Utilizing Progressive Overload For Hypertrophy

3×10: it’s the international bro-code for “I’m training to build muscle” and rightly so.

If you train three or more times a week, it shouldn’t be any problem to get in at least four exercises per muscle group/movement. If you did 3×10 for four different exercises, you would get a total of 120 reps per week. 120 reps is pretty much the sweet spot for when it comes to hypertrophy. But you can’t really think that doing 3×10 for years on end and aiming for “adding 5 lbs a week” is a reasonable approach. If it were, we’d all be adding >250 lbs to our bench press each year and look like Thanos.

A Brief on Progression

There are dozens of programs, progressions, and methods out there people use to ensure that their training is stimulating muscle growth. Many people find one that works pretty well for a while, but become stagnant in their gains overtime. This is most often because they aren’t using progressive overload in their training.

Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training. It was developed by Thomas Delorme, M.D. while he rehabilitated soldiers after World War II.”

What most folks do is follow a linear periodization. Linear periodization works well for progressing in intensity (the weight or % of 1RM used) but does not align well with volume (total reps done). As mentioned prior, high volume is key in regards to maximizing training time to stimulate muscle growth.

This is what linear periodization looks like:

A much more effective approach that allows for more long term adaptation and puts a heavier emphasis on recovery time would be non-linear periodization. Some others call it wave loading. There are several ways that you can program wave loading through manipulating intensity and volume which makes for an infinity of progression patterns. This is where the art of strength training and muscle building comes into play.

This is what non-linear periodization/wave loading looks like:

Applying This Model To Hypertrophy

Crossing intensity and volume to provide an appropriate stimulus that allows for optimal recovery in between sessions is the key to building strength over time. But doing so for building muscle is what throws many people off. It is clear that you can build muscle by training with sub-maximal loads. Just take a look at olympic weightlifters and powerlifters. This is definitely something I am in favor utilizing for hypertrophy. However, sub-maximal loads and medium volume programming should not be your focus if your primary goal is growth.

I’ve come up with a model that I have been using called “Progressive Overload For Hypertrophy”. This is a great way to mix in that medium intensity/medium volume training with your high volume training to maximize muscle growth and continually progress overtime. That’s right, literally getting stronger and bigger at the same time. This is kind of how it was supposed to work anyway, right? Please note, this has probably been shared and executed by many. I just personally have not seen it broken down in this way to help others apply the principle of progressive overload to their hypertrophy training.

What It Looks Like

The typical repetition range for hypertrophy sets is 8-12. Personally, I like to lift heavy and I also like to chase the pump. Because the high end for “strength sets” is 6 reps and the low end for “muscular endurance” is 15 reps, I like to stay somewhere in between these numbers.

At least 50% of your work should be done in the hypertrophy rep range. 25% could be spent doing higher rep work and the other 25% (give or take) doing “heavier” work for medium volume.  So if my target goal for a training week is to hit 120 reps for a particular muscle group, I should be doing somewhere around 60 reps in the 6-10 rep range, 30 reps in the 10-15 rep range, and about 30 or less reps in the 4-6 rep range. This is arguable and can be adjusted either way, but just note that your higher volume work should always be priority if you truly want to put on size.

Here is one example of what an upper back focus training day should look like:

As you can see, the first exercise is at a heavier weight for a medium volume that goes no lower than 20 working reps. Assigning a percentage to these or at least knowing a general range is always a good idea so you don’t completely tank in the first exercise. After all, the work that lies ahead is most important. The second exercise is prescribed to stay at a RR (repetition range) of 6-10 and shoot for a TTV (total target volume) of 30. The third and fourth exercises stay at a RR of 10-15 and a TTV of 40. If you look at week two, the first exercise increases in intensity and lowers in volume while every other exercises stay in the same intensity range but increases in the TTV.

Here is a visual of what this progression would look like when recoding TTV:

As you can see, we chose a weight that was heavy for the higher end of the RR on week 1. When it looks like we’re going to go below 6 reps, we drop the weight to ensure we stay in the RR and continue cranking quality working sets until we reach the TTV. Each week we will try to go a little bit heavier. In the end, this means we’ll more than likely be doing more working sets but still stay within our total target volume. That means an increase in intensity without much of a change in volume. Much different than your typical linear progression.

Now this is what it would look like for weeks 4-6.

As you can see, the TTV was raised. We would return back to a weight that we are confident we could get for the top end of the RR for week 4. In theory, this should be higher than week 1’s weight. Would one not get stronger overtime if they were to continue with the model of adding weight for three weeks while aiming for a particular TTV and then repeating the progression for another three weeks but at a higher TTV?

Using the recorded volume and intensity from above, this is a visual of what the progression would look like:

See the wave like pattern? Now imagine this stretched over a period of six months while strategically adding in de-load weeks…

Final Thoughts

There is a lot to be discussed in regards to how to use this model for building muscle. Generally, you will gain muscle with high volume training paired with solid nutrition and recovery habits. However, when it comes to optimal results: it always boils down to what best suits the individual. Hopefully the ideas I’ve shared has given you a bigger canvas to paint with and will allow you to get more creative with a long term approach for gaining muscle.

Not sure where to start or need guidance on your programming? I’m currently taking on online clients. Learn more about my coaching services HERE.

Published by Nick Knowles

Nick is a certified personal trainer through the National Strength & Conditioning Association who has worked with hundreds of individuals around the world and coached a wide variety of clients ranging from special forces, active duty, first responders, law enforcement, paraplegics, mixed martial artists, powerlifters, endurance athletes, large group classes, rock climbers, high school and collegiate athletes, youth teams, general population (weight loss), and clients with special needs. Education being at the forefront of his approach, he has been a guest speaker at corporate wellness events, college job fairs, and has also taken on a handful of interns who have found successful careers in the fitness industry. He is also a former NCAA division 1 wrestling and competitive powerlifter.

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