How to Progressively Overload Your Training (Without Adding Weight to The Bar)
Progressive overload is often referred to as “the golden rule of strength training”. Do more “work” (lift more weight, do more reps, complete more sets) overtime and you’ll be well on your way to those gains you desire.
However, what’s often misunderstood is just how many options you have when it comes to progressively overloading your training. Novice trainees often focus solely on adding weight onto the bar each week. But what happens when that method no longer works? Here’s 8 different ways you can progressively overload your training, and continue to see great progress in the gym.
1. Increase Intensity
Training intensity refers to the athletes effort, usually in relation to their maximum effort. In resistance training, intensity would refer to weight on the bar, in athletics it could refer to the speed an athlete was moving at for something like a sprint. So if we wanted to progressively overload our training intensity we could add weight to our intended resistance movements, and for aerobic athletes increase the pace at which they are moving.
Increasing intensity is usually the first way individuals will try to progressively overload their training, and that’s fine. Unfortunately, this won’t work forever. Think about it, if we could continuously throw 5lbs on the bar each day we returned for a training session, we’d all have 1000lb squats by now.
While we will want to shoot to increase our intensity over the long term, we have to keep it in that exact mindset…long term.
2. Increase Volume
Training volume refers to the amount of “work” that you perform. For resistance training you’d usually be looking at the sets, and reps completed as well as total weight moved across the sets and reps, for aerobics you’d be looking at time spent doing the activity and distance covered.
Increasing volume is a much more reliable method to progressively overloading your training as you’ll likely be able to increase training volume for an extended period of time without running into a roadblock like you would trying to increase training intensity every session.
Complete an extra rep than you did last week? You progressively overloaded volume. Add an extra set to your training? You progressively overloaded volume. Run 5 mins longer than you did last time? You progressively overloaded volume.
Increasing training volume is a basic fundamental you’ll see employed in strength and endurance programming, with the general goal always being to increase an athletes ability to complete more volume over time.
3. Increase Frequency
Training frequency refers to how many times you train something per week. This could refer to a lift specifically, a body part, or simply how many training sessions you have.
Increasing frequency is essentially just an additional way to increase your overall training volume for the week, with an added benefit. You’ll be more “fresh” for the additional volume. For example, you could try to add 3 extra sets of bench press to an existing bench workout where you already do 5 sets for a total of 8 sets. Or you could just add a whole new bench day and increase your training frequency. So you’d have 1 bench day with 5 sets and now a second bench day with 3 bench sets. You’ll still total 8 sets of bench volume for the week, but by utilizing an extra training day your performance on those extra 3 sets is likely to be better than if you tried to do all 8 sets in one day.
4. Increase Time Under Tension
Time under tension refers to…you guessed it…the amount of time a muscle is…under tension. Increasing time under tension is a strategy employed by bodybuilders all the time as it is a variable in hypertrophy adaptations, but increasing time under tension can be used to progressively overload strength training as well.
For example, if you complete 5 sets of 5 reps of 315lb on squats week 1, and then come back and complete 5 sets of 5 reps at 315lbs but this time with a 3 second tempo on the eccentric, you progressively overloaded your training. This can be great if you feel particularly stuck on a certain weight. Try doing that same weight, but this time for a tempo set or a pause set and see if that doesn’t get you through your plateau.
5. Decrease Rest Intervals
Less thought about is if you complete the same amount of work you did a week previous, in less time, you progressively overloaded your training. So, if you did 5 sets of 5 reps of 315lbs for squats week 1 with a 5 minute rest interval week 1, but did 5 sets of 5 reps of 315lbs for squats with a 3 minute rest interval for week 2, that counts as progressive overload.
It’s rare to see decreased rest intervals purposefully programmed into training, it’s just something to keep in mind, especially for those of you on a time crunch. If you complete the same amount of work in a shorter period of time, you are progressing despite the fact load on the bar might not have increased. This could be a good option for those of you that feel you spend to much time in the gym, work on decreasing the amount of time you spend…not working.
6. Increase Range of Motion
Increasing your range of motion for a movement is following along the same line as increasing time under tension. Basically speaking…make the movement harder without just increasing load on the bar.
Easy way to think about this was if you do a certain weight of 5 sets of 5 on deadlifts, then come back the next session and did that same weight for 5 sets of 5 reps, but this time from a deficit forcing you to move the bar a greater distance for each set.
While this works, it may not be the most practical form of progressive overload since increased range of motion can only be taken so far depending on the movement.
7. Improve Technical Proficiency
If you are feeling discouraged because you’ve been stuck on the same weight for awhile, but each session you come back to it your form is getting better…you are still progressively overloading.
Don’t get so fixated on absolute load on the bar that you miss the bigger picture. If you can move the same weight for the same sets and reps as you did last time but this time a certain cue went better for you, you are progressing. Likewise, if you are moving that same weight with more speed…you are progressing.
8. Increase Relative Load
Increasing relative load, would involve how much weight you are lifting in relationship to what your current bodyweight is.
So, someone that is currently in a weight loss phase may be disgruntled because their bench press hasn’t gone up in 2 months. However, if they lost say 15lbs of bodyweight and have managed to maintain their bench 1 rep max, that’s still progressive overload. That individual is still as strong, but now at a lighter bodyweight.
Realizing this can help someone better navigate a weight cut, where they may feel discouraged by what feels like lack of progress. If you can lift the same weights at a lighter bodyweight, you are relatively speaking…stronger.