This article was written by one of The Food Medic team; personal trainer and fitness writer – Adam Willis.
When it comes to progressing your training, and getting results, the most important thing to focus on is progressive overload.
Put simply, progressive overload, in the terms of an exercise or movement pattern, is making that exercise or movement pattern harder by challenging the body more than it is currently used to doing.
Progressive overload can be achieved in several different ways, as highlighted our article ‘5 ways to make exercise harder, without going heavier’ [you can read it here]. However, the most effective method you can use to challenge your body is to ask it to lift more weight than it has recently, for a certain number of reps or volume [sets x reps].
Now I wish I could tell you that you could add weight to a lift weekly, but the truth is you can’t. I mean if you could, we’d all be squatting our cars after 2 years of training. The reality is that weight progression must be sort overtime, rather than weekly.
However, and this is a big however…
…you do want to go into every session with the intent to lift more than last time.
You need to go in with that focus and drive so that if that increase is there, you’ll take it.
If you go in with the sole focus of lifting the same weight as you did last week, guess what, yep, you’ll do just that. You’ll lift the same weight as last week. Over time this will just see your progress stand still.
So, if the ability to increase weight weekly isn’t realistic, what is realistic when it comes to weight progression and how do you know when you should add more weight to a lift?
Let’s start with what I consider to be realistic expectations for weight progression over the course of a 4-week training phase.
For lower body lifts: 2.5-7.5kg progression across a 4-week training phase.
For upper body lifts: 2.5-5kg progression across a 4-week training phase.
*Based upon sets and reps staying the same over a 4-week phase.
Now sure, more progress can be made at times, but on average this is where most people’s progression lies across a 4-week phase.
Now I know what you’re thinking…
…2.5kg only in 4-weeks, that’s such little progress.
But is it?
You’re still getting stronger.
You’re still improving
Progress, any progress, regardless of how big or small, should be celebrated because progress isn’t linear and will at times be harder to make than others.
Sure, 2.5kg is the lower end of my expectations, but if you progress your weights 2.5kg every 4-weeks for a year, which is possible as a beginner or intermediate lifter if your programming, nutrition and recovery are on point, that’s a 30kg increase in 12 months.
Would you be happy with an increase of 30kg in your squat and deadlift in the next 12-months?
Of course, you would.
So, what about how to know when to add more weight to a lift?
There are several ways to know when to add weight, but the big 3 for me are:
1] Did you achieve all your programmed sets and reps during last week’s session, and still had 1-2 reps left in the tank?
If last week you squatted 3 sets of 5 reps with 50kg and you know you could have done 1-2 more reps each set, then you should be shooting for 3 sets of 5 reps with 52.5kg this week as you left room for further progression leaving those 1-2 reps in the tank last week.
2] Did your warm-up sets move well?
A lot of people treat their warm-up sets like an inconvenience they must do before they can get going with their programmed working sets, but they’re one of the best tools you have at your disposal to gauge how that exercise is going to go this session.
Warm-up sets, when done right, are used to dial in form, gradually acclimatise the body to the increasing demand of the exercise as load progresses and every rep should be performed with a high level of intent meaning that even if your working sets are at 100kg, you still complete your warm-up sets at 40kg, 60kg, 70kg, 80kg, 90kg with the same intent and respect that you would the 100kg sets.
When you approach your warm-up sets in this manner, you’ll start to get far more indication of how your technique and body are that day and how powerful and strong you feel. All of these things can give you a really good indication of if today is a good day to jump that weight up compared to how things felt the previous week.
3] Is your form perfect?
This is a big one to remember.
When you challenge your body with heavier weights, it is also challenging your body’s ability to hold its technique. The last thing you want to do is increase your weight if your form is already breaking down, or not perfect to start with.
If your form isn’t perfect with heavier loads, work with a weight you can do perfectly and look to gradually increase your weight overtime from there.
You may be strong enough to deadlift 100kg with a technique that resembles a question mark but it’s not helping you long-term. Dial the weight back to where your form is perfect and progress your strength with perfect technique from there.
Progressive overload is the greatest tool you have at your disposal to achieve your training results, and although increasing the weight you lift isn’t the only way to make progress, it is possibly the best option and one that should be an important focus of yours most training sessions.
Sure, some weeks adding weight won’t be possible, but with appropriate programming you should be able to add, at the very least, 2.5kg to your lifts every 4-week training phase.
Some days weight progress will be there for the taking.
Other days it won’t.
Use what you achieved in your training the previous week, your warm-up sets and your technique to help you decide if today is one of those days to bump that weight up.