Updated: Feb 15, 2020
We all go to the gym to get results. Most of us are looking to get a little more jacked and a little stronger. We lift our weights and do our cardio, and at first it seems like anything we do gives us results. Barely following a routine and doing what we think looks fun and interesting works for the first few months when we start lifting weights.
Eventually these gains stop. We are still putting in the same amount of effort and time in the gym but its yielding less results. Some people get stuck here for years. They resort to trying new exercises or new routines every time they step in the gym in hopes that they will start gaining again.
The aim of this article is to arm you with a very important principle that will prevent a lack of return from your time in the gym. This principle is called progressive overload. Simply, progressive overload means you are slowly increasing the demand on your muscles, making them have to adapt and grow.
I think a lot of this of this issue lies with the structure of how introductory programs are made. More often than not you’ll see a list of exercises with the set and rep prescription of “3x10” written next to it. The problem with this is there is no system of progression. When do you add weight? How hard should those sets of ten be? Should they all be at the same weight? What happens when you add 5 pounds to the exercise and only get nine reps?
Besides the lack of direction it also reinforces the lure of changing movement execution to get that 10 reps. “Well I only got nine reps on this curl, but if I swing a little at the hips I can get that tenth one!” You can see how this mentality may create a snowball effect of ever worsening form with more weight just to hit those reps.
Let’s go over how to remedy these issues with a simple yet far more effective approach.
The first thing I would do is change that solid 10 to an acceptable range of reps, let's say 8-12 reps. So as long as you are able to hit 8,9,10,11 or 12 reps in a given set you are using a good weight. That gives you five acceptable outcomes versus one, according to how the programs are written.
The next great thing about ranges is you will be able to get away with using the same weight for all sets. If you get 12 on the first set, 10 on the second, and 8 on the third, the rep range takes into account this fatigue. Now you don’t need to guess what weight you’ll have to use every set to hit 10 reps.
This also decreases the need to change technique to get more reps. Having a range allows you keep form the same at the expense of a rep or two while still accomplishing what the program asks.
Lastly, and this is where progressive overload begins to come in, it gives you a model for increasing load. When you can hit the top of the range, in our example that is 12 reps with good form, then you can add weight and rebuild back to the top. This really drives progress because now you have a goal to beat every time you step into the gym. Here is an example of what someone's progress may look like over several workouts.
Workout says 3 x 8-12. This individual just switched from a 3x10 routine where he was stuck using 95 pounds because every time he went to 100 he could only ever get 9 reps. Here is a look at his theoretical progress over 7 sessions.
So as you can see he slowly built up to a 3x12 with 95 pounds. When he went up to 100 his reps did drop, initially. But you can already see his reps begin to climb with his second workout. If he keeps going in this fashion he will be able to go up to 105 in no time.
He gains the benefit of gaining 3 “mini” goals each workout as well. He can up the reps on set 1, 2 or 3, or on multiple. It becomes very important to track these.
I was not introduced to the concept of a logbook until 2 years into my training. I became interested in an advanced bodybuilding program called DC training, by Dante Trudel. I huge aspect of this program was “The War with the Logbook.” The idea that every time you stepped in the gym you were trying to beat your previous best. I can remember reading my logbook over my lunch break at work preparing for that evening's gym session. I would do everything I could, except sacrifice form, to get that extra rep. This gave me a very different mindset and approach to every training session and with that change came no gains.
I cannot emphasize how important I think it is for people to track their training sessions. Now you don’t need to lose sleep over it like I used to, but looking at your previous sessions reps before you do an exercise will give you an idea of what you are striving for. This can often make the difference between getting that extra rep or not.
The Double or Triple Progression Model
The problem with standard machine, dumbbells and barbells is that typically the smallest jump you can make is 5 pounds. For some movements and people making these jumps doesn't sound huge. However, in certain contexts 5 pounds can be a HUGE jump. For example, if you are DB curling 20 lbs for 10, jumping to 25 pounds would mean a 25% increase. Looking at charts comparing percentages to rep maxes you can typically do 75% for around 10 reps. So adding 25% ma result in your reps dropping to 1 or 3 reps. That’s not ideal. This becomes common with females and barbell lifts as well.
To get around this we can employ a double or triple progression.
An example of a double progression would be hitting your 3 sets for 12, and instead of adding weight, you actually just increase the rep range from 3x8-12 to 3x10-15. Doing this means you can stay at the same weight while you gain the ability to do more reps. You’ll be able to get stronger before that weight increase comes.
Now when you do up the weight you would drop back down to the 8-12 rep range and start you build again. So an example may look like this:
A triple progression is simply adding yet another advancement before increasing weight. This could be increasing the rep range to 10-15 and then say to 15-20, and then increasing weight and dropping back down to 8-12. This gives you even more time to build. You could also try adding another set. To 3x8-12 becomes 3x10-15, which becomes 4x15. Then you add weight and drop back down to 3x8-12.
These models are simple yet effective way to ensure long term progress. I would milk the single progression model for as long as you can, but the more advanced you become the slower progress may be, and that is where you can begin to utilize these methods.
When to Change Exercises
At some point changing exercises may be the step required to keep gains coming. Progressive becomes so slow at a point that even getting an extra rep per workout becomes near impossible. When this begins to happen I would follow this simple rule:
When you make no progress, or regress, for three straight workouts, then switch out the exercise.
I use three sessions just incase two happen to be a fluke. You had a long day at work, your underfed, or you just had an off day. These can make it look like your not making progress, when in reality you just weren't feeling 100%. This allows for us to have those days before jumping to conclusion, but 3 sessions of no progress in a row is usually a sure fire sign that you need to switch to a different exercise.
This again highlights how important a log book is, so you can see when this switching point comes up.
What Rep Ranges for What Exercise
So you can technically use any rep range for any exercise, however I have found that certain ones work better with certain types of exercises. Generally you'll find that lower rep ranges work better with compound free weight exercises like squats and bench presses, while higher rep exercises work better for isolation work such as leg extensions and cable flys. Here is a chart giving you a rough idea of what I think is optimal:
Again this chart isn't to say you can't do 15-20 reps on a Barbell squat, I actually suggest experimenting with all rep ranges with all types of exercises, but these suggestions to tend to work well for a majority of people.
In the Context of a Program
When designing your own programs I might suggest having a variety of exercises with different rep ranges and different exercises that allow for multiple ways to progress. Even if you can’t progress your 5-8 rep range exercise that fast, you may be able to make rapid progress in your 10-15 rep ranges.
Having these varied stimulus also makes training more fun. Doing 3 sets of 8-12 can get as boring as 3x10 over time. Having a Squat for 5-8 reps, a leg press for 8-12, and then leg extensions for 10-15 can make each session a little more interesting because each exercise is just a little different.
So hopefully by now you have a good idea of why progression is important, how to do it, how to track it, and how to include it in your program. I promise you that if you focus on improving a little bit every training session, over time you body will begin to change as well. If you take you bench press from 135 for 10 to 225 for 12, you pecs, shoulders and triceps will have no choice but to get bigger.
Now keep in mind that this is all in the context of eating and recovering properly, but those are for different articles.
For now pick up a lined notebook and a pencil, start tracking your weights and beating your bests and watch you numbers grow as you do!