Workout Progression: When & How To Progress At Weight Training

As I’ve previously explained, the #1 key to getting positive results from your workout routine is progressive overload.

Meaning, you must strive to increase the demands being placed on your body in some way over time.

When you fully understand how big of a requirement this is, the next logical question is pretty obvious…

Exactly how and when should this progression take place?

Well, in the specific context of weight training, there’s a bunch of ways it can be done, and some are more ideal for certain goals and experience levels than others.

The most common methods of weight training progression that come to mind are:

  • You can increase the weight being lifted.
    For example, if you are currently lifting 100lbs on some exercise, you can lift 105lbs the next time you perform that exercise.
  • You can increase the number of reps a weight is being lifted for.
    For example, if you are lifting 100lbs on some exercises for 3 sets of 8 reps, you can do 3 sets of 9 reps with that same weight the next time you perform that exercise.
  • You can increase the number of sets you are lifting a weight for.
    For example, if you are lifting 100lbs on some exercises for 3 sets of 8 reps, you can do 4 sets of 8 reps with that same weight the next time you perform that exercise.
  • You can increase the amount of work being done in a given time period.
    For example, if you currently rest 3 minutes between sets of an exercise, you can try lifting the same weight for the same amount of sets and reps, but with only 2 minutes and 30 seconds of rest between sets.
  • You can increase the difficulty of the exercise being performed.
    For example, if you are currently doing split squats/static lunges, you can move up to a similar but more challenging version of the same exercise such as walking lunges or Bulgarian split squats.

Once again, depending on your exact goal and experience level, some of these methods are more or less ideal for you than others.

However, for most of the people, most of the time, here’s the method of weight training progress that I (and many others) most often use and recommend…

The Typical Weight Training Progression Protocol

In any intelligently designed weight training routine, you will have specific exercises that you are supposed to perform during each workout.

For each exercise, you will have a certain number of sets that you are supposed to do. For each set, you will have a certain number of reps that you are supposed to do.

And obviously, you will also have a certain amount of weight that you will be lifting during each exercise.

Now, the most basic, generic, and common form of weight training progression works like this:

  1. Meet the prescribed set and rep goal for the exercise.
  2. Increase the weight being lifted for that exercise by the smallest increment possible.
  3. Meet the set/rep goal again with this new, slightly heavier weight.
  4. Increase the weight being lifted again by the smallest increment possible.
  5. Repeat this process over and over again as often as you are capable of making it happen.

Confused? Here’s an example…

An Example Of How & When To Progress

Let’s say that for one of the exercises in your workout routine (let’s call it Exercise XYZ) you are currently lifting 50lbs. Let’s also say that your program calls for you to do 3 sets of 8 reps for Exercise XYZ.

Now let’s say today you did Exercise XYZ and it went like this:

  • Set #1: 50lbs – 8 reps
  • Set #2: 50lbs – 8 reps
  • Set #3: 50lbs – 8 reps

As you can see, you lifted 50lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps in this example. Since your program calls for you to do 3 sets of 8 reps, this workout was a success.

Since you’ve reached the prescribed set/rep goal for this exercise, it’s now time to increase the weight by the smallest increment possible. So, the next time you perform Exercise XYZ, you should do something like this:

  • Set #1: 55lbs – 8 reps
  • Set #2: 55lbs – 8 reps
  • Set #3: 55lbs – 8 reps

See what happened? Progressive overload took place. You increased the weight you were lifting by 5lbs (which is usually the smallest possible increment) and performed that same prescribed 3 sets of 8 reps with this new slightly heavier weight.

That means this workout was once again a complete success. The next time you perform Exercise XYZ, you’d go up to 60lbs and again attempt 3 sets of 8 reps. You would then continue increasing like this as often as possible over and over again.

The only thing is, most people will NOT be able to increase this much and/or this consistently from workout to workout (beginners might, but few others will).

In fact, instead of that second successful workout shown above (the 55lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps), many people would have ended up only able to do something like this:

  • Set #1: 55lbs – 8 reps
  • Set #2: 55lbs – 7 reps
  • Set #3: 55lbs – 6 reps

This is completely normal and should still be considered a successful workout (it is still definitely progressive overload). Now, in this case, your goal the next time you perform Exercise XYZ is something like this:

  • Set #1: 55lbs – 8 reps
  • Set #2: 55lbs – 8 reps
  • Set #3: 55lbs – 7 reps

And then the time after that…

  • Set #1: 55lbs – 8 reps
  • Set #2: 55lbs – 8 reps
  • Set #3: 55lbs – 8 reps

And the time after that…

  • Set #1: 60lbs – 8 reps
  • Set #2: 60lbs – 7 reps
  • Set #3: 60lbs – 6 reps

And you would repeat this similar pattern of increasing reps/weight over and over again so that your body continues having a reason to adapt and improve over and over again.

Oh, and in case it isn’t obvious enough, if your weight training routine called for 3 sets of 10, 4 sets of 6, 5 sets of 5, 2 sets of 12, or any other combination of sets and reps, you’d still progress virtually the same way as shown in the above example, just with a different number of reps and sets.

Will progression always be this consistent?

Nope, not always. There will definitely be times when you end up repeating the same exact number of sets/reps/weight that you did the previous workout.

Sometimes this might even continue for quite a while with certain exercises (this is especially true the more advanced you get).

There will also be times where, in the above example for instance, you might only get reps of 7, 7, 7, or 7, 6, 6, or 7, 6, 5 in the three sets after going up in weight. Don’t worry, it’s all perfectly normal.

Just work your ass off to progress in some way as often as you can and beat what you were able to do the previous time. Add 1 rep to every set, add 1 rep to just one set, add 2 reps to one set and 1 rep to another… whatever.

Just work hard to gradually reach your workout routine’s prescribed set/rep goal for each exercise. And then, once you do reach it, increase the weight you are lifting for that exercise by the smallest possible increment and repeat this protocol all over again.

This is all part of the process of progressive overload, and it’s the only true requirement for getting positive results from your workout routine.

What’s Next?

Well, at this point we’ve covered every major aspect of creating and implementing an effective workout routine. The funny thing is, your workout routine is only half of what’s needed to reach your goal. The other half is your diet. Here’s what I mean…

How To Create The Perfect Diet Plan For Your Workout Goal

(This article is part of a completely free and awesome guide to creating the absolute best workout routine possible for your exact goal. Check it out: The Ultimate Weight Training Workout Routine)

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