To make gains, you need to gradually increase the difficulty of your workouts. As your workouts get harder, your muscles will become bigger and stronger.
This is the concept of progressive overload. Exercises must place additional stress on your muscles, either by lifting more weight or doing more reps. Over time, your muscles adapt to the stress, and you must once again increase the weight or reps. This is the marker of progress.
However, progressive overload can be a bit complicated. Weight percentage adjustments, exercise types and progression schemes are typically left to strength coaches or hardcore lifters. Besides trying to lift more weight on a few exercises, you might not be putting much thought into this aspect of your training. And this is the number one reason for poor results. If you don't continually challenge your body, you will never make progress.
Luckily, there's a simple solution. The following system has progressive overload built in, so it virtually guarantee that you will make gains. All you need to do is compete with yourself each week.
Here are five steps to knowing when you should add more weight to an exercise:
Step 1: Choose a Volume
No, we aren't talking about the volume of your music. Volume in this context refers to the number of sets and reps you do of an exercise—or it can be the total amount of work you do in an entire workout.
With strength training, you will fall into one of two general categories:
Hypertrophy (muscle building), which requires a moderately high volume—3 or 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps.
Strength and power training, which typically involves 3 to 6 sets of 1 to 6 reps. The exact number depends on whom you talk to and their style of training. To keep things simple, we generally prefer 4-6 sets of 3-6 reps.
Step 2: Choose a weight
Choosing the weight you will initially lift requires a little bit of feel. If you're a beginner, it's better to start with a light weight or even your body weight.
For the first set, you should be able to perform the specified number of reps. The final reps should be challenging, but you should be able to maintain perfect technique.
For the remaining sets, try to do as many reps as you can. There's a good chance you might not be able to complete the full amount of reps, but that's OK. Your workout chart might look something like this: 1x8, 1x6, 1x4. Since your goal is 3x8, you missed 6 totals reps. This gives you room to grow in your next workout.
Step 3: Write Down Your Results
This is absolutely critical. For each exercise you perform, you need to write down how many sets and reps you did and with what weight. You might think you'll remember this info, but it's difficult to recall every single thing you did as far as a week ago. Don't sell yourself short; keep track of your workouts and record your numbers to ensure you're making progress.
Step 4: Do More Reps Each Workout
The next time you perform an exercise, try to do more reps than you did last week. Even if you do just one more rep, that means your muscles got stronger and were able to do more work.
Think of it as a competition with yourself. You're trying to beat last week's version of yourself. Continue doing this on each exercise until you're able to complete every single specified rep with the original weight. Only once you hit this point, you can move on to Step 5.
Step 5: Increase the Weight
Now it's time to increase the the amount of weight. For upper-body exercises, try to add five pounds. For lower-body moves, add 10 pounds. Once you increase the weight, you will at first miss a few reps again, which offers room for progress.
Although we are focusing on strength exercises, a similar system can be applied to bodyweight exercises, core moves and even conditioning work. Set a challenge goal for yourself and try to achieve it each week, always doing better than your previous effort. Once you reach your goal, it's time to set a more difficult goal.
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