Progressive overload is a method that’s as old as 6th century athlete Milo of Croton and his legendary bull carrying regimen. With this training style, you’re trying to increase the intensity of each workout to avoid a plateau in size and strength. Basically, it’s doing a little more than you did previously. This may seem a no-brainer to many of you reading, but some of us overlook the obvious, so it pays to refresh the message.
Increasing weight, reps, and sets is the simplest way to achieve progressive overload. Boom, instant gains, but plateaus are unavoidable if you’ve been in the lifting game for any length of time. Then, trying to bust out of them may lead to some ego lifting, that’s good for the ego but not so good for your body. You’ve all seen that person half-repping heavy squats or getting the barbell stuck on their chest.
There’s no shame in pushing the envelope, but three better and safer ways exist to achieve progressive overload without increasing load. It’s so simple you wish you would’ve thought of it.
3 Methods To Achieving Progressive Overload
Increasing Range of Motion
Putting the muscle through a greater ROM makes any exercise more challenging because it increases your time under tension (mechanical tension) and the suck. The muscular time under tension (and not the suck) is a driving force for muscle. Not only does it encourage muscle-building, but it can strengthen weak points within a lift.
For instance, increasing the ROM with a deficit deadlift will work on weak points like being slow off the floor and lockout.
Another example is the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat. The elevated surface increases the demand for hip mobility and makes the glutes and quads work hard to pull you up from the bottom of the squat. The split squat and the elevated variation are the same exercise, but the increased ROM increases the intensity.
[Please note this works for only specific exercises like the ones described above but not for pressing variations like the bench press, where increasing the ROM puts the anterior shoulder at risk.]
Adding half a rep to an exercise is another underrated method of increasing ROM and time under tension. You take the most challenging part of the exercise, like the bottom of a press or a squat, rise halfway up, go back down again, and then rise all the way up.
One in a half-rep method works for most exercises but is particularly effective with squat and press variations.
Benefits of Increasing Your Range of Motion
There’s an old saying around gym circles that mobility training is strength training and vice versa. Taking your muscles and mobile joints through a complete and extended ROM safely increases time under tension and will improve your mobility without fancy drills. Adding half a rep to specific exercises will strengthen the most challenging part of the lift, hopefully strengthening your lift while adding muscle.
How To Incorporate It
Increasing ROM and adding half a rep works best using sub-maximal weights (60-85% 1RM) as part of your accessory routine. Adding half a rep works for most exercises, while increasing ROM mainly works for leg exercises; exceptions to the rule exist. Performing two to four sets using a rep range of six to 15 works best. Here’s an example.
1A. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat: 8 to 12 reps per side
1B. Unilateral Dumbbell Row With Pause: 10 to 15 reps per side
The more you push it, the more good form starts to slip, which is okay sometimes but becomes a problem when you do it consistently. Yes, I see the person who’s swinging back and forth doing barbell bicep curls.
Weaknesses and compensations may appear in your lift that don’t happen with sub-maximal weights —for example, struggling with a lockout in the barbell overhead press or losing full body tension in the deadlift. If that sounds like you, using accessory exercises to strengthen weaker points to prevent compensations from happening is a smart bet.
Some lifters make the common mistake of testing strength rather than building it because who doesn’t want to see how much they can lift? Occasionally, testing your 1 RM is encouraged, but concentrating on good form and mastering the exercise with the weight you’re using is what you should be doing most of the time.
Mastery is a highly underrated form of progressive overload.
Instead, ensure you do the exercise to the best of your ability and with good technique. Take mental notes on how you’re doing and whether the weight is causing any form issues. Work on those form issues by programming accessory exercises to strengthen weakness, lighten the weight, or reduce the reps to focus on technique.
Benefits of Achieving Mastery
You lift to get better looking and perform better at life or your chosen sport; none of that happens when you are hurt. Seeking mastery with your strength work will keep you healthier for longer. Furthermore, creating a better mind-muscle connection will give you a better sense of awareness and assist with your muscle-building gains.
How To Incorporate It
There’s a time and a place for body English to get the job done, but you should be seeking mastery of your main lifts most of the time.
Each repetition you perform has four parts: the eccentric, bottom position, concentric contraction, and lockout. Shortening or lengthening how long each part of the rep takes is tempo. Tempo, each part of the rep, is represented by the number of seconds it takes.
For instance, let’s use a 3322 tempo barbell squat as an example—it takes three seconds to lower into the bottom of your squat (eccentric), a 3-second pause at the bottom, 2 seconds to push back up (concentric), and 2 seconds to pause at the top.
The most significant benefit of performing tempo lifting, besides embracing the suck, is it increases the time under tension. Using tempo encourages you to slow the exercise down and focus on form, which is essential for mastery and picking up any form glitches. Form hitches are easier to pick up when you’re going slow rather than fast.
Benefits of Tempo Lifting
Increasing the muscle’s time under tension is where it is at for building muscle and for better form and technique. Tempo lifting, similar to mastery, will create a better mind-muscle connection to improve your awareness and gains,
How To Incorporate It
For tempo, use a 2-3 second concentric, and a 3 to 4 eccentric contraction works well for muscle and strength. The pause and lockout can be manipulated to suit your goals.
Like increasing the range of motion, tempo works best as part of your accessory routine using weights between 60-85% of your one rep max. You will not be able to perform as many reps as you usually do with a given weight, but the increase in tension will compensate for that. Three to four sets using a rep range of six to 12 reps works well for most exercises. Here’s an example.
1A. Tempo Bench Press (3131): 6 to 8 reps
1B. Upper Back Foam Roll: 10 to 15 times.