Progression Of Weight: Building Muscle And Strength One Rep At A Time

Steve Shaw
Written By: Steve Shaw
September 23rd, 2011
Updated: June 13th, 2020
104.6K Reads
Have you hit a training plateau? How do you add weight to the bar to maximize your progress? Learn the ins and outs of weight progression.

Progression of weightProgression is the key to muscle and strength building. I often tell lifters to use the following approach during each workout:

Push yourself on every set. Try to perform as many reps as possible without training to failure. When you can perform the recommended maximum number of reps for a set, add weight the next time in the gym.

Let me explain exactly what this means by providing an example. After this example, I want to show you just how powerful the addition of a single rep can be.

Bench Press – Example of Progression

Bench press – the favorite lift of Monday morning gym rats everywhere. Perhaps you are using 185 pounds and a set calls for 6 to 10 reps. This is a pretty broad range, and you are unsure how to load weight and how to progress.

Start with a weight that allows you to perform at least 6 reps. Don’t worry too much about where you start. Even if you guess wrong with a starting weight and are unable to hit the minimum of 6 reps it won’t matter much after a few weeks.

You pick 185 pounds for this set and are able to perform 6 total reps. The last rep was hard, so you wisely stop the set at that point. (Again, there is never a reason to train to failure as long as you are progressing).

Your next three workouts look like this:

  • Workout OneBench Press, 185 x 6 reps
  • Workout Two – Bench Press, 185x 6 reps
  • Workout Three – Bench Press, 185 x 8 reps

You had a frustrating first three sessions and felt like you were making no progress at all. Finally, on the last workout, you were able to comfortably add 2 reps. Amazingly, the week after this you nail 10 reps:

  • Workout Four – Bench Press, 185 x 10 reps

Recall that the rep range for this set was 6 to 10. After 4 workouts you finally achieved 10 reps, which was the recommended maximum number of reps. So, the next time you perform the bench press, you add weight and use 190 pounds.

This is progression.

Only a Rep?

Looking again at the bench press example, our lifter was able to add 4 reps in 4 workouts. This is an average of one rep per workout. You might not consider the addition of one rep per workout to be important. In fact, I would wager that many of you would have considered this paltry progression to be a plateau – especially because the lifter was stuck at 6 reps for the first 3 weeks.

Is it a plateau? Is it really slow progress? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s excellent progress. Think I am joking? Let’s look at some simple math.

Progression of weight

Remember that out trainee was able to add an average of one rep per workout. This translates into the addition of 5 pounds every 5 workouts, or a single pound per workout. For example, adding 5 more reps in 5 more weeks would look something like this:

  • Week 1 – 190 pounds x 6 reps
  • Week 2 – 190 pounds x 7 reps
  • Week 3 – 190 pounds x 8 reps
  • Week 4 – 190 pounds x 9 reps
  • Week 5 – 190 pounds x 10 reps

And again, continuing with the average addition of one rep per week. The following 5 weeks would look like:

  • Week 6 – 195 pounds x 6 reps
  • Week 7 – 195 pounds x 7 reps
  • Week 8 – 195 pounds x 8 reps
  • Week 9 – 195 pounds x 9 reps
  • Week 10 – 195 pounds x 10 reps

Obviously no one will add a single rep each week in this manner. But the important point is to remember that our lifter is adding an average of one rep per week.

By adding “only” one rep per week, and by jumping up in weight by “only” 5 pounds at a time, our lifter is able to:

  • Add 52 pounds to his bench press in a year.

If this “minimal” rate of progression is maintained, in two years our lifter will be benching 285 for reps. This is a HUGE number, and equates to a bench press one rep max somewhere between 335 and 375 pounds.

Conclusion

Too many trainees are impatient. Don’t be one of them.

Even if your rate of progression is only half of what was achieved in our example, your bench press max would still be close to 300 after only two years. Add in another couple of years at this rate and you could easily be close to a 350 pounds bench press max.

A true plateau occurs when you are unable to add a single rep to a lift over a 2-4 month period. Slow progression still adds up to big numbers. More than this, unless you are a rank beginner, you probably WON’T experience fast progression.

Learn to be satisfied with just “one more rep.” In a few short years these small increases will help you to become one of the biggest and strongest lifters in your gym.

I guarantee it!

21 Comments
helpneeded
Posted on: Fri, 05/08/2015 - 23:04

If I was doing 3 sets should i be reaching 10 on all three sets before progressing? (Just in terms of this example of course)

Vladimir
Posted on: Wed, 08/20/2014 - 05:21

Good article.

Ricky
Posted on: Fri, 04/11/2014 - 04:47

Hey can you please give me a thumbs down?

Norman
Posted on: Sat, 03/29/2014 - 20:59

Excellent explanation. The good things come with time. Ussually, we sabotage our training for showing the others that we´re strongers instead of thinking what is the best for our body and health.

Steve Ransley
Posted on: Wed, 03/19/2014 - 16:29

Hi Steve

Thanks for the wisdom on this. I was just wondering whether you add the weight when you're able to do 6-10 reps for all the sets. So if on your bench press you typically do 4 sets of 6-10, do you wait til you can hit 4 sets at 10 reps before upping the weight?
Thanks a bunch

BANDULA UPUL
Posted on: Sat, 09/28/2013 - 08:10

thanks lots of for you i learned lot of thing from your site

Jon
Posted on: Wed, 09/26/2012 - 22:08

Hi Steve,

I have always been in good shape from lifting and participating in sports from high school. However, I have a huge problem with bench pressing. I am 6'4 220 pounds (mainly muscle) and cannot even max my own body weight. For me doing three sets of 135lbs 10 times is a challenge. Also I find pull ups to be nearly impossible for me. I usually go in and can only do about 6 reps in 3 sets. I have pretty large arms but it is discouraging when people see how big I am and how little I can lift. Some of my friends who body build competitively say it's because my arms are so long. I don't want to use that as a reason not to lift more. My legs are very strong from squatting but my arms are embarrassing. Any advice you could give me would be greatly appreciated.

