BowTied Ox

- Strong As An Ox -

Progressive Overload

This will be one of the more important posts ever published on the substack. If you can understand and apply the principles of Progressive Overload you will completely understand the primary cause of muscle growth.

We have briefly discussed progressive overload in previous substacks, but today we are going to dive into the weeds of what exactly this is, and the best methods for maximizing it so we can continue to maximize our muscle growth.

What Is Progressive Overload?

Progressive Overload can be defined as continually placing increased demand on the muscle. You are making your workouts harder overtime.

The easiest way to conceptualize this is with weight. If you start with 135lbs on squat and overtime add weight and work up to 405lbs, then you have without a doubt grown much, much bigger legs. I could probably stop this article right there, but I will further digress.

Progressive Overload can come in many shapes and forms:

  • Adding Weight
  • Increasing Reps
  • Increasing Time Under Tension
  • Increasing Sets
  • Increasing Frequency

Adding to these over time will yield a progressive overload response. However, as we can see, some are more sustainable than others. You simply aren’t going to increase time under tension until a single rep takes 2 minutes, or increase sets so you’re doing 50 sets, or increase frequency until you’re working out 3 times a day.

Reps and weight will be the most common and applicable methods of accomplishing progressive overload.

Why Is Progressive Overload Important?

You need to place your body under stress to make any changes to your muscles. We do this through mechanically loading the muscle with weight.

→This creates tension in the muscle, which then signals a response that something is going on and the body needs to do something (grow the muscle).

→ As we place this demand, the body needs to adapt to overcome this new stimulus it is encountering. To do this, it grows bigger and stronger muscles.

For this response, known as the adaptive response to happen, we must continue to challenge the body to keep growing bigger and stronger muscles to overcome.

We do this through progressive overload.

If you don’t give this response, the body will remain the same, the body much rather stay in a state of homeostasis. If it were easy, everyone would be a 225lbs walking Greek statue.

Practical Applications Of Progressive Overload

So many times you see guys in the gym, they go every day, don’t miss a session, but somehow, year after year they look the same. If you were to look at the weights these guys lift, it’s the same 100lbs, 225lbs, 315lbs or whatever on the same lifts, session after session.

The act of working out is simply not enough, as mentioned above we have to continue to apply a more novel stimulus to promote muscle growth.

We have to be adding weight or reps overtime, and this is not always as simple as it may seem in theory. We have to employ all of the tools we have to ensure we can keep doing this.

Logbook

The first thing is first, we need a method to track our weights. Your logbook, whether it’s a physical book you keep, an app on your phone, or your notes app, is a must. This essential turns into your bible of whether you are growing or not.

Too many people go into the gym with a rough idea of what weight they can do on a certain exercise. Don’t do this, I have done this and you will forget where you were. This is important as 5lbs can be the difference between growing or not.

With your logbook you should keep track of everything:

  • Weights you’ve used in previous sessions—this number needs to increase overtime to see growth.
  • Reps—you need a rep range/goal, when you reach this goal you add more weight and restart at the bottom end of the rep range/goal
  • Equipment settings—These ensure you are progressing the muscle in the same conditions—it’s important we know what seat setting/height/adjustment/etc. so we are standardizing our movement and ensuring these conditions remain constant

I will do a deep dive in a future post into a logbook and how to use it, but these are the minimums you need to track your lift and ensure progressive overload.

Defined Rep Range Goals

The rep range in which growth happens at the most optimal rate is the 6-20 (even 30 in some cases) rep range.

You need to go into the gym with a plan with defined rep range goals in this range. Preferably a couple sets with various ranges (e.g. 1 set of 6-9, 1 set of 12-15)

I am not a fan of giving someone a workout with a single rep goal—let’s say 1 set of 10. This doesn’t give us a proper range in which we can gauge our progress and overload.

Instead I would give someone a rep range of say 6-9:

Ideally, you would pick a weight you can do for 6 reps, overtime you will eventually get 7, then 8, and then finally 9. Once you can get 9 or 10, it’s time to add weight and start back over at 6 reps and repeat this progression.

Do this over and over again overtime and you no doubt will have grown the muscle. If you can take your 6 rep max from 100lbs to 200lbs, that muscle will have grown a substantial amount.

Weight

This is by far the easiest progression in the progressive overload model.

More weight = increased stimulus on the muscle.

This ties in greatly with rep ranges. You can’t progress your 1-3 rep max overtime and expect muscle growth. Strength gains happen more on the neural/nervous system level. It does not translate well to muscle gain, otherwise the world’s strongest man would also be the world’s most muscular man. For this, we must keep the rep ranges in mind.

