In Part One of this article, I explained the most important principle of training: Progressive Overload. Remember that progressive overload means gradually increasing your workload to stress the body more than it’s accustomed to so that it will adapt. Now, I’m going to describe a simple and effective way to implement progressive overload in your training program. I’m going to use resistance training as an example, but you can use the same basic strategy in your aerobic, power, or flexibility training.
A Quick Explanation of Repetition Ranges
The number of repetitions that you perform for a particular exercise will determine the adaptation that’s stimulated. Basically, low repetitions (about 4-8) build strength, moderate repetitions (8-12) build muscle mass, and high repetitions (12-15) build muscular endurance. That’s important to know, but there are three caveats to keep in mind here.
First, those repetition ranges are just general guidelines. Each individual will respond somewhat differently to different types of training, so make sure you experiment with different rep ranges over time and find out how your body responds.
Second, I am referring here to the maximal number of repetitions that can be performed. That means you need to choose a resistance that’s heavy enough for you to only be able to perform the prescribed number of repetitions (with good form) and no more. Remember that you have to force your body to adapt by exercising at a high enough intensity to trigger adaptations. I see people at the gym all the time who are clearly lifting weights that are too light for them. They’re wasting their time. Don’t make that mistake.
Third, those repetition ranges are generally appropriate for people who have been consistently resistance training for at least several months (usually at least 3-6 months). For beginners (regardless of your overall training goal), I recommend focusing first on developing good form for each exercise and lifting in the 10-15 repetition range until you build the base level of motor control and muscle, tendon, and ligament strength to be able to safely lift heavier.
How to Determine the Appropriate Weight for a Prescribed Number of Repetitions
Let’s say your program indicates that you should be performing 3 sets of 10 repetitions of the barbell back squat (this may be written as 3 x 10). This should be interpreted as a maximum of 10 quality repetitions per set. When you finish your 10th rep, you shouldn’t be able to perform even 1 more with good form. If you reach 10 and are able to do one or two more quality repetitions, you should do so and adjust the resistance on the next set. By quality repetitions, I mean performing each and every rep under control, with good form and a full range of motion.
How do you know how much weight to put on the bar to hit your mark of 10 repetitions? In practice, finding the correct weight for a particular number of reps takes some trial and error.
Here’s an example: Your aim is to find out what weight to use for 10 reps. For your first set, you load up a standard barbell (which usually weighs 45 pounds, although this varies a little between manufacturers and individual barbells) with 10 pounds (5 on each side) and start squatting. Note that you are using 55 pounds, because you’re lifting the bar itself plus the weight plates on it. You get to repetition number 10 and you feel that you could perform one more repetition with good form. In that case, you should perform that 11th repetition and then, if you feel that you could not do one more repetition without sacrificing your form, you end the set and rerack the bar. You underestimated the amount of weight that you could lift for 10 repetitions. On the next set you add 10 more pounds to the bar so you are now lifting 65 pounds. This time you overestimated and are only able to perform 9 repetitions with good form. You try a 10th, your form deteriorates significantly and you have to grind out the last few inches to get the bar back in the rack. Good thing your spotter was there to help you. On your third set, you lift 60 pounds and are able to perform 10 good form repetitions but feel that an 11th would not be possible, so you end the set at 10. Since you always record your performance in each workout, you make a note that you were able to squat 55 pounds for 11 reps, 65 pounds for 9 reps, and 60 pounds for 10 reps. In your next workout, you can look at your previous note and know that you should use 60 pounds if you want to perform 10 reps per set. It’s perfectly fine that you didn’t perform exactly 10 repetitions on each set, the rep prescription is not some magic number that you have to hit exactly every time. What’s much more important is that you provided adequate stress on your muscles so they will adapt by getting bigger and stronger, and that you try to do a little more in your next workout.
