If You Don’t Do This, You Will Stop Building Muscle

Image by jason.lengstorf


Let’s get back to the basics. Nowadays, there are so many new exercise programs you can join that it’s getting a little confusing. Which is better: P90X or Insanity? Low reps or high reps? 5 sets or 2?  There are so many variables to work with, no wonder so many people are confused. On top of that, the supplement companies don’t make it any easier. With a myrad of supplements promoting themselves as the best thing since sliced bread, sometimes we can lose some focus on the really important things.

For those unaware or need a refresher, the Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes (Wikipedia).

I believe that this is likely true for muscle building and fat loss. If not exactly 80/20, probably somewhere close.

This means that by focusing on the 20% of the things that matter a great deal, you will reap around 80% of the results. The other 80% of ideas, supplements, and variables only account for the remaining 20% of results.

This is important because many people lose sight of what the really important things are. They not only forget to put them at the forfront, but much of the time do not even know which things are the important ones.

This article is about one of the most important aspects of lifting weights. It is this single factor that accounts for much of the results that you will see in the gym:

Progressive Overload.

Not a new concept by any means, but because it is so ubiquitous, it loses much of the attention that it deserves.

Simply, progressive overload means that over time, you are increasing the total resistance you are experiencing in the gym. You can do this through: decreased rest time between sets, adding more sets, adding reps with the same weight, or adding weight with the same reps. However you want to slice it, you have to be adding weight to the bar over time.

This is often overlooked. I’ll go to the gym and see a guy do 10 pull-ups, break, 10 pull-ups again, stop. Then next week, I’ll see him again do 10 pull-ups, break, 10 pull-ups again, stop. No struggle, not too hard for him.  Maybe a year later, he’ll be doing 12 pull-ups.

Or, I’ll see someone take some light dumbbells and rotate them around for a bit with some weird shoulder movements (some of the circular ones actually being dangerous, but that’s a different point) and then put them down.

However, the last and most frequent way of lifting that violates the progressive overload principle is focusing on fatigue insetead of overload.

These are the people who go to the gym, sit down on the bench with a lot of weight, lift till failure, take some weight off, lift till failure, take some more weight off, lift till failure again, over and over with little to no rest in between. These type of drop sets will greatly fatigue you; they’ll make you so blown out that you leave the gym feeling like you had an excellent workout and gave it everything you had (and maybe you did).

A year later, you’ll be wondering why you just can’t grow anymore.

The point is, by focusing on fatigue, the muscles rarely experience overload, which is the real goal.

Think about it. After a few dropsets in the earlier example, that person will be doing significantly less weight  than he started out doing. Sure, it’ll seem very hard, but if he waited a couple minutes to recover, he would have been able to do a LOT more reps with that weight. Thus, he is actually cutting himself short. By focusing on fatigue rather than overload, he ends up doing significantly less total work (in the mechanical sense) than he would have if he did each set fully rested. Furthermore, since he already blew himself out in the beginning of the workout, the rest of the workout will be of lower quality than it would have otherwise, and again he will n0t be able to do as many reps as he would have been able to if he did not blow himself out so early.

How do you make sure that progressive overload stays at the forefront of your objectives?

  1. You can keep a lifting log. A lifting log will allow you to write down the weight and reps that you did for each exercise. Next time you are at the gym doing that exercise, you can look at your previous record and push yourself to beat it, either by adding some weight, like 5 lbs, or doing 1+ more reps than you did before. This will force you to progressively increase the weight on the bar over time.
  2. Once you fail, stop. Actually, many advise not to even go to failure for most of the workout, as doing so can decrease the quality of the subsequent sets. In my experience, it depends on the individual. Some can go till failure and push as hard on their next set no problem, while others will have a lower quality subsequent set. Regardless of what you choose to do, never go beyond failure by doing drop sets, partial reps, or having your spotter help you do a few cheater reps. If you do chose to incorporate these into your workout, make sure they are at the end of your workout so that you do not blow the rest of your workout as you would if you were to put them at the beginning.
  3. Don’t do silly exercises. Don’t get caught up in some new hyped-up exercise that is claiming is is the best way to improve X. Almost all the time, the basic compoud movements are best. Avoid exercises that don’t allow you to count reps, move in a circular motion, or don’t allow you to move up in weight over time. Pull-ups are excellent, but if you can already master your own bodyweight, get a weight belt that allows you to add more weight to the exercise.

Whenever you start an exercise program, think to yourself how progressive overload is incorporated in this program. If it is not there, then it is probably not a very good program for muscle gain.

Remember, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Don’t fret all the little things, but worry greatly about progressive overload.