Progressive overload and gym journal

That’s when you decide to change your “for fun” approach toward gym to “serious business”. It’s a transition you are willing to make and that will bring you results in the form of improved physical capacities. Just like when you count macro and improve because you tracked them, you can also apply this tracking method to your gym lifts.

Progressive overload and writing a gym journal are the easiest ways to increase your performance – read get good looking – as fast possible. This strategy is exclusive to weight lifting. You can’t apply it to calisthenics, running, biking or any other sport.

Taking this road means you are devoted to your gym results and decide to go further. You want great results, and fast. You want to keep improving your performance over and over.

Instead of leaving your results up to the hazard, choosing progressive overload means you are in control of your growth. And this changes everything. From your muscle growth to the way you think of the gym. And yes, you can start applying progressive overload as soon as your next gym workout.

What’s progressive overload?

You’ll still lift heavy weights, no worries. And you’ll still practice the same exercises. What’s different then?

The weight you take from god’s green earth to above your shoulders. The way this weight is handled and the progression of it are monitored.

Progressive overload is one of the best ways to build muscle & strength. It’s no advanced theory or complex practice. In fact, it’s quite simple. Everything we will talk about can be done right in your first workout ever. You need no special requirement to profit from this strategy.

Workout journal

Instead of putting random weights on your barbell, you decide it’s cool and useful to know how much you can lift with how many repetitions.

My gym journal looks like this:

  • Bench press barbell 80kg: 12 12 11 12
  • Dips: 30 32 27 23
  • Wide grip pull ups: 25 22 20 17

First, I’m writing the exercise with the weight I’m lifting. Then I’m adding the repetitions I’m doing every set.

For the bench press. 4 sets composed of 3 times 12 repetitions and 1 time 11 repetitions of 80kg.

Training to failure. When I’m done with a set, I can’t do any extra repetition.

This is my journal. Everyday I write down on Google Keep all the exercises I’m performing with the exact number of repetitions. You can also apply this strategy to calisthenics though it’s harder to measure improvement – see calisthenics vs weightlifting.

Your journal represents your improvement – and it’s super important for progressive overload – over time. With this tool you can see how you improved over the last months, what’s your maximum and how many times you went to the gym.

All those data are important metrics we are going to use while applying progressive overload.

Defining Progressive overload

Adding a fixed amount of weight to the bar WHEN you crush a goal. Not adding anymore weight to the bar until you break the new goal

Thanks to my journal, I know that 3 days ago I did this:

  • Bench press barbell 80kg: 12 12 11 12

My goal was to do more than 80kg: 10 10 10 10. I crushed my goal. Next time I’m training, my new goal will be to beat 10 repetitions with an increased weight. I’m adding 5 kg to the bar – every increased level will add another 5kg to the bar.

I must beat the score of 85kg: 10 10 10 10 before moving to 90kg.

I’m not adding weight to the bar for the exercise until I’m beating 10 reps 4 times in a row for the bench press at 85kg.

At first, I’ll do 8 7 9 8. Next time? My score WILL go up.

Note: When training with progressive overload you ALWAYS count your repetition until failure. You should not be able to lift the bar for another rep after the set. If that’s something you dislike when it comes to bench press and other notably “dangerous” exercises, get a spotter

Instead of changing the weight you are training with randomly, using progressive overload makes sure your muscles are ready to handle the next challenge.

Just like in a video game you can’t skip the boss. Here, you are stuck until you can beat the weight. And it may take you weeks or months to crush the new 10 reps challenge. No big deal. You keep practicing until you break the challenge. Then add another 5kg to the bar and train to beat the new record.

It goes like this without a limit.

This is exactly why you need to track down all your exercises, sets and exercises. Otherwise you can’t monitor your progress and can’t see if you are progressing at all. In the later stages of this type of training, you’ll barely progress at all. Adding a single rep will be considered as improvement.

Note: Progressive overload is about increasing the weight you are lifting slowly so your body gets a better chance to build muscle and adapt to increased pressure.

You can apply progressive overload to ALL the exercises you practice at the gym as long as you can add weight to the bar. And yes, it works even if you are training with machines.

This strategy is designed for long term progress. Instead of jumping from one point to another, you are taking the mountain slowly and steadily. Making small improvement workouts after workout. It’s the inside first, outside later approach.

And yes, you can apply this strategy to all your exercises of the day. If you’d like to apply it on your 5 exercises, you can. Since it’s getting messy super-fast – how much can you lift at XYZ exercise? You absolutely need a gym journal to write down all your reps and sets.

What if you reach a plateau?

Hopefully progressive overload is designed with breaking plateau in mind. It’s a superb way to break a plateau if you never practiced training with progressive overload.

For the bad news, progressive overload isn’t plateau proof. There will be weeks or even months where you’ll feel totally stuck. Fear no more, here’s how to break these when you are consistently adding weight to the bar.

When reaching a plateau, it’s time to slow down a bit, letting your muscle enjoy easier workouts. Instead of try-harding, you decide to go easy:

  • Level down by one tier the weight you lift – we decided one tier is 5kg when it comes to the bench press
  • Fix the amount of repetition to 10 for 4 sets – even if you can do more! Remember, we are slowing down for a week
  • Add one more recovery day for this easy-week – it sounds totally unproductive, and yes, it’s totally worth it!

This easy-week will help your body deal with the “excessive” amount of stress it has to handle over the past few weeks/months to let him a chance to build bigger and stronger muscle next time you’ll hit the bar.

As strange as it is, this strategy works when breaking your progressive overload circle. Keep in mind that this easy-week shouldn’t be regular. Think of it as 4/5 times a year – or more if you feel the need to rest for a longer period. Anyway, I don’t recommend you to completely pause your training. In fact, you’ll lose the muscle you built faster than an ice cream melt under the sun.

Instead, you should keep a physical activity. Something different from weight lifting. I’m suggesting calisthenics, biking, running or climbing… Time it to restore your physical and mental energy.