Progressive overload The driving force behind muscle growth

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Progressive overload is the key to muscle growth. It is all the more amazing that apparently very few apply the principle correctly and consistently in their training. Or that they don’t use it at all. What follows is an A-to-Z explanation with practical advice.

Key points:

1.   Overload is a prerequisite for muscle growth. One create overload by training a muscle group with sufficient sets (10-20 per week) and sufficient effort (~2 RIR). In addition, the training load must gradually increase (doing more weight and/or repetitions), which is why we also speak of progressive overload .

2.   Overload occurs within a certain bandwidth. As long as you move within that bandwidth with your training, you create growth incentives. Therefore, a workout does not necessarily always have to be heavier than the previous one.

3.   To be able to know if you are making progress, you have to write down what you do every workout: exercises, number of sets, weights, number of repetitions, and possibly also rest times and Reps In Reserve (RIR).

4.   The easiest progression model is the one where you work with a target reprange: as soon as you can do a certain number of repetitions with a certain weight at a certain number of RIR, you increase the weight.

5.   If you no longer make progress in weight and/or repetitions, your body may have adapted to your current training load and you therefore need to do more sets (increase your volume and possibly training frequency). However, don’t add sets until you’re sure you’re recovery is on point. Often it is not adaptation, but poor recovery that is the cause of a training plateau.

6.   Progressive overload is superior to variation. Only introduce variation (for example, doing other exercises) when training steeless sets in. And only vary if you are sure that your recovery is on point.

7.   Over time it becomes more and more difficult to keep making progress. Advanced lifters therefore sometimes have to apply special methods, such as cycling volume and/or RIR, doing specialization blocks or applying intensity techniques.

CONTENTS


“STOP EXERCISING, START TRAINING”

Many gym goers enter the gym without a plan. They do the exercises that they feel like at that moment, using a certain weight and number of repetitions at random. And during the next ‘training’ of those same muscle groups they do something else again.

Others take a more energetic approach and stick to a strict training schedule, with fixed exercises. They just ‘forget’ to write down which weights they use for each exercise, so they randomly choose a certain weight and do a certain number of repetitions each workout.

In both cases there is a lack of a planned approach, in which a specific goal is worked step by step.

The goal in itself is usually clear: the vast majority of gym goers want more muscle mass. Some also find strength gain important and only a few train purely for strength gain (usually powerlifters). For the sake of convenience, we assume that muscle growth is your (main) goal.

Don’t muscles grow if you ‘just’ do some exercises on a regular basis? In some cases, yes. If you are a beginner or if you use steroids you will get away with it. Novice bodybuilders are so sensitive to training stimuli that their muscles can grow quickly without a well-thought-out training program. As long as they go to the gym with some regularity and exercise with some effort, they will grow. And steroids users can grow even without training…

It’s a totally different story if you’re both natural and intermediate. The latter is what you are after about a year of consistent training. Your body has now adapted to most training stimuli and you are no longer growing nearly as fast. Or even no more: you have a workout plateau reached. Time to look for a steroids dealer? You don’t have to! Because now begins the most interesting and challenging phase of your training career, namely those in which it no longer just comes down to discipline and commitment, but also to the efficient programming of training, nutrition and recovery. Our site is full of articles about this.

The article you are reading is about the perhaps most important aspect of training for muscle growth (hypertrophy): overload. And the constant pursuit of progression in your training to ensure that overload. Why we also speak of progressive overload.

Progressive overload requires a planned approach to your training. So it’s time to work focused and thoughtfully, in other words: stop exercising, start training!

WHAT IS PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD?

To understand progressive overload, you need to understand the concepts of load, supercompensation, adaptation and overload.

LOAD

The term load often refers to the weight with which you load a muscle. In the context of overload, however, you should see load in a broader sense. Load is in fact the entire stimulus, or training stimulus, to which you expose a muscle:

ADAPTATION

Adaptation means that the body adapts to a certain training stimulus (load). It kind of gets used to it. Through adaptation you are able to train harder and harder.

Adaptation is the core of progress: by doing something often, your body adapts and you are able to do it better and better.

In hypertrophy training, adaptation is determined on the one hand by:

  • neural adaptations: your body becomes more efficient at using the muscle mass you already have;
  • adaptations in the muscle (muscle growth): in most cases this means that the cross-sectional area of ​​the muscle cross-section (the muscle fiber diameter) increases, with the result that individual fibers (and therefore the entire muscle) can exert more force.

