To a lot of people, there is only one way to know you are making progress in the gym, and that is by lifting heavier weights. It's a common misconception though. If you aren't increasing the amount of plates you are putting on the bar each week or month, it doesn't mean you aren't increasing your muscle mass OR your strength. Obviously you will generally be able to notice some of your gains on the scales or in the mirror, but if neither of those seems to be changing AND the weights you are lifting aren't increasing, it's natural to think you are doing something wrong. But there are plenty of other ways other than just piling more weight onto the barbell to ensure you are progressively overloading your muscle system to make those strength and muscle gains!
What is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload refers to increasing the amount of muscle activation, muscle breakdown, or energy output you are performing in the gym. For someone who is into weight lifting, that normally means lifting more weight. For a long distance runner, it might be running miles per hour faster than they usually do. In essence, it means you are doing more work today than you were yesterday.
Why Do I Need Progressive Overload?
If you want to build muscle, or simply get better at something, you need to be progressively overloading. The human body is a smart machine, and can adapt to numerous different things. One of those is weight training. You will notice growth when you first start hitting the gym. Your body won't have done anything like this before, where it regularly comes under stress from added weight other than your own body weight. Most of you will have heard about 'noob gains', or beginner's luck.
However, if you continue to use the exact same weight, the exact same exercises, day in and day out, eventually your body will stop coming under a state of shock, and instead of growing more, it will simply maintain what you have got. Shocking your body is one of the most important aspects of growing more muscle and building more strength. Doing the same thing over and over doesn't just get boring, it will slow down and probably stop your gains.
To overcome this, we need to perform progressive overload. We need to do more than just lift more weight though. We need to try new things, including exercises and routines. However, don't get this confused with changing the type of training you do – if you respond to high volume (high reps and sets), progressive overload will occur by manipulating that method of training rather than changing track completely and moving to low volume (low reps and sets).
What Types Of Progressive Overload Are There?
First and foremost, increasing the amount of weight you are lifting is a way of implementing progressive overload. But sometimes it can take longer than a week or even a month to actually move from the 60lb dumbbells to the 65lb dumbbells. For that reason we need to utilise other options we have at the gym to make ourselves work harder, and get those gains to show. Some of best methods to use are...
1. Increase Your Reps Or Sets
If you usually do 15 sets for your big muscle groups, but aren't seeing the progress you want to and can't increase your weights, try doing more. If you do three exercises with five sets each, slap another set onto each exercise to really rip and tear the muscle. If you can bench 150lbs for 8 reps, but can't bench 155lbs for 8 reps, then do 10 or 12 reps with the lighter weight instead. Once you can do that no problem, you will probably find that 155lbs is suddenly achievable. Be cautious that you don't negatively affect your recovery, however, by continuing to get adequate rest and food.
2. Shorter Rest Periods
A lot of people will rest for 1-2 minutes between their sets. A lot of other people will rest long enough to ‘like’ the latest post on Facebook, or send a Snapchat of how awesome they are for being at the gym. Yes, you're awesome, but put that phone down and get back to lifting if you want to grow! Your muscles can recover to almost 100% in 60 seconds, so cut down your rest periods to 30 seconds between sets. Your muscles get less time to recover, become easier to breakdown, and the more you tear the muscle, the bigger and stronger they will grow back.
3. More Time Under Tension (TUT) / Longer Negatives
Instead of just whipping through your sets as fast as possible, take some time to really focus on lowering the weights slowly. When you utilise TUT, you put the muscle under stress for longer, force it to contract for longer, and fatigue a lot quicker. For example, count three seconds on the eccentric motion (negative), hold it at the bottom of the movement for one second, and use one second for the concentric motion (3-1-1). This can all lead to some impressive gains.
4. Change Your Exercises
There are literally hundreds of different exercises out there just waiting for you to try them. If you go into the gym to train your back and always do cable rows and bent-over rows, you won't be giving your body much shock. So, at some point, why not do some T-bar rows and deadlifts instead? They are probably better back exercises for one thing, they work similar or identical back muscles, but they require you to move in different ways than you are used to. Different movements will help you achieve that progressive overload you need to increase your strength and ultimately your muscle mass.
5. Change Your Exercise Structure
Say on chest day, you always start with the Barbell Bench Press, then move on to the Incline Press, maybe a Decline Press and some Flys. Well, try starting with the Incline Press one day, and do your Flat Bench after that. Your muscles will be used to flat pressing first, when they are fresh and hardly fatigued. By starting with the incline press, you have pre-fatigued the chest, making the flat press harder, and therefore implementing progressive overload. Those who respond to high volume can also try supersets (performing one exercise directly after another) or drop sets (do one set, lower the weight, repeat 2-3 times without rest).
6. Change Your Weekly Schedule
This can also be applied to your regular weekly workout schedule. The body can get used to working muscle parts on a particular day, and almost prepare itself to train chest on a Monday, national chest day. But if you are having a hard time making gains, maybe you should throw your schedule out the window and do arms or legs on Monday. This can have great repercussions, because by changing one day of training, you automatically actually have to change two days.
Nothing Will Slow You More Than A Negative Mindset
These are just some ways you can implement progressive overload without increasing the amount of weight you are lifting. There are probably more out there, so if you think you know how to make yourself push harder and break those muscles down, then go for it. Variety is the spice of life. If you want your body to change, you have to change too. And that means changing your mental status as well.
Remember that NOTHING can slow you more than a negative mindset. So before you even begin thinking about training your body and overloading your muscles, take a few moments, sit quiet in a corner and get your mind right.