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3 Alternative Overload Methods to Improve Strength and Muscle Mass

Check out and use these three alternative progressive overload methods to accomplish your goals!

As part of my transition from powerlifting to bodybuilding, I think it’s important to discuss the changes I’ve made in my diet and training. After all, diet and training are the cornerstones of success, and if you don’t understand how to set those up correctly, then you’re going to have a hard time making progress — no matter what your goal might be.

Ultimately, progression describes the entire process of building strength and muscle. Usually, we simplify progression as adding weight to the bar, because, for most beginner and intermediate lifters, that’s the most straightforward and productive method of progression. If you refer to my recent article on General Adaptation Syndrome, you’ll understand why this is the case — and why, after a certain point, the standard method of progression begins to fail.

Once you pass the early intermediate stage, though, you enter what my mentor Dave Tate calls “the Dead Zone”:

“Getting from Good to Great… puts you in very elite company. Few guys can ever do it, mainly because it requires getting through the Dead Zone, that period when absolutely nothing “works” and injuries (and frustration) start to mount. The Dead Zone can last 10 years or longer, and it’s often the last phase of a lifter’s career before either injuries force them out or they get frustrated and quit.”

Here’s where periodization comes in, and again, rather than going through the basics of that (very important) theory, I’ll just refer to this great resource that will help you get the gist of it.

Progressing In Size Versus Strength

Now, when you’re training for size rather than strength, the periodized model isn’t enough. If you’re training for strength, ultimately, all you care about is adding weight to the bar, and for most, that’s a much more objective and easily observable goal than adding muscle. When you’re training for size, it becomes more complicated.

For an example, at the most basic level, we can consider the fact that when you add size, it can be difficult to determine how much of that is size is muscular bodyweight and how much is added fat. Even with advanced tools like DEXA scans and hydrostatic weighing, there’s still a ton of variability involved in measuring those, and “eyeballing” often doesn’t work because we’re so used to seeing our bodies on a daily basis.

If we dig deeper, we can discuss how muscular size refers to both the growth of contractile tissue (the part of the muscle that helps you lift weight) and what I call “other stuff” that’s in muscle cells. “Other stuff” could refer to glycogen, intracellular fluids and proteins, and a whole lot of other scientific jargon. But the important thing to know about increasing muscular size is that we can also build up that “other stuff” — and both studies and anecdotal research agree that volume is the primary driver of such growth.

Alternative Progressive Overload Methods

And here’s where alternative methods of progression come in. You see, there are many, many ways to increase training volume, and none is necessarily better than any of the others. That’s a good thing, because it means we have virtually unlimited tools in our toolbox when it comes to adding size.

Here are some awesome examples of ways to increase your training volume:

1. Increase Sets Or Reps

This is the most straightforward way, obviously. However, it’s still a fairly linear progression method, and you’ll hit the point where you simply can’t squeeze out any more reps from a particular set, or you’re just too exhausted to perform any more sets with sufficient intensity to stimulate growth.

What’s sufficient intensity? A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t handle 90% of the weight of your top set on subsequent sets of any particular movement, it’s time to move on in the workout.

2. Decrease Rest Time

This one’s a favorite of mine because, first of all, it’s not linear. You have a lot of freedom on how you can decrease rest time: between every set, just during your warm-ups, or just during your work sets.

This also generally makes a workout more intense overall, as it will require you to up your focus and prevent you from goofing off between sets.

3. Increase Time Under Tension

Another favorite, because time under tension has been shown to be a great stimulator of muscular growth. It’s also a straight-up brutal way to train! And it’s not linear; like decreasing rest time, there are tons of ways you can increase time under tension .For example, you could perform tempo reps, or you could perform AMRAPs in a set time interval, like in John Meadow’s famous Bulgarian death sets.

 

One example of a method I don’t endorse to increase training volume is the use of frequent exercise rotation. Exercise rotation is a great way to prevent boredom, but it can create the false impression of progress, especially if you’re changing exercises too frequently. That’s because, when you’re performing a movement for the first time, you’re unfamiliar with it. As you practice, you’ll get stronger both through increased comfort with the new positions and through improvements in nervous system efficiency — neither of which are major drivers of muscular growth.

Step It Up

Remember, increasing training volume is just one way to make progress in the gym. There’s no right or wrong here, and in fact, I’d argue that the single most important factor is enjoyment. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re not going to put in 100% effort — it’s just not possible!

I know I say it almost every article, but you’ve got to find what works for you. Don’t randomly start increasing training volume because some of the ideas I presented here appeal to you. Think about your goals, your starting point, and how you can skillfully incorporate new training methods to get from point A to point B.  You’ll be a lot better off for it!

Feature image from restyler / Shutterstock.

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers.

Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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