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A Cure for Feeling Lost in the Gym
A template for tracking your workouts and implementing progressive overload to get stronger and build more muscle.
One of the most fundamental rules in fitness is a concept called progressive overload. It simply means that to build strength and gain muscle, you have to continuously push yourself further.
This is not a new concept, and there are thousands who have written about it before, but I’m often surprised by how few people actually understand and respect this foundational truth.
If you have gone to the gym for months or years, but haven’t seen results, one of the reasons could be that you haven’t been respecting progressive overload.
If you’ve been using the same dumbbells, doing the same number of reps on repeat, but not seeing changes in your body, there is hope.
If you go to the gym but don’t know what to do when you get there, please read on.
It might sound exhausting, but you’ve got to up your game pretty much everytime you walk into the gym. There are exceptions, but this is the rule.
Personally, I find it exciting. Everyday in the gym is an opportunity to be better than ever before. I don’t care if it’s by one rep. It’s a rep I couldn’t do yesterday, but I can today.
Muscle and strength are built in response to being challenged. So what can you do to make that happen in your own training?
Ways to implement progressive overload
Add weight on the bar, do the same number of sets and reps.
If you squat with 65 pounds on the barbell today, and your form was good, next time move up to 70.
Do the same weight, and number of sets, but increase the number of reps per set.
I use this approach a lot for upper body exercises where it can be tough for me to make even a five pound jump. It’s ok if it’s just one more rep.
Keep the same weight on the bar, do the same number of reps per set, and add an extra set.
Slow down reps
Do the same weight, sets and reps, but slow down your reps so you have more time under tension.
This is often referred to as tempo. Sometimes you will see tempo written in programs like this: 3X31 or 33X1. The numbers correspond to how long you should spend in each phase of the movement: eccentric, pause, concentric, pause.
For example, in a squat, a 33X1 means take 3 seconds to descend, pause at the bottom for 3 seconds, explode up, take a one second reset pause at the top.
I like slow tempo lifts for breaking through plateaus.
Reduce rest time between sets
Do the same weight, sets and reps, but reduce your rest between sets.
I normally rest 2 - 3 minutes between heavy lifts and 60 to 90 seconds between accessory lifts.
Do the same weight, sets and reps, but clean up your form.
In my youth (like two years ago ha), I wouldn’t think much about this. But today, I prioritize form a lot more.
If I feel I’ve compromised good form to make a lift, I’ll repeat the weight the next time I do the lift with the goal to make the reps beautiful. This has had a tremendous impact for me.
Rules, like records, are meant to be broken
There will be days when you are not feeling it.
I find that these days never make sense.
I’ll walk into the gym feeling exhausted, and have a great session.
I’ll walk in feeling rested, and fail to find my groove.
My only advice is to learn to listen to your body and mind.
Are they telling you to pull back or push hard? Are they telling you different things?
Can you tell when you're feeling lazy but know you should push? Can you tell when your body needs a break?
There might also be times when you need to pull back to work on technique. That’s ok too.
The gains you will make are made over months and years.
Consistency with progressive overload over the long haul is the game. A “bad” day isn’t going to cost you.
Please track your workouts
I sort of want to tell everyone that if you aren’t tracking your workouts, you are wasting your time. This is a bit dramatic. But not untrue.
For this system to work, you have to know how hard you pushed last time, how it went, and thus what you should do next time.
Some people keep notebooks. I’m sure there are many apps. I prefer an old fashioned Google Sheet.
I use a template similar to this one to plan out my workouts. I’ll go into more detail about how I use it for programming in the future. For now, let’s focus on how a training day is written out.
Order: The order in which I do the exercises. When you see two movements associated with one number like the Shoulder Press and Single Leg Hip Thrust on Day 1, that means they are a Superset. If there are three movements, it’s called a Triset.
Sets: The target number of sets.
Reps: The target number of repetitions
Weight: The target weight on the bar or dumbbell.
Execution Notes: This could be notes on tempo, equipment used, length of rest between sets, etc.
How it Went / What Next: A description of how I performed, how the sets felt, and what I should do next week. It can be as simple as, “felt great, move up 5 pounds” or “form was shit, stay here and improve”.
You can duplicate the Google Sheet template for yourself here.
If you’re putting in the work, make it count. A few tweaks to how you approach your gym time could make all the difference in the world.
I’ll leave you with a short pep talk.
Don’t see this as a chore. Recording your progress and slowly increasing over time is empowering! How cool is it to improve week over week?
What questions do you have for me?