“To me, the sign of a really excellent routine is one which places great demands on the athlete, yet produces progressive long-term improvement without soreness, injury or the athlete ever feeling thoroughly depleted. Any fool can create a program that is so demanding that it would virtually kill the toughest marine or hardiest of elite athletes, but not any fool can create a tough program that produces progress without unnecessary pain.”
~ Dr. Mel C. Siff
If you want to become stronger or to grow lean muscle, your program must purposefully and gradually increase the work done during lifting over time.
That’s called progressive overload.
Lifting a little heavier or lifting the same weight more times creates tension on the muscle that pushes it past what it has done before.
This is how we cause the adaptation of muscle growth and with it, strength.
This can be done with increasing the load, which is expected to happen as we train. We become stronger, so we will use heavier weight.
Related: How to Start Lifting
But we can’t do that indefinitely. No matter how long you train, or how effective your training protocol is, there is a genetic limit to how much weight you’ll be able to pick up.
Smart programming is preventative – if you’re injured, you lose training time. Or worse, an injury may force you to quit.
So to keep progressing, we must use other variables to accumulate that overloading on the muscle.
Three primary variables used to create progressive overload with the same load are the number of repetitions done for each set, the number of sets done per session, and training frequency.
What follows are not actual training protocols, but examples to show how manipulating a single variable (reps, sets, training frequency) will change the total volume of work done with a particular body part.
Reps and Volume
If you don’t lift heavier, or increase sets, but just increase your repetitions, you increase total work done by that muscle group over a short amount of time.
Sets and Volume
Keeping the load and reps constant, but increasing the number of sets performed over time increases the work done by quite a bit.
Training Frequency and Volume
This one might surprise those lifters who are following an “old school” 5-day split (ie chest on Mondays, back on Tuesdays, etc.) Granted, compound movements like squats work more than one bodypart, but if your progress is stalled on a body-part split, you need to do more volume. Switching to an upper/lower, push/pull, or similar split will increase your volume over the week.
These examples are simplistic on purpose – I wanted to show how the the total work done can be increased by changing just one variable.
Look at the numbers – changing your training split to hit a muscle group more frequently will produce the largest change in volume. That may seem obvious, but people who use the old-school body part split will search for a supplement to help them progress when they might just need to look at their programming.
Over time, increasing the work done creates the progressive overload needed to cause body to adapt to that increased demand. That’s how we get stronger. And if we’re stronger, we grew muscle.
There are other variables that can cause progressive overload, but they are harder to show in a chart.
If someone is in a fat-loss phase, they have fewer calories available for energy. Without changing anything about the lifting protocol, the caloric deficit makes the lift harder.
A lifter can keep everything the same, but use slow reps, or paused reps. That “time under tension” will make the same number of reps and sets with that load a lot harder. So much so, that it’s recommended to do slow or paused reps with a lower weight.
Shortening the rest time between sets, starting the next set before fully recovered will make that next set a little harder, too.
Training Age and Progressive Overload
Training age makes a big difference when considering how to manipulate these variables to progress.
Everything works for novices. The first 3 months of training can be deceptive. It won’t always be that magical.
Intermediate and advanced lifters need more deliberately planned protocols to cause progressive overload. Especially if they are in a cut.
To keep a lifter healthy, changes in volume should be the least amount necessary to continue progression.
If adding reps will do the job, there is no need to add sets.
If your back isn’t progressing and you’re only training it once a week, you might want to change your split and train it twice.
However, more isn’t usually “more” with weight lifting. If training your back three times a week prevents full recovery, you won’t see progress. Maybe twice is all you need.
How do you know which to do? Training age is a key consideration. Check out my blog on lifting age for more info.
Someone might be thinking that they don’t need to know how all these variables work to make progress. Well, that’s true for a novice lifter, but at some point, what you don’t know will stall you out.
Think of it this way – you can walk across the country, but flying would be a better choice, right? If you’re going to do something, why not do it optimally?
If you have been lifting for a few years, it’s possible that you’re not able to progress because of your programming.
Look at your program objectively and ask some questions…
- Are you you using the same training split you used when you first started?
- Are you getting too much volume and not recovering?
- Did you add reps when you really needed to add sets?
- Is your diet preventing progress right now?
Everyone is different, so these questions will be different. However, unless you’re working with a coach who does the programming for you, you’ll need to understand how to make appropriate changes to these training variables to keep progressing.
I created this free training to answer the most common FAQs Ive been asked over the years...
- what to eat?
- how to set up a lifting program?
- how to stay motivated?
- how to get started?
Watch instantly, on-demand. Learn more-->
Come hang out with us in one (or both) of our Facebook communities to get inspired, learn, and be supported by like-minded busy adults!
A supportive community for anyone who is interested in developing healthy eating habits. We're all about balance, flexibility, and sustainability with a focus on science-based principles and results. No food shaming here! Tammy runs weekly challenges to help people build and sustain healthy habits.
Click through to join!
We're women over 40 who love lifting and train with a purpose - some compete in powerlifting or bodybuilding, but not all. We push ourselves to be stronger. We don't tone - we train to be badass. Expect science-based info and support. All lifting experience levels are welcome. Tammy runs weekly challenges to help you progress as a lifter over time.
Click through to join!
Hi! I'm Tammy! I was a busy, stressed, and unhealthy teacher until I decided to take control of my health. I did not become an athlete until I was in my 50's!
I earned personal training and fitness nutrition certifications, then retired from teaching to dedicate my work life to fitness education for other busy women over 40.
My results are obviously not typical because most people don't train to compete as a bodybuilder.
But I believe everyone can make positive changes with healthy habits! Each of us has a unique combination of strengths and challenges that need to be considered to customize a program that will work for us. Science-based principles, flexibility, and consistency make all the difference.