Getting stronger requires something called progressive overload.
Simply put, this means increasing the challenge from workout to workout.
Without progressive overload, you’re just spinning your wheels in the gym, working out, but not getting anywhere.
In this article, I will show you 9 ways to apply progressive overload to your workouts so that you get stronger, fitter, and more badass – guaranteed.
Add an extra rep or an extra set
Adding an extra rep or an extra set increases “training volume,” or the total amount of work you’re doing in your workout.
Training volume has to increase from workout to workout in order to drive strength adaptations and muscle gain.
If you did three sets of five reps (3×5) last week, do 3×6 this week. If you did 3×5 last week, do 4×5 this week.
Pick ONE of these methods, either adding an extra rep OR an extra set – not both.
Increase the weight you lift
Another aspect of training volume is the weight you lift. It’s really sets x reps x weight. By doing the same sets and reps, but increasing the weight, you will also increase training volume and promote strength adaptations and muscle gain.
If you lifted 100 lbs last week, try to lift 105 lbs this week.
Use a slower tempo
In lifting, tempo refers to the speed at which you lift and lower the weight, and whether you pause at the top or bottom of the exercise.
Tempo is written with three or four numbers. The first is the eccentric, or lowering, portion of an exercise. The second is the isometric pause at the bottom of the lift. Third is the concentric, or lifting, portion of an exercise. Finally, the isometric portion at the top of an exercise may or may not be included (if it’s not, there’s no pause between reps).
To simplify, think of tempo as going slow down, pausing, then exploding upwards, then pausing again (if noted).
For instance, a squat with 3-1-1 tempo would mean squatting down for three seconds, pausing one second in the bottom of the squat, then standing back up in one second. The final number is implied to be “zero,” so there’s no pause before starting the next rep.
Slowing down your lifting tempo is a method of increasing “time under tension,” which stimulates strength and muscle gain.
Change the angle
One simple way to change exercise difficulty is to change the angle of your body.
Think of the difference between a hands-elevated push up, a push up from the floor, and a feet-elevated push up. It’s way easier to do a push up with your hands elevated on a box or a bench than it is to do the same exercise with your feet on the box or bench. The angle makes the exercise easier or harder.
Cable machines and TRX suspension trainers both give you freedom to change the angle of any exercise.
Change your grip
An underhand grip chin up is easier than an overhand pull up.
An underhand grip row or pulldown involves more bicep than an overhand grip. Since your biceps are smaller than your back muscles, you probably can’t lift as much weight with an underhand bent over row as you could with an overhand grip.
Different grips on tricep pushdowns target the three different heads of your tricep muscle.
These are just a few examples of how changing your grip can change the difficulty or the emphasis of an exercise.
Change your stance
All of these change the demands of the exercise, making it feel easier or harder:
Changing your grip and stance also allows for more training variety, which can keep your workouts more interesting without completely changing every exercise.
For instance, you could swap chin ups for pull ups after a month, and switch from seated shoulder press to a half-kneeling single-arm press. You haven’t changed the exercise drastically, but you changed it enough to stimulate progressive overload.
Increase your range of motion
More range of motion (ROM) increases time under tension, which is a good way to make it more challenging.
Examples of increasing ROM:
- Rear-foot elevated split squat
- Incline bench bicep curls
- Deficit deadlifts
Use unilateral exercises
“Unilateral” means one-sided.
Doing a 1-arm overhead press increases core demand. A 1-arm DB bench press is surprisingly more challenging than pressing with both arms.
Single-leg exercises (split squats, lunges) are more difficult than squats.
This is a great progressive overload technique to use if you have limited weight selection (like when you’re working out at home, for instance).
Decrease rest periods
This is another way of increasing training volume. If you rest less between exercises, you’re doing more work in less time.
If you rested 2:30 between deadlift sets last week, rest 2:00 this week.
Apply this within reason – don’t turn your strength workout into cardio! It’s important to rest and recover between sets so you have the energy to repeat the same lift with as much force.
Putting it all together
Pick one of these things to change at a time. If you change too many variables at once, you won’t really be able to tell what worked.
Remember, “muscle confusion” is a myth. You don’t need to change everything all the time to make progress.
With these 9 tips, you can take advantage of progressive overload to increase the challenge of your workouts just enough so that you continue to get stronger in the gym and fitter for mountain adventures.