As an absolute beginner, or if you are doing a completely new exercise as an advanced, mainly neural adaptations take place. This way you get stronger (quickly), without your muscles having grown significantly. As you get more advanced, muscle growth becomes the main factor that makes you stronger (provided you’re training bodybuilding style).

OVERLOAD

We speak of overload when you use a load that is large enough to create a growth stimulus. That means you not only have to train hard, but also harder than a while ago.

Technically, overload involves two things:

  1. Create an adequate training stimulus for muscle growth by training above the minimum required number of sets (MEV), with a maximum of 4-5 RIR (average 2 RIR) and with weights between 30%1RM and 85%1RM.
  2. Being progressive, ie creating a greater training load than in a recent workout.

From point 1 you can deduce that overload is not the same as using very heavy weights, as is often thought. After all, you can achieve maximum muscle growth with both light and heavy weights, as long as you train your sets close to muscle failure.

Point 2 does not necessarily mean that you should create a greater load for each workout compared to the previous workout xii ] . Overload takes place within a certain bandwidth i ] . If you’ve had a tough workout with almost maximum overload, you’ll grow. If the next training of the muscle group in question is also very heavy, but slightly less than the previous one, you are probably still in the bandwidth of overload and muscle growth will take place just as well (albeit less).

The figure below illustrates that bandwidth principle: the overload occurs when you train above the blue line. Over time, that line gets higher, depending on how fast your adaptation takes place. It may well be that the blue line remains at more or less the same level for some training sessions and that you therefore create overload with the same number of repetitions and weight as in your previous training.


SUPER COMPENSATION

After a hard workout, a muscle gets damaged and the body starts to recover. Muscle rebuilding occurs through protein synthesis . When the body has finished building the muscle to the same level it was before the stimulus, it will prevent future breakdown by making the muscle bigger. We call this supercompensation. Obviously this only happens if you have created overload. Otherwise there is no good reason for your body to arm yourself against a subsequent load.

Supercompensation (Wikipedia)The trajectory of training, recovery and supercompensation. Source: Wikipedia.

PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD

To build muscle mass, you will have to strive for supercompensation again and again. And so you have to make sure that you create enough overload during your training. You should also start your workouts with that mindset: you’re going to challenge your muscles so that you give your body a valid reason to make them bigger.

Challenge logically means that there must be progression in your training performance. What was overload two months ago is no longer so. That is why it is also known as progressive overload.

Strictly speaking, the term progressive overload is not correct: you make progression in load and that leads to overload. But that’s a linguistic issue; the term progressive overload is commonplace in bodybuilding and you now know what it means.

SO YOU HAVE TO GET STRONGER TO GROW?

Progressive overload is often explained as getting stronger. Not illogical, because muscle mass and muscle strength go hand in hand. So if you try to get stronger and stronger, you will grow. However, that’s not quite right.

We already saw that you can become stronger in two ways: through adjustments in the central nervous system (neural adjustments) and through adjustments in the muscle (muscle growth). It is therefore not true that you grow because you become stronger – the reverse is the case. The correct course of action is this:

overload -> adaptation and supercompensation -> muscle growth -> strength increase -> overload

If you are able to train with more reps and/or weight along the way, you have become stronger and that is usually an indication that muscle growth has taken place, provided you’re training bodybuilding style. Neural adaptations can only prevail in absolute beginners, as we saw, because the body has to learn completely new movements. You will quickly become stronger, but not (yet) more muscular.

As natural bodybuilder, coach and powerlifter Brian Minor aptly sums it all up:

Your ability to add weight to the bar is an adaptive outcome from prior overloads, not a requierement for subsequent overload. ii ]

We get that this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg story. If you as a bodybuilder focus on getting stronger, you are basically in the right place, because that means you are applying progressive overload. It doesn’t matter that much that getting stronger is actually not the cause, but the result of muscle growth. Although it is important to know if you want to understand and apply progressive overload properly.

By the way, getting stronger doesn’t mean getting as strong as possible. The latter is the goal of a powerlifter, who, after all, trains for maximum strength. As a bodybuilder you have to get stronger in the rep ranges you use.

SO VARIATION IS NOT KEY ?

Bodybuilding coaches often say that you have to vary, that you have to ‘surprise’ or ‘shock’ your muscles to grow. But growth incentives create your first and foremost by continuing to train harder, not ever else to train.

