Resistance training consists of performing movements against a load. Your muscles produce tension and force to complete the loaded movement.
In other words, you’re lifting weights.
If that action is challenging enough, your muscles adapt by becoming capable of producing more tension – they get stronger.
The primary way for a muscle to get stronger is to increase the thickness of its fibers. This will, over time, make the muscle bigger.
A challenging set represents an overload and stimulates the body to adapt positively. The result? After your workout and recovery period, you’re a little bit stronger and bigger than you were before the workout.
But because you gradually get stronger, your workouts need to be progressively tougher and more challenging. This is the principle of progressive overload.
While there are many ways to make a workout more challenging, the two main approaches used with progressive overload are:
- Adding weight to the bar
- Doing more reps with the same weight
It Works For Everybody, Right?
We’re all a bit different. Some have a greater potential for strength and size gains. Some have rapid adaptations to lifting; others progress more slowly. But our bodies all obey the same physiological rules.
As such, we all adapt the same way to progressive overload. The rate and magnitude of the progression can vary from person to person, but it works the same way for everyone.
If you challenge your muscles in the gym and gradually add weight to the bar over time, you’ll get progressively stronger and bigger. It’s simple physiology. There are very few exceptions to this mechanism.
So why doesn’t everyone get bigger and stronger when they try to add weight to the bar? Why do some get stuck quickly while others seemingly progress forever?
Seven Ways to Screw Up Progression Overload
1. You Add Weight to the Bar Too Soon
Progressive overload is based on gradually adding weight to the bar as you get stronger. The first problem? People add weight too quickly. Their bodies haven’t yet progressed enough to justify the increased loading.
The typical example: When someone decides to add 5 or 10 pounds to the bar every week. What happens? They’ll be successful for 3-5 weeks before hitting a wall. They might even start to regress.
After a workout, you might progress by only 1-2%. In more advanced athletes, it might even be 0.5%! Adding even 5 pounds to the bar might be too much. You either fail to lift the added weight, or it leads to an excessive overload and causes you to hit a brick wall next week.
That’s why I don’t like the arbitrary rule of adding weight to the bar every week. It’s even worse when you decide in advance how much weight you need to add weekly.
Instead, only add weight when you’ve progressed enough to justify it. How do you do that?
Use the double progression model.
This model has stood the test of time. It always works, but few people do it because it requires patience.
This model respects the exact progression potential of the body… and progress is simply much slower than what most people want to believe.
Here’s how the double progression model works:
Select a certain number of sets (3 to 6), a target number of reps (let’s say 6 reps for this example), and a weight that’s close to the max you can do for your target number of reps. Let’s say that’s 240 pounds.
The goal is to perform all of your work sets with the same weight and hit the target number of reps on each set: 4 sets of 6 with 240 pounds.
Once you’re successful at reaching the target number of reps with SOLID form, you’re allowed to add 5 pounds to the bar if you lift 450 or less on the exercise. You’re allowed to add 10 pounds if you lift more than 450.
For example, if you do…
- Set 1: 6 reps with 240
- Set 2: 6 reps with 240
- Set 3: 5 reps with 240
- Set 4: 4 reps with 240
…you can’t add weight at the next workout.
If you then do…
- Set 1: 6 reps with 240
- Set 2: 6 reps with 240
- Set 3: 6 reps with 240
- Set 4: 5 reps with 240
…you still can’t add weight.
Only when you get 4 x 6 with 240, in good form, can you add weight.
Then, at the next workout, you still try to get to 4 x 6, but now with 245 pounds. You start the process over again.
Remember, it’s not the first set that matters; it’s reaching the target rep number on all sets.
Let’s say that for some reason, you take that first set up to 8 reps instead of 6, but fail to get 6 reps on the subsequent sets. Like this:
- Set 1: 8 reps with 240
- Set 2: 5 reps with 240
- Set 3: 4 reps with 240
- Set 4: 4 reps with 240
Then I’m sorry, but you still stay with the same weight.
