Increasing weight with progressive overload is one of the key concepts when it comes to building muscle regardless of your training level.
The human body is constantly striving to stay in a state of homeostasis and will look to function in the most efficient way.
Having a high level of muscle mass for most is not an easily attainable or biologically efficient state (it takes more energy to function with more muscle mass so the demand on the body is much greater). Therefore you need to force your body to adapt, which is done through weight training.
The body will however only adapt in proportion to the demand placed on it and no more, this is where the concept of progressive overload comes in. If you’ve ever heard the quote
“Train the same, remain the same”
Then you will know that performing the same program, weight and reps a year from now will result in very little change to your physique.
You need need focus on forcing the body to adapt over time and the way to do this is through progressive overload. It’s not just about blindly adding weight to the bar though, going up too quickly will likely result in injury or the development of poor form.
Here are 5 simple rules that you should follow when looking to add weight to the bar and progressively overload the muscle.
Focus on Perfecting Technique
The quickest way to ensure that you don’t progress in the gym is to be injured and unable to attend.
Perfecting form/technique for an exercise can easily be overlooked at first because it’s boring for most and takes repeat work at a lighter weight to build the neurological connections. It’s easy to be in a rush when increasing the weight as it feels like everyone is in the gym is lifting more than you.
Whilst you can get away with using poor form earlier on it becomes much more important to use proper form at heavier weights. If your active muscles are not controlling the weight then it means another body part is.
This is where injuries during a heavy compound movement like the deadlift occur, the movement isn’t unsafe, it’s the execution that causes injury. If you don’t have your scapula retracted and start the movement with your back at a 90 degree angle then a lot of unnecessary strain will be placed on the lower back which is the cause of most deadlifting injuries.
This is also true when people say pressing behind the neck is dangerous, it can be, but only if you don’t have the range of motion required to perform the movement. A good test for this is on an incline barbell bench press.
Lying on a bench at a 45 degree angle without a barbell, you’re going to position yourself as though you’re about to perform an incline chest press. Pull your shoulder blades back and downwards (retract the scapula) so that your upper body is braced and in a secure pressing position.
Next you’ll want to simply go through the motion of a press so your arms are extended. Now actively lower your arms as if you are lowering a weight and pull with your elbows (imagine you are rowing a weight so your pulling your arms back. Once you can’t pull them back any further then this is your bottom end range of motion.
Make a note of where your hands are in proportion to your chest. Some people might not even go past their chest, therefore when you have weight on a bar and the bar is touching your chest you are simply not in control of the weight with the correct muscle groups. In this case your anterior deltoid (front section of the shoulder) will now have to take the majority of the weight in a weak position.
Not being able to control the weight through your full range of motion is one of the reasons for injury.
Just because you’ve watched a video and someone says touch the top of your chest with a bar during a press doesn’t mean that you actually have the flexibility and range of motion to perform it the same.
When looking to go up the weight make sure you have control over the weight with the muscle group that you want to engage for the full duration of the movement. If you don’t then you’re not progressively overloading, you’re just overloading and this will lead to injuries and slower progress.
Increase the Weight on Compound Movements First
The temptation is there when you first start lifting weights to make your way up the rack on as many different exercises as possible. Using an 8kg dumbbell for bicep curls is an ego killer for anyone starting out, however once you get a certain level of training experience you realise that it’s actually beneficial to master the lighter weights first.
This leads onto the main point which is to focus on increasing the weight on your compound movements first. I’m not saying don’t go up the weight on any exercise however the greatest scope for progress comes from the compound movements.
The best example I can think of to demonstrate this is weighted pull-ups and dips. Pull-ups work your biceps as a secondary muscle whilst dips work your triceps as a secondary muscle. Even though they are not the primary muscle of the movement both muscle groups will be trained with much heavier weights over time than if you used isolation exercises.
A cable tricep extension is very limited by the weight you can use with good form much in the same way a bicep curl is. For dips however it’s not uncommon for people to work up to 60kg – 80kg as their top set which will then be on top of body weight.
No isolation exercise can offer that sort of scope for development through progressive overload which is one reason for focusing on compound exercises.
Another is because so many muscle groups are involved the potential for rapid strength increases is much greater. A squat and deadlift for example can see you adding 5kg per session as a beginner right through to an intermediate level.
This will fast track your overall muscle building capacity, the more weight you can lift means the more muscle fibres required which results in a greater stimulus for muscle growth. If you stick to the easy exercises with limited room for progress then you are also limiting your capacity to build muscle.
A final point to consider for getting stronger in the compound lifts is the hormonal effect you have as a result. When lifting near maximal totals in terms of your 1 rep max you will signal more testosterone production and a greater release of growth hormone.
Putting your body under great loads in a multi joint compound lift is a guaranteed process for building muscle. There are plenty of other strategies that build muscle but simply getting stronger in the compound lifts should be your main focus early on.
Increase the Weight in Small Increments
Transforming your physique is a long term endeavour, you’ve likely heard that big changes won’t happen overnight. You can make noticeable changes in a 3 – 6 month period however if you are committed to weight training for the foreseeable future then progress will slow down at some point.
For this reason you are going to want to make the most of every step of the process and therefore you’ll want to go progress the weights in smaller increments (increasing the weight a smaller amount rather than making large jumps).
