Resistance, sets, reps, and time -these are the “four horsemen” of resistance exercise that act in combination to determine the workload placed on your muscles during your workouts. To make your muscles bigger, you must expose them to bigger workloads over time. This concept is known as progressive overload (PO). In this article, we”ll tell you how to use the four horsemen to achieve PO when lifting weights and during cardio. We”ll also reveal the important relationship between PO and supplements.
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Introduction We see it all the time at the gym: Men and women lifting the same weights for the same number of sets and reps, their muscles never really changing in appearance.
Not that there”s anything wrong with that. If you”re happy with your physique, then keep doing what you”re doing. But if you want your muscles to get bigger, there”s only one way to make it happen, and that”s with progressive overload (PO). (NOTE: PO is also essential if you want to improve your cardiovascular performance.)
PO: To get bigger, your muscles must perform more work over time
PO isn”t something you hear a lot about these days. It”s not sexy or exciting. It won”t draw clicks like a headline about “1-Minute Workouts” or the latest celebrity spotting at Soul Cycle will. Yet without PO, your muscles will not continue to grow. It is the single most important body-building concept. How to successfully apply it is the focus of this article.
“Four Horsemen” of Resistance Exercise
When a muscle generates force over a distance, it is performing work. Consider the barbell squat exercise. As you stand up from the squatting (knees-bent) position, your thigh muscles must generate enough force to overcome the resistance provided by the barbell and your body. To build your thigh muscles, you need to progressively increase this workload. This can be achieved by manipulating one or more of the “four horsemen” of resistance exercise:
The “Sameness Trap”
Why do so many of us overlook PO in the first place? Perhaps the main reason is that, at least in the beginning, you can get away with it.
When you first start lifting weights, it doesn”t take much to stimulate your muscles to grow. Merely going to the gym and performing a structured workout provides them with a substantial increase in workload relative to what they are used to. They soon adapt by becoming bigger and stronger. These “newbie gains” are obvious enough that you find yourself choosing heavier weights and performing more sets and reps. This leads to further gains, and so on. That”s PO in action.
Eventually, of course, your gains slow down or come to a stop. This is natural. The increases in muscle size and strength become less and less obvious, which makes it easy to fall into what we refer to as the “sameness trap” of performing the same workload over and over again. The solution?
You”ve got to pay closer attention to PO. Next, we tell you how. Remember that workload is always an approximation.
Before we get into specifics, it”s important to realize that PO is far from an exact concept. The four horsemen -resistance, sets, reps, and time- act in concert to determine the workload placed on your muscles in a manner that is anything but easy to measure. Think about your last chest workout. Did it stimulate your chest muscles sufficiently to increase in size, or was it merely enough to maintain their current size? How about the last time you ran on the treadmill? Did your cardiovascular system sustain a greater workload compared to the run before that? In both cases, the answer is that you can never know for sure.
It would be great if there were a “magic wand” that you could wave over your muscles and it would tell you if you overloaded them sufficiently or not to achieve your desired goal. A device like this would revolutionize body-building training as we know it. In the meantime, all you can do is count your four horsemen as closely as possible. Doing so will give you an approximate idea of the size of the workload placed on your muscles from one workout to the next. In turn, this will increase your odds of achieving PO.
Record, record, record
All of which brings us to the importance of recording your workouts. Unless you have a photographic memory -and most people don”t- it will be very difficult for you to remember the resistance, sets, reps, and time for every exercise that you perform. This is why you should record each.
Use whichever method you are most likely to stick with, whether it be a pen and pad of paper, your phone (assisted perhaps by a suitable app), or otherwise. If you take the pen and paper route, don”t worry about looking funny at the gym. Most people frankly don”t care what you”re doing and if they happen to see you writing your workout down, they”ll just think you”re serious about your training.
Tip: While fitness wearables for resistance exercise are still in the early stages of development, there are numerous products available that make it easier to record your cardio workouts. Fitbit is probably the best-known of these.
Tip: There are many apps for recording resistance exercise workouts. For example, Fitnotes and Progression have enjoyed some good reviews. Check them out.
1. Increase the resistance.
Whether you favor 20 reps or 10, 5 sets or 25, free weights or machines, you should gradually increase the amount of weight you lift. This will increase the likelihood of achieving PO and stimulating your muscles to grow.
Let”s be clear: No one is expecting you to lift more weight at every workout. That would be impossible. There will be up days and down days, and days where you feel like you”re barely maintaining. This is natural and inevitable. Also, with the passage of time your muscles will tend to decrease in size and strength, particularly in the second half of your life. Proper application of PO will help you mitigate this age-related process considerably.
Tip: Each week set a goal of lifting more weight in at least 2 exercises. For instance, this week you might choose the flat bench press and lying leg curl. The next week it could be squats and bent-over rows.
Tip: You can effectively increase the resistance during cardio by raising the incline of the treadmill or the speed of the stepmill. You can also take two steps at a time on the stepmill, but be careful! We”ve even seen some daring folks hold a dumbbell or a barbell plate in each hand while on the stepmill and treadmill. Again, be careful when doing this.
2. Increase your reps
Traditionally, resistance is increased once the top end of a desired rep range has been reached. For instance, if the desired range is 8-12 reps, then once you achieve 12 reps with a given weight, you will add enough weight to bring the reps down to 8 and repeat the process.
Tip: Experiment with a wider rep range, such as 8-15. Once you can lift a given weight for 15 reps, increase the weight sufficiently to bring the reps down to 8 and repeat the process. The benefit of a wider rep range is that it exposes your muscles to different levels of resistance. Essentially, with an 8-15 rep range, you are getting the benefits of training with “low” (8), “medium” (10-12), and “high” (15) reps in a cyclical fashion.
3. Increase your sets.
Holding everything else constant, if you increase the number of sets performed for a given muscle group, you will achieve PO. For instance, if you typically do an average of 10 sets for your back and you increase this number to 15, you will have increased the workload. As with reps and resistance, you can”t increase your sets to infinity. Through trial and error, many bodybuilders have found that beyond about 20 sets per muscle group, the returns sharply diminish. It”s then that you have to turn to other methods of achieving PO.
Tip: Set a goal of increasing the total number of sets performed for each major muscle group by 2 each month. To illustrate, let”s say you are currently doing a total of 10 sets for back. Here”s how this would play out over 4 months:
Month 1: 12 sets
Month 2: 14 sets
Month 3: 16 sets
Month 4: 18 sets
Once you reach 20 sets, you can stop and focus on the other 3 horsemen.
Tip: If you do high-intensity interval training (HIIT), increase the number of intervals (“sets”) over time. This will PO your cardiovascular system, resulting in improved performance.