The ABC of Growth - 7 Ways to Increase Muscle Size

Progressive Training Techniques

There are Dozens of Different Effective Training Techniques Available to You

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1. Progressive resistance

This is (or should be) the cornerstone of body-building. Progressive resistance means over-loading the muscles by using heavier and heavier weights in an exercise. It is not to be confused with the pyramid system, where you add weight to the bar during a single workout, working up from light weights to heavy weights. Progressive resistance means you should add weight to the bar (on your heavy sets - always do some light warmups before doing the heavy work) over a period of several workouts. For instance, if you can do 10 reps with 200 pounds in the bench press today, and over three months you gradually increase the weight until you can do 10 reps with 220 pounds, you will have made progress by increasing the resistance (weight) you can handle for the same reps. If you increase the weight to 220 pounds, but can do only 4 reps at the end of the cycle, you have increased the resistance, but you probably could have done 4 reps with that weight three months ago, so what progress has been made?

Pure progressive resistance means you should aim to do the same number of reps in the same style at the same speed and with the same amount of physical and mental concentration, but with more weight than in the past. For most advanced trainees this means getting your hands on some very small barbell plates, perhaps custom-made, and adding a very small amount of iron to the bar (on your heavy sets) every time you work out. If you add two pounds a week to your bench press, squat and deadlift, and do them all for 8 reps, you will be moving 30 pounds more for the same reps at the end of 15 weeks. The result will be stronger muscles - and remember, muscles have to become stronger to become bigger.

2. Increased reps

Another way of improving performance is by increasing the number of reps you do. Once again you can best ensure true progress if you keep the weight, style, speed and concentration the same. The principle of increased reps works well with calf raises. If you can do 20 donkey calf raises with your partner on your back, you should aim to do 21 or more at the next workout. If you do donkey raises twice a week and add a rep at every workout, you will add 30 reps in 15 weeks, enabling you to do 50 raises - quite an accomplishment if your partner is heavy! You can use the same strategy for chins and dips.

Progressive resistance can be combined with progressive reps. For instance, after you can do 15 chins with your bodyweight alone, you can attach a 20-pound plate to your weight belt and start increasing your reps from 8 (or whatever number you are able to do with the added weight) upward to 15 again. This method is called double progressive training.

3. Progressive style

Some people advocate perfect exercise performance at all times, but I believe there is merit in slightly heaving the bar during the final few reps of sets of rows, pulldowns and curls. The idea is not to make the exercise easier, but to squeeze a tiny bit of extra work from the muscle after you have completed all the reps in good style. You have to use cheating very cautiously. Leaning back in presses and curls can cause back problems. Don't cheat on presses - do them seated with back support - and if you cheat on curls, lean forward and heave a little as you begin the repetition, but do not lean backward from vertical as you bring the weight up. I believe this method is only for advanced lifters, as cheating can be dangerous.

Style progression means using the cheating style occasionally, and turning cheat reps into strict reps. For example, if you do 8 strict curls and 3 cheat reps during one workout, you should try to do the 9th rep strictly at the next workout, the 10th rep strictly at the workout following that one, and the 11th rep strictly at the final workout. You'll be doing 11 strict reps where you previously did 3 of those reps in loose style. Clearly this means improved performance.

You can use style progression in another way. Maybe you have been using fairly poor style and lots of momentum up to now. Reducing your poundages and making your style a lot stricter can be very helpful. Instead of just heaving, swinging or jerking the weights up, move them slowly under full muscular control and with a mental effort to really "feel" the muscles contracting and lengthening against the resistance. If you wish, you can use speed control on your reps, counting the seconds the weight travels up and down. Normally you do speed-con- trolled reps by raising the weight in two seconds and lowering it in four seconds, but you can even do them by taking 10 seconds or more to raise the weight and about five seconds to lower it. This may not be your style - counting seconds may distract you from counting and feeling your reps - but give it a try if you feel you want to do something different. You can now combine style improvements or alterations with progressive reps and resistance to slowly advance to bigger poundages - and muscles.

4. Progressive isometric holds

The term isometric refers to static contraction where the weight is not moved. The idea of isometric holds works very well for grip training - whether hanging from a chinning bar, holding on to a one-handed deadlift, or pinch-gripping smooth plates or a specialized pinch-gripping contraption. You create progression by holding on to the weight for longer and longer periods. You can hang from a chinning bar at the end of your workout and aim to increase the length of time by five seconds during every following workout. You can also increase the effort by wrapping thicker and thicker layers of tape around the bar, making it more difficult to hold on to.

