There’s no arguing that the two simplest and best ways to apply progressive overload to strength training are by going heavier and doing more reps.
And, as every experienced lifter knows, when you’re first starting out, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll be able to do at least one of those two things every single workout.
Unfortunately, those linear gains don’t last forever. Eventually, progress stalls, and that’s when frustration tends to ensue. To avoid that frustration and break through those pesky plateaus, shift your focus to these four new progressive overload strategies.
1. Increase Range of Motion
Mechanical work is the product of force exerted and the distance over which that force is exerted. Adding weight to the bar is the obvious way to increase work. But when progress there inevitably stalls, it’s time to start increasing distance or range of motion (ROM) instead.
Now, many ego-driven lifters have a nasty habit of short-changing ROM in order to perform more reps. These folks will skimp on ROM on everything from squats to push-ups to pull-ups, performing what would be better described as “pulses” than reps.
If you’re one of these people, stop reading here. Reel your ego in and perform the exercises as intended. Then return to this article.
Of course, even if you’re already exercising through a full ROM, as you should be, there are still a number of ways to increase ROM further on exercises like squats, deadlift, and bench press.
Deep (ass-to-grass) squats are, perhaps, the quintessential example. But not every lifter has the requisite anatomy or mobility to bury an ass-to-grass squat with proper form.
Two other great options for increasing ROM are cambered bar bench press and deficit deadlifts. If you have access to a cambered bar, the greater ROM it affords on bench press will translate to increased strength off the chest with a straight bar. As an alternative to the cambered bar, you can also use dumbbells.
Likewise, the added ROM in the bottom position of a deficit deadlift will boost your strength off the floor from normal pulling height. To progress the deficit deadlift, simply elevate the feet atop an additional weight plate each week. 10-pound bumper plates allow for the best micro-progression.
2. Increase Density
The word “density” may bring back pangs of anxiety from high school chemistry, but don’t worry. We’re not talking about mass per unit volume here.
Instead, we’re dealing with reps per unit time – surely something we can all get behind. Increased density equates to more reps in less time and, consequently, more muscle.
To determine density, compare the total number of reps to the amount of time it takes to do them. Consider the following two scenarios:
- 6 sets of 10 reps at 205 lbs every 2 minutes
- 10 sets of 6 reps at 205 lbs every 1 minute
In terms of density, which is more productive? In option (1), 60 reps are completed in a total of 12 minutes. In option (2), those same 60 reps are done in 10 minutes. Clearly, option (2) is the winner.
Apply progressive overload either by performing the same number of reps in a shorter period of time (as described in the example above) or by doing more total reps in a specified period of time.
For the latter case, you might devote one training session per week for four weeks to 20 minutes of 315-pound deadlifts. Each week attempt to increase the number of deadlifts you do in those 20 minutes.
3. Decrease Mechanical Advantage
From a biomechanics standpoint, the degree of difficulty of an exercise can be boiled down to mechanical advantage, which is the ratio of load to muscle force.
A subtle change in body position via bar placement, stance width, or grip width can have a huge effect on mechanical advantage.
Take bar placement in the back squat, for instance. Due to mechanical advantage, it’s much harder to high bar back squat the same weight as you low bar back squat.
This is because the high bar position results in a more upright torso and, therefore, decreased mechanical advantage for the quadriceps. Compared to the low bar position, the high bar requires more muscle force from the quads to lift a given load.
When it comes to high performance, you want to position yourself in the way that allows you to lift the most weight. A classic illustration of this principle is the aforementioned low bar back squat, which shifts the load onto the hip extensors, a more powerful muscle group than the quads.
When it comes to training, though, the reverse approach – of positioning yourself in the way you’re weakest – is sometimes the best one.
If you’re a strong low bar back squatter, spend several weeks working on the high bar back squat or even the front squat. Similarly, swap out your deadlift stance in favor of whichever one you’re weaker in (conventional or sumo). Each week, pull with a slightly narrower (or wider) stance.
Devoting time to this opposite variation will shore up weaknesses in your preferred one.
Changing up your grip is another way to decrease mechanical advantage. Snatch-grip deadlifts will strengthen your upper back, and close-grip bench press will increase front deltoid and triceps strength. Just don’t go any closer with the bench grip than twelve inches, as you still want the wrists and elbows stacked.
4. Vary Tempo
In order to grow, muscles need time under tension.
A set of 10 push-ups can be beneficial if the reps are slow and controlled in both directions, or it can be a complete waste if it lasts all of 10 seconds and the body just drops uncontrolled into the bottom position.
Luckily, there are three ways to challenge your muscles using tempo:
1. Accentuate the eccentric, or negative, phase of the exercise
For example, perform five squats taking five seconds to lower on each rep. Over the coming weeks, make it eight seconds, then ten.
If you’re really ambitious, use a near-maximal load and get help from your spotter on the concentric phase of the reps. Just be sure to avoid performing negatives on heavy deadlifts, as this can put undue stress on the low back.
2. Add an isometric pause, or static hold
Pause for a few seconds in a strategic position like the transition between the eccentric and concentric phases, at your sticking point, or both.
For example, in a double paused bench press, you can pause for two seconds with the bar just off your chest and then again for two seconds when the bar is halfway up. Then work up to a five-second pause in each position.
3. Be maximally explosive on the concentric phase of every rep
Using a light load, lift the weight as quickly and powerfully as possible (with perfect form). The increased speed will stand in for the lighter weight and carry over upon returning to heavier loads.
Break Through Your Plateaus
To break through plateaus and continue building muscle and strength, dedicate an entire training cycle to the strategies discussed above.
These methods will allow you to progress without ever adding a plate to the bar or a rep to a set. In fact, these tactics can be so demanding that you may actually have to decrease reps or weight.
And that’s perfectly okay, because when you return to your regularly scheduled programming at the end of the cycle, you’ll be bigger and stronger than ever.