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A progressive overload workout plan is one of the best ways to gain lean body mass because it increases stimulus week over week in a methodical manner. However, in addition to the proper programming, diet and recovery must also be dialed in to stack on 10 pounds of muscle in just 30 days.
The keys to the kingdom have been granted to you, but in order to see the 2.5 pounds of lean body mass stacked on week over week, it’s imperative that the protocols laid out below are followed exactly as is and unless you’re an advance lifter, modifications should not be made.
But all seriousness aside, even giving less than 100% effort on a progressive overload workout plan will prove fruitful so do everything within your abilities to stick it out for just 30 days.
Progressive Overload Explained (Definition of Progressive Overload)
Progressive overload is when an individual trains their muscles over time and therefore, more stimulus, and stress will need to be applied to continue to gain more size or strength. Progressive overload is widely known as the backbone of any good workout routine and is responsible for continual growth.1
Without adhering to this concept, it is nearly impossible to make consistent progress but luckily, there are four main ways to progressively overload muscles in the gym.
What Are the 4 Common Principles & Methods of Progressive Overload Workout Plans?
While each of these four principles relates to the way a person can work out and is technically different, each of them is interconnected. Mixing and matching them over time would be highly beneficial to ensure that progress is consistently being made.
To begin with, resistance focuses on varying the actual weight that is being moved. The primary ways of overloading resistance are:
- Gradually increasing weight over time, prioritizing gaining strength by moving heavier and heavier weights
- Increasing time under tension, allows the muscles to experience a change in stimulus by forcing them to hold weights for longer. Some people swear by isometric contractions, holding at the top or bottom of a movement for as long as possible.2 Others prioritize slowing down the eccentric portion of a movement, where the weight is being returned to the starting position3
- Introducing variations in training and movements performed. This can include switching between powerlifting, bodybuilding, and calisthenics, or even simply focusing on switching to a different workout plan. For beginners, a beginner hypertrophy program is perfect to start a weightlifting journey
Many lifters and lifting routines use the 1 rep max, abbreviated as 1RM, in order to standardize the weight they are using.
For example, if a person is told to perform 8 repetitions of the squat at 70% of their 1RM, a different person following the same plan will be achieving roughly the same amount of muscular stress since they are both lifting ~70% of their 1RM.
Similar to resistance, intensity also focuses on manipulating how weight is being moved. It tends to be subjective to each individual since it differs in how much effort it requires a person to expend while working out.
- The tempo at which an individual lifts weights will allow for more or less intensity, depending on how quickly each set is performed.
- Varying the duration and amount of rest periods used for each movement can allow for different movements to be higher or lower intensity.
- Supersets are when two movements are performed in quick succession, one after the other.4 In a superset, there is virtually no rest period, bumping up the speed at which your heart must pump blood. Many people prioritize doing antagonistic movements during supersets to maximize blood flow to one area of the body, like the arms. Two is not a limit; tri-sets can be performed to further bump up the intensity.
- Drop sets are a technique used to get extremely close to muscle failure.5 Each micro-set of a drop set is taken near or to failure. The weight is subsequently lowered and the movement is performed again until near failure. This is repeated until exhaustion or full failure and is considered an optimal way to get a pump. Here, the intent is to go to training failure: RPE should be 10.
RiR & RPE in Relation to Intensity
RPE, or Rating of Perceived Exertion, is a scale used to measure the intensity of an exercise.6 Running from 0-10, this subjective measure of intensity allows weightlifters to target a certain range of intensity that they want to dial into.
However, RPE does not only apply to weightlifting; it can be used in a variety of athletic endeavors, including running, swimming, and even dancing. RIR, on the other hand, does only apply to weightlifting.
On the other hand, RiR stands for Repetitions in Reserve and was developed by Mike Tuchscherer. RiR is an inverse of RPE, almost as if it were translated into a better language for bodybuilders and weightlifters to understand.7
RiR focuses, as the name implies, on the number of repetitions left in the tank at the end of a set; for example, if Joe performs 4 sets on the bench press, but he estimates his set had an RIR of 5, then he believes he could have performed 5 more reps during each set. This means he was not pushing very close to failure.
However, if Ron performs the same 4 sets, but estimates a RiR of 2 for each set, he feels he got much closer to failure and thus exerted more effort. Do note that while RIR and RPE are similar metrics and could be considered interconnected, they have different meanings when it comes to weightlifting.
