Now that you understand the “why” your muscle grow in response to weight training, it's time to understand “how” your muscles grow using progressive weight training. This is the most critical part to building muscle.
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In order to build muscle, there needs to be an element of progressive improvement to a weight training program. This is the flip side to progressive weight training although both go hand in hand. However, in terms of importance, progressive improvement will be the number one element to any weight training program that will determine how much muscle is built (even more so than diet although both are closely related as you will see in the following nutrition section).
Progressive improvement is a term used to describe how one person improves in certain aspects of weight training over a certain period of time. Personally, there are a few ways that optimize progressive improvement. They are as follows:
1) Perform additional repetitions using the same weight and rest periods as in the previous workout for the same exercise and muscle group (s);
2) Perform the same amount of repetitions with the same rest periods but using heavier weight than the previous workout for the same exercise and muscle group (s);
3) Perform the workout in a faster time period using the same weight, sets and repetitions.
To build muscle, you must be able to progress using one of the three methods mentioned above.
This is where a lot of aspiring weight trainers go wrong with their weight training program; they fail to grasp the concept of progressive improvement. If you can improve using one of the above mention improvement methods, you will continuously build muscle. Stop improving and you'll stop building muscle (or stagnate/plateau).
Let's find out how to optimize an improvement schedule to allow the best results for building muscle.
In order to build an effective weight training program that's designed to build muscle, there needs to be a schedule that will allow the optimal amount of improvement in certain exercises from workout to workout. In terms of providing the environment for progressive improvement, there needs to be organization. Simply showing up to the gym every day and going all out on every set of every exercise will be a complete and utter waste of time. The real trick is to identify those sets that will provide the highest possible return (muscle building) for the maximum amount of effort that's expended. These sets will be identified as “work sets” and will require as much effort as you are able to expend to complete the set. These sets will be the number one stress element in your workout routine and will be used to improve from workout to workout.
Pyramid (progressive) sets and repetitions are the main element to this type of schedule.
Traditionally, most weight training set and repetition schedules look as follows:
Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions using 40% of one repetition maximum
Set one: 1 set of 12 repetitions using 70% of one repetition maximum
Set two: 1 set of 12 repetitions using 75% of one repetition maximum
Set three: 1 set of 10 repetitions using 75% of one repetition maximum
Set four: 1 set of 10 repetitions using 75% of one repetition maximum
For the most part, this type of schedule isn't optimized for progressive improvement. First of all, the repetition and set scheme isn't optimized for optimal improvement.
In addition, the weight used for each set is not prioritized in a way that gives the user the opportunity to utilize maximum energy for the final work set that builds strength and muscle.
When it comes to building muscle it's important to remember that the first three sets are not meant to build muscle and strength. The only set that matters is the final set. Let's take a look at a set and repetition scheme that's designed to optimized energy and strength levels.
Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions using 30% of one repetition maximum
Set one: 1 set of 10 repetitions using 50% of one repetition maximum
Set two: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 60% of one repetition maximum
Set three: 1 set of 6 repetitions using 70% of one repetition maximum
Set four – Work set: 1 set of 6 repetitions using 85+% of one repetition maximum
This type of set and repetition scheme is set up to do one thing, to save and build up as much energy for the final work set (set four). There is no need to expend any unnecessary energy on the first three sets. Its best that you think of these sets as warm ups to the final work set.
Remember, the final set is where you must expend all of your energy in order to improve upon your previous workout.
How does one improve on the final work set from workout to workout?
Personally, I find the best measure of progressive improvement to be repetition improvement followed by weight increments. Let's say on week one, I perform 6 unassisted repetitions in the bench press with 150 pounds on my final work set. My goal for the following week for the bench press is to perform additional repetitions using the same weight and rest periods. I will follow this type of scheme until I am able to perform 12 unassisted repetitions in the bench press with 150 for my final work set. Once I can perform 12 unassisted repetitions with 150 pounds in the bench press, I will increase the weight by 20% for the following week and repeat the cycle.
Here's an example to illustrate this type of schedule. Let's use the bench press as an example (Please keep in mind the weight is hypothetical). My one repetition maximum is 185 pounds.
Week 1
Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions using 30% of one repetition maximum: Rest 60 seconds. Weight used: 55 pounds
Set one: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 50% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 90 pounds
Set two: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 60% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 110 pounds
Set three: 1 set of 6 repetitions using 70% of one repetition maximum: Rest: 2 minutes: Weight used: 130 pounds
Set four – Work set: 1 set of 6 repetitions using 80+% of one repetition maximum: 150 pounds
The first week identifies my starting point in terms of my weight and repetitions scheme. Keep in mind that my goal for the following week is to perform additional repetitions on my final set using the same weight and rest periods.
