If you’ve been training for a while, you know that progressive overload is the foundation of any successful strength training program. Applying progressive overload means gradually increasing the stress you place on your muscles in a controlled manner to force them to adapt and become stronger. To increase the stress, you manipulate variables like intensity, volume, frequency, rest periods, rep speed etc.
Most people use two main techniques to do this. They increase the resistance and/or boost the number of reps or sets to increase training volume. However, there are many ways to enhance the stress you place on your muscles to promote growth. In this article, we’ll look beyond the basic principle of progressive overload and look at other ways you can get more out a training session and build strength faster.
Beyond Progressive Overload: Focus on Compound Exercises
It’s easy to get caught up with doing isolation exercises. Isolation exercises are appealing because they’re easier. However, triceps kickbacks, biceps curls, and leg extensions won’t give you the “bang for your buck” that compound exercises do. Compound exercises recruit multiple muscle groups within a single exercise and this makes your strength workouts more efficient.
For example, with squats, you work quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and your core simultaneously. If you worked each of those muscle groups individually using isolation exercises, you’d have to do more exercises and, ultimately, would do less volume because of time constraints. Plus, with compound exercises, you also develop more functional strength with compound exercises as you train muscles to work better together.
Finally, compound exercises are more taxing on your system and they burn more calories. Overall, they’re a more time efficient way to build strength. Other compound exercises, beyond the squat, to include in your workouts are deadlifts, overhead presses, lunges, bent-over rows, bench press, and push-ups.
Beyond Progressive Overload: Fine-Tune Your Weight Training to Meet Your Goals
If your goal is strength building, do more sets using heavy resistance and low reps. Focus on a weight that’s 80 to 90% of your one-rep max, one that you can’t lift more than 5 or reps without fatiguing. The approach to building strength is different than the approach for building muscle size. To build muscle size, the best strategy is to use a resistance that’s around 60 to 80% of your one-rep max where you can complete between 6 to 12 reps. For building muscle size, you need the extra rep volume, whereas with strength training you don’t.
If you’re training for strength, lengthen your rest periods between sets. Resting as long as 3 to 5 minutes allows your ATP-PC system to recover enough for you to maximize your lift on the next set. The ATP-PC system is a short-term energy system you recruit for exercise you can’t sustain for very long, for example, lifting at 90% of your one-rep max. You need a longer period of recovery to allow this system to regenerate.
If you’re using light weights and high reps for strength training, your training isn’t consistent with your goals. On the other hand, you should vary the weight and rep ranges that you do to avoid a plateau and reduce the risk of overtraining, but if you’re not lifting at a high percentage of your one-rep max much of the time, you’re not maximizing your ability to build strength.
Beyond Progressive Overload: Get Your Mind in Gear
Building strength is more than going through the motions. Keep your muscles under tension longer by focusing on the movements rather than letting your mind wander while you train. You might think mind power sounds too much like a mantra from a motivational seminar – but it works.
In one surprising study, researchers divided participants into three groups. One group strength trained a single muscle group three times a week. The second group listened to a tape where they visualized training the same muscle without actually working them. A third group carried out their normal activities, which didn’t involve strength training.
The results? The strength training group made significant gains in muscle strength, as expected, while the group that did nothing made no gains. What was shocking was the group that strength trained in their mind made almost the same gains as those who trained! Can you imagine the results you could get if you trained AND used mind power when you trained?
We don’t really know HOW visualizing strength gains actually boosts muscle strength but it’s worth incorporating into your training. When you lift, focus on feeling the muscles you’re working as they contract. Maximize the tension as you visualize your muscles getting stronger. When you concentrate and visualize, you’ll also use better form and that can ultimately give your strength a boost as well.
Beyond Progressive Overload: Eat and Live Like You Train
Don’t underestimate the power of nutrition. Devote as much effort to what you put in your mouth as you do to the exercises you do. Nutrition should be aligned with your goals and training. Eating processed food, skipping meals, and cutting calories to lose weight will only interfere with strength building.
Strength training increases muscle protein turnover, but you have to supply your muscles with the amino acids they need to repair and rebuild the damaged muscle fibers. So, don’t skimp on protein. If you’re doing intense workouts, you may need double the protein that a sedentary person does. Make sure you’re spacing your protein intake throughout the day.
Just as nutrition is important, your lifestyle habits are too. When you train regularly and eat right, you might think you can skimp on sleep. Don’t do it. It’s during sleep that your release the most growth hormone to help you reach your strength training goals. Most experts believe adults need between 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. If you’re training intensely, shoot for eight.
Beyond Progressive Overload: Set Goals
Unless you set goals and have a way to track your progress, you won’t maximize strength gains. It’s too easy to get off track when you don’t have a roadmap. The best goals are easily defined, specific, measurable, and have a specific time frame. It’s also important to journal your progress so you can see how your strength is changing over time. If you train with no accountability, you almost certainly won’t push yourself hard enough. Too often, people train using the same resistance and the same number of reps month after month and never progress. Having specific goals and tracking them so that you’re moving forward ensures this doesn’t happen to you.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, you now know some ways to fine-tune your training and build more strength without spending more time working out. Use them to more quickly reach your strength goals.
JonathanFields.com. “Can Your Brain Make You Buff?”
Exercise Physiology. Eighth Edition. McArdle, Katch, &Katch (2015)
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