Practical Progression Approaches for Muscle Building

Take your muscle building to a new level by learning when and how to add weight for the many different rep and set schemes featured in popular workouts.

A consistent effort yields results.Progression is the systematic and structured increase in the amount of weight used in a bodybuilding or strength building workout. Progression of weight drives both muscle growth, and obviously, strength gains. But progression can be a mystery.

Take a look at popular weight training workouts and you quickly discover one confusing reality...there appears to be an endless variations of how sets and reps can be structured. When you lay these confusing set and rep schemes side by side with the need for progression of weight, the obvious question becomes:

How do I progress using that set and rep scheme?

I am going to try and answer this question for you. Taking popular workout set and rep schemes from the Muscle & Strength Workout database, I will provide you with variations and solutions on how to progress in weight.

Keep in mind that there is no “best” way to progress. Use an approach that you enjoy, and that most motivates you to hit the gym. As long as you are progressing some way, some how, you will be reaching your goals.

Workout Effort

Before I begin I would like to stress an important point. You must try to progress on every set of every workout. This dedication to the training process will maximize results. Any effort less than this will reduce your results. Once you begin to stagnate, and stop pushing your body, you are in essence telling your body it’s ok to stop building new muscle now.

It is not uncommon to hear the following on a bodybuilding forum: “I don’t want to look like Arnold, I just want to add some muscle.” There is a good chance when a statement like this is made, the true meaning is: “I don’t want to push myself in the gym with heavy weights or hard work, or make too many dietary changes, I just want results.”

Unfortunately for those who want an easy way, there is no easy way. Even modest goals – say adding a "little bit" of muscle, maybe "only" 10 pounds – still requires progression of weight (hard work) and a solid bodybuilding-style eating approach.

If you wants results – any results, no matter how small – progression is the key to achieving your goals.

Progression – Blocked Sets

Blocked sets appear as one of the following in a workout:

  • 3 sets x 8 reps
  • 4 sets x 10 reps

Blocked sets do not specify a rep range, but rather a rep total or goal. This rep goal is the same for all sets of a given exercise. For example purposes, we will look at several ways of progressing with block sets using 3 sets of 10 reps.

  • Progression Goal - First Set. Use the same weight for all 3 sets. When you are able to perform 10 reps on the first set, add weight. On the second and third set, the number of reps that you can perform will drop due to fatigue.
  • Progression Goal – All Sets. Use the same weight for all 3 sets. When you are able to perform 10 reps on all 3 sets, add weight. You may or may not choose to perform more then 10 reps per set when possible.

Progression of weight drives both muscle growth and strength gains.

Progression – Defined Rep Range

Many workout routines define a specific rep range that you should work within. These rep ranges generally look like the following:

  • 3 sets x 6-10 reps
  • 4 sets x 10-15 reps

Progression using a defined rep range works the same way as progression with blocked reps. Using the example of 3 sets by 6-10 reps, you may either add weight after you are able to perform 10 reps on the first set, or add weight after you are able to perform 10 reps for all 3 sets.

It is natural for a trainee to believe that they must use different reps and weights for sets within a defined rep range. This is not the case. You certainly can change weight from set to set if you would like, but doing so requires a constant shifting and monitoring of every set of every workout, which can quickly becoming burdensome.

In addition, you are in the gym to lift weights, and sticking with the same weight reduces down time and keeps you focused on the task at hand. For defined rep ranges, I strongly recommend using the same weight for all sets when possible and basing your progression strategy around this.

Progression – Decreasing Pyramid Sets

Pyramid sets are a very popular approach. Generally, when you find them in a workout they are decreasing pyramid sets, meaning that the rep goal gets smaller with each additional set. Here is a popular example of decreasing pyramid sets:

  • 4 sets – 12, 10, 8, 6 reps

There are 2 primary methods of progressing using decreasing pyramid sets:

Same Weight Progression. Using our above example (4 sets – 12, 10, 8, 6 reps), a trainee would use the same weight for all 4 sets. When you can perform 12 reps for the first set, you would add weight. As you fatigue, you will not be able to perform as many reps per set. Because of this, a decreasing pyramid rep scheme is a very natural approach to training. Don’t get hung up on hitting each rep range exactly. It is more important to give a quality effort on every set, than to worry about performing 12, 10, 8 and 6 reps on the nose.

Decreasing Weight Progression. Many trainees prefer to increase weight as they move along in sets. For example, on bench press a typical set and weight scheme might look something like this:

  • 195 x 12 reps
  • 215 x 10 reps
  • 235 x 8 reps
  • 255 x 6 reps

This is a perfectly acceptable way to approach decreasing pyramid sets, but it can create some chaos when you try to decide just how to progress. My recommendation is to base your progression on the heaviest set, meaning that when you can perform 6 reps on this set, add weight for all sets.

You can, of course, add weight for each individual set when you hit the stated rep goal. The problem with this approach is that over time, you will most likely start to use the same weight for all 4 sets – or close to it.

As stated, when a muscle fatigues, you are less likely to peform as many reps on subsequent set(s). So if you are able to perform 225 for 12 reps on the first set, and are pushing with an all out effort, you will most likely only be able to perform 225 for 8-10 reps on the second set, and possibly 225 x 5-8 reps on the third set.

Final Thoughts

All to often trainees see a workout plan and obsess over reps. They wrongly believe that the magic of a workout lies in hitting the specific rep total as outlined by the author. This is not the case.

The magic of a workout does not come from specific rep totals. For most workouts, reps are merely a guideline or goal. Do not obsess about performing the exact number of reps as listed in a workout, and do not obsess about how much weight to drop from set to set so that you can perform the exact number of reps listed. Pick a solid method of progression, and focus on it instead.

Weight training is not magic. Be persistent and don’t miss workouts. Use a proper bodybuilding style eating plan. And focus on progression in the gym.