Week 2
Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions using 30% of one repetition maximum: Rest 60 seconds. Weight used: 55 pounds
Set one: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 50% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 90 pounds
Set two: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 60% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 110 pounds
Set three: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 70% of one repetition maximum: Rest: 2 minutes: Weight used: 130 pounds
Set four – Work set: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 80+% of one repetition maximum: 150 pounds
Notice that on week two, I was able to perform an additional 2 repetitions on my final set using the same weight and rest periods as the previous week. This is a strength improvement of 2 additional unassisted repetitions.
Also notice that my sets (including warm up) remains exactly the same as my last workout with the exception of the last set. I do this to save as much energy as possible for my final set while “priming” my muscle groups.
Week 3
Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions using 30% of one repetition maximum: Rest 60 seconds. Weight used: 55 pounds
Set one: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 50% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 90 pounds
Set two: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 60% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 110 pounds
Set three: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 70% of one repetition maximum: Rest: 2 minutes: Weight used: 130 pounds
Set four – Work set: 1 set of 10 repetitions using 80+% of one repetition maximum: 150 pounds
Notice that I am able to perform 2 additional repetitions on my final work set than the previous workout for a net gain of two repetitions.
Week 4
Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions using 30% of one repetition maximum: Rest 60 seconds. Weight used: 55 pounds
Set one: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 50% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 90 pounds
Set two: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 60% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 110 pounds
Set three: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 70% of one repetition maximum: Rest: 2 minutes: Weight used: 130 pounds
Set four – Work set: 1 set of 12 repetitions using 80+% of one repetition maximum: 150 pounds
Now that I am able to complete 12 unassisted repetitions on my final work I am now at a point where I can add additional weight to my final work set for my next week's workout. Remember, this is for my final work set only. I keep all other variables the same.
Week 5
Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions using 30% of one repetition maximum: Rest 60 seconds. Weight used: 55 pounds
Set one: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 50% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 90 pounds
Set two: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 60% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 110 pounds
Set three: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 70% of one repetition maximum: Rest: 2 minutes: Weight used: 130 pounds
Set four – Work set: 1 set of 6 repetitions using 20% more weight than the previous workout: 180 pounds
Notice that I've reset my repetition counter back to 6 for my final work set. I want to restart my cycle using heavier weight. Essentially, I've added a net gain of 30 pounds to my bench press which will translate into even further strength gains while stimulating muscle gains.
Week 6
Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions using 30% of one repetition maximum: Rest 60 seconds. Weight used: 55 pounds
Set one: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 50% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 90 pounds
Set two: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 60% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 110 pounds
Set three: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 70% of one repetition maximum: Rest: 2 minutes: Weight used: 130 pounds
Set four – Work set: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 180 pounds
Notice that I've performed an additional 2 repetitions than the previous workout using the heavier weight.
Week 7
Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions using 30% of one repetition maximum: Rest 60 seconds. Weight used: 55 pounds
Set one: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 50% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 90 pounds
Set two: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 60% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 110 pounds
Set three: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 70% of one repetition maximum: Rest: 2 minutes: Weight used: 130 pounds
Set four – Work set: 1 set of 10 repetitions using 180 pounds
Week 8
Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions using 30% of one repetition maximum: Rest 60 seconds. Weight used: 55 pounds
Set one: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 50% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 90 pounds
Set two: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 60% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 110 pounds
Set three: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 70% of one repetition maximum: Rest: 2 minutes: Weight used: 130 pounds
Set four – Work set: 1 set of 12 repetitions using 180 pounds
Now that I am able to perform 12 unassisted repetitions I can now add an additional 20% more weight to the bench press for my next workout and resetting the repetition counter back to 6.
Week 9
Warm up: 1 set of 20 repetitions using 30% of one repetition maximum: Rest 60 seconds. Weight used: 55 pounds
Set one: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 50% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 90 pounds
Set two: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 60% of one repetition maximum: Rest 80 seconds: Weight used: 110 pounds
Set three: 1 set of 8 repetitions using 70% of one repetition maximum: Rest: 2 minutes: Weight used: 130 pounds
Set four – Work set: 1 set of 6 repetitions using 215 pounds
Notice that I've increased the weight on my final work set by 20% (to 215 pounds) from the previous weeks final work set (180 pounds). Also notice that I haven't changed the repetitions, sets, rest periods or weight for my warm up or the first three sets. Again, these sets are meant to “prime” my muscles for the final set which is the only set I want to concentrate all my effort on in order to stimulate improvement.
This is how you build muscle . Each week builds upon itself which slowly but surely provides additional levels of stress. The new stress levels forces my body to try and adapt. Remember; improve on the final set of your main exercise with additional repetitions. Once you are able to perform 12 unassisted repetitions, add an additional 20% more weight and reset the repetition counter back to 6 and repeat the cycle.
Of course, this is a hypothetical example and strength gains are not as linear or progressive as it's laid out here but as long as you strive to improve on your final work set and use the type of progression as above, you will get stronger and build muscle.
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As the owner of Building Muscle 101, I am committed to providing you the best practical weight training advice. I've been training for over 24 years (and still train to this day!) and the advice and guidance I provide comes directly from my experience and knowledge. 

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