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The truth about making training progress: Progressive overload- Increasing sets and reps. Part 2

In this second instalment of the progressive overload series, we are going to be covering progressive overload by increasing the amount of the reps or the sets for a given exercise.

For those who haven’t yet, check out my first article- Progressive overload, adding weight to the bar article. To begin this article, I’ll define progressive overload again. Just going to be a copy and paste from the previous article:

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.

And another quick copy and paste explaining why progressive overload is essential:

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.

With the What and the why out of the way, it’s time to move onto the fun part!

Increasing reps or sets

As stated in the first article, my favourite way to progressively overload is by adding weight to the exercise. It does, however, get to a point where you will start seeing diminishing returns. There will be a time where we just can’t do this without breaking form and technique and increasing the likelihood of getting injured. That’s where adding reps or sets may be beneficial.

Adding reps

Adding repetitions will help increase the intensity of the workout without adding weights. Adding repetitions is especially useful if you have a limited amount of weights. Alternatively, it’s a useful progressive overload tool for us to utilise if we are performing bodyweight exercises.

How to implement it?

Adding reps is quite simple. My preferred way and what I would recommend is to increase the reps by one rep every session. Let’s say, for example, 5x5 is getting easy for you. From here, we can add an extra rep in every set. So, instead of 5x5, it becomes 5x6- same sets, just one extra rep. An additional rep every set might not seem like much, but let’s look at the numbers.

Five by five is 25 total reps. Five by six is 30 total reps. In regards to muscle building, the extra five reps might be beneficial if the intensity is high enough.

Adding sets

Similar to adding reps, adding sets is also a way in which intensity could be increased without the addition of weights. Adding sets is also beneficial for bodyweight exercises or if you have a limited amount of weights.

How to implement it?

Let’s start with an example. Say, for example, 5x5 is getting quite comfortable, and you want to increase the intensity of your workout. We can add reps. But I’ll show you how to implement the “adding set” method. Let’s use 5x5 again. If we add an extra set, it becomes 6x5. If we add it up, five by five is 25 reps, six by five is 30 reps.

So, what?

I know what you are thinking, whether we add an extra rep in each set (5x6) or add an extra set (6x5) the total number of reps is the same! You are correct with your observation! However, if the weight is heavy enough, adding an extra rep or an extra set is very hard. A good rule of thumb is if we go back to the rule of thumb I mentioned in the first article; when learning a new skill, it’s better to increase the number of sets, instead of reps. Practically, the guidelines will look like this:

- If you are learning a new skill that is considered a high skill, think exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, you want to keep the reps low to limit form breakdown. In this example, I will opt to add an extra set instead of an extra rep. Let’s say our original rep scheme was 5x5, once we get used to that rep scheme, but we’re not comfortable increasing the weight, or we don’t have any more weight to increase with, I will increase the number of sets. Five by five will become six by five.

- If, for example, you aren’t learning a skill and want to make the exercise harder, this is when I would add reps instead of sets. Let’s retake our 5x5 example. If we add reps, it’ll look something along the lines of five by six. With the adding rep, I like adding just one, maybe two depending on the exercise and situation. This way, there’s still a lot of room for growth without overhauling everything.

With this method of progressive overload, adding both reps and sets is beneficial. Like with anything in life, it comes down to how we use it. To recap:

- If performing complex, compound movements, such as deadlifts, squats, bench press, overhead press, Olympic lifting movements and so on, I would keep the reps low and would instead add extra sets. Most of the time they’ll be under five repetitions. Not all the time, but the majority of the time. An example could look like this:

Week 1: 3 sets, three reps=9

Week 2: 4 sets, three reps=12

Week 3: 5 sets, three reps=15

Week 4: 6 sets, three reps =18

As you can see, the workload increases every week, simply by adding an extra set.

- For less complex isolation movements, like a bicep curl, leg curl, and so on, my preferred way of increasing intensity is by adding sets. These movements can generally be done higher reps (10reps +), without risking injury. An example could look like this:

Week 1: 3 sets, eight reps=24

Week 2: 3 sets, nine reps=27

Week 3: 3 sets, ten reps=30

Week 4: 3 sets, 11 reps= 33

As you can see, adding just one extra rep will help us increase our workload.

Conclusion

The guidelines above aren’t set in stone. There are times where I would perform compound, complex movement for more than five reps. But, if general population gym goers follow the advice and guideline I wrote above, they will make awesome progress. I wrote an article on how to create a kick-ass program. You should definitely check it out if you have any more questions about program creations. Take care, keep making gains, peace!

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