. This just means they would use the same weight the next week for this workout and try to beat the total number of reps performed. The bare minimum in this example would be to hit at least 9 reps on the second set while maintaining 7 reps on the third set. That single rep more is progress, and although it may not seem like much, if you achieve this week after week, you will be well on your way to building the foundation of your dreams.

Now this progress won’t last forever, but with this simple systematic approach, it will last a whole lot longer than just trying to add weight to the bar every week. But, when it finally does stall out and you hit the same sets and reps with the same weight across the board for a couple weeks in a row, you still have options. At this point you can do several things to elicit a new stimulus or force more progress.

Without going too much into detail, at this point you could switch the exercise out completely. In our example above this could be switching from back squats to front squats and starting the process over again. If you wanted to stick with back squats however you could drop the reps down each set to say 6 or 8 reps and start the process over using a heavier weight. Lastly, you could simply add a set, so your new goal would be 4 sets of 10 instead of just 3. This would increase the total volume, so even though the weight may not go up quite yet, the extra set will be more total reps you are performing with that weight, which will continue to stimulate muscle growth and strength gains.

All in all, you have to find ways to truly progress in the gym. Otherwise, you will be spinning your tires doing the same exercises with the same weights for long periods of time, which will likely cause frustration and make it harder and harder to push yourself to even go to the gym. But, if you are seeing regular progress and focusing on the process outlined above, your gym sessions will have a sense of competition with yourself, which in turn will make them invigorating and enjoyable.


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