Get Bigger and Stronger Without Adding Plates
Adding weight to the bar is one of the keys to gaining muscle and strength. But constantly trying to add weight may also be why you're not getting bigger and stronger. Sound crazy? Let me explain.
Progression is very important for making gains. But even an effective workout and recovery period will only reward you with a marginal gain in strength. For most, this improvement is smaller than the least amount of weight you can add to the bar, assuming that the smallest plate size you have is 2.5 pounds.
Even a 5-pound increase (2.5-pound plates on each side of the bar) from workout to workout isn't sustainable. If it were, we'd all be gaining 250 pounds on each lift every year.
Now, you might think you're getting 5-10 pounds stronger every week. That's because:
- You got more efficient at a lift. Your technique improved, allowing you to use more weight even though you're using roughly the same strength. Or you never used low reps before, so you were inefficient at them, and you're now getting better.
- You took your set a bit closer to failure. For example, if last week you did 225 for 3 reps (two reps left in reserve) and this week pushed it harder and did 235 for 3 reps (one rep left in reserve), you only gained 4 pounds of strength, not 10.
There are individual differences, of course. And it depends on your nutrition and recovery. Assuming all of that's in order, the following numbers are an approximation for most people:
- Newbies: 2.5 to 3% per week
- Beginners: 1.5 to 2% per week
- Intermediate: 1.0 to 1.5% per week
- Advanced: 0.5 to 1.0% per week
- Elite: 0.25 to 0.5% per week
Your gains could stall. And having the mindset that you must constantly try to add weight to the bar will lead to several things happening:
- A gradual deterioration of form: using momentum or body contortion to get the weight up.
- Failing at reps more often and not recovering from your workouts because you hit failure too often.
- Losing strength because of bad technique and subsequent loss of neurological efficiency. This results in poor recovery and central nervous system fatigue that decreases the excitatory drive to the muscles.
- Compensating for loss of strength by attempting to amp yourself up via stimulants or just psyching yourself up into a frenzy, which leads to a higher risk of training burnout.
- Increased injury risk.
Don't act like none of that ever happened to you. It does to all serious lifters. The point is this: You should only add weight when your body is ready for it.
How do you do that? Volume step loading. Before I describe it, I need to set it up by explaining something called "strength practice."
Performing a fairly high volume of non-maximal heavy lifting is a neglected way of getting stronger. Some call it "greasing the groove," while others call it "strength practice."
It uses loads of around 75 to 85% of 1RM for low reps (3-5) while leaving a good 2-3 reps in reserve. This is done for a high number of sets.
The main benefits:
- Significant improvement in technical efficiency.
- Improvement in the neurological factors involved in strength production: muscle fiber recruitment and firing rate, intramuscular coordination, intermuscular coordination, downregulation of the protective mechanisms, etc.
- Improvement in feed-forward control: The more you do a movement, the more easily your nervous system can efficiently perform that movement, thus requiring less preparatory work.
- Allowing you to perform those movements with less accumulation of fatigue by becoming more efficient at them.
Contrary to what people think, it's possible to build quite a bit of muscle by using the strength-skill approach. However, you need to make a few tweaks. With traditional strength-skill work, your rest periods are fairly long – around 3 to 4 minutes. That way, you accumulate as little fatigue as possible.
But if you want to use it to build more muscle, reduce your rest periods to 90-120 seconds. This incomplete recovery period will force the recruitment and stimulation of more muscle fibers throughout the workout.
In other words:
- Strength-skill work with low fatigue accumulation = getting stronger but not bigger.
- Strength-skill work with moderately high fatigue accumulation = getting stronger and bigger.
The upside of the former (low fatigue)? It can be done more frequently, whereas the latter requires more rest between work sets. A higher frequency is conducive to faster neurological improvements.
The second tweak to ensuring muscle growth involves increasing the volume of work. This is where the "volume step-loading" approach comes into play. If you don't push your sets anywhere close to failure, you need more volume to trigger muscle growth.
Exactly how many sets? Let's get into it.
Step-loading refers to sticking with the same weight for a while. When you finally do add weight, you add a larger amount. Here's one way to do it:
- Week 1: Conventional reps
- Week 2: One 3-second pause during each eccentric (lowering phase) rep: at the mid-way point.
- Week 3: Two 3-second pauses during each eccentric rep: top third of the rep and at mid-way point.
- Week 4: Two 3-second pauses during each eccentric rep: at the mid-way point and at the bottom third.
- Week 5: Three 3-second pauses during each eccentric rep: top third of the rep, at the mid-way point, and at the bottom third.