There are two reasons for this, the first being that large jumps and a short space of time will not be due to increases in muscle strength but rather ligaments and tendons taking some of the strain. The second reason is that you’ll want to milk to process before the weight gets too heavy and you start to plateau.
Muscles can only adapt and grow at a certain rate and it’s not as quick as people might think. In the beginner stages it’s not unheard of to gain 30lbs of lean muscle mass in the space of a year and in some cases can be expected.
This will still be whilst you are lifting moderate weight by an average standard. If however you are jumping up in 10lb increments each week then this is not sustainable from a muscular viewpoint. Every portion of a rep should be controlled by the targeted muscle that you are trying to engage.
A bicep curl should only be targeting the bicep for example so if you are feeling it anywhere else then you need to reassess your technique. Compound movements like a pull-up however are more difficult as these engage multiple muscle groups, this is where the issue of progressing too quickly comes in.
As a bicep curl is an isolation exercise it’s difficult for other muscles to support and lift more weight, if you can only manage 10kg then that is the weight you need to use. A compound exercise on the other hand can see other muscles take on more load, when this happens your ligaments and tendons will also assist in the exercise which will lead to injuries.
Making incremental progress will however allow your muscles time to adapt to the weight and will leave you a lot more resilient to injury.
The other reason for making incremental progress is to prolong the amount of time before you plateau. It’s purely an ego/over enthusiastic response to keep adding more weight to the bar before you actually need to.
Lifting weights isn’t the same as earning money, in one case you want to skip the pennies and go straight to the big money. When lifting weights this isn’t the mentality that you should have unless you are getting into powerlifting.
Plateaus are very much an issue when training as the body has physical limitations, you can’t progress in a linear manner an add weight forever. Therefore if you add jumps in the weights used too quickly you are missing out on the potential for long term sustained progress.
It’s not about large jumps in weight being a short cut to your eventual max weight but more the fact that adding 10lbs per week will not necessarily result in more muscle being built than if you added 2.5lbs. It’d be better to maximise you progress by getting the most out of every weight that you use.
Get Strong in Different Rep Ranges
Following on from an earlier point, getting stronger in the compound movements is a key to progressive overload, however you need to make sure you are targeting all muscle fibres and getting stronger in different rep ranges.
It’s easy to go up the weight quickly if you are only doing one rep per set (even that won’t be ‘easy’ at a certain point), the real challenge will be in progressing the weight when sets become more than one rep.
Muscles are made up of different fibre types (predominantly slow and fast twitch muscle fibres) which have different responses to exercise.
A fast twitch muscle fibre responds best to heavier weights but fatigues quickly whereas slow twitch fibres are more endurance based but are not as effective during explosive, heavy lifts.
Therefore to fully work a muscle group you need to make sure you stimulate all muscle fibres. If you just go up the weight in the same rep category then you are missing out on the potential for further muscle hypertrophy and growth.
The best way to do this is to select a weight for three different rep ranges, 1 – 3 rep sets, 3 – 7 rep sets and 8 – 12 rep sets. Anything over 12 reps is more endurance based and whilst this is beneficial to target the slow twitch muscle fibres it’s difficult to regularly increase the weight used in this rep range.
By focusing on getting stronger in more than one rep range you’ll be less likely to plateau on a lift and will be able to further stimulate muscle hypertrophy for growth.
Monitor Your Recovery
The final rule to keep in mind when increasing weight with progressive overload is to make sure you are monitoring your recovery.
When you first start training your recovery abilities will be quite high because by general standards you won’t be subjecting your body to that much weight or volume. You won’t be used to it and will get DOM’s, will be tired and the sessions will feel hard but in terms of recovery your body will easily be able to cope with the demand even if it doesn’t feel that way.
Once you start to lift heavier weights though and with more volume in each session you will soon need to keep track of your recovery capabilities. Deadlifting 200kg will have a much greater physical demand than when you start out with a 20kg bar. This is where some form of periodisation will need to be used.
Periodisation is a popular training principle that involves working in waves with your training. You’ll add more weight to your lifts for 4 -5 weeks in a progressive manner and then take a week deload as an example. This can either be a full week off training to recover or a week lifting significantly lighter (40% effort of your 1 rep maxes). By scheduling breaks in your routine you will be better equipped to dealing with fatigue and ensuring progress is sustainable long term.
Once weights get heavy enough then alongside using periodisation in the long term you also need to manage overall volume and training frequency on a weekly basis. Heavy weight, high volume and high frequency of sessions is an unsustainable training model.
To manage volume and recovery you will need to keep an eye on some simple indicators from your training. The first of which is whether you actually feel like you are recovering well from session to session, this is subjective and people will assess recovery differently but basing it on how sore you are and how much energy you have will be the key indicators.
You will also want to track the following:
Sleep Quality and Duration – How much sleep you get on a nightly basis
Muscle Soreness Duration – How long you have soreness in the muscle after a session
Appetite – A lack of appetite will indicate issues with recovery
Training Performance – Workouts are supposed to be difficult however if you are struggling with weights that you can normally handle comfortably then your recovery is not up to scratch
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Also check out:
Applying progressive overload to isolation exercises
How to increase weights