Remember this rule: It’s always better to be more conservative when it comes to progressive overload. It’s better to add weight slightly slower than your rate of adaptation than slightly faster.
And this is why most people fail at progressive overload: they think they can beat the system and reach their goal sooner than their physiology will allow.
2. You Add Too Much Weight
Once again, this is caused by making emotional decisions instead of rational decisions. It’s driven by your desire to lift huge weight right NOW.
But remember, you might only progress by 0.5 to 2% following a challenging workout and its recovery period. Yet, some lifters try to add 20 pounds to their bench press every workout.
If they bench 300 x 6, going up to 320 is roughly a 7% increase. At a rate of adaptation of 2% that’s around 4 weeks’ worth of training. At 1% it’s 7 weeks. Heck, with a 0.5% rate of improvement, it can take 14 weeks to increase strength enough to justify the 20-pound increase!
Some will even assume their program isn’t working. It probably is, but they’re expecting an unrealistic rate of progression.
Listen, nothing will kill long-term progression faster than adding too much weight to the bar. Impatience is your worst enemy. And you should never sacrifice long-term progress for short-term gratification.
Ask someone who squats 300, benches 200, and deadlifts 350 if he’d be satisfied with hitting a 650 squat, 450 bench, and a 700-pound deadlift in 10 years. He’d probably say, “hell yes!”
The problem? He’d probably proceed to train as if he had to hit those numbers in a year! And that’s why he’ll never get anywhere close to those numbers.
There’s no such thing as progression that’s too slow. Trying to speed things up can lead to zero progress for long periods of time.
3. You Break Form to Use More Weight
This is the main reason why lifters can actually start to regress.
If you try to add weight faster than your body adapts, you will quickly hit a point where you’re simply not strong enough to handle it. At that point, a lot of people will sacrifice form just to “get the numbers.” Momentum, hitching, twisting out of position – anything goes to “make the lift.”
Besides the high risk of training burnout, the problem is that your technique will start to degrade. You’ll develop bad motor habits and lose technical efficiency. The more of these bad reps you do, the worse your lifting technique will become. As technique worsens, performance worsens.
Not only are you not progressing, but you might actually regress. Not to mention the increased risk of injury.
That’s why you should add weight to the bar only when you get all of your reps with solid form. The moment you accept significant breaks in form to get more weight or more reps is the moment you increase the risk of stalling and regressing.
4. You’ve Reached Your Genetic Limit
Once someone has reached his ceiling when it comes to the amount of muscle he can carry or the amount of strength he can produce, further progress will become impossible, even with a great progression model.
This is NOT you.
5. Your Diet Sucks
Being able to handle more weight means you not only recovered from your previous session but also built yourself a little bit of strength and muscle. This requires protein and energy.
People understand the need for protein for building muscle, but most fail to understand that energy is also required to fuel the muscle growth machinery.
The most common approximation of how many calories (measures of energy) are needed for growth is between 2500 and 3500 calories per pound of muscle you want to build. That is, of course, a surplus. You could argue that it’s possible to use up stored energy (fat) for that process, but it’s highly inefficient. That’s why it’s so hard to build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
Consuming an energy surplus (especially in the form of carbs) leads to a more anabolic milieu by increasing mTOR, IGF-1, and insulin. It also decreases cortisol.
While you don’t have to bulk up on 5000 calories to build muscle, you do need to consume a surplus to optimize the process. If you consume a caloric deficit or even eat at a maintenance level, don’t be surprised if you fail to progress at a satisfactory rate.
A caloric surplus of 500 calories per day is normally the minimum I consider efficient to build muscle at the optimal rate. Some might need a bit more depending on how efficient they are at using those calories. It might even be better to consume a bit more, especially from carbs, to maximize the anabolic hormones or enzymes.
Some experts say you have to gain between 1 and 3 pounds of fat for every pound of muscle you want to gain. While 3 pounds of fat gain is a tad extreme, it’s a LOT easier to lose one pound of fat than to build a pound of muscle. So, a one-to-one gain isn’t a bad deal.
