Key Points

  • Workout programs should gradually increase volume over months to ensure you’re getting progressive overload
  • Use advanced lifting techniques to increase volume 
  • Progress->Results->Motivation-> Consistency

Back in high school I took three years of French.  Spanish was more popular but French was my grandparent’s first language and I wanted to wow the pants off them.

Then needing a language in college, I took French for 3 semesters.

By this point you’d prob think I was able to have fluent conversations with native French speakers where we could talk about baguettes, wearing berets, and the Eiffel Tower while drinking a nice glass of Burgundy.

But I can’t…and I’d rather lick the bottom of my shoe than drink red wine.  The only thing I got out of those 4.5 years is this:

l’hippopotame mange du fromage dans la bibliothèque

Translation: The hippopotamus eats cheese in the library.

Fuckin’ stellar Bonollo.  

The reason for my lack of French fluency?  

I kept learning the same information and never pushed my boundaries.  Once I hit college I met the requirement to retake French 1-3…so I did.  Easy A’s.  Holla.

Now in the grand scheme of my life I don’t care.  My grandparents have long since passed away and I don’t plan on going to Paris again anytime soon so there is really no need for me to know French.

But the same principle I avoided in learning French is the same principle that gets ignored trying to get jacked.  Pushing boundaries. 

Just lifting the same weights within the same rep range isn’t enough to change your body.  You need a way to progress over weeks and months.

So without further rambling and dips into my failed academic career, let’s get into my system of how to ensure progressive overload for your workout plan for months to get you jacked.

Progress = Motivation=Consistency

Like I mentioned in that long ass intro, when it comes to getting to the next level whether it be learning a language, getting jacked, or anything else that requires a skill you need a way to progress to the next level.

When you progress it solves a problem I hear a lot from potential new clients…motivation.

When you aren’t progressing it’s easy to lose motivation.  Because if you were progressing and getting the results you wanted odds are you’d want to keep doing that to see where it takes you.  

Progressive-overload-workout-plan-motivation-loop

And if you’ve been reading my stuff for more than one article of mine you know I’m big into consistency

It’s never a workout that makes you jacked and it’s never just a day of dieting that leads to abs.  It’s all about consistency over months that generate the best results.  Having a way to progress your workout is a way to achieve effortless consistency.  

Why Your Workout Plan Needs Progressive Overload

The long and short of building muscle comes down to increasing volume aka total work done in a workout per muscle group over time.

There was a recent study published that looked into the impact of volume on hypertrophy.  They took 9 men with ~6 yrs of training experience and split them into two groups: a high volume (HV) and low volume (LV) groups.

Over the course of 6 weeks they increased the number of sets and weight in both groups. The LV group progressed from 5-9 sets of hamstrings and 10-14 sets of quads while the HV group progressed from 11-18 and 19-28 sets respectively.   

So what happened?

Strength and muscle thickness increased in the HV group more so than the low volume group.

So high volume balls out training, right?

Not necessarily.  Let’s break this down a little further.  

Volume is defined as weight used x reps x sets.  Which means to increase volume we need to increase one of these variables. 

When it comes to building muscle, there are a few things we know that drive this:  

Mechanical Tension 

Metabolic Stress 

Muscle Damage

Mechanical Tension – To increase tension on the muscle you need to lift heavy, challenging weight.  By increasing the amount of tension you put on a muscle, you force your muscles to grow.

Muscular Stress – This is the pump we all chased.  Metabolites are accumulating in your muscle cells, leading to cell swelling, hormonal changes, and a variety of other factors that are thought to influence muscle growth.

Muscle Damage – Enough training stress  leads to muscle damage (aka soreness) which requires recovery to grow.

Pushing too hard with one mechanism will sacrifice the other mechanisms and you won’t be able to hit your potential.  

If you focus too much on mechanical tension (weight) you’ll be sacrificing reps and sets.

If you focus too much on the pump (sets and reps), you won’t have the weight needed.

If you focus too much on beating your body up so you’re constantly feeling like you have that got-hit-by-a-bus-soreness you’ll have too much stress and not be able to recover and in turn grow.

If we focus on one aspect of this you’re still going to build muscle but you’ll be leaving gainz on the table.  If you try to do all three every time forever you’re going to spend a lot of time in the gym and odds are you’ll burn out way before you put on any noticeable amount of muscle.  

So when it comes to maximizing muscle building you want to be able increase all these mechanisms to increase volume in an intelligent way. 

