So often we’re told that in order to make progress in the gym you have to keep adding weight to the bar.
While slapping more plates on the bar is certainly one way to make progress in your training, it by no means is the only way to make gains in the gym.
Ahead, we’re going to show you our top ways to make progress in the gym without lifting heavy.
But first, let’s discuss the overarching principle that dictates progress -- progressive overload.
What is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload holds that in order for muscles to grow bigger and stronger, they have to be pushed to perform more work than they previously have.
In other words, if you want to build muscle and gain strength in the gym, you should be continually pushing to do more total work each workout than you have the previous one. On the other hand, if you are not constantly pushing for progress in your workouts, you will hit a plateau.
Typically, fitness enthusiasts equate progressive overload with increasing the resistance (i.e. weight on the bar), but as we’ll discuss below, there are other methods to achieve progressive overload.
Lastly, progressive overload doesn’t apply solely to increasing muscle size and strength. It can also be applied to endurance training as well as cardiovascular system performance.
How to Make Progress Without Lifting Heavy
Now that we’ve covered exactly what is the driving force behind making progress in the gym, let’s discuss the number of ways to achieve progressive overload without lifting heavy.
One of the easiest ways to make progress in your workouts is to simply perform more repetitions.
What this means is that if you’re used to performing 3 sets of 8 reps on the bench press, performing 3 sets of 9 reps counts as progressive overload. Heck, even if you only get one extra rep across all three sets, you still achieved progressive overload as you have forced your muscles to perform more work than they did last time.
Old school muscle-building advice touts that the “muscle building” rep range is 8-12 reps. And while the 8-12 rep range may provide an incredibly efficient (i.e. good bang for your buck) in terms of number of reps completed vs muscle-building stimulus, the truth is that you can build muscle by lifting across a number of rep ranges, from very low reps (4-6 reps per set) all the way up to 25-30 reps per set.
When training with lighter weights and higher rep ranges, you need to push the set until you are within a rep or two of failure.
In practice, let’s say that you select weight and your workout program calls for 3 sets of 12 reps. If you hit rep 12 and you’re not even close to failure, do not arbitrarily stop the set. If you do, you’re missing out on the crucial muscle-building reps of the set.
In other words, don’t stop a set when you reach some predetermined rep number. You need to push the set until you’re on the brink of failure.
Another way to increase volume, and therefore progressive overload, is by increasing the number of sets you perform for a given body part each week.
Exercise research has shown that, on average, an individual needs to perform between 10-20 “hard sets” per muscle group per week to make gains in hypertrophy (muscle growth).
What this means, is that if you’re normally performing 10-12 sets per body part per week and stuck at a plateau, try increasing the number of sets you train that muscle group with.
Now, it should be noted that you don’t need to immediately jump from 10-12 sets per week all the way up to 20 sets per body part per week. Start off slowly by adding one set each week and assessing how your recovery, performance, and progress is.
For example, let’s say that you perform 3 sets of barbell rows, 3 sets of seated cable rows, 3 sets of chin-ups, and 3 sets of lat pulldowns each week for your back training. Applying the increasing sets protocol, your next week of training could involve, 4 sets of barbell rows and 3 sets of the remaining exercises as you had the week prior.
The following week, you can either add in another set of barbell rows or add on another set to one of your other back movements, depending on your personal preference and training goals.
Remember, progressive overload is all about forcing your muscles to gradually do more work overtime. There’s no need to take your training from zero to 100. Doing so will only result in overtraining or injury.
Training frequency is how many times per week you train a muscle group. Typically, most lifters train a muscle group at least 1-2 times per week.
By increasing the frequency with which you train a muscle, you’re increasing the total training volume (sets and reps), which is another way to make progress without necessarily having to add weight to the bar.
For example, let’s say you train legs on Mondays and Thursdays. If you moved to a three times per week training frequency, you could train legs Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Now, the tricky part with increasing frequency is keeping your total training volume in check.
If you’re already performing 15-20 hard sets per week for a muscle group across two training sessions, focus first on splitting your current volume load evenly across three sessions. Then, after you’ve assessed your recovery and performance with the increased frequency, you can toy with adding in more sets or reps.
Increase Time Under Tension
Time under tension is the amount of time that a given muscle group is under stress.
Increasing the amount of time your muscles are under tension is yet another way in which you can implement progressive overload and make progress without having to add weight to the bar.
Most lifters lift the bar in one second and lower it in a second. That’s two seconds of time under tension per rep.
If, however, you lift the bar in one second, squeeze the muscle as hard as you can at the top for a second and then slowly lower the bar over the course of 2-3 seconds, you’ve added 2-3 seconds of time under tension and by the end of the set, you’ve significantly increased the amount of work your muscles have had to do.
As we just showed, time under tension can be accomplished in several ways. You can use a slower lowering (eccentric phase).
You can also pause at the hardest point of the lift (bottom of a squat, top of a pull-up, etc). You can also pause at the midpoint.
Each of these tactics increases the total amount of work your muscles are doing.
You can also play with something called “1.5 reps.”
Using the bench press as an example, 1.5 reps would be starting with the bar on your chest, pushing it up all the way, lowering it halfway, pressing all the up to the top and then lowering all the way to the bottom.
You could also press the bar up halfway, lower it back down, press it all the way up, and then lower it.
Either way, you’re doing 1.5-rep style training and increasing the work your muscles are doing without having to add more weight to the bar.
Increase Training Density
Density is a measure of how much work you do per unit of time.
Increasing your training density stipulates that you are completing more work in the same amount of time or completing the same amount of work in less time.
For instance, let’s say that you completed 4 sets of 10 repetitions on a seated shoulder press using 25-pound dumbbells with 3 minutes rest between sets.
Increasing training density could be completing the same 4x10 rep scheme using 25-pound dumbbells, but resting only 2 minutes and 30 seconds between sets instead of 3 minutes.
Now, decreasing rest intervals (i.e. increasing training density) is a viable option for those who can’t add weight to the bar or don’t have access to heavier weights, but there comes a limit where you simply can’t decrease rest any more without impacting your lifting performance.
Without a doubt, lack of progressive overload is easily the #1 reason most of people don’t see results from their time spent in the gym. The reason many people struggle to implement progressive overload is due to the fact that they think the only way to accomplish it is to add weight to the bar.
However, you can make progress in the gym a variety of ways, including increasing reps, sets, frequency, and training density.
If you’re stuck in your training and looking for ways to break through the plateau, use the options lined out above to spark new growth and make better progress in your workouts.