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Posted 5 months ago

How to approach progressions

For the most part, it’s commonly accepted in the bodybuilding world that you need to get stronger over time to gain new muscle mass. Although there are many different methods of approaching this goal in the industry, the concept itself isn’t disputed.

However, whilst most people logically understand this idea, their application of it can be quite poor, leading to plateaus, injuries, or poor accuracy in training. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to discuss how the team and I at VW Physique approach the notion of progression with regards to the weights we are lifting.

Progressive overload

At VW Physique, we follow the progressive overload model – this refers to increasing the load that muscles are exposed to when training. Simply put, the idea is that to increase muscle size, you must continually make your muscles work harder than they were used to working before.

This can be done in a few ways:
-increasing the weight on the bar and performing the same reps
-increasing the number of reps you perform with the same load
-increasing muscle fibre recruitment at the same reps and same load

I often refer to this as progressing the ‘total accumulated load’. If you multiply the reps you perform by the weight that you lifted for a set, that will give you the total load that is going through that muscle, just for that set; then, if you add the weight lifted from all the other sets you perform for a given exercise, you can calculate your total accumulated load:

100kg x 8 reps = 800kg
90kg x 12 reps = 1080kg
800kg + 1080kg = 1880kg total accumulated load

This is number that we are looking to increase over time. That is, it’s not just about how much weight you can lift in one isolated set: it’s the total accumulation of that over a workout, over the weeks, over the months, and then years.

So, how does that add muscle? Well, as you increase this number over time and place increasing demands on the muscle to produce more force, the body sees this as a direct threat to its survival and thus, adapts accordingly. That adaptation comes in the form of a bigger and stronger muscle.

Seems simple, right? All you need to do it get stronger every single week. If you don’t go about it in the right way though, you’ll hit plateaus very early on in your training, which can be frustrating. However, here’s a secret: you don’t need to be lifting heavier every single week. Read on to find out more!

Increasing weight on the bar

This is the one concept of progressive overload we all love, and at times, get a little bit too excited about. If you have followed me for a while, you’ll know that our method involves training to failure. That means training to a point, and lifting enough weight, that when you hit the target rep range, you cannot physically do another rep, or if you did, you’d need assistance to complete the rep. Most people will struggle to train to this level when they first start coaching but will see a huge change in their physique just by increasing their training intensity from where it was at before.

If we use the example from earlier for the weights that you might lift in week 1:

100kg x 8 reps = 800kg
90kg x 12 reps = 1080kg
800kg + 1080kg = 1880kg total accumulated load

Let’s say your target rep range is 6-8 for the first set and then 10-12 for the second set. Given you’ve already hit the top range of that rep range, you’ll be looking to increase your weights in your next session. This increase might involve adding a 1.25kg plate on either side of a bar, for example. If you are training to true failure, that’s all you should be able to manage; if you’re able to add 5-10kg, you’re simply not training hard enough. Thus, before your session, you would write your session out in your log book and pop in the targets for your new weights. By following the argument above, your aim might be to hit 102.5kg for 6 reps in the first set, and then 92.5kg for 10 the second set. When you perform these sets you get:

102.5kg x 7 reps = 717.5kg
92.5g x 10 reps = 925kg
717.5kg + 925kg = 1642.5kg total accumulated load

Now, I know what you are thinking: “But wait Vaughan, the total accumulated load is now down!!” and you would be correct in thinking so. However, if we are training to true failure, we must accept this slight step back before we can take two forwards. This is because you have never exposed the muscle to that weight before, so it might not be strong enough to get the same reps yet.

This is where the week after, you solely focus on increasing the reps whilst keeping the load the same.

Increasing the reps at the same load

Right, let’s keep going. Suppose that now you go into week 3: you know your numbers from last week, and therefore, you know what you need to beat. You must get more than 7 reps at 102.5kg, therefore your target is 8, and you follow this by aiming for 11 at 92.5kg for the second set. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of writing this down or knowing your target before you perform the set. If you approach it with the mentality of “I’ll see what I can get” then that is exactly how the set is going to go. When you perform the sets you get:

102.5kg x 8 reps = 820kg
92.5kg x 12 reps = 1110kg
820kg + 1110kg = 1930kg total accumulated load

Compare that to week 1 (1880kg) and you have 50kg more of loading going through the muscle. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but remember you are trying to continue this process for as long as possible, which might be years, so be patient. If we followed a 5 week progression model as the above, that might give us weekly totals of:

Week 1: 1880kg
Week 2: 1642.5kg
Week 3: 1930kg
Week 4: 1880kg
Week 5: 2000kg

When we plot this on a graph (figure 1) you can see why we may have to accept a slight backwards step on some weeks, so long as the general trendline (dotted) is upwards over time:

Figure 1

The moral of the story here is that whilst you might not be able to smash out the same reps at heavier load each week, you will be able to do so as the weeks go on, so be patient. That’s what bodybuilding is about.

Increasing muscle fibre recruitment at the same reps and same load

Muscle contraction and the mechanical tension you create through an exercise is probably the most overlooked part of progressive overload, yet it’s as critical as progressing your weight and reps; if you aren’t trying to maximise muscle fibre recruitment, you won’t be growing as much as you could.

You may have a week where you increased your reps by 1; in the example above, this was week 2 to week 3:

102.5kg x 7 reps (week 2) and 102.5kg x 8 reps (week 3)

Now this is all great on paper, but it could be that you don’t quite feel the load as much through the muscle in those last reps as you did at the start of the set. Either that, or it could be that the last couple reps have gotten a bit sloppy. This is completely normal/natural, as you’re trying to push your body past it’s limit: sometimes it takes going a bit too far to know where that limit is. Therefore, your progression the following week may be just to match the same reps and weight as the week previous, but tidy up those last reps, increase the amount of muscle fibre recruitment, and ensuring you feel the tension in those last reps.

I’d argue here that this is more important than simply trying to increase reps/loadyes, we want to shift immense loads over time, but we want to execute this with immense form/tempo. That, in its simplicity, is the secret to adding new tissue. Don’t be surprised if when you go for an all-time PB it f just doesn’t feel that good. Where some might drop the load back down instantly, I’d encourage you to spend a couple weeks focusing on improving the contraction/tension. Only once you’ve done so, you have earned the right to increase the load/reps.

This becomes much more applicable the stronger you become, and as this occurs, the more patient you will need to be with your increases.

In summary, when looking to add new muscle mass we must endeavour to increase the total accumulated load going through a given muscle. We can do this by increasing the weight we are lifting, increasing the reps at the same weight, or increasing muscle fibre recruitment and holding weight/reps. Be patient with your increases, and accept that some weeks, it might look like you go backwards but in the long term you should and will be getting stronger. Understand that the stronger you become, the more patient you must be and that some weeks will simply be about moving the same weight, for the same reps but getting it to feel that little bit better.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons