This is the Key to Putting on Muscle 

MuscleWiki’s Ty Thomas breaks down the key factors your strength training program should have. 

 Ty Thomas
Ty Thomas
 min read
November 7, 2023

I often get asked, “what’s the one gym tip you would give to a gym beginner? What’s the one thing they should know?” 

My answer:  progressive overload is the name of the game. 

Building muscle is a biologically demanding process. The recovery process is very taxing on the body. Not to mention the amount of calories an individual burns as a result of lifting weights is much higher than those who don’t lift.

The human body wants one thing, to keep you alive. To increase the amount of calories one needs is counterintuitive. Needing more calories means needing more food of course. And our hunter-gatherer brains don’t want to need more food just in case a famine happens. 

I say this to say, you have to give your body a VERY good reason to build muscle. And you have to continue to give your body reason to grow if you hope to make long term muscle gains. This is where progressive overload becomes important.

There are 4 key principles in making a strength training program.

  1. Specificity - Identifying the goals of the program, and reverse engineering from there. Choose exercises, volume, frequency, etc… that speak to each specific goal. 
  2. Individuality. Tailoring the program to the individual person. The most important factor to take into account here are your injuries. 
  3. Progressive Overload. How you will progress through the program on each exercise. Typically, this will be as simple as adding either reps or weight with each passing workout. But there are other ways of progressing. 
  4. Variety. This is where periodization comes into play. Variety can include changing exercises, or changing the rep ranges and volume amount.

Progressive Overload will not usually come into the initial planning phase, but is of the utmost importance week over week. 

This is because of strength gain. Strength gain is your best measure for whether or not your program is working for muscle growth. No, strength and muscle gain do not have a cause and effect relationship, but there is a very high correlation between the two. In the absence of a DEXA machine or other pieces of equipment, use strength gain (or whether or not you are progressively overloading) to know if you are building muscle. 

Let me reiterate. If your previous workout was effective, you should be able to either add reps or weight (or both) when you return to that same workout.

You should always try to progress. If you attempt to progress and are unable to, there are a few factors that could be the culprit:

  • Your previous workout was ineffective.
  • You’re lacking sleep (this is extremely common).
  • High levels of stress.
  • Inadequate caloric intake.

If you’re not progressing, something's wrong.

Keeping Track of your Progress

For years I’ve recommended keeping a dedicated log of your progress. For example, let’s say last week you performed the bench press. You did 185 lbs on each set. Set one you got seven reps, set two you got five reps, and set three you got four reps. Add on top of that the weights and reps for every other exercise you performed. Are you really going to remember those numbers off the top of your head a week later? Of course not. 

You’ve got a few options for keeping track. 

Our app and website MuscleWiki has a tracker with over 1000 exercises in our database. This will allow you to get a bird’s eye view of whether or not you are adequately progressing in strength and therefore muscle. 

You can use a notebook. I have used a notebook for about ten years now. It’s also nice to be able to go back and look at a log book from years ago and see where you were and how far you have come. 

You can use Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. This is for those of you who are big time numbers people. But requires having a good understanding of how those programs work, which is a turn off for some. 

Also, quick side note, if you are in the gym to become more athletic, all the above principles still apply. Just about every sport you can think of has been researched to find if there was a relationship between the amount of muscle the individual has and their performance in their respective sport. Across the board, the more muscle and the less body fat the athlete had, the better they performed. Here are just a few examples:

Just another reason to focus on progressive overload!

Progressive Overload: A Quick How-To

Choose a rep range for your given exercises. I usually base rep ranges on the body part being trained and whether the exercise is isolation or compound. But that’s a bit beyond the scope of this article. So let’s just use 6-10 for the sake of this discussion. 

You’ve also got the amount of sets you’re performing for each exercise. 

Here are a couple of options for progressing:

  • Use your first set as a benchmark set. This is most applicable if you aren’t timing your rest periods, which most people do not. If you hit 10 on your first set, then increase the weight in the following workout. If you hit more than 10 on your first set, then increase the weight on your second set. If you don’t quite get to 10 on your first set, let’s say you get 8 reps, keep the weight the same for next week and attempt to get 9 or 10. Once you do hit the top end of the rep range, time to increase the weight.
  • Try to increase the amount of reps on each set. Let's say the previous week you got 9, 7, and 5 reps on three sets of bench pressing. The following week, aim to get at least one more rep on each set. However, if you only get one more rep on one set, that’s still progress and should be counted as an improvement. Again, once you hit the top of the rep range, increase the weight the following week. 

Download MuscleWiki and make sure you’re progressively overloading with MuscleWiki iOs and MuscleWiki Android.

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