Another use of isometric contractions is on peak-contraction exercises where you contract the muscle maximally at the end of the movement, as in machine curls, leg curls, bent-over rows or lat pulldowns to the chest. You can increase the intensity by pausing in the fully contracted position, exerting maximum effort against the unmoving bar. Bear in mind that this is an advanced method. You create progression by extending the duration of the isometric contraction. Start with a one-second pause at chest level on your pulldowns and gradually lengthen the pause in the contracted position to six seconds on every rep while keeping the reps and weight constant. The peak-contraction effect becomes much more severe.

5. Progressive range of motion

This is a method not often talked about. You need a power rack or a machine where you can set the height of the handles by placing the pins at different levels. For exercises like presses, squats and rows, you can handle more weight if you push or pull it for only a small portion of its full range of motion. In presses and squats the position where you can handle the most weight is the last few inches at the top of the movement. For rows it is the bottom part of the movement. With progressive range of motion the aim is to gradually transform a partial movement into a full-range movement. A person who can bench press 315 pounds for 10 full-range reps will be able to bench press 350 pounds with relative ease for 10 partial reps by doing only the top three inches of the movement. You can now set the bar (or handles) progressively lower and lower, or raise the bench toward the bar, in order to increase the distance you press the bar from workout to workout, until, after several workouts, the movement will extend over the full range with the higher poundage. Some ingenuity can help you determine and effect the necessary distance adjustments. For instance, you can stand on a pair of barbell plates when doing partial squats to increase the range of motion by smaller amounts than the pins allow.

6. Progressive angle

Many gyms feature benches with adjustable back supports, which you can set at different angles from flat to upright. A person can press more weight in a supine position (bench press) than in an upright position (military press). However, by starting with the back support flat and adjusting it to be more and more upright from workout to workout, you can gradually transform your bench press into an 80-degree military press while using the same weight. Your reward will be stronger shoulders. For best results, don't try to do this with your regular bench press poundage (especially if you can bench press 600 pounds!), but use a poundage about 5 to 10 percent over your regular military press (or press behind neck). It is a limited but maybe useful approach.

7. Progressive workout tempo

Whereas all the previous methods of progression are geared toward improving the performance of the muscles, this method is mainly aimed at improving cardio-respiratory efficiency - in other words, the fitness of your heart and lungs. You decrease the length of the rest periods between sets and move progressively faster between exercises. If fitness and fat-burning are what you're after, try to complete every workout in less time than the previous one, with the same weight, until you reach a limit. Then you can increase the weight on your exercises for the same reps, decrease the workout tempo and start steadily increasing it again. You will experience size and strength gains in addition to better fitness.


Progress is what bodybuilding is all about, but progress is rarely linear or continuous. To achieve your fullest potential you have to move forward as far as possible, but some-times you come to an obstruction - a plateau. You may have to go backward a bit and then build up some momentum to carry you over the plateau, or you may have to move side-ways by changing your routine to get around the plateau. For this reason training in cycles is best, improving for as long as possible, then resting, decreasing performance and slowly building it up again to overcome sticking points, and changing your workouts when necessary to ensure further progress.

Get to know your body - its strengths, its weaknesses and its limits. You now have a supply of methods of progression. Use them either on their own or in combination with one another to achieve improvement in your workouts. Remember, however, that you can properly apply these methods only if you use them with a sensible routine. I'll say it again get to know your body. Don't try to progress too fast or accomplish too much at the same time. That's a sure road to frustration, stag-nation, burnout and injury.

Get everything in good order - your routine, your diet, your sleeping, resting and relaxation habits. All are important. A magnificent diet isn't going to put an ounce of muscle on your body if you don't train properly, and even 10 hours of sleep each night is not going to help if you are constantly in a severely overtrained state. Set sensible goals, and remember that the more advanced you are, the more difficulty you'll have exceeding your personal bests, but you can always do it. Keep a training journal or diary to refer to for progress evaluation.

Put safety first and ego last when lifting heavy weights. Once you have everything in good order, start applying these methods of progress. Always understand that you have to go forward, backward and sideways, and even stop to recover energy for certain periods, but always reach toward new heights in the long run. Then achieving your perfect physique is only a matter of time. Start now!

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