Progressive Overload: The Fuel That Drives Muscle Gains
Progression, also called progressive overload, is the addition of weight over time. The progression begins at the set level, with the addition of reps. Eventually, when we are capable of performing a quality number of reps per set, we add weight to make the set more challenging once again.
Progressive overload is the fuel that drives muscle gains. Without progression or the addition of weight over time, you won't see much in the way of muscle gains.
While the muscle building process does not require you to train for absolute strength, it does require you to dramatically improve your strength above and beyond where it is now. Remember this truth: no one with a substantial amount of muscle mass is weak.
Focus on progressing in standard hypertrophy muscle building rep ranges. We will detail these ranges below.
Progression schemes won't matter much how you progress, as long as you progress. So pick a set and rep scheme that appeals to you.
For compound exercises, it is best to stick with the 5-12 rep range the majority of the time. For isolation exercises, and some machine and cable exercises, you will find that the 8-15 rep range is a better fit.
Certain leg exercises such as leg press and squats can work well with higher rep schemes. If you do add in 15 or 20 rep sets of squats, it will be in your best interest to decrease the volume of sets a bit.
Leg presses, on the other hand, aren't as taxing. If you bump your leg press reps up to 15-20 per set, you can keep the same number of sets.
Please note that you can use different progression schemes for different exercises. It is not necessary to pick only one progression scheme for compound exercises, and one for isolation exercises.
With that said, be careful about over-complicating things.
On a final note, remember that rep ranges are guidelines. It's OK to go a little higher or normal, based on how your body is performing on any given day with a weight.
Just because a set calls for 8-12 reps doesn't mean you should stop at 12 if you are capable of doing more. On the same note, if you only hit 6 reps, it's not the end of the world. Remember, improvement (progression) is the magic, not specific rep ranges. Regardless of what reps you hit per set, try to improve the next time you work out.
Progression Approach #1 Standard 8-12 Progression
- 3x4 sets x 8-12 reps
8x12 Method #1 - Stick with the same weight for each of the sets. When you reach 12 or more reps for your first set, add weight to this exercise the next time you hit the gym.
Your third set may dip below 8 reps. That's ok. Remember progression is more important than rep ranges.
8x12 Method #2 When you struggle to hit over 8 reps on a set, drop the next set's weight by 10%. So for example, Let's say you're using 185 pounds on the bench press and your first 2 sets look like this:
- Set 1 185 pounds x 11 reps
- Set 2 185 pounds x 8 reps
- Set 3 165 pounds x 12 reps
Just because a set calls for 8-12 reps doesn't mean you should stop at 12 if you are capable of doing more.
Progression Approach #2 Standard 6-10 Progression
- 3x4 sets x 6-10 reps
Progression Approach #3 Standard 8-15 Progression
- 3x4 sets x 8-15 reps
When you are able to perform 15 reps for your top set, add weight the next time you use this exercise.
Progression Approach #4 5x5 Progression
- 5 sets x 5 reps
5x5 schemes are extremely popular and have been for many decades. They are perfect for the heaviest of compound exercises: squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press and barbell rows.
Your 5 sets will be performed as follows:
- Set 1 60% x 5 reps
- Set 2 80% x 5 reps
- Set 3 100% x 5 reps
- Set 4 100% x 5 reps
- Set 5 100% x 5 reps
The weight you use for sets 1 and 2 are percentages, based on your set 3-5 weight. This means that if you are using 200 pounds for your last 3 sets, your 5 set scheme would look like this:
- Set 1 120 pounds x 5 reps
- Set 2 160 pounds x 5 reps
- Set 3 200 pounds x 5 reps
- Set 4 200 pounds x 5 reps
- Set 5 200 pounds x 5 reps
Progression Approach #5 Decreasing Weight Progression
- 3-4 sets starting at 6-8 reps
Start with a weight that allows 6 reps. For set two, drop the weight 5-10% and perform as many reps as possible. Drop another 5-10% for sets 3 (and 4, if you are using 4 sets).
When you are able to perform 8 or more reps for set one, add weight to each of the sets.
For example, let's say you are using 200 pounds on the bench press and are able to perform 8 reps for your first set:
- Set 1 200 pounds x 8 reps
- Set 2 180 pounds x 10 reps
- Set 3 160 pounds x 12 reps
- Set 1 205 pounds x max reps
- Set 2 185 pounds x max reps
- Set 3 165 pounds x max reps
Progression Approach #6 Increasing Weight Progression
- 3-4 sets starting at 12-15 reps
When you are able to perform 15 or more reps for set one, add weight to each of the sets.
For example, let's say you are using 150 pounds on the bench press and are able to perform 15 reps for your first set:
- Set 1 150 pounds x 15 reps
- Set 2 165 pounds x 11 reps
- Set 3 180 pounds x 7 reps
- Set 1 150 pounds x max reps
- Set 2 165 pounds x max reps
- Set 3 180 pounds x max reps