Ever see folks at the gym who always do the same exercises with the same amount of weight for the same number of reps—and their body never changes? That person gets made fun of a lot online, but in their defense, it’s an easy state to slip into. Maybe you’ve tried a heavier weight, and each time you do, your joints don’t like it, or your form breaks down, or you struggle mightily to get just a few reps. Hey, it happens!
I’m not going to tell you that you have to lift heavier to “be tough” or anything silly like that. Too many promising lifters have been broken by arbitrarily chasing big numbers! The answer isn’t to just keep doing the same thing forever, though. The concept of progressive overload hasn’t been defeated yet; if you want to grow, you need to keep challenging yourself!
Luckily, you have options beyond adding plates and hoping your spotter is on their toes. So let’s take a closer look at three other ways you can include this critical principle in your training.
1. Increase The Number Of Reps
Believe it or not, “Thou shalt do 3 sets of 10 reps” wasn’t among the original commandments. If that 10th rep felt smooth as silk, it’s perfectly reasonable to keep going! Within a few weeks, you may easily be able to press that same weight for 13-14 reps. While the load hasn’t changed, you’re pushing yourself harder by increasing the number of reps you complete—and that’s progressive overload.
Of course, the standard rep range for hypertrophy is 6-12, so doing 13, 14, or 15 reps no longer puts you in the maximal muscle-building rep range, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless or that you’re only building endurance. Kris Gethin’s personal biceps workout, for instance, is nothing but sets of 15. Many lifters swear by 20-rep sets of squats for both strength and size gains. And as a way to spice things up on occasion, they’re great (in an awful kind of way). Still, I don’t think adding reps indefinitely is the way to go.
Here’s my approach. Follow a high-rep program for a change of pace, or once you can easily do sets of 12 for two consecutive workouts, add about 5 percent more weight for upper-body movements and 10 percent for lower-body moves, rather than further increasing the number of reps you can do. That’ll ensure you stay within the muscle-building rep range and can now focus again on increasing your reps.
2. Increase The Volume By Adding Sets
Another way to implement progressive overload is to increase the number of sets you do of an exercise. You can find plenty of great programs that take that same idea and stretch it out even further. Just three examples are Vince Gironda’s classic 8 sets of 8 workouts, the 10 sets of 10 approach of German volume training, or Hany Rambod’s FST-7, which often features 7 sets of 10-12 reps.
Volume, remember, is a marker for hypertrophy as well as elevating testosterone and growth-hormone levels.[1-4] Of course, there is probably a point of diminishing returns when it comes to adding sets, but that point definitely isn’t at 3 sets.
3. Decrease Your Rest Periods
If you’ve got a stopwatch in your gym bag or always insist on lifting where you can see a clock, this one’s for you.
If you typically rest a strict 90 seconds between sets, but reduce it to 70 or 60, your body is “less recovered” than it might normally be: lactate, hydrogen ions, and pH levels aren’t normalized to the degree they would have been with the longer rest interval. This mechanism also forces your body to make incremental adaptations.
All these modes can be used to help you continue making gains in the gym, but I don’t recommend blending them all at the same time. Focus on one until you hit a plateau, then switch to another. Whatever you do, the gym is no place to get comfortable!