Progressive Overload: The Optimal Approach to Training for Muscle Building Progress

This page continues from Part 1, here: How to Build Muscle

One of the things that is required for building muscle is a good training program.

What are the key ingredients of a good training program?

The basic points your training program should include are:

  • Progressive overload
  • Training each muscle group 2-3x per week.
  • A focus on compound and bodyweight exercises, with some isolation work mixed in.
  • Scheduled deloads

Get on a program that ticks the above four boxes, stay on it for the long term and lift more weight over time (months and years) and you will gain muscle (provided you eat and recover correctly as well).

deadlifts progressive overload

Compound exercises like deadlifts are key.

What is progressive overload?

Progressive overload means you are lifting more weight over time.

It does not mean you walk into the gym and try to set a new 1 rep max of 5kg more than you lifted last time. That is testing your strength. It doesn’t build it. I’ve made that mistake.

The optimal way to actually build more strength (which will increase your 1 rep max anyway), is to work with lighter weights that you can lift for at least 5 reps. I personally like to work with anything from sets of 8 reps up to sets of 15 reps. I’ve covered this in a blog post here: How many sets and reps should you do to build muscle?

There are several ways you can use progressive overload:

You can:

  • Increase the number of sets for the exercise
  • Do more reps per set for the exercise.
  • Add weight to what you’re lifting.
  • Lift the same weight for the same sets and reps, with shorter rest times between sets.
  • Increase the difficulty of the exercise (e.g. doing deadlifts from the floor instead of from blocks)

I personally recommend using a mixture of the first three points above.

Try this (for example on a barbell exercise like back squats or bench press)

Pick a weight you know you can lift for three sets of eight. Pick something lighter than what you know you can do at maximum effort. The last rep of the third set shouldn’t be an all-out max effort grinder!

Lift the weights for three sets of eight reps.

Next time you’re in the gym doing this workout again, do one of the following. Which one you do will depend on how new you are. Beginners can progress faster.

More experienced trainees should aim for slower progress for the best results.

  • Increase the weight by 2.5kg and lift it for three sets of eight reps again (beginners). You may not be able to do this if you’re on an exercise where you can lift less weight, like overhead press, or if you’re starting from a lower level of strength. For this reason, this may not be the best option for lady lifters.
  • Use the same weight as last time, but lift for four sets of eight reps this time.
  • Lift the same weight as last time but lift for three sets of nine reps this time.
  • Use the same weight as last time but lift for one set of nine reps, and two sets of eight reps (more advanced lifters. This might be too slow for beginners and lead to progressing slower than they could.)

Obviously don’t keep adding reps until you’re doing 3 sets of 100, or adding sets until you’re doing 100 sets of 8.

Keep the sets between 3 and 5, and the reps between 8 and 12 (you can go to 15 if you like). Eventually, you’ll find yourself lifting for five sets, a weight you could only lift for three sets before. Or you’ll find yourself lifting a weight for three sets of twelve reps where you could previously only do it for three sets of eight.

This is when you should try and increase the weight (unless you’re a complete beginner, then you can try increasing the weight every workout but keeping the sets and reps the same. To be honest this is probably only going to apply to male beginners, due to the higher likelihood of a stronger base level of strength.)

Training Frequency and Programming

Training frequency is very important, as is the type of exercise you are doing.

You want to avoid the many programs you might find online, or given to you by your buddy, that end up with you only working a muscle group once per week.

These programs often have too much focus on machine and isolation exercises.

They often look something like:

  • Monday: Chest and triceps
  • Tuesday: Legs
  • Wednesday: Back and biceps
  • Thursday: Shoulders and abs
  • Friday: Arms

I’ve even seen weirder ones with days like “chest and calves” and “back and quads”.

Avoid anything that looks like this. People who follow these kind of workout programs usually see awful results. They over focus on certain areas using isolation exercises, and they neglect important other factors like using compound or bodyweight exercises. They also lack progressive overload. On these routines, you have a whole week before a muscle is worked again, which is lower than optimal frequency for almost all types of trainees.

What Should Your Program Look Like

There are many good programs out there. For beginners, I suggest you look at:

  • Stronglifts
  • Starting Strength
  • A three day per week full body program using progressive overload

For intermediate to advanced trainees, I would suggest Jim Wendler’s 531 program, or Chad Wesley Smith’s Juggernaut program (more advanced).

If you want to devise your own program, you have to make sure it is balanced, and you have to make sure you will have progressive overload.

All of the programs I’ve named above build progressive overload into the heart of the program.

For beginners, a three day, full body routine works really well.

For intermediate trainees (1-2 years lifting, but potentially more) I suggest a four day per week upper/lower split (2 days upper, 2 days lower).

More advanced trainees might prefer a 5 day per week that looks something like this:

  • Monday: Lower
  • Tuesday: Upper Pull
  • Wednesday: Upper Push
  • Thursday: Lower
  • Friday: Upper
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Rest

Even more advanced trainees who are capable of training and recovering from 6 workouts per week, could try a push, pull, legs routine where each of those workouts are performed twice per week. A rest day in the middle of the week before repeating the cycle usually works best.

All of the above types of programs will see you working all muscles 2-3x per week, which is optimal for progress.

Compound and bodyweight exercises should be the focus of all workouts, with a bit of isolation work thrown in (not the other way around). For an example of the type of physique you could build with just bodyweight exercises, look no further than gymnasts. The guys who do rings, parallel bars, pommel horse etc. got those huge chests, shoulders, backs and arms by doing dips, pull-ups and progressively more difficult variations of those. No one is getting a physique like that with just isolation exercises and machines.


No weights used to build this muscle

Compound and bodyweight exercises use multiple muscle groups in conjunction, so you get a much more productive workout. By doing chin-ups, you can work your biceps, your forearms, your lats, your rhomboids, your traps, your abs, your obliques etc. all to some degree

By doing biceps curls you just work your biceps.

Compound exercises are generally performed with free weights like dumbells and barbells. They also involve multiple muscle groups working together and should absolutely be the sole focus of your training.

The most common compound exercises (I recommend all of these) are:

  • Squats including variations
  • Deadlifts and variations
  • Bench press (barbell, dumbbell, incline and decline variations)
  • Rows, including dumbbell (one arm), barbell (bent over/pendlay)
  • Overhead press (or military press, push press)
Bench press progressive overload

Bench Press

Machines should generally be avoided as they tend to isolate muscle groups rather than have several working together. The machines do all of the stabilising work for you, so muscles other than the primary ones being worked don’t have to do anything.

This is why you can squat much more with the smith machine than you can with a free barbell. Fixed machines are also more likely to give you injuries as they force your body to move in fixed, straight lines. If you’re going to use a machine, make it a cable based one.

Rest and Recovery is an Essential Part of Your Program

This is really important. Don’t skip it. Read it in part 3 here: Rest and Recovery is Essential for Optimal Muscle Growth.

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