The point isn’t that you need to get fat to build muscle and strength. But if you’re not eating enough, don’t be surprised if a system based on getting progressively stronger doesn’t work.
Also, when your muscles are filled with glycogen, you will be stronger, not only from an energy reserve perspective but from a leverage one. So making sure you ingest enough carbs to avoid having to rely on muscle glycogen to fuel non-training-related activities will also help you get stronger.
An easy solution is to use a good dose of peri-workout nutrition. Two servings of Plazma™ and/or a Finibar™ or two around your workout, added to your regular diet, will get you on your way to having the required nutrients to grow.
6. You’re Not Recovering
Training has both local and systemic effects, as well as side effects. You aren’t just fatiguing the muscles you’re training but also the nervous system.
The result? You have a hard leg workout on Monday and it could negatively affect an upper-body workout on Tuesday. This is even more true if your training has a strong performance component.
See, if your training is mostly pump work on isolation or machine exercises, the systemic effects (and side effects) won’t be huge. But if your training revolves around getting gradually stronger on the big basic lifts, then it’s very easy to kill performance with systemic fatigue, resulting in a lack of overall progress.
When I train athletes or strength athletes, we don’t do two demanding sessions on consecutive days, and we never have a workout (even an easy one) before a hard, performance-driven session. We want to come into those workouts as rested as possible.
I use one of two types of splits with these athletes:
- Monday/Wednesday/Friday, plus an easier, isolation-based workout (gap workout) on Saturday.
- One-day on, one-day off (EOD split)
Remember, taking 3-4 days off per week should not be seen as a way to train less, but as a tool to be able to train harder and maximize training performance without burning out.
7. You Do Too Much Garbage Volume
People who have success with progressive overload have one thing in common: they stick to the big basics and only add the minimum amount of extra work necessary to target weaker areas.
On the flip side, those who fail to progress past the 4-6 weeks mark tend to add way too much volume once their main lifts are done.
Using progressive overload for 4-6 work sets on one or two big basic lifts per workout for 3-4 workouts per week is more than enough to build overall strength and size, provided that nutrition and recovery are on point.
Sure, adding a few well-chosen isolation exercises can help you progress a little bit more. But select only isolation exercises that target a weak muscle or a muscle neglected by the big basics due to some muscle dominance or leverage issue. For example, if you have short arms and dominant triceps, you’ll benefit from some isolated pec work.
But that isolation work won’t be the key to your success. Most of your gains will come from the progressive work on the big basics.
A lot of people, likely those who are stimulus addicts or are insecure about doing enough to progress, will dramatically reduce their chances of getting better by doing too much assistance work.
Look at the most successful proponents of structured progressive overload: Wendler, Trudel, Blakley, Hepburn, Starr, and Rippetoe. They all have their own progressive overload system, but they have one thing in common: using few exercises per workout.
Most of the time, we’re talking about four total exercises per workout: one to three “main lifts” done with progressive overload and maybe one or two assistance exercises.
If you train hard and gradually increase the load, it’s almost impossible not to train enough to progress. However, it’s very easy to train too much and kill progression on the big lifts.
A high-volume approach can work if you don’t rely on progressive overload on neurologically demanding lifts. If most of what you do is machine work, isolation exercises, and lighter weights/higher reps, your workouts won’t be as affected by doing too much.
But if you need to systematically progress on the basic barbell lifts, be in the optimal performance state when you hit the gym. It’s always better to be recovered “too much” than under-recovered.
If you want to make progressive overload work for you…
- Use the double progression model.
- Make small jumps when adding weight. Even the slowest rate of progression sustained for a year will yield better results than being aggressive and stalling after a few weeks.
- Don’t sacrifice form to get more weight or more reps. Only add weight when all of your reps are solid.
- Use the one-day on, one-day off training schedule.
- Consume a 350 to 500 calorie surplus daily, mostly from added carbs and/or workout nutrition supplements.
- Get at least 8 hours of sleep per night, drink a lot of water, and salt your foods.