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The truth about making training progress: Progressive overload- Adding weight to the exercise. Part1

Updated: Sep 5, 2020


Progressive overload is the act of gradually increasing the difficulty of exercises you are performing to elicit muscular and strength growth. There are multiple ways that we can achieve progressive overload. Techniques such as increasing the weight you are lifting are the first method we will talk about this week. Over the next few weeks, I’ll talk about other ways that could be used to progressive overload.

We are starting with increasing the weight because it is by far my favourite way to keep making progress. It is also a common mistake. I see general population gym-goers make; they either increase the weight too much and too fast, or they don’t increase the weight at all.

Why increasing weight is important

For any physical or physiological changes to happen when we perform resistance training, there needs to be adequate tension to elicit the effects that we want; which is muscular and strength growth. We can achieve this with lighter loads. However, you’ll need to be taking the exercise you are doing to failure, which if the weight is too low will take a long time. That is why adding weight to the movement is an option that we can utilise to keep making progress in the gym.

Two common mistakes I see with progressive overload

Increasing the weight too much

One of the biggest mistakes I see is people increasing the weight to the point where they sacrifice form and technique. Although we need to be adding weight to the exercise, doing so with crappy technique is teaching your body to do it incorrectly.

Incorrect lifting technique will eventually lead to injuries. A typical example I can think of is squats and people not utilising their glutes effectively when performing a squat. Instead of the load being distributed evenly throughout your entire lower body (quads, hamstrings, glutes, ad/abductors), the load shifts to their knees to compensate for ineffective glute use. Over time, this compensation will cause injuries.

How do we fix increasing the weight too much? Reduce the amount we are lifting and learn or re-learn the proper technique. You should practice at lighter loads than you usually would use so that you can teach your body to move correctly and activate the correct muscles for the exercises you are doing.

An essential rule with progressive overload and increasing weight on the exercise is not to sacrifice form. Once you feel confident that the movement is 100% correct, only then will you increase the weight. You can either learn the technique yourself or hire a coach/trainer to teach you proper technique.

Practical guideline

A general rule of thumb I use for beginners is to start with a very conservative weight and add the smallest increments possible. For example, barbell back squat using an empty 20kg bar. For a lot of people, this will feel very light; however, I would get someone learning the technique to use the bar for at least two sessions before adding weights. When we do add weight to 20kg, I would add a 1.25kg on each side to make the total amount on the bar 22.5kg. If you stick to this progressive overload principle, in 6 months, you should be able to get to 100kg. Adding weight to the exercise is an example of linear progression.

Perform low reps, more sets. This is different from what a lot of people suggest. Most people would give three sets of 10 reps. I prefer lower reps, more sets. My go-to is five sets of 5 reps. Suppose we do the maths, with 3x10 that’s 30 total reps. 5x5 is 25 total reps. As simple maths has shown us, the difference is five reps. However, with the lower amount of reps, we can practice form and technique better, there’s a less likely chance of form breaking (have you tried back squatting ten reps or more? It’s hell) and we can lift heavier. There are times for higher reps. I prefer not using it when teaching someone a new movement, especially if it’s a complex movement.

Not increasing the weight at all

On the flip side of increasing the weight too much, an equal culprit to mediocre gains in the gym is not increasing the weight at all. When I use to work at a big commercial gym and perform free programs for individuals, we would generally book them in again in 6-weeks’ time to check their progress. I’d say more than half of the individuals who bother to show up for their second free program review would still be lifting the same weights they were when we created the first program six weeks ago.

Typically, the individuals who are afraid to increase the weight on the bar are women and the older population. We answered why using the same weight is not good at the start; for muscles and strength to increase, we need adequate tension. Adequate tension is created by having sufficient load on the muscles. You can get away with lighter weights, but you have to take it to failure, which for most people is a lot of reps.

Practical guidelines

Increase your confidence when it comes to lifting. Confidence? What is this guy talking about? Talking to people who don’t increase the weight at all, I found a common theme, which is lacking confidence in their technique. The best way to gain confidence is to hire a coach or trainer who knows their shit and train under them. Even if it’s just for 2-3 months, however long it takes you to feel confident. Having a quality trainer or coach is an investment. If you are paying for a gym membership and taking time out of your day to train, why not do it properly? Don’t waste your time

The practical guidelines for increasing the weight too much applies to not increasing the weight at all, as well. Quick recap:

- A general rule of thumb I use for beginners is to start with a very conservative weight and add the smallest increments possible

- Perform low reps, more sets.

Conclusion

Even though I mentioned that we need to add weight to the bar to keep making progress, we need to ensure it does not come at the cost of sacrificing technique. Remember, the name of the game is consistency. We don’t want to be like Billy Ray Cyrus and be a one-hit-wonder; we want to be like The Rolling Stones, rocking on till we’re in our 70s!

To recap, focus on exercise technique once it “feels” right to you (I have feels in “because it feels right to you, it most likely is. Don’t underestimate our bodies ability to manage itself) you can increase the weight.

When increasing the weight, add the smallest increments possible. At most commercial gyms that is 1.25kg plates, dumbbells typically go up by 1-2kg increments. Some specialise gyms have microplates where you can increase it by smaller increments than 1.25kg on each side.

The overall message is, increase the weight you are lifting when it feels right to you! Again, if you are doing it yourself, you’ll need to go through trial and error. I will lean towards the side of lighter, just to make sure the technique is 100%. Does this mean we never break technique? Of course not. But when you are learning new movements, you don’t want to be breaking technique.

That’s it for now, thanks for reading, peace!

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