Variation is therefore subordinate to the principles of specificity and overload in training theory. This means that with a number of fixed exercises, rep ranges and other training parameters – in the service of your training goal – you try to make progress over a longer period of time and in this way create overload.

Varying only becomes important when your body – despite overload – has become somewhat accustomed to certain training stimuli: training staleness. In intermediate and advanced bodybuilders, this steelness often occurs after a few mesocycles, so after roughly three or four months. Nevertheless, only vary if you are sure that you are using an adequate training volume and that your recovery is in order.

Many coaches have the annoying habit of having you regularly change training schedule and therefore also exercises. And it’s true: if you start with an exercise, you will initially be able to make rapid gains in weight. However, in the initial phase of a new training program, it is the neurological factors that make the biggest contribution to your strength gains and not muscle mass gains iii ] . In short, there is a fake progression .

If variety is important to your enjoyment of training, vary small exercises. For example, do cable curls one time and dumbbell curls the next. Do continue to monitor the training principle of overload.

A GRADUAL PROCESS

Bodybuilders are impatient creatures. Nature, however, is not in such a hurry: the body has only a limited capacity to build muscle per day. Novice bodybuilders can still gain a kilo of muscle mass per month in optimal conditions. But after a year or so of training that is only half, while advanced bodybuilders can be happy if you build one or two kilos of muscle mass on an annual basis.

This limited growth capacity is reflected in the progression in your training performance: it is only very gradual. As a natural bodybuilder you will have to accept that. The well-known “bodybuilding is a marathon, not a sprint”.

So don’t expect that you can slide more of those large plates over the bar every workout, or that you can put that pin a little lower in the weight stack every workout. And if you can do that, it’ll probably come at a serious cost to reps and/or execution, and you’re just kidding yourself.

In short, leave your ego at home and go through the process in small steps forward. Cherish those steps: realize that many gym members do not make any progress at all, or make no apparent progress due to incorrect training and nutrition. And that they are more likely to stand still or take steps backwards.

And remember again that overload occurs in a certain bandwidth. If you use a progression model where you make fairly large jumps all at once, you will usually continue to operate at a certain level for a little longer than when you make smaller jumps.

NO CONTINUOUS PROCESS

We prefer to see the way to our goal as a continuous line upwards. In practice, however, it will be more of an upward wave. The hindering factor in natural bodybuilding is fatigue.

Of course you make sure that you have enough rest time between two workouts of the same muscle group – usually 48 hours. In principle, your muscles have recovered sufficiently to be able to train them again. This does not alter the fact that fatigue builds up in your body: central fatigue, local fatigue (in the muscle) and fatigue in joints and connective tissues. We call this cumulative fatigue.

The longer you train continuously, the more cumulative fatigue there will be. Sooner or later, that fatigue will become so great that you no longer recover sufficiently from your training sessions and therefore no longer achieve muscle growth and progression. To prevent this, it is best to deload for a week after every five to six weeks of training . This means that you give your body a week of relative or – preferably – complete training rest, so that it can ‘clear up’ all fatigue. Then you can continue training at full strength.

Deloading is especially advisable if you are an intermediate or advanced bodybuilder. Due to the lower training load, beginners can probably make progress for a longer period of time without deloading.

NOT A LINEAR PROCESS

It is also not the case that you can continue to make progress at more or less the same pace throughout your training career. The degree of progression strongly depends on your training status. During an optimal career, progression is more or less along an s-curve xiv ] .

As an absolute beginner you will mainly become stronger and muscle growth will still lag behind. When you start with strength training, the neural adaptation is the greatest. A similar effect is there if you do a completely new exercise. The fact that you initially quickly become stronger in that exercise is due to the adjustments in the nervous system. Which by the way does not mean that as a beginner or if you do a new exercise you do not also realize some muscle growth – it is just that the adaptation in the nervous system is then more dominant than that in the muscle cells.

Once you’ve mastered your exercises, the big muscle gains can begin. And if you have your training program, nutrition and recovery even somewhat in order, growth can go quickly. Beginners at this stage can gain up to a kilogram of muscle mass per month. After one to two years of consistency, those rapid gains are over, although by that point you may have already reached two-thirds of your natural potential. From that moment on you are average (intermediate). Your body will then demand more and more ‘input’ in order to ‘want’ to grow: you will have to do more for less, in other words the principle of diminished returns.

