When and how to progress in the gym.

Posted by Shaun LaFleur on


It's well understood, even among beginners, that in order to get in better shape, you have to slowly improve your performance in the gym. While a simple concept, it can become quite confusing as to how to do this properly. With so many different routines floating around that use drastically different methods of progression, many wonder which methods are the best and have trouble deciding on how to apply these progression methods to their workout routines. Do you add only reps? What about weight on the bar? Can you add both? How often should I do this?

These are all common questions that I will do my best to clear up once and for all. Below I will discuss how progression works, what makes a progression method effective and how to choose a progression method for your exercises.


What exactly causes the ability to progress?

In order to understand what makes a progression method work, you first need to understand what exactly it is that causes you to become stronger and perform better. You've probably heard of the term progressive overload. You can read about progressive overload in detail here, but it's the overload part that causes your body to adapt to training and become bigger and stronger.

So what is overload?

So what is overload? Overload simply refers to training that overloads the body by taking it near its limits, forcing the body to have an adaptive response. In resistance training, this means training near failure during a set. As long as a set is taken within 4 or less reps from failure, you are overloading and generating an adequate training stimulus to force adaptation. What this means is that, for example, if you are performing a set of 10 repetitions, and once you stop at that 10th rep, you could have only done no more than 4 additional reps, that set is adequate to cause overload. The closer you train to failure, the stronger the overload stimulus (but going closer to failure does have its drawbacks which you can read about here).

So any progression method you want to use must ensure that you are continuously overloading (hence the term progressive overload) as you get stronger. At the core of this topic, THIS is what matters most. If you are not overloading, you are not giving the body a reason to adapt and progress. It doesn't matter how many exercises you do or how many reps or sets you perform - if you aren't causing overload, you will NOT progress long term.

Using the RIR/RPE scales

One of the best methods to help determine whether or not you're staying in the correct intensity zone for overload is to use the RIR/RPE methods of tracking the intensity of each set. In short, the two concepts are defined as followed:
  • RIR stands for "Reps in Reserve" and refers to how many reps you have left in you when you stop a set. If you perform a set of 10 and could have only gotten 2 more reps when you stopped, this would be an RIR of 2.
  • RPE stands for "Rate of Perceived Exertion" and is a similar concept. RPE is a 1-10 scale that rates how difficult a set is, with 10 being the most intense. A set where you have 0 reps left in you would be an RPE 10. A set where you had 2 reps left in you like in the example given for RIR would be an RPE 8 (meaning RIR 2 and RPE 8 are roughly equivalent).

Remember that for overload to occur, you must be within 5 repetitions of failure or closer. This equates to a minimum RIR of 5 or RPE 5.

You can view a simple and straight forward image summarizing the two scales here and here.

How do you progressively overload?

Once you successfully overload and improve performance, the training you used to do will eventually feel much easier, and at some point, may not even be overloading anymore once you fall out of the correct intensity range required for overload. This means that as you improve performance, you have to continuously make changes to your training in order to get yourself back into the correct intensity zone. For example, if at the beginning of your routine 3 sets of 10 with 100 lbs on the bar was quite difficult to complete, but now after some period of time that same 3 sets of 10 is rather easy, it is quite likely that this training will no longer create an overloading stimulus or at the very least, a stimulus that is not as effective, and thus you need to make changes to your training to overload again.

This can be done in multiple ways, with the most common and most obvious being to add load to the bar and/or perform more repetitions in order to get yourself back into the proper RIR/RPE ranges.

Adding load

Adding load is probably the most common and straightforward method of progressive overload. Once you can lift a certain amount of weight for a given amount of sets and reps easily, the next step to make your training harder is to simply add 5-10 lbs to the bar and attempt to perform that same number of sets and reps with the new weight.

This method is usually easier to do for beginners and intermediates, who can make progressions in strength much faster than an advanced lifter who needs more volume and time to gain strength. However, using fractional plates to make smaller jumps in weight can make this method more effective for advanced lifters.

Adding reps

Another straightforward way to progressively overload is to simply perform more repetitions with the same load and sets once you can hit a certain rep target easily with a given load and amount of sets.

This method is typically better for intermediate and advanced lifters since adding reps is generally easier than adding 5-10 lbs to the bar. As your training experience increases, increases in performance will slow down and face diminishing returns.

Adding sets

This method of progressing is a little more complex and should be always be used in combination with either adding reps and/or adding load. The more sets you perform, the more training stimulus you can accumulate, however, you must also add reps and/or load to make sure that those sets you are performing are actually causing overload. If you're performing sets that aren't overloading, then adding more of those sets will do nothing to help you progress. 

Because of the higher complexity of this method and the fact that beginners need less volume (defined as total sets) to progress optimally, this method is better for late intermediates and advanced lifters.

Combining progression methods

You don't have to simply pick and follow just one of these methods. There are many different ways to cut this pie and you can even combine multiple progression methods into one. For example, you could both add 5 lbs to the bar and attempt to do one more repetition. Or perhaps you'd prefer to add weight to the bar, keep reps the same but add an additional set. These can all work and as long as you're leaving no more than 5 reps in you each set consistently, at the end of the day, you're good to go.