The progression model I’m going to show you below incorporates all three in an intelligent manner to optimize muscle growth so you can achieve Damn Daddy status aka my life goal.

Setting Up A Microcycle 

Before we go any further I want to make sure we are on the same page with definitions. Here’s a few terms I’ll be using going forward:

Workout=1 single workout 

Microcycle=a week of workouts 

Mesocycle=a month (4-6 weeks) of workouts

Macrocycle=a year of workouts

I’m not going to go in depth on how to setup a microcycle here because I already did that here with templates you can steal.  And in terms of progression over a mesocycle I outline my process right now when I talked about Reps in Reserve (RIR). 

This article is all about mesocycle progression.   Stinging together months of progress.  

For the cliff note version of mesocycle progression just so we are coming from the same place:

  1. Pick your split (Upper/Lower, Push/Pull etc.) to setup your microcycle
  2. Then progress your mesocycle using RIR.  Here’s an example:
  • Microcycle 1: 3-4 RIR
  • Microcycle 2: 2-3 RIR
  • Microcycle 3:1-2 RIR
  • Microcycle 4:0-1 RIR
  • Microcycle 5: Deload 3-4 RIR

NOTE:  This is just an example. You can also keep RIR the same but increase weight every workout.  Either works, whatever makes more sense to you and as long as something increases every workout.

OK, now we are on the same page the rest of this will make a lot more sense.

Progressive Overload Workout Plan Template

What I’m about to show you is a high level template I use right now with my online coaching clients to progress over mesocycles.  

Mesocycle 1: 3->4 Straight sets (i.e. Start with 3 sets of 6-8 then progress to 4 sets of 6-8) 

Mesocycle 2: 2 Straight sets with 1 Down set (Drop weight by 10% and hit RIR Target) – or- move up in the rep range using the same weight as Mesocycle 1 (i.e. Meso 1 was 3×6-8 so Meso 2 would be 3×8-10)

Mesocycle 3: 1 Straight set with 2 Down sets – or- 2 Straight sets with 1 Down set if rep range was increased in Meso 2 

Mesocycle 4: 1 Straight set with 2 Down sets plus metabolite work for 1-2 muscle group/day

Mesocycle 5: Strength Phase of 3 sets of 6-12 reps; no increase in volume just weight

Restart the process at Mesocycle 1.

So let’s break this down mesocycle by mesocycle.

Mesocycle 1: 

Since we are just starting out going crazy with advanced volume techniques means later on we need to go Stage 5 Clinger crazy later on.  That usually translates to overdoing it and marathon workouts.  No busy person wants to be in the gym for 2.5 hours.  

The idea here is to start basic and gradually increase volume over time.  So in the beginning simply adding another set can accomplish that.  Plus you’ll also be pushing more reps within a set as RIR decreases.  

So in Mesocycle 1 you’ll be increasing volume by increasing sets (from usually 3->4) and reps (by decreasing RIR) and possibly weight (when you hit the top of the rep range).

Progressive-overload-workout-plan-meso-1

In the above picture, for both exercises we increase from 3->4 sets then drop down to 2 for a deload week.

Mesocycle 2:  

With this mesocycle for the big compound movements I’ll usually start adding Down Sets.  A Down Set is when you take 90% of the weight from your normal working set and aim for a RIR target.  Here’s what this looks like in action.

Working Set 1: 200lbs for 8 reps

Working Set 2: 200lbs for 6 reps

Down Set: Use 180lbs to hit your RIR target

Progressive-overload-workout-plan-meso-2

This allows you to add more volume by reducing the weight. Odds are if you had used 200lbs in Set 3 then you would get 6 reps or less.  By dropping the weight you’re able to push out 6 reps or more.

As you get stronger and the RIR target decreases you’ll be adding reps to the Down Set.

For the accessory exercises I’ll usually increase the rep range while saying to use the same weight.  So if you were lifting 50 lbs for 8-10 reps in mesocycle 1, in mesocycle 2 I would put the rep range at 10-12.  

Mesocycle 3:  

This is on the same idea as Mesocycle 2 but instead of 1 Down set we’d add another one to slightly increase volume on your main lift.  That would look like:

Working Set 1: 200lbs for 8 reps

Down Set 1: 180lbs to hit RIR target

Down Set 2: 180lbs to hit RIR target

For accessory movements there’s a couple of paths I can go.  First, we could always increase the rep range again.  So if in Mesocycle 1 we used a 8-10 rep range and in Mesocycle 2 we increased it to 10-12, in Mesocycle 3 we can up it again to 12-15 using the same weight. 