Muscle growth proceeds in an s-curve throughout a training career. Source: YouTube/Renaissance Periodization/Mike Israetel .

THE CRITICAL IMPORTANCE OF TRAINING LOGS

How do you get better at a particular activity? By doing that activity on a regular basis. As a result, adaptation takes place and you can set the bar a little higher next time.

How do you know if you’ve gotten better at something? By doing exactly the same activity as last time, noticing the differences. And you can only notice those differences if you know what you performed last time. If a swimmer wants to know if he has gotten better at swimming a certain distance, he must swim exactly the same distance and must know how much time it took him to do it last time.

It is exactly the same with bodybuilding training. To get better, you will need to do the same exercises regularly, at least once a week, in the same rep ranges over and over, with the same number of sets in the same order. And to know whether you have improved, you will always have to note the weights and number of repetitions you trained with. So that, just like that swimmer with his stopwatch, you can observe the differences with the last time. Only if you have not made any progress for a longer period of time, you may need to adjust something in your training, such as increasing the number of sets.

All this means that you not only have to have a well-thought-out training schedule, but you also have to keep a close eye on all your performances. Then you can use pen on a piece of paper. Or, if desired, on your phone in an app. If you just write it down. As coach Mike Israel would say:

Write shit down. viii ]

It never ceases to amaze us how little we see this happening in our gym. Or is everyone really updating the training app and calorie app on their mobile phone between sets ? Probably not.

We therefore wholeheartedly agree with coach Sean Nalewanyj that not keeping track of training performance is probably the biggest mistake you can make as a (natural) bodybuilder:

No matter how much you insist that you “keep it all in your head”, nothing compares to actually writing down your training sessions in a logbook or app. This will allow you to progress in muscle size and strength much more efficiently by giving you a crystal clear target during every muscle building workout. I firmly believe that not writing down your workouts is one of the biggest bodybuilding mistakes you can make. xi ]

CREATING PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD

Now, how exactly do you create progressive overload? Quite simply, you can do this in two steps:

  1. Create plenty of stimulating reps;
  2. Gradually increase the training load.

Let’s take a closer look at these terms.

1. CREATE ENOUGH ENERGIZING REPS

Stimulating (or effective) reps are the reps that cause (the most) muscle growth. In a set, it’s the closest reps to technical muscle failure, when you can’t do a decent rep anymore.

You create stimulating repetitions by:

  • training your sets* close to muscle failure (average 2 RIR) – this is the effort, or relative intensity;
  • doing enough sets (10-20 sets per muscle group per week, depending on your training status) – this is the volume.

* Preferably sets in the range of 6-20 reps, as this is in practice the most efficient for muscle growth, and with rest times between sets averaging 1-3 minutes (depending on the type of exercise).

2. GRADUALLY INCREASE THE TRAINING LOAD

That means your training should be heavier than it has been recently. We have already seen that this does not have to be the case for every training, but there must be progress over a period of weeks and months.

PROGRESSION MODELS

How do you ensure that you gradually increase your training load? In other words: that you keep creating enough stimulating repetitions?

One thing is clear: you can’t put more weight on the bar every workout. This is only possible if you have just started a brand new exercise (thanks to the rapid neural adjustments that take place then). Making progress is therefore always a combination of the number of repetitions and the training weight (the absolute intensity), and possibly also the effort, the degree to which you train to muscle failure (the relative intensity).

Countless progression models can be devised on the basis of these training variables. We discuss the most efficient.

BASIC METHOD: REP AND RIR TARGET

Perhaps the simplest progression method is to focus on your target RIR and reprange.

RIR stands for Reps In Reserve and is the number of reps that will keep you away from muscle failure. With compound exercises we usually use 2-3 RIR, with isolation exercises 1-2 RIR (so we don’t train everything blindly until muscle failure). The simplest is to use a fixed number of RIR, although you could also make progress in that (see below).

The rep range is the number of reps you want to achieve with your sets, for example 10-12 reps. For muscle growth we usually operate somewhere between 5 and 30 repetitions, depending on the type of exercise.

Assuming you do three sets in a row for an exercise, it might look like this:

1st set: 12 reps with 2 RIR*
2nd set: 11 reps with 2 RIR
3rd set: 10 reps with 2 RIR

* This means that after 14 reps you would reach muscle failure.

You add weight the moment you have achieved these targets.

