When it comes to continuously making progress with a training program – whether it’s for overall fitness, strength training or even HIIT, the biggest factor to take into account is Progressive Overload. Put simply, Progressive Overload is placing increased stress on the body in order to keep getting stronger and keep seeing results. Most of us immediately think of increasing weight and/or reps as the go-to forms of Progressive Overload – and while these are definitely two options, they most certainly aren’t the only ones! In this article, we’re going to dive into the age old question of More Reps or More Weight? Plus other factors you can switch up in order to continue seeing and feeling physical progress in your workouts.
You probably remember those first few weeks/months of when you started training. You were seeing results like crazy! The strength gains just kept coming and it really didn’t matter what sort of training protocol you followed. The thing is, there is a point at which our bodies adapt to the stimulus that we impose upon it and, unfortunately, the progress slows or halts. To continue providing your body with an increased amount of stress, you’ve got to overload it- and I’m not just talking about confusing your body by switching up your workouts and throwing in random exercises. The idea is to continually lift more weight, or do more sets/reps at a given weight to sufficiently provide this overload to the body. So what is better? More reps or more weight?
As with most debates within the health and fitness world, the answer is, it depends. In the most general sense, increasing weight while keeping overall reps/sets low is the go-to for building strength and muscle mass, while hitting higher rep ranges with light to medium weight is great for increasing overall muscular endurance. Heavy weight definitely builds muscle, but it also can be particularly taxing on your body and nervous system. Not to mention, eventually you will hit a point where you just can’t lift any more weight. Your form could potentially suffer, leading to an increased risk of injury. Light to moderate weight with a higher volume- lifting to failure or close to failure- helps tone muscles, but also gives your nervous system the chance to recover and allows you to focus on immaculate form. At the end of the day, both strength and endurance are important for overall muscular fitness.
Many people stick with mid range rep-ranges for this reason. Lifting weights that allow you to push hard and fatigue somewhere in that 8-12 range allow you to activate those Type 2 “fast twitch” muscle fibers- the ones that promote strength and muscle growth, while also recruiting “slow-twitch” muscle fibers (Type 1) leaving them under tension long enough to grow effectively. Put simply, you should be lifting enough weight to build strength and power while also extending the length of each set.
But that doesn’t mean you should rely on the mid-range reps exclusively. Long-term progress and success depends on continuously switching up your training protocol when you start to plateau. This is the point at which your body (and mind, for that matter) have adapted to a given routine- when it stops challenging you- and you stop making progress. For most of us, this looks like anywhere between 4-8 week cycles. You can cycle through phases that focus on heavy weight, phases that focus on high volume with lower weight and higher reps and phases that focus on moderate weight and rep ranges. This ensures that your body is constantly adapting and growing, while also helping you avoid burnout or worse, injury.
It’s not all just about weights and reps, however. When it comes time to throw your body and nervous system a curve ball in order to keep seeing progress, there are other factors you can switch up as well. Progressive Overload can be achieved not just by volume but also by altering the intensity and the frequency. Think of these as supplemental methods to incorporate into your training, in order to keep things interesting- your training needs to be fun or you won’t stick to it.
Tempo is the time it takes for the muscle to fully contract during a given exercise. It is generally written as a three number representation like, 4/3/1. The first number is the time, in seconds, spent in the eccentric phase of a movement, when the muscle is lengthening or lowering. The second number
is the isometric or the hold portion of the movement, and the last number is the concentric phase, the push phase when you are overcoming gravity. Using the above tempo in a squat, for example, would look like 4 seconds lowering into the squat position, a three second hold at the bottom and a quick, 1 second push through the heels back to standing position. Time under tension, or TUT, is the actual amount of time your muscles are under the load of weight during a given exercise. In the above scenario, the TUT of the squat is 8 seconds for one just rep. Using a 4/3/1 tempo, 10 reps in a set means 80 seconds of time under tension for that set.
Adjusting the tempo and time under tension allows you to vary your training without changing weights or reps. A quick tempo can build speed, strength and power while a slower tempo produces higher tension and can lead to bigger muscle size.
By decreasing the amount of rest you take between sets, you are able to complete the same amount of work in less time. This adds to the idea of Progressive Overload by increasing your muscular endurance.
Increasing the Range of Motion (ROM) during a given exercise places a higher demand on mobility, balance, core strength and helps build muscle mass. Performing full squats, pull-ups from a dead hang and overhead presses with the arms pushed as tall as possible are all examples of ensuring full range of motion. You can also manipulate ROM with exercises like lunges, by using an elevated platform and performing them off of a bench or stair to create a deficit.
Think of 1 ¼ rep sets as adding an additional partial rep at the bottom of the exercise. This forces you to concentrate on the contraction, rather than just dropping the weight back down. One and a quarter reps are great for the bottom of bicep curls, rows, squats, hip thrusts and more.
Supersets involve moving quickly from one exercise to the next with little to no rest between. They usually involve exercises using opposing muscle groups. Supersets build muscle, increase endurance and also save time.
Drop sets are another option for building both strength and endurance. This technique involves performing a given exercise until failure, then immediately reducing the weight and performing for an
additional set or sets.
Last but not least we come to banded sets! Adding a fabric mini band to your lower body sets is great not only for the additional resistance but because they also force you to work on the horizontal plane – something that free weights cannot accomplish. Banded sets improve strength, force and power in squats, hip thrusts, abductions, lateral side steps and more. You can train using resistance bands together with weights or using them simply with bodyweight, whatever it takes to continue challenging your body!
Continuously making progress within a training program can be accomplished in a variety of ways- the weight or reps can be manipulated, the training frequency or volume can be increased or decreased, the exercises themselves can be replaced, and other supplemental methods can be utilized. The bottom line is this: gains are made by incorporating Progressive Overload and from training both smart and hard. Your personal effort matters much more than a rep range. Place the majority of your focus on training regularly, mastering proper form, utilizing the mind-muscle connection, and Progressive Overload will come.
By Kimberly Patrizio