Foundations of a good progression method.

Now that we've discussed the behind the scenes of progression, we can hone in on three foundational ideas that make a good progression system. First, you must be training in the overload range. Second, you must have a strategy to continuously chase this overload range when your training becomes too easy. Lastly, your training should result in a long term increase in volume load.


Any training that you do with the intent of progressing and becoming bigger and stronger must be done in the correct overload range. This means that every working set you perform should leave no more than 5 reps in the tank, preferably less. Remember, the closer to failure you train, the stronger the stimulus. Just note that there ARE drawbacks to training too close to failure too often. When you start a new workout plan, make sure you're choosing the correct set, reps and loading scheme that allow you to hit the ground running by placing you within this intensity zone immediately.

Progressive overload strategy

As you progress and get stronger, the training you're doing will no longer keep you in the correct overload range and you will begin to stall and fail to make any more progress. Because of this, you need a strategy to continuously chase this overload range. This is typically done by adding reps, load and/or sets. You MUST continuously make your workouts harder over time in order to continue progressing. Don't waste time by training outside of the correct intensity zone!

Long term volume load increases

Any progression method you use should result in long term increases in what's called "volume load". Volume load is defined as Reps x Sets x Load, so 3 sets of 10 with 200 lbs would be 6,000 lbs of volume load. This is an important metric to track because it is ultimately what determines whether or not your training strategy is working. Naturally, if you're overloading consistently, your volume load should increase.

However, one pitfall that commonly happens is when someone aggressively adds load to the bar but allows their repetitions to fall drastically - this may sometimes lead the person into thinking they are making more progress than they actually are. For example, if you start out performing 3 sets of 10 with 200 lbs (6,000 lbs of volume load), but aggressively add weight to the bar and are now doing 3 sets of 6 with 220 lbs, your volume load has actually dropped to 3,960 lbs from the previous 6,000 lbs. While you increased the load on the bar by 20 lbs, your repetitions have dropped drastically, so technically you haven't made any actually progress, you just essentially changed the load you are training with and had to adjust your repetitions down to compensate. A better method to add load would be to wait until you progress enough to add 5-10 lbs while maintaining enough repetitions so that your volume load actually increases.


Example progression methods.

Below are some of the more beginner friendly methods of progression. Note that these are far from all of the available methods and there are MANY ways to design a progression method and as long as it follows the foundational principles laid out above, they will work.

Rep Target

This method focuses on gradually hitting a certain amount of repetitions across all of your working sets before adding load to the bar and repeating the process. Set intensity still plays an important role, since you need to make sure you leave no more than 4 reps left in reserve.

  1. In order to follow the rep target method, first choose a rep range that consists of around 3 repetitions, such as 6-8, 10-12, etc (the rep range is mostly unimportant as long as it falls in the 6-30 rep range).
  2. Then, choose a load that allows you to hit the lower end of the rep range with relative ease, such as RIR 4. In the example of "6-8", you would choose a load that you can perform a set of 6 with relative ease (RIR 4ish).
  3. Finally, each workout you will attempt to add a repetition to each set. Once you can hit the top end of the rep range without training to failure, add more weight on the bar and start back at the lower end of the rep range and then work your way back up.

Example (6-8 rep range):
Workout 1: 3x6 with 100 lbs
Workout 2: 3x7 with 100 lbs
Workout 3: 3x8 with 100 lbs
Workout 4: 3x6 with 105 lbs

Intensity Target

This method is similar to the rep target method, but instead you will increase load and focus more on intensity or how difficult the sets feel while maintaining the same set and rep scheme. With this method it's good to utilize RIR/RPE.

  1. Start out by choosing a set, rep and load scheme that allows you to perform your sets with slight difficulty, or RIR 2-1.
  2. Continue to perform the same amount of sets, reps and load until it becomes relatively easy, or RIR 4-3.
  3. Once the weight becomes relatively easy and falls into an RIR 4-3, add enough load to the bar to fall back into an RIR 2-1, making the sets slightly difficult again, then repeat the process.

Workout 1: 3x6 with 100 lbs RIR 2
Workout 2: 3x6 with 100 lbs RIR 3
Workout 3: 3x6 with 100 lbs RIR 4
Workout 4: 3x6 with 110 lbs RIR 2

Last Set AMRAP

This progression method utilizes the AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) concept. You will be performing as many reps as you can on your final set. This is the method I use in my beginner routine Full Body Momentum.

  1. First choose a rep range and loading scheme that allows you to hit that target rep range with relative ease, or RIR 4. We'll use the 8 rep range as an example.
  2. On your last set, you will perform as many reps as you can without going to failure. When you feel as though you won't be able to get another rep, stop the set. 
  3. If during your AMRAP set you were able to perform 3 more reps than your chosen rep range, add load to the bar next workout and repeat the process. For example, if you chose the 8 rep range and on your last set you were able to get 11 or more reps, it's time to go up in weight.

Workout 1: 2x8, 1x9 with 100 lbs
Workout 2: 2x8, 1x10 with 100 lbs
Workout 3: 2x8, 1x11 with 100 lbs
Workout 4: 2x8, 1x9 with 110 lbs

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