Example

Week 1
Set 1: 40 kg / 10 reps / 2 RIR
Set 2: 40 kg / 9 reps / 2 RIR
Set 3: 40 kg / 8 reps / 2 RIR

Week 2
Set 1: 40 kg / 11 reps / 2 RIR
Set 2: 40 kg / 10 reps / 2 RIR
Set 3: 40 kg / 9 reps / 2 RIR

Week 3
Set 1: 40 kg / 12 reps / 2 RIR
Set 2: 40 kg / 11 reps / 2 RIR
Set 3: 40 kg / 10 reps / 2 RIR

Week 4
Set 1: 45 kg / 10 reps / 2 RIR
Set 2: 45 kg / 9 reps / 2 RIR
Set 3: 45 kg / 8 reps / 2 RIR

And so on.

MICRO LOADING

With micro loading, you increase the weight just a little bit each workout (with 1kg slices, for example) and try to do the same number of reps as last time. A plus is that you don’t have to hand in reps and therefore no volume. For instance:

Week 1
Set 1: 80 kg / 8 reps
Set 2: 80 kg / 7 reps
Set 3: 80 kg / 6 reps

Week 2
Set 1: 81 kg / 8 reps
Set 2: 81 kg / 7 reps
Set 3: 81 kg / 6 reps

Week 3
Set 1: 82 kg / 8 reps
Set 2: 82 kg / 7 reps
Set 3: 82 kg / 6 reps

And so on.

LINEAR PERIODIZATION

Linear periodization is a classic progression model where you increase the weight every week for several weeks in a row. Initially this will always be at the expense of your reps, but eventually you can lift more weight with the same number of reps. As in the example below.

Week 1: 3 sets of 8 reps x 80 kg
Week 2: 3 sets of 7 reps x 82.5 kg
Week 3: 3 sets of 6 reps x 85 kg
Week 4: deload: 2 sets of 6 reps x 80 kg
Week 5 : 3 sets of 8 reps x 82.5 kg
Week 6: 3 sets of 7 reps x 85 kg
Week 7: 3 sets of 6 reps x 87.5 kg
Week 8: deload: 2 sets of 6 reps x 82.5 kg
Week 9: 3 sets of 8 reps x 85 kg

And so on.

AND DOING MORE SETS?

Of course, to make progress you can also ‘just’ do more sets. So by increasing your training volume. However, you don’t ‘just’ do that.

It is clear that you have to do several sets per week for a muscle group to grow it. Because from one set you only get about five stimulating repetitions xiii ] and that is too little to achieve overload. Even a beginner therefore needs about ten sets per muscle group per week to grow.

Why you gradually have to do more sets to keep growing, again has to do with adaptation, although that process is (fortunately) much slower with volume than with intensity. Most beginners will be able to grow with the same number of sets (i.e. those ~10/week) for a long time.

Volume is therefore a much more constant training variable than intensity. While you will probably make huge jumps with weight over the course of your training career (see also, purely for reference, the strength standards ), your volume will have evolved at most from roughly 10 to 20-25 sets per muscle group per week.

Logical too, because your body only has a limited recovery capacity. For many, the upper limit is therefore around 20-25 sets per muscle group per week (we also call this the Maximum Recoverable Volume, MRV). Only steroids users can handle much more volume, almost unlimited, so that you can see competition bodybuilders without any problems completing two ‘bang workouts’ a day.

WHEN TO ADD SETS?

After six months to a year of consistent training, you will notice that your progression stagnates and even comes to a halt: you end up on a training plateau . That may be a sign that you need to add sets, after which the chain of muscle growth can continue.

We said ‘may be’, because plateaus are often caused by other factors, both within training (eg using too much or too little RIR) and outside training (nutrition, sleep, stress). Make sure these things are in order before adding sets. Coach and scientist Eric Helms about this:

Changing volume is one of the last things you should do when you’re confronted with a lack of progress. I think assessing recovery, sleep, nutrition, technical form, adequate intensity, and having someone objectively helping you do that should all be done before you decide to pile on more sets. iv ]


The figure below further clarifies this. The RPE being talked about is another indication of relative intensity, in fact the reverse: the higher the RPE, the lower the number of Reps In Reserve.

Don’t just add volume. First check whether your recovery is in order. Source: Rippedbody.com .

