If you’re looking to improve your appearance, the main reason you may be failing is most likely because you’re no longer challenging yourself. Skeletal muscle grows bigger and stronger in response to the training stimulus, but for further gains, you need to continue making greater demands on it. If you don’t progressively overload the muscles by forcing them to do more than they’re accustomed to, they have no reason to make further adaptations.
This principle involves continually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system to continually make gains in muscle size, strength, and endurance. Simply put, in order to get bigger and stronger, you must continually make your muscles work harder than they’re used to. Most often, that means increasing the resistance, but as you’ll find below, there are other methods to increasing the overload. Conversely, if the demands on the target muscle groups are not at least maintained or are actually decreased, your muscles will atrophy, losing size and strength.
Progressive overload is a very simple but crucial concept, laying the foundation upon which successful resistance training is built. The progressive-overload principle doesn’t apply just to lifting weights to increase muscle growth and strength; it can also be applied to cardiovascular-fitness programs, creating physiological changes that affect aerobic metabolism and the cardiorespiratory system.
Probably the most obvious way to increase the demands you place on your muscles is to increase the load, or weight. If 10kg is too easy when performing a bicep curl, try 12kg, that should be more challenging! Remember, there’s an inverse relationship between load and reps, so when you increase the weight, your reps are going to fall to some degree. That’s OK, because soon enough, you’ll get stronger with that resistance and be able to repeat the cycle over again.
You don’t necessarily have to add weight; alternatively, as you get stronger, you can simply do more repetitions, which is considered another means of increasing the overload. Never stop a movement when you reach an arbitrary rep count; keep going until you can’t complete any more on your own with good form. Exercise science indicates that to maximize your muscle-building efforts, the point at which you end your set should be in the 8- to 12-rep range. So you wouldn’t want to indefinitely keep adding reps as you get stronger, because those incremental gains at some point would improve muscle endurance rather than muscle size. When you reach 12 reps or so, you should increase the resistance rather than simply trying to do more. Your reps will come down, but it’ll keep you in that ideal range for hypertrophy.
This variable is another way to increase the overload. Volume is simply sets multiplied by reps multiplied by resistance. By adding more sets (either by doing more exercises or adding another set for your existing exercises), you’re making progressively greater demands on your muscle tissue. Remember, too, that since your reps are best constrained to the 8-12 range and the loads you use don’t change dramatically to stay in that range, increasing your total sets is the best way to increase total training volume. That may mean doing 3 sets instead of 2 for all the exercises in your routine, or adding another movement (hopefully from a slightly different angle to emphasize a different area of the muscle).
Like volume, increasing the frequency with which you train a muscle group can increase the overload. And, like volume, you can get too much of a good thing. This technique works particularly well when targeting a lagging or weak body part. The traditional approach to training a muscle group is once over the course of the training split, but training it more frequently may help bring it up, especially when used as a short-term strategy.
There’s one more way to increase the overload: reducing your between-sets rest interval, ultimately allowing you to do the same amount of work in less time. This mechanism requires your body to become more metabolically efficient with regard to anaerobic exercise.