A weightlifter can mentally feel that they had an RPE of 10, because it took all of their mental effort to get through a set, but could have an RIR of 5 because their muscles were not that close to failure.
Frequency entails the number of times per week a person works out and ultimately, a person who is doing a 6-day workout routine plan could have the potential to make more gains than a person who is only working out once a week.
But, keep in mind that the principle of overload must be applied no matter the frequency a weightlifter works out at.
Last and most certainly not least, volume is similar to the frequency in that it prioritizes the increase of repetitions of any given lift. However, with volume, there’s a focus on the number of reps performed, the number of sets done, or the amount of weight used.
Both bodybuilders and powerlifters calculate volume using:
Weight x Reps x Sets = Volume
What Is an Example of Progressive Overload?
To better illustrate the progressive overload principle, imagine that Ryan, a new weightlifter, is trying to incorporate muscle overload into his routine. Here are a few methods he could use to progressively overload each of the different principles listed above.
Progressively Overloading Resistance
Weeks 1-3: Perform 3 sets of 8 reps of squats at 70% 1RM
Weeks 4-6: Perform 3 sets of 8 reps of squats at 75% 1RM
Weeks 7-9: Perform 3 sets of 8 reps of squats at 80% 1RM
Progressively Overloading Intensity
Weeks 1-4: Perform 4 sets of 12 reps of cable curls with a 1-second concentric, 1-second eccentric
Weeks 5-8: Perform 4 sets of 12 reps of cable curls with a 1-second concentric, 2-second eccentric
Weeks 9-12: Perform 4 sets of 12 reps of cable curls with a 1-second concentric, 1-second hold at top of the set, 3-second eccentric
Progressively Overloading Frequency
Weeks 1-4: Go to the gym 3 days per week
Weeks 5-8: Go to the gym 4 days per week
Weeks 9-12: Go to the gym 5 days per week
Progressively Overloading Volume
Weeks 1-3: Perform 3 sets of 15 reps of rope pushdowns
Weeks 4-6: Perform 4 sets of 15 reps of rope pushdowns
Weeks 7-9: Perform 5 sets of 15 reps of rope pushdowns
Why Progressive Overload Plans Are So Effective for Building Muscle & Strength
Quite often, lifters in the gym can be seen who do not seem to be making any progress — they’ve been working out for months, years even, but do not seem to be changing. They are not getting any leaner, any bulkier, and it doesn’t seem like their lifting potential has increased. Much of the short comings can stem from not following a progressive overload workout plan and not following the other principles like periodization and over training, but let’s explore this more.
Lifting Without Progressive Overload Makes Gains Very Difficult
If muscles are not consistently stressed and forced to grow or get stronger, then they will not grow. Think of it this way — the more weight a muscle has to lift, or the more tension a muscle is under, the bigger and stronger it will have to become in order to adapt to that level of stress. For progressive overload training to be effective, the aforementioned principles must be remembered and adhered to.
To get stronger and bigger, muscles must work harder than they are previously used to. If they are not maintained, or even if the muscles have to work less than they are used to working, then they may atrophy, losing size and strength.9 This is why progressive overload is so important. Without consistent progressive overload of time, there will not be a consistent increase in muscle size or shape.
How to Structure a Progressive Overload Workout Plan for Maximum Results
With that in mind, it is clear to see that having progressive overload should be a core tenet of any workout program but how should it be incorporated to have a good progressive overload program? Before this can be answered, an understanding of periodization must be garnered.
Periodization in Weight Lifting
By taking advantage of periodization to supercharge your gains, progressive overload can be consistently and easily applied in a progressive overload workout plan.
Periodization simply refers to the manipulation of frequency, volume, and intensity to improve the speed at which strength and muscle are developed. Sound familiar? All of these principles are interconnected with the principles of progressive overload. This type of training is managed in periodization cycles.
The macrocycle is the overarching training period, typically being larger than 6 months. This is the period of training toward a very long-term goal, like a marathon.
The mesocycle is part of the macrocycle, and exists as a block of training within it, usually lasting 2-8 weeks. Each mesocycle tends to focus on targeting one aspect of training, or in the case of progressive overload training, one principle that should be overloaded.
And lastly, the microcycle is usually seen within the mesocycle as specific training weeks, and sometimes days. Microcycles can be seen as the primary progressive overload cycles, meaning from Microcycle 1 to Microcycle 2, a principle of progressive overload should be applied.11
Choose One Principle and Run With It
Begin by choosing any of the four principles: resistance, intensity, frequency, and volume. For the first mesocycle, this principle will be the primary principle that will be focused on overloading. To overload this specific principle, all other principles will be held steady throughout the mesocycle, while during each microcycle, the specific principle will be overloaded.
As an example to illustrate this, imagine Billy wants to prioritize the resistance of his workouts. Throughout his 6 week mesocycle, he should hold all other principles in place and focus on increasing resistance. For performing one exercise, this may look as follows:
Week 1: 4 sets of 8 reps with 30 pounds, 1sec/1sec concentric/eccentric
Week 2: 4 sets of 8 reps with 30 pounds, 1sec/3sec concentric/eccentric
Week 3: 4 sets of 8 reps with 35 pounds, 1sec/1sec concentric/eccentric
Week 4: 4 sets of 8 reps with 35 pounds, 1sec/3sec concentric/eccentric
Week 5: 4 sets of 8 reps with 40 pounds, 1sec/1sec concentric/eccentric
Week 6: 4 sets of 8 reps with 40 pounds, 1sec/3sec concentric/eccentric
After the conclusion of this mesocycle, Billy can now prioritize a different principle, like volume, subsequently holding resistance in place, keeping the weight and concentric/eccentric portions of the movement the same.
How Do I Create a Workout Plan for Progressive Overload?
Creating a workout plan for progressive overload does take a little bit of work, but with a proper understanding of what it is and how it works, it should be relatively intuitive.
The easiest way to create a progressive overload training plan is to use Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel and to think about the length of periodization training desired. Should it be a 6-month macrocycle, with three 2-month mesocycles and weight 1-week microcycles within each mesocycle? Or should it be two 3-month mesocycles with twelve 1-week microcycles?
If this sounds like too much effort, a free 8-week progressive overload workout plan is included below, with the max growth potential being 2.5 pounds of lean mass per week.
Managing Fatigue & Signs of Overtraining
Overtraining occurs when a weightlifter doesn’t give their body enough time to recover after intense training. This can lead to fatigue in and out of the gym, declining performance, shifts in hormonal balance, and even injury.12,13
Signs of overtraining, or risk for overtraining, include muscle soreness worse than normal soreness after a workout, feeling extremely fatigued after a workout, or not recovering after a night of rest. Consistently ignoring these signs can lead to the body needing exponentially more time to recover over time, so ensuring that these warning signs are heeded is key.
Risks of Overloading Too Quickly
The biggest risk of overloading too quickly is a muscle and joint damage. While unlikely even in the worst of cases, if a weightlifter continues to overload its musculature even when it clearly cannot handle the stress it is being put under, there is the possibility for muscle tears to occur, significantly extended recovery times, loss of appetite, and even mood swings.14
When to Switch Out Exercises
There is no agreed-upon time frame to switch exercises out. Most people consider changing the exercises performed in a workout routine to be the last thing to change to get a new stimulus to the muscles.15 Typically, other principles of progressive overload should be adjusted before changing the workout entirely.
However, if a workout routine is beginning to feel boring, it is probably a good time to switch things up — if there isn’t enjoyment in going to the gym, then motivation will be lower, which can only make working out to max potential more difficult.
It is easy to go into the gym and feel like gains are being made with a huge pump. But, in reality, without understanding how to progressive overload, gains will not be made quickly or easily; they will not be made at all. Understanding the four core principles of a progressive overload workout plan and applying them will inevitably lead to serious gains — up to 10 pounds in 30 days actually.
Should I Increase Weight Every Set to Achieve Progressive Overload?
No; unless the weightlifter is a beginner, increasing weight every set is not feasible, especially for progressive overload. As aforementioned, when increasing the resistance to prioritizing progressive overload, all other variables should be held constant, including sets, rest times, and volume. This means that weight should only be increased if the desired amount of reps can be performed. Using other elements of progressive overload before increasing the weight should be done.
Should You Progressive Overload Every Workout?
Progressive overload should be prioritized every workout. While there will be some days where a person is much more fatigued or simply does not feel as strong, the vast majority of the time, progressive overload should be achievable and should be the goal.
How Much Weight Should I Increase Per Week?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer here; while a person should aim to increase the weight that they lift over time, the weight that this is varies based on, well, everything. It depends on who the person lifting is, how long they have been lifting, the type of movement it is, the length of rest between each set, and the amount of sleep the person got the night beforehand; in sum, there is not a set amount of weight to increase per week.
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