Tip: Know Your Benchmarks, Then Smash Them

Intensity, volume, density, quality. All can be used for progression, and the one you choose needs to be somewhat instinctive. Info here.

If today's session is an upper-body workout featuring incline dumbbell presses, close-grip pulldowns, lying triceps extensions, and hammer curls, presumably you did that same workout about a week ago.

That means you've got some benchmark numbers to base today's training targets on. If you incline-pressed 70-pound dumbbells for 5 sets of 10 last time, you could try to build upon that recent performance in a few different ways in today's workout:

  • Attempt to increase the weight 5 pounds and incline press the 75's for the same sets and reps. Or try the 75's for 5 sets of 8-9 (i.e. increase intensity). This would be especially appropriate when strength is your key objective.
  • Attempt to lift the same weight for more sets and/or reps (i.e. increase volume). This is a good approach when muscle is your primary goal.
  • Attempt the same weight, sets, and reps, but in less total time (i.e. increase density). This is a good strategy when muscle development and/or body composition is your main goal.
  • Attempt to do the same weight, sets, and reps, but with cleaner technique (i.e better quality). This is appropriate for novices or lifters struggling with orthopedic issues.

In some cases, the direction you take might be based on whatever you think has the best likelihood of success for that given day. For example, your training goal might suggest trying to add weight, but you strongly suspect that you have a much better chance of getting more reps with the same weight. If that's the case, take that option.

Applying progressive overload requires knowledge of your best, or at the very least, recent best performances on key movements. These personal records are the targets you attempt to smash each time you repeat these movements. And of course, your training log is where you find these numbers, so make sure you're keeping one.

Charles Staley is an accomplished strength coach who specializes in helping older athletes reclaim their physicality and vitality. At age 56, Charles is leaner than ever, injury free, and in his lifetime best shape. His PRs include a 400-pound squat, 510-pound deadlift, and a 17 chin-up max. Follow Charles Staley on Facebook