It is not always easy to determine the cause of a plateau. Keep in mind that recovery problems usually affect the entire body and therefore your overall training performance. If your recovery is in order, it would be curious if all your muscle groups plateau at the same time. After all, muscles do not all adapt and grow at the same rate. If you only make progress in certain muscle groups, there is probably no recovery problem and you can therefore increase your training volume for those muscle groups.

SO CAN YOU ONLY ADD SETS IF YOU END UP ON A PLATEAU?

That’s a bit short sighted. As long as you make progress – so you can train with more weight and/or repetitions – that is in principle an indication that you are on the right track with your volume. Many coaches take a reactive approach and say you shouldn’t change your training as long as you’re making progress. We can certainly imagine something with advanced bodybuilders. It’s hard enough to grow at all, so don’t change a winning formula.

In contrast, novice and intermediate bodybuilders still have a lot of muscle to gain, and progress doesn’t mean you’re reaching your maximum growth potential. There may be more in the barrel. It is best to take a proactive approach, where you turn up the volume knob a little further, even if you are already making good gains. Compare it to an entrepreneur who makes a good profit. After all, they will initially try to make even more profit.

But stay realistic: if you already gain about a kilo of muscle mass every month, you should not assume that there is even more to gain. After all, there is a genetic maximum per month, depending on your training status. Doing more volume then no longer leads to extra muscle growth – but to unnecessary extra training load that undermines your recovery capacity.

HOW MANY SETS TO ADD?

We already mentioned that the volume requirement during a bodybuilding career evolves roughly from 10 to 25 sets per muscle group per week (assuming a relative training intensity of 2 RIR on average). Viewed over several years, that is not a very large bandwidth. Usually it is sufficient to add a few sets for a muscle group, for example one per training.

Don’t add too many sets at once. First wait and see what the results are of a few extra sets. If you can add weight and/or reps again, you know the extra sets are effective (enough).

SHOULD YOU ALSO INCREASE THE TRAINING FREQUENCY?

It depends. A certain training frequency is not a goal in itself, except that you have to train a muscle group at least once a week for structural growth.

Training frequency is primarily a tool to structure your training volume. Decisive here is the rule that you do a maximum of 5-10 sets per muscle group per training. So if you need more than 10 sets per week for a muscle group to grow, it is best to divide those sets over at least two weekly training sessions. This, of course, with sufficient rest time between the training sessions.

SO IS VOLUME THE PRIMARY DRIVER OF MUSCLE GROWTH?

In recent years we have heard more and more coaches insist on the importance of training volume. “Volume is the main driver of hypertrophy”, it even sounds v ] . But that is not entirely true in our view.

Mechanical tension is the main training mechanism behind muscle growth and requires both effort (relative intensity) and volume (sufficient sets). So both intensity and volume are important, and there is an interaction between the two: more of one means less of the other.

For example, if you train all your sets to muscle failure, you can do much less volume due to fatigue and build muscle mass less quickly. But if you exert too little effort during your sets (> 4 RIR) you can still do so many sets, but you will not grow at all (beginners aside). So you need enough of both training variables, but then attuned to each other in the right way.

Mechanical tension is the main mechanism of muscle growth, and both volume and relative intensity can increase that tension. Source: Abel Csabai podcast.

The question of which training variable is the main driver of muscle growth is therefore irrelevant in our opinion. It’s like asking what the most important part of a car is: the wheels or the engine?

PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD FOR ADVANCED USERS

The closer you get to your genetic ceiling , the harder it becomes to make progress. Volume in particular often becomes a problem: if you are already training around your MRV, you can no longer add sets to keep the chain of progressive overload going. Below we briefly discuss some methods that you can try as an advanced person to continue making gains .

SPECIALIZATION BLOCKS

If you naturally need a lot of volume to grow (often the case with ectomorphs), you already have that as an advanced bodybuilder. Because doing 20-30 sets per muscle group weekly is impossible in terms of recovery, you can do specialization blocks. For example, you train one or two muscle groups at a high volume (for example 25 sets per week) and the rest you train at a maintenance level (for example 10-15 sets per week). Usually you do this during one mesocycle, a period of five to six weeks, followed by a deload.

CYCLE VOLUME

Coach Mike Israetel is a strong proponent and preacher of volume progression within a mesocycle.

