Want Bigger Muscles

Expose them to Bigger Workloads

By: Beverly Advisory Team
Magazine 21 #1

What you”ll learn from this article

Four Horsemen

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.

More productive workouts are just minutes away!

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.

Brian one arm curl
Brian Weifering

“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:

  1. Resistance
  2. Sets
  3. Reps
  4. Time

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.

Steve cable curls
Steve Thomas “My conditioning was great but my overall muscular size still has room for improvement“

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.

Karina Rhode progressive overload
Karina Rhode “My biggest challenge has been to create a great v-taper”
4. Pay attention to TIME!
There”s more to increasing the size of your muscles than making them perform more work. Another critical component of the workload is the speed at which work is performed, also known as “work rate” or “power”. Work rate is a function of time, and time is probably the most overlooked of the four horsemen.
One of the reasons the “1 set to failure” approach generally isn”t all that popular with bodybuilders is that building muscles seems to require that you sustain a high work rate. One set just doesn”t cut it, especially if you are an intermediate or advanced lifter. This explains why bodybuilders tend to prefer higher-volume workouts (i.e. more sets and reps) and relatively brief rest periods between sets. (The longer you rest between sets, the lower your work rate.) The work-rate hypothesis also helps explain why moderate loads (e.g. 8-15 reps) tend to build muscle better than lighter or heavier loads.
One of the most effective ways of achieving PO is increasing the amount of work performed in a fixed amount of time. For instance, let”s say you devote 45 minutes to training chest. If you normally rest, say, 1 minute between sets, gradually cut it down to 45 seconds. After 8 weeks of this, cut it down to 30 seconds.
Of course, as you reduce your rest periods, you”ll likely have to reduce the weight and/or reps. This is where things get a little unclear: Are you actually achieving PO if you train faster but lift lighter weights? Again, you can never know for sure. All you can do is experiment and see. As a general rule of thumb, if it feels like your muscles are working harder, they probably are.

You can also increase the workload by performing your reps faster (explosively), though this may increase your risk of injury.

Tip: “Time loading” works especially well for body-weight-only exercises such as push-ups and squats. For instance, do as many push-ups as you can in 1 minute. Let”s say you complete 20 push-ups before being unable to complete another. Now rest 5-10 seconds and do some more. Keep doing this until 1 minute has passed. Let”s say you complete a total of 40 push-ups. Next time you do push-ups, try to beat this number. Every month, increase the time interval by 30 seconds and continue doing as many push-ups as you can until you reach 4 minutes. This may sound easy, but it”s actually very tough if you”re doing strict push-ups!

Tip: If you”re a cardio junkie, invest in a Fitbit or a comparable fitness wearable. Increase the number of steps you perform daily over a period of weeks. For instance, if you start off with 2000 steps daily, bump this up to an average of 3000 steps daily over the next 2 weeks. On weekends, shoot for 10,000 steps daily!

Tip: Do calorie-burn warm-ups. Here”s how it works. Burn as many calories as you can in 5 minutes using your choice of cardio equipment. Each month, add 1 minute and continue increasing your calorie-burn figure.


Does the overload principle apply to supplementation? Totally. Think about it: Doesn”t it makes sense that as you push your body to handle greater workloads, you might benefit from a more comprehensive supplementation regime?

Whereas a simple quality protein powder like Muscle Provider or Ultimate Muscle Protein can be enough during the early stages of training, as it becomes more difficult to achieve PO and stimulate gains, you may want to begin stacking a wider range of supplements. Recovery, stamina, nutrition –these and other factors can limit the rate at which you progress.

Tip: Check out the stacking section of the new Beverly catalog. There you will find stacks to suit a variety of goals, levels of experience (beginner through advanced), and budget.

Tip: Some of the techniques outlined above for achieving PO can really test your stamina. For a natural stamina booster, try Ultra 40 Argentine beef liver tablets. Start with 6 tablets daily (2 each at breakfast, lunch, and dinner), and each week add 1 more tablet per meal until you reach 18 tablets daily.

Tip: The most important muscle-building nutrient is protein. The building blocks of protein are amino acids. If you”re used to getting all of your protein needs at meals, try supplementing your diet with amino acids in between meals. It might provide the extra muscle-building boost you need. Mass Amino Acids, Density and Muscle Mass work well for this purpose.

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