- Progressive overload
- Perfect form
- Finding your ‘big three’
Principle 1 - Progressive Overload
What I didn’t realise at the time was that if you’re lifting the same weights as you were a year ago, or even 3 months ago, then you’ll remain the same.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to see your lifts progress drastically every week. That’s a recipe to quick stagnation and burnout. What you want to do is to coax strength gains, and be able to look over your journal every month and see some progression.
If there’s no progression, you’re likely going wrong somewhere. It may be your training set up, your cardio protocol, or your nutrition. This is why keeping a logbook is so critical, as it allows you to objectively audit what you’re doing in and out of the gym.
Knowing the basis of your program should be progressive overload will allow you to decide whether or not something is worth trying or continuing.
Principle 2 - Perfect Form
If you’re unsure, our extensive exercise library will help provide you with examples of what we deem to be perfect form.
Progressive overload is an exciting training concept. You see the weight go up and it makes you feel good. But it always comes with a caveat – it needs to be with perfect form.
What this will do is ground you, keep your ego in check, and instead force you to really be diligent with your training approach, nutrition and recovery.
If you apply progressive overload with no standard of form to ‘test’ it with, you’ll quickly run into injury.
I often look back to some of my old training footage from years ago during my powerlifting days and still cringe at what I thought to be good form.
It’s no wonder I accumulated so many injuries. In fact, when I watch the video of the session where my back finally had its ‘last straw’, I’m not surprised at the outcome.
This taught me the importance of perfect form, and why it’s always better to progress slowly and safely.
My progressions now are much slower, and I’m more inclined to ‘milk’ a weight for what’s it worth before adding any additional load.
Remember, the tortoise always beats the hare!
Principle 3 - Finding your Big 3
Instead, you need to find the exercises that fit your own body type, and that suit your mechanics.
For example, about two and a half years ago I stopped all back squatting, and about 12 months ago, all free squatting. Now my quad training is all done on machines like the V squat, leg press and hack squat.
This came after years of banging my head against a brick wall with squats, and forcing myself into doing them with the belief that it’s the only way to grow your legs.
Once I forced myself out of this line of thinking, looked outside the box and actually paid attention to what my body was telling me (no quad stimulation, only hip work!), I decided to try something new. And this is when my legs started to finally grow.
The same thing happened with bench presses, where I eventually found the floor press, and haven’t looked back since.
Finding your ‘big three’, or ‘key indicators’ as I like to call them, is paramount to your success in building muscle.
If you fail to pay attention to this, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time and effort applying progressive overload with very little results to show for it, and a growing injury list.
Here are some general examples of putting this into practice…
If you’ve got long legs and a short torso, you may be better off front or safety bar squatting instead of back squatting. Or potentially even opting for Smith machine squats, leg presses and hack squats as your weapons of choice, a la Dorian Yates.
If you’ve got short legs and a long torso, nothing will build your legs better than back squats.
If you’ve got long arms, direct arm work will be more important for you than those with short arms, as the latter can often get much of their arm growth from compound lifts alone.
If you’ve got long arms, exercises like floor presses may be better for you than bench presses.
My own personal ‘indicator’ lifts are as follows:
Upper body ‘push’: floor presses, dips, dumbbell shoulder presses
Posterior chain: Romanian deadlifts, lying leg curls, walking lunges (long strides)
I know if I’m driving these lifts up with progressive overload and perfect form, along with a consistent calorie surplus, I will be gaining muscle mass.
The forgotten principle - Your Buy In
Are you excited by your routine?
Does it motivate you to train hard?
If not, everything else is irrelevant.
Effort will always trump the perfectly designed training program.
In fact, you’ll be more likely to bind the previous three key principles together if you are emotionally invested into the program.
A great program requires two things:
Adherence and progression.
While this warrants an article in itself (which I’ve done so here), briefly speaking, I’ve found these guidelines to work well:
- Extroverts respond well to more exercise variety, higher volumes and intensities, and more of a ‘mix it up’ type approach (although this has to be done carefully, and isn’t to be taken out of context).
- Introverts (like myself) on the other hand typically respond well to lower volumes, more frequency, while using a logbook to guide their training.
Of course this is all on a spectrum, and there will be exceptions, but as a general of thumb, it seems to work quite well.
The RNT Formula
You can’t have progressive overload without perfect form.
There’s no use in ‘indicator lifts’ if you’re not focused on progressing them.
And if you don’t enjoy any of it, none of the above will matter.
In an ideal world, you want to train on a program that you enjoy that encompasses the three key principles of effective strength training.
If you can find this mix, then you’ll be on the path to achieving excellent results.