The fundamentals of progressive weight training for all manner of fitness goals
Training with weights, otherwise known as ‘resistance training’ is the most effective method of exercise available. It can be tailored to suit any set of goals and physical capabilities. Resistance training is effective for fat-loss, muscle gain, strength building, toning, increasing endurance and achieving higher levels of both aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (strength and muscular capacity) output.
‘Progressive’ resistance training simply refers to the methods in place to ensure your body is both constantly adapting AND growing stronger / bigger / leaner / faster over an extended period of time. This article will go through some of the more basic means of achieving this.
THE BASICS of PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
We’re going to use the example of an exercise (let’s say, used in conjunction with a full-body workout once or twice per week) and how you can add reps, sets, weight and volume to a workout to increase your body’s ability to grow and adapt over a set / extended period of time.
Here we have the most basic starting point for any muscle building workout. Exercise times sets times reps.
[EXERCISE] = 3 sets of 10 reps.
Three sets of ten rep repetitions is a pretty standard leaping point for both building strength and size in a muscle - whether it’s a bench press, squat, bicep curl or weighted crunch.
ADDING REPS / SETS and WEIGHT FOR VOLUME
Let’s say for your first week of training you do the prescribed exercise as above - 3 sets of ten repetitions. For your second week, add a single rep per set to the exercise, or even to a single set, so it looks like this:
[EXERCISE - 10kg] = 3 sets of 11 reps
[EXERCISE - 10kg] = 1 set of 11 reps + 2 sets of 10 reps
You can continue in this pattern either by workout, weekly or biweekly. The general consensus on lifting weights for muscle growth is 20 reps maximum. Continue adding reps to sets as often as your body can handle until you reach a prescribed number of repetitions (in this case 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps). From this point on you can add extra weight (returning to 3 sets of 10 reps and restarting the progression):
[EXERCISE - 12.5kg] = 3 sets of 10 reps
The amount of extra weight you add for an exercise will depend entirely on the type of exercise and how well your body has adapted to the addition of reps. The general rule is 2.5kg or 5kg every time you add weight to a bar or exercise.
Once you’ve reached a desired amount of reps per set, you can also add an extra set to increase the volume (and thus time-under-tension) of your exercise, like so:
[EXERCISE - 12.5kg] = 4 sets of 10 reps
The key here is to keep advancing in all of these aspects - Reps, Sets and Weight - until you hit a plateau and can’t progress any further. Different exercises will respond better to different forms of progression. The following is an example of how an 8 to 16 week basic training program may change over time with these additions / progressions.
● [BENCH] = 3 sets of 10 reps.
● [LAT MACHINE PULL-DOWN] = 3 sets of 10 reps.
● [SQUAT] = 3 sets of 10 reps.
● [SHOULDER PRESS] = 3 sets of 10 reps.
● [CRUNCHES] = 3 sets of 10 reps.
FINAL WEEK (8, 12, 16, etc):
● [BENCH + 15kg] = 6 sets of 10 reps.
● [LAT MACHINE PULL-DOWN + 15kg] = 5 sets of 12 reps.
● [SQUAT + 30kg] = 5 sets of 10 reps.
● [SHOULDER PRESS + 10kg] = 4 sets of 15 reps.
● [CRUNCHES + 5kg] = 5 sets of 20 reps.
Whilst this is just an example - it serves as a good representation of how progressive training will eventually change a workout over time to better serve the needs of the body to adapt and grow.
ADVANCED MEANS OF INCREASING VOLUME / TIME UNDER TENSION / PROGRESSION in RESISTANCE TRAINING
Once you’ve exhausted the useful but simplistic means of progression listed above, you will want to start turning to other means of increasing the effectiveness / intensity / volume of your workout. These are briefly outlined below. (Nilsson, 2006)
● Adding exercises. Pretty self explanatory: If you’re not getting the advancement out of, say, your bench press / chest that you want - add an extra exercise for the chest region. Follow up your 5 sets of bench press with 3 sets of cable chest flies or incline dumbbell press.
● Supersets. Supersetting is where you add a second exercise immediately following each set of your primary exercise. For example, working on the bench press as an example. Do a set of 10 reps on the bench, then move immediately (no rest) to the cable press machine and do a further set of ten. Repeat for the prescribed sets for that body part (ie, 5 sets of 10 reps Bench / 10 reps Cable Press Machine).
● Drop Sets. Drop sets are when you immediately drop your working weight on an exercise after completely the prescribed reps for that weight, and continue with further reps at the lower weight. For example. Bench press 40kg for 10 reps, immediately remove 10kg from the bar and do a further 10 reps with 30kg. Drop sets can be performed once, twice or even three times.
● Decreasing Rest Time. If you usually rest for 90 seconds between sets. Try dropping your rest time to 60 seconds. Or even shorter
● Accentuating Eccentric or De-centric Movement. This refers to the time it takes to contract a muscle (pressing a bar upwards on a bench press) and then expand it (bring the bar down to your chest) during any given rep. If you slow down either part of a single rep, you’re increasing the time-under-tension for an exercise - so if your ‘downward component’ of a bench press is 2 seconds from ‘top’ to ‘bottom’ (when the bench reaches your chest), try holding it on the way down for longer - for 4 seconds. Do this for every rep.
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Wilcox, J. (2012, 31st May) The Health Benefits of Weightlifting and the New Science that Supports Strength Building - http://www.forbes.com/sites/juliewilcox/2012/05/31/health-benefits-weightlifting/#2c29ed614d20
Goulet, C. (2004, October 19th) Progressive Overload: The Concept You Must Know To Grow! http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/goulet11.htm
Nilsson, N. (2006, April 3rd) The 16 Most Advanced Intensity Building Techniques! http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/betteru13.htm