Joe
Posted on: Sun, 09/16/2012 - 17:50

Do you still do 4 sets of 6-10 reps each set. Trying to build up my bench and want to do this method. Thanks for your help.

George
Posted on: Sun, 09/16/2012 - 14:02

Hey Steve!
Do you recommend doing additional exercises, except bench press, during the "chest" day or you say to do only that;
Thank you!

Tom
Posted on: Sun, 09/16/2012 - 12:12

Hey Steve. I thought I would tell you about a progression method I learned back in high school which works great. Go to a hardware store and buy metal washers with an inner hole diameter that will fit your barbell. Buy them by weight so that you end up with a total of 5 lbs. You should have around 20 washers depending on the size you have. Now every workout add a single washer to each side of your barbell. Even though each washer weighs only several ounces, over time you will add 5lbs over 10 workouts. If you feel you want to make quicker progress get slightly bigger washers so that you add the 5 lbs in 5 or 6 or 7 workouts. I find that this method helps break through plateaus easily as your body doesnt notice the extra weight at all since it is added so slowly. What do you think???

Adam
Posted on: Wed, 08/08/2012 - 11:09

Cheers Steve thats just what I needed to hear! Ps im making great progress using your 3 day bulldozer workout. Thanks v v much. Adam

Tim
Posted on: Thu, 06/28/2012 - 01:19

Hey Steve,
IM with you all the way for progression at a slow rate as long as one is progressing, and getting plenty of rest and recovery between workouts.
The one thing I thought worth pointing out is that "rep-progression" means that, for example, in this article, our lifter is lifting 190lbs more each week as he progresses.
That is a lot of weight to be adding week after week!
Perhaps a more achieveable progression would be to stick to a constant rep count and only add 5lbs every week or every few weeks!
Ex. week 1-3 = 8reps x 190lbs. week 4-6 = 8reps x 195lbs.
A look at the math between these approaches shows that adding a single rep is equal to adding 190lbs to your total workout, whereas adding only 5lbs and holding the rep count at 8 adds only 40lbs to the total workout.

Your comments please, and let me know if I am overlooking a key bit of info somewhere here.
thanks!

Chris
Posted on: Sat, 05/05/2012 - 16:42

Hi Steve,
You have been powerlifting and generally lifting heavy for many years. Yet in one of your articles you said you had tiny joints. So what joint problems have you had over the years? And what advice, apart from carefully warming up, would you give to someone with small joints to avoid problems?

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Steven
Posted on: Fri, 05/18/2012 - 19:25

I had major, major tendinitis from doing too much direct arm work. I think this is a common problem though. Most guys tend to overdo bicep training.

In general I think most people don't rest enough. At some point after a few years taking a week off every now and then, or deloading, can really help the body recover. Unfortunately many guys fear that if they take a week off they will get weak or lose muscle. Not true.

Alex
Posted on: Fri, 03/29/2013 - 02:28

Hi Steve. I've been on west side training for 12 weeks now, my bicep & shoulder starting to get get worse with tendinitis (which I've never experienced in the past by doing hypertrophy training), especially in a past few days I cant now lift much with my left arm and I've got my first powerlifting competition in two weeks. I'm training next week (4 days) and then taking one week off before the big day. Any recommendations on how I can help my arm to recover but still train while not putting on too much stress on tendon? Thanx

Torin
Posted on: Thu, 11/24/2011 - 22:02

Hello Steve,
this article is very appealing in the sense that it adds a substantial amount of weight progressively and im not sure if i over looked something ,but where it says week 1- 190 Pounds x 6 Reps, Week 2- 190 Pounds x 7 Reps, ect, does this mean this is ONE workout of that degree once a week or is it 2 to 3 workouts weekly and then progress to the next rep/weight range?

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Steven
Posted on: Fri, 11/25/2011 - 09:14

Hi Torin,

This can be applied to fullbody and upper/lower splits. Keep in mind that with most fullbody approaches, exercises that are performed multiple times per week often cycle intensity between a heavy, light and medium day. It will really depend on the specific fullbody approach you are using.

Rich
Posted on: Tue, 10/11/2011 - 02:07

Hey I've been doing your Dumbbell Only Home workout for about three weeks now and I'm really liking it so far. The question about adding weight I have is I can go the full 3x12 reps on some of the first workouts for say biceps, but wear out on the second or third set later in the workout. Should I wait to add more weight until I can finish all the exorcizes or should I add now on the ones I can finish completely?

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Steven
Posted on: Wed, 10/12/2011 - 14:20

Hi Rich,

Don't go light in an attempt to save yourself. Always do as much as you can for every set.

pete
Posted on: Fri, 09/30/2011 - 08:16

hi steve,
your article mentions doin 6-10 reps for bench press, is this just 6-10 reps per session, is this enough. i do pyramids on my benchpress startin on 12 reps then 8 then 5, then back to 8 an 12 again, im i doin to much?

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Steven
Posted on: Fri, 09/30/2011 - 09:21

Hi Pete,

That's merely an example for a single set. There are many ways to approach a group of sets. In the end it won't matter much if you go light to heavy or heavy to light as long as you are progressing.

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