K.I.S.S Principle of the Day: Progressive Overload

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TG Note: below is a question that I received from one of my distance coaching clients yesterday after he had a chance to look over his first program. To be honest, this guy has a fair amount of lifting experience, and my response to him was really basic. That said, I do get this question quite often (with CP and distance coaching clients alike) and felt it would be pertinent to discuss it in more detail here.

Q: Weight on the bar: Do I use the same weight for all sets or adjust by percentage of 1RM? Do I increase the weight every week?

A: Short answer, yes, absolutely. Far too often, I see people using the same weight week in and week out, and then they’re left dumbfounded when they realize that they look exactly the same now as they did three years ago! It’s called progressive overload people, use it!

That said, when starting a new program (or performing a new exercise for that matter), it may take a week (or two) of tweaking before you get an idea of where you’re supposed to be. This is why I often like to give people a two-rep window when writing their programs. In other words, if I programmed something like 4×6 on the deadlift, what I’m really saying is 4×4-6.

In an ideal world, no one would ever miss a lift (and Keanu Reeves, by law, would never be able to make another movie. Ever.) – unfortunately, we all know neither are going to happen.

Nonetheless, I like simplicity, and a general rule of thumb would be to use straight weight all the way through, and once you complete ALL sets on a given week, up the load by 5-10 lbs. From there, you’d repeat the same process the following training session. This way you assure progressive overload and you’re kicking ass and taking names.

Sometimes, though, it’s easier said than done. There’s going to come a point where adding 5-10 lbs every week is going to be a limiting factor. When this happens, this is where my “two-rep” window rule comes into affect. Here’s an example:

Goal: 5×5 Bench Press at 225 lbs

Week 1

Set 1: 225×5

Set 2: 225×5

Set 3: 225×4

Set 4: 225×4

Set 5: 225×3

As you can see, by set #3, this person was cutting their set short. All told, I’d rather someone stop short than perform 1-2 crappy reps. In this case, their “progressive overload” would be trying to hit those reps they left in the tank the following training session. So it may look something like this:

Week 2:

Set 1: 225×5

Set 2: 225×5

Set 3: 225×5 – Holy shit, I feel like a ninja today

Set 4: 225×5

Set 5: 225×4

In this scenario, they did three extra reps compared to the previous week – to the tune of 675 additional pounds (225 x 3). That’s 675 more lbs they lifted compared to the previous week. Progressive overload. Simple. Moving forward, they would continue to use this weight until they completed ALL reps successfully. From there, up the weight and start all over again.

Before closing, I will say that there are other ways to approach this – for instance, I’m not opposed to increasing/decreasing weight in a given training session depending on how one feels that particular day – but I’ve found that for the bulk of people, the above scenario works best. Again, keep it simple.

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