The most commonly accepted driver for progression in the gym is how much you lift; there is almost an obsession with adding weight to the bar and if your lifts are stagnating, this leads to a lack of motivation, frustration and even people giving up altogether! There is always a sense of pride and satisfaction when you lift more than you did last time, being able to physically see numbers going up week on week is a serious motivator and keeps people dedicated.
There comes a time though when it becomes progressively more difficult to keep adding weight to the bar, however it doesn’t mean you can’t keep lifting more, you just need to apply different techniques to ensure you are constantly progressing. Utilise the techniques below and you’ll see progress for years to come.
1) Adding sets and reps
When you’re struggling to up the weight for a given exercise, the next best alternative is to add extra reps and sets to ensure you become comfortable at that given weight. Whilst muscles are good at adapting to new stimulus and repair relatively quickly, your ligaments, tendons and joints are not so fast at adapting! Constantly putting more weight on the bar without mastering the previous weight is going to lead to injury further down the line.
Whilst it’s a slightly slower process, taking time to get comfortable at each weight range will mean that you hold size and strength better in the future. If you currently perform 3 sets of 8 reps for an exercise and want to up the weight, start off working your way up to 3 sets of 12 reps with the current weight, this will take a few extra weeks to achieve, however once you do up the weight you will have much better control over it and will be stronger in a number of rep ranges.
Another alternative is to add extra sets, by increasing the total volume of weight lifted you’ll increase hypertrophy resulting in more muscle size and strength.
2) Time under tension
Similar to the above strategy of mastering a weight by progressively doing more reps and becoming comfortable with it, you can further push this boundary by increasing the time under tension of the set.
This is done by following a tempo (if you don’t currently do this start now) and modifying it to make sets longer. An example could be 1-1-1-0, for a rep this would be one second to lift the weight, one second hold, one second lowering the weight and no break at the bottom. By extending this to 1-1-3-0 and taking three seconds to lower the weight for a set of 10 reps it will take you 20 seconds longer to finish the set.
This seems simple, but that added time is more time for lactic acid to build, more tears to the muscle and more physically/mentally tiring. This again builds strength and is another technique for muscle growth, so it’s not just about lifting more when it comes to strength and size.
3) Shorter rest periods
Increasing time under tension is one way to increase volume of a workout, another is by reducing rest periods. Typical rest periods are around 45-60 seconds long for most people, whether you time them or not. By looking to reduce this, the muscle will be doing the same work in a shorter period of time.
This means that you are essentially doing more work as your muscles aren’t getting as long to recover or to prepare before it’s time for the next set.
4) Added techniques (drop sets)
Another way to increase the total volume of weight lifted is to incorporate drop sets, this is finishing a set, immediately dropping the weight and continuing for more reps.
An example would be the leg extension machine. You perform a set of 10 reps at 70kg, drop the weight to 50kg and do say 7 reps, then drop the weight a final time to 35kg and rep out as many as possible.
This is perfect to use for exercises that are notoriously hard to up the weight such as dumbbell lateral raises. By implementing this technique, you can extend the length of the set, work with more total volume and still leave room to progress on movements that are hard to mechanically do so with weight increases.
By using the techniques outlined above you’ll be able to maintain the intensity and progression of your workouts even when putting more plates on the bar plateaus!
About the Author
Simon Byrne is a health and fitness writer covering a range of subjects including training, nutrition and supplementation. Whilst currently a certified nutritionist, he is also studying towards a degree in sports nutrition. Outside of the fitness industry Simon’s career is in venue and events management.