By consciously keeping the training load a little smaller at the beginning of the cycle (but big enough to grow), you prevent fatigue from building up in your body too quickly (the cumulative fatigue we talked about). The center of gravity of the training load is in the last week of the cycle, the one before the deload. You can even go a bit over the line in this (for example, train around or slightly above your MRV), since a week of relative rest is approaching, in which the body has plenty of time for recovery and supercompensation. We also call the latter functional overreaching, a principle that is certainly not yet commonplace in bodybuilding, but which nevertheless has some scientific basis vi ] .

To structure training volume, Israetel has created the so-called Volume Landmarks. We already mentioned MRV, but you also have the Minimum Effective Volume (MEV) and Maximium Adaptive Volume (MAV). So in a cycle, you start with your MEV (the volume just enough to achieve some muscle growth), then add sets each week to get to your MAV (the volume for maximum muscle growth) and MRV.

In short, volume cycling is a way to limit cumulative fatigue (especially by smartly anticipating the deload) and to optimize the productivity of your volume.

Example of how to structure training volume over a five week mesocycle. Source: Renaissance Periodization.

Volume cycling is a concept that Mike Israetel and his company Renaissance Periodization especially like to apply. There is much discussion about its effectiveness .

CYCLE RELATIVE INTENSITY (RIR)

Just as you can cycle volume, so can relative intensity. Instead of training around 2 RIR by default, start your cycle a little further from muscle failure (for example 4 RIR) and decrease the number of RIR to 1 or 0 in the last week, the one just before the deload.

The principle behind this is the same as that for volume: initially save fatigue by giving a minimal growth stimulus, eventually pulling out all the stops as there is still a week of training rest coming up.

Example of how to structure relative intensity (RIR) in a five week mesocycle. Source: Renaissance Periodization

TRAIN IN HIGHER REP RANGES

In principle , it makes no difference to muscle growth in which rep range you train, as long as you train close to muscle failure and as long as you make progress within that range. However, for practical reasons it is best to train in the range of 6 to 20 repetitions.

Still, you may be able to tap into “new” muscle gains by training in higher rep ranges than you normally do, such as those of 20 to 30 reps. Sets with a lot of repetitions cause a lot of metabolic stress, especially if you combine them with short rests, or if you perform them as supersets, for example. And metabolic stress can itself be a growth stimulus, albeit to a much lesser degree than mechanical stress vii ] . High rep work may also cause muscle growth because you target more type I muscle fibers.

Metabolic strength training should only cover a limited part of your training program. For example, dedicate one weekly workout to it, or do a few sets at the end of each workout.

OTHERS

There are many other ways you can ramp up your training or create new growth incentives. For example, think of:

  • changing the training pace, for example slowing down the eccentric phase of an exercise;
  • do other exercises (don’t do that too often);
  • use a different sequence of exercises, for example to pre-fatigue a muscle;
  • the range of motion of an exercise, either increase or decrease (for example when applying constant tension);
  • applying intensity techniques such as drop sets, mechanical drop sets, rest-pause sets, and training to eccentric muscle failure. However, be careful with such antics, as they can cause a lot of fatigue and thus hinder your overall recovery.

IN SUMMARY

1. Overload is a prerequisite for muscle growth. You create overload by training a muscle group with sufficient sets (10-20 per week) and sufficient effort (~2 RIR). In addition, the training load must gradually increase (doing more weight and/or repetitions), which is why we also speak of progressive overload.

2. Overload occurs within a certain bandwidth. As long as you keep within that bandwidth with your training, you create growth incentives. Therefore, a workout does not necessarily always have to be heavier than the previous one.

3. To be able to know if you are making progress, you have to write down what you do every workout: exercises, number of sets, weights, number of repetitions, and possibly also rest times and Reps In Reserve (RIR).

4. The easiest progression model is the one where you work with a target reprange: as soon as you can do a certain number of repetitions with a certain weight at a certain number of RIR, you increase the weight.

5. If you no longer make progress in weight and/or repetitions, your body may have adapted to your current training load (adaptation) and you therefore need to do more sets (increase your volume and possibly training frequency). However, do not add sets until you are sure you are recovering sufficiently. After all, it is often not adaptation, but poor recovery that is the cause of a training plateau.

6. Progressive overload is superior to variation. Only introduce variation (for example, doing other exercises) when training steeless sets in. And only vary if you are sure that your recovery is on point.

7. Over time it becomes more and more difficult to keep making progress. Advanced lifters therefore sometimes have to apply special methods, such as cycling volume and/or RIR, doing specialization blocks or applying intensity techniques.

REFERENCES

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