Weight increases to not have too large on the week to week, or even workout to workout basis. Adding 2.5lbs to a lift will result in furthering your progress.

If you can add 2.5lbs on an exercise every week, over the course of 10 weeks, this is a 25lbs increase. This adds up greatly in the long run in terms of muscle and strength gained.

In regards to your rep ranges, this becomes important. On say, leg press—you can probably add 10-25lbs when you get to your upper limit of your rep range, and that will put you at the bottom of this rep range.

On something like dumbbell biceps curls, adding 2.5-5lbs is probably enough to take you from 9 reps back down to 6 reps.

How you add weight will be very individualistic, and it will take a little experimenting and getting to know your limits to get it down perfect. Even I will over/underestimate weight when adding for progressive overload.

Working Multiple Rep Ranges

For us to maximize muscle growth in response to progressive overload, it makes sense to work the entire rep range. Your goal is to become as strong as possible overtime in the 6-20 rep range.

This rep range is too broad to cover in a single set progression, so it’s wise to split it up into multiple sets.

For this, I personally use load and back-off sets. Your load set will be higher weight for less reps, we’ll use 6-9 reps for our example. Your back off set will be, say, 12-15 reps.

For this example, we use 315lbs on incline bench for our load set, we get this for 6 reps. We will then “back-off” and do 225lbs, and say we fail at 12 reps.

Over time, our goal is to get the 315lbs to 9 reps, and our 225lbs to 15 reps.

You might progress your back off set to 15 reps before your load set to 9—this is fine, simply add weight to your back off set and keep grinding out your load set to 9 reps.

The reason we do this is because muscle growth happens in the total rep range and has different mechanisms that cause growth. Heavier, lower reps cause more mechanical tension based hypertrophy where higher reps cause metabolic stress-induced hypertrophy.

By taking advantage of the entire rep range, we are maximizing every aspect that goes into muscle growth.

Standardizing Conditions

For progressive overload to happen, we need to mimic our conditions as close as possible to ensure we are progressing under the same conditions.

We do this in a few ways.

  1. Where do we stop our reps? The way I do this is by taking all sets to failure. Outside of taking sets to failure, being hugely beneficial for muscle growth, this also gives me a known, definite stopping point. You can use a method known as RPE or RIR, but this can be difficult to judge simply based on how you’re feeling that specific moment.
  2. Equipment Set up—as mentioned in the logbook section, it’s important we are in the same body position on our lifts. Slight changes can affect how we perform the lift and make it easier/harder thus throwing our numbers off.
  3. Exercise Order—If you want to ensure conditions are the same, we need to do the exercises in the same order for a specific exercise. If you typically do chest press before shoulder press, the number will be consistent on both lifts. If we switch this order up, we will see a massively different result in our numbers on both lifts.

Other Methods of Progressive Overload

As mentioned: increased sets, time under tension, and workout frequency.

These are far less sustainable models for progressive overload, but can be strategically employed to make it happen.

For time under tension, you can experiment with the tempo of your lifts—you can employ strategies like slowing down the negative (eccentric) portion of a lift. You can also make the set itself longer and take more time doing your reps in a very slow and controlled fashion.

You can increase the amounts of sets you do, and this doesn’t have to be a huge jump. Overtime, if you can add 1-2 sets—being adding it to a specific exercise or adding an entirely new exercise for that body part—you can take advantage of progressive overload.

You have to tread lightly with this form of progression or you will be doing a ton of sets and your workouts will be extremely long. It’s smart to employ periods of possibly increasing volume with sets and also periods of reducing volume. 10-20 sets per week is the sweet spot optimal muscle growth.

One method we can use to add sets is to increase our workout frequency. This will only happen a few times in your lifting career.

Another method is changing your split—going from say an upper/lower split where you’re doing 8-12 sets per muscle group a week, to a more specialized split like PPL, where you are doing 12-15 sets per muscle group a week.

I would never suggest making this frequency more than 3 times a week or you simply will not be able to recover properly and you will limit your growth substantially.

Putting It All Together

Progression is the name of the game. If you want to grow you need to be progressing at all costs.

I cannot place any more emphasis on tracking your progression. You will eventually stall out if you aren’t doing so. This is one of the easiest and quickest ways to ensure you are doing what it takes to grow.

When it comes to progression, following a program with built-in progression models is going to be key. We need to ensure there is a rhyme and reason to what we are doing in the gym, so we can manipulate our desired outcomes.

Working with an intelligent program—with metrics for rep ranges and weight increases—we will see muscle growth.

As long as we keep moving in the right direction and beating our previous bests, your results will happen.

The tools listed above will be more than enough, but if you are going to focus on one thing it’s simply this: Get as strong as humanly possible in the 6-20 rep range.