If the client is really good at RIR and knowing when they hit certain targets we can get frisky and remove the rep range and just say to hit your RIR target.  

Progressive-overload-workout-plan-meso-3

This comes down to whatever is going to make the client happier.  With Down Sets you’ll feel stronger and with removing the rep range in favor of just hitting a RIR target the pump is going to be ridiculous.  Either way volume is increased and we are still on the path to Gainzville.

Mesocycle 4: 

We’ll keep the one Working Set and 2 Down Sets from Mesocycle 3.  You’ll have gotten stronger so the weight and reps used in this mesocycle will be more than last time.

At this point the main goal here is to get your muscles a little more volume without killing you with extra weight.  So using metabolite work allows us to do that.  Metabolite work is going to come in the form of drop sets, myo reps, super sets or any other advanced lifting technique

If you love the pump you’re going to make romance explosions everytime you train.  

With Metabolite work we’ll pick one to two muscle groups per workout and add an advanced technique to the accessory exercises.  It’s important to keep the same advanced technique throughout the mesocycle so you can track progress.

So if your main lift was the bench press then you could do something like a cable fly/dumbbell row superset or a cable fly drop set then do a cable row mechanical drop set.  

If your main lift is a deadlift or squat variation then you’d want to do something like a hamstring curl/ leg extension superset.  

If the overhead press is your main lift then a lat raise/ bent over raise superset would work well and then add myo reps with bicep curls.  

NOTE: Throughout the program I’ll usually superset arms to cut down on time so I’d keep the supersets/advanced techniques to just shoulders.  Plus a lot of people could use more upper back/ rear delt work to help all the hours hunched over the computer.  

Mesocycle 5:  

After months of increasing volume odds are you are going to feel wrecked at this point which means we need to drop volume.  This is thought to help your body resensitize to volume so we can start the process all over again in Mesocycle 6 (which would look like Mesocycle 1). 

In this phase we’ll keep sets to 3, keep reps on the main lifts in the 4-6 range and for accessory movements less than 15.  In this mesocycle we’ll focus on increasing the weight.  Once you hit the top of the rep range, increase the weight.  

How To See Progress

When it comes to weight loss, the real value and results come from when you compare weekly weight averages.  Daily fluctuations are inevitable so normalizing these fluctuations is a good way to determine if you are making progress.

Likewise, for a workout a mesocycle is where you can start to see real progress IMO.  Comparing this week to last week, plus, using an autoregulation technique like RIR leaves some subjectivity in the matter. 

For instance, if you had a shitty night sleep right before your Thursday’s workout, odds are you’re going to struggle/do worse as compared to last Thursday’s workout when you hit the weights bright eyed and bushy tailed, so it might seem like you plateaued or aren’t progressing.  This is like your daily weight fluctuation.  

For my client’s I focus on comparing mesocycles to judge progress much like comparing weekly weight averages for weight loss.  

DId you lift more in the final weeks (0-1 RIR week) of this mesocycle compared to last?  

DId you start with more reps or weight in this mesocycle than you did in the last one?  

If you did, that’s progress. 

When to Change Exercises Out

When I first started programming workouts I used to make a brand spankin’ new new one every month to keep it interesting.  

In hindsight that probably wasn’t the best approach.  

Strength comes from practicing the same exercises and increasing the weight over time.  If you’re constantly changing the exercises it defeats that purpose.  

That would be like me jumping from French to Spanish to Italian to Portugues every month. Similar languages but just enough difference to not make great progress.  

And nothing keeps working out interesting like progress.

So over the course of these five Mesocycles you want to keep a majority of your exercises the same.  

The main lifts and the multi joint exercises (think bent over row, pullup) will almost always stay the same but the isolation work can change more frequently.  I’ll try to change at least one to two isolation exercises per workout per mesocycle to keep it interesting.    

When I do change an exercise out (isolation or multi joint), I’ll keep the same movement pattern but switch the angle or grip.  For example if the bent over row looks like it is getting stale (not progressing in a few weeks) then I might change that to a head supported row or a cable row.  Still that rowing movement pattern but just slightly changing the angle or grip.

With an arm exercise I might change from a Spider Curl to a Incline Bench Curl.  Same curling movement pattern but different angle.

This way there is plenty of practice for the movements and time to build up volume and in turn muscle.