- Week 6: Two 3-second pauses during each eccentric rep: top third of the rep, at the mid-way point. And one 3-second pause during each concentric (lifting phase) rep: top third of the rep.
- Week 7: Two 3-second pauses during each eccentric rep: top third of the rep, at the mid-way point. And one 3-second pause during each concentric rep: at the mid-point.
- Week 8: Two 3-second pauses during each eccentric rep: bottom third of the rep and at the mid-way point. And one 3-second pause during each concentric rep: at the mid-way point of the rep.
- Week 9: One 3-second pause during each eccentric rep: top third of the rep. And two 3-second pauses during each concentric rep: at the mid-way point and at the top third of the rep.
- Week 10: One 3-second pause during each eccentric rep: at the mid-way point. And two 3-second pauses during each concentric rep: at the mid-way point and at the top third.
- Week 11: One 3-second pause during each eccentric rep: bottom third. And two 3-second pauses during each concentric rep: at the mid-way point and at the top third.
- Week 12: Three 3-second pauses during each concentric rep: at the bottom third, during the mid-point, and at the top third.
Do 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps with your selected weight, resting about two minutes between sets and not using a RPE (rate of perceived exertion) higher than 8 on any set.
What Will This Program Do for You?
Well, let's say after 12 weeks you felt frisky and added between 30-50 pounds to the bar and went back to doing normal tempo reps. They'd feel much easier than they might normally have because you'll not only be stronger, but you'll have better body rigidity, better technical efficiency, and better active stability.
Now to my other favorite approach for progressions using the same weight – the progressive volume/density approach, which I refer to as "volume step loading."
The premise is simple: Perform a high number of low-rep sets (3 to 5), always leaving at least 2 reps in the tank. You make the workouts harder and more challenging for the body by gradually adding sets while reducing rest intervals.
Use the same weight for all work sets from week to week. Use this style of training for 3-4 big lifts in a workout. Train four days a week using two different workouts. Here's a sample template.
Workout A: Days 1 & 3
- A. Squat variation
- B. Bench press variation
- C. Horizontal row variation (I like the Pendlay row shown below)
- D. Vanity movement (single-joint exercise for one muscle you want to emphasize)
Workout B: Days 2 & 4
- A. Hinge variation (a deadlift or an Olympic lift)
- B. Overhead press variation
- C. Vertical pull variation
- D. Vanity movement (single-joint exercise for one muscle you want to emphasize)
- Workout 1: 4 x 5, 180 seconds between sets, leaving around 2 reps in reserve
Workout 2: 4 x 3, 180 seconds between sets. Same weight as in workout 1
- Workout 1: 5 x 5, 165 seconds between sets
- Workout 2: 5 x 3, 165 seconds between sets
- Workout 1: 6 x 5, 150 seconds between sets
- Workout 2: 6 x 3, 150 seconds between sets
- Workout 1: 7 x 5, 135 seconds between sets
- Workout 2: 7 x 3, 135 seconds between sets
- Workout 1: 8 x 5, 120 seconds between sets
- Workout 2: 8 x 3, 120 seconds between sets
- Workout 1: 9 x 5, 105 seconds between sets
- Workout 2: 9 x 3, 105 seconds between sets
- Workout 1: 10 x 5, 90 seconds between sets
- Workout 2: 10 x 3, 90 seconds between sets
A few notes that will clear everything up:
- The exercises don't change. Stick with your selection.
- Workout 1 refers to the first workout "A" of the week and the first workout "B" of the week. Workout 2 refers to the second workout "A" of the week and the second workout "B" of the week.
- Monday: Workout A, first session
- Wednesday: Workout B, first session
- Friday: Workout A, second session
- Saturday: Workout B, second session
- Session 2 in each workout, which uses sets of 3 instead of 5, is akin to the "light" workout in a heavy/light split. It's a lower-stress workout where you focus even more on technique. Also, since the recommended split has workouts on two days in a row (Friday/Saturday), you want to program in a lower stress level workout.
- By the end of seven weeks, the weight you used should feel so easy that you have to increase it. You'd then start a new cycle using between 25 and 40 pounds more, depending on the lift.
While this is one of the "gentlest" ways of gaining strength, it also works well in building muscle because of the volume and density progression. I'll concede, however, that it's somewhat boring, but ask yourself whether you prefer entertainment or progression.
This type of training can work for any level of lifter. It allows beginners to better develop their technical mastery of the big lifts. It allows advanced lifters to keep progressing without compelling them to develop compensations because they're mistakenly adding weight faster than their rate of gain. Intermediate lifters will gain the most because both of those benefits apply to them.
This type of program requires more intellectual buy-in on your part, and, granted, it's not for everyone. But for those who commit to it, the reward is better long-term progression.