How to use Rep Ranges to Implement Progressive Overload
A problem with using a single repetition mark for programming is that it’s difficult to know when you’re ready to progress and increase the weight. To solve this common problem, I like to use repetition ranges when writing my programs as a guide for progression.
Let’s say the program prescribes 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions of the barbell back squat. In this case, you should start by determining, through the same trial and error system described above, the weight at which you can only perform the number of reps at the bottom of the range (8 reps, in this case). Use that weight in each workout and try to do one more rep in at least one set. When you can comfortably perform the top number of reps in the range (12 reps, in this example) in all of your sets for at least 2 sessions in a row, you can increase the weight in the next session. Use trial and error to figure out the new, heavier, weight that takes you back to the bottom end of the range again, and start working your way back up to the top of the repetition range.
You can use this system to implement progressive overload for any training goal. The important thing is that you record your performance in each workout so you know what you’ve done and what you’re aiming for, and that you aim to do a little more in each session. Be aware that progression doesn’t happen linearly: you won’t be able to progress the same amount, or even at all, in every session. If you’re a beginner, you’ll probably find that you can progress pretty quickly, probably in most sessions. After a few months, those gains will slow down. Sometimes you’ll stall temporarily, sometimes you may even go backwards, and sometimes you’ll suddenly make a big gain. That’s totally normal. Your performance in any given session depends on a lot of different factors, including nutritional intake, sleep, stress, etc. Be patient, keep aiming to progress, and you will eventually succeed.
Good Form, Good Form, Good Form
Did you notice how many times I wrote “good form” in the paragraphs above? It’s extremely important, and it’s something that’s neglected way too often. Again, good form means performing the movement correctly, under control, with a full range of motion. If you can’t accomplish that on each and every repetition, then the exercise you’re doing is too difficult for you and you should select an easier variation. If your barbell back squat form isn’t good, you should be doing bodyweight squats and working on perfecting your form, then moving up to barbell squats. If you can’t do a push up with good form, you should work on perfecting your form on incline push ups, then work towards floor push ups. Start your progressive overload at the lowest difficulty level and work your way up from there. People are sometimes hesitant to use easier variations and instead try over and over to perform a movement they’re not ready for. This isn’t likely to get you anywhere (except maybe injured). I guarantee that performing good form incline push ups and working your way up to the more difficult floor push up will do much more for you than performing bad form, half range of motion, floor push ups.
If you’re struggling with an exercise, I suggest taking a step back and focusing on proper form as your measure of progression, rather than reps or resistance. If you can’t do a full bodyweight squat, start by performing box squats in which you squat down until your glutes touch a high box or bench. Gradually lower the height of the box until you can do a full squat (hips parallel to or lower than the knees). You haven’t added any more weight or done more repetitions but you have increased the distance over which your muscles have to control the movement, and that’s progress. From there, you can start to progress in terms of repetitions and resistance, or start training for a more difficult variation of the exercise, such as a pistol squat.
Good consistent form is also important in determining whether you’re really progressing. If you can perform your barbell squats with exactly the same form in two training sessions and in the second session you’re able to do it with more weight on the bar, you’ve gotten stronger. If, on the other hand, in the second session there’s more weight on the bar but you only squat half-way down, you haven’t actually gotten stronger. You cheated by reducing the range of motion so your muscles didn’t have to work as hard to complete the movement. Don’t cheat yourself. You’ll waste your time and effort and not get results, not to mention that exercising with bad form is an injury waiting to happen.
If you want your body to adapt, you have to consistently expose it to more stress than it’s used to. Progressive overload means increasing the difficulty of some aspect of your training over time, and it will allow you to get the adaptations you’re training for. Pick a repetition range that targets your goal and use that range to implement progressive overload in your training. Remember that if you’re a beginner you should be focusing on learning good form and sticking with higher reps (10-15) until you’re ready to lift heavier. Always record your performance and try to do a little more in each session. Don’t worry if you don’t manage to improve in every single session, just keep working hard and aiming to progress, and you will get there.