The most overlooked and also most important part of lifting weights and building muscle is progressive resistance training. Regardless of the training program or exercises you are doing, it won’t make a difference unless you are progressively increasing something each time.
So what is Progressive Resistance?
Progressive resistance is a strength training method whereby overload is constantly increased to facilitate muscle adaption. Progressive resistance is the essential ingredient for reaching your muscle building goals, without progressive resistance your muscles will have no reason to grow, therefore you will not continue to build muscle.
The human body is designed to survive under the harshest conditions and when you lift weights you place your body under stresses, your body compensates by increasing muscle strength and mass to keep you alive. Remember, your body doesn’t care that you are performing bench press or barbell curls all it knows is to survive, to build muscle and protect itself.
To give you an example, let’s say you do barbell bench press with 200lbs for exactly 10 repetitions, then the next week you lift the same 200lbs but this time manage 12 repetitions. Congratulations, your body has adapted to the weight by making you stronger, which is why you were able to perform more repetitions the second time. However to keep up this growth you must keep increasing the weight, the number of repetitions, the number of sets or some other variable.
How do I Achieve Progressive Resistance?
There are a number of ways to maintain progressive resistance and therefore continue building muscle week after week, any one of the following methods will ensure you keep progressing and you can also mix 2 or more into your workouts.
1) Write Everything Down – I think I’ll start with the most important of all, whatever workout routine you are doing you need to write down the exercise you performed, the weight you lifted, the number of sets you performed and the number of repetitions you performed each and every time. If you don’t write down what you did how do you know what to beat the next time you come to do that exercise.
I plan my own workouts using Microsoft Excel (a spreadsheet program) I have a column for the exercise name, a column for the weight I lifted, and a column for the set number and in the set number I fill in the number of repetitions I completed for the given set. The next time I come to do that exercise I can see the weight I lifted and the number of repetitions I performed on each set, my aim each time is to beat this by increasing one of the below (or a mixture of more than one):
2) Increase the Repetitions – Increasing the number of repetitions is one of the best ways to achieve progressive resistance, but it can also be one of the toughest, the reason being that you are not resting and performing another set, you are carrying on from where you left off last time and attempting to perform that one more rep to beat the last record. Remember this way is harder so if you are stuck on the same weight or number of sets for a long time try another form of progressive resistance such as the ones below.
A brief note about increasing the repetitions: Once you reach your given number of repetitions for an exercise you need to increase the weight. So for example if you are doing barbell bench press with 200lbs for 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions, once you manage 10 repetitions on all 3 sets you must increase the weight, if you don’t increase the weight you will be forever doing endless reps with the same weight (not a good idea unless your aiming for endurance rather than size).
3) Increase the Number of Sets – Increasing the number of sets for a given exercise is a good way to progress that isn’t too taxing on the body. By adding an additional set to a given exercise from the previous session you are successfully progressing.
A brief note about increasing the number of sets: Don’t continually increase the number of sets with every workout, doing this will keep you in the gym longer each time, if you want to add a set that’s fine, but next time you do the workout increase the weight.
4) Increase the Weight – By increasing the weight you lift from the previous workout you are increasing the progressive resistance, just remember though small weight increments is enough to stimulate progressive resistance. For example if you are benching 200lbs and then increase the weight next time to 205lbs this is a good increase, it might seem like a small number but it’s actually 2.5% increase in weight which by all means is fantastic.
5) More Intensity – Increasing the intensity is great for progressive resistance but a hard one to measure, I would define increasing the intensity as slowing down the movement (contraction) putting your muscles under stress for a lot longer than usual.
6) More Exercises – By adding additional exercises for a given body part will allow your muscles to respond to progressive resistance, however you should ensure you do not add too many exercises as you do not want to over train your body.
7) Increase Training Frequency – By working out more often you are placing your body under more stress, thereby increasing the resistance. However I must state again that doing this could result in overtraining, especially if you are already working out 4+ days per week.
All of the above methods, whether applied on their own or a mixture will increase muscle mass and strength. You only have to do one of the above methods to build muscle week after week, the second you stop doing that your muscle will stop responding and stop growing.
Just remember to write everything down and record your progress, doing so will not only show your progressions but also your weak areas, for example I always thought I had weak shoulders compared to the rest of my body, but after writing down my workout routines I discovered that my shoulders increased the most compared to all other muscles (in percentage terms). Once you can analyse your weak and strong points you can work to further improve them.