The old school thinking where building muscle is concerned is that it’s pretty black and white to see progress.
Add weight to the bar, put the pin further down on the stack, and gun for the same amount of reps, and you’re golden.
Though they’re not entirely wrong, it’s worthwhile to examine other perspectives and think logically, outside the box.
Let’s weigh out the pros and cons (if any) to all the methods that apply.
Method 1: Add More Weight
Like I mentioned above, this is the most straightforward way to approach this – and don’t get me wrong, it will elicit gains. The thing is, there are also more variables that come into play when applying this thinking.
For example, if you have a 400 pound deadlift and your goal has only been to make it stronger and stronger in terms of absolute strength, on paper this sounds wonderful. From a general perspective of health, however, your “strength” is becoming more and more specific to that particular task (that of picking the barbell up off the floor once).
And anyone’s true rep max usually looks pretty ugly, so chances are you’ll be breaking the boundaries of good form quite a few times along your road to gains. The best part about all of this relates to hypertrophy. If your goal is really just to get bigger, chances are you don’t need to make significant load increases your number 1 focus, beyond a certain point.
Method 2: Add More Reps using the Same Weight
There are a couple of benefits to using this method. First, we should throw out the idea that we should be confined to “8-10 reps for size gains”. That’s not a bad directive, but it’s extremely exclusionary and meant as a general rule of thumb for complete beginners.
Any study of basic training exposes that different rep ranges work for different people, and many respond very well by pushing higher rep ranges for their sets. The goal for hypertrophy is basically that of exhausting muscle fibers as best we can, and lengthening set time via higher reps can definitely help that cause.
Moreover, if we want to get a bit more scientific, we can look at the muscle fiber distribution throughout our bodies. It’s fair to say that not all of our muscles are going to be geared towards explosive, fast twitch dominant movement and contraction.
Training them in low rep ranges will only be half the answer in seeing them respond via growth. Instead, training them via endurance style training can be the kick in the pants they need to respond via growth.
If you can’t handle doing sets of 20 reps, or truly believe the weight will be too “light” for your liking if you do, then try doing ladder sets with your 12 rep max instead. This will be a way to get 20 reps with a heavier load, using brief “breaks” to get there. Check out the video for an example using the squat.
Method 3: Decrease your Rest Interval
Actually, let’s take a step backward and say time your rest interval. You wouldn’t believe how many people in the gym don’t stay strict with a prescribed amount of rest time between sets of any exercise.
Especially when we’re tired, we tend to gravitate to recovering fully before starting our next set. Really, we should be more concerned with the training effect and attempting to keep our muscles tired rather than get them to feel better again.
If you look around your club, you’ll probably notice how many people don’t set a timer between sets at all. If you’re someone who actually does, before adding weight, see what you can do when you reduce the rest interval by 10 or 15 seconds per set.
The reason programs like German Volume Training and Gironda’s 8x8 method work so well for hypertrophy gains is because the exercise is done for high volume while almost always in a fatigued state. Even though the load being lifted is not relatively heavy (often starting around 60% of 1RM), by the midway point, light weight feels very heavy.
However, if you want to lift more towards the 80-85% range, ditch the 5x5s with 2 minute rest between sets, and instead, do 15 x 2 with 45 seconds rest between sets, using the same weight you would in the 5x5.
The reason this would be a great progression is because you’re doing a grand total of more loaded reps (30 vs 25), and you’re giving yourself lower rest time while ensuring good quality reps from a form perspective. Combining strength and conditioning in this way will leave you a cut above the rest.
Method 4: Change your Tempos
If you’re familiar with my work, you know I’m one to take any opportunity I can to sing the praises of paused reps and tempo reps. In both cases, these rep methods increase time spent under tension and are a true testimony to how much weight you can own.
Being able to do a shaky single or double with 300 pounds is less impressive than being able to do 3 or 5 reps with a 4 second eccentric and pause at the bottom, even if the weight is 15 or 20 percent lighter. It shows better maturity and control with the weight, and your muscles will be better trained from it.
Most people in the gym use a standard 1/0/1/0 training method, partially because they don’t know better, and partially because their egos get in the way. “Getting the reps in” starts mattering more than quality of the reps performed, and “lifting more weight” also precedes having a purpose behind training.
Take a look at the oldest, best developed, and most experienced lifter at your gym the next time you get a chance (I’m assuming it’ll be some guy who’s in hi 50’s or 60’s and looks terrific). Chances are he didn’t overload and cheat-rep his way to his gains more than a small percentage of the time.
And chances are you’ll notice that he doesn’t lift obscenely heavy weights anymore, or at all. He likely focuses on the stimulus each rep can provide his muscles. If you want to last the test of time and have a body that shows it, you may want to take a page out of their book.
You can keep adding weight to the bar and try to be a hero. Especially if you’re weak, that may be exactly what you need.
For the rest of us, however, it’s a better idea to think outside the box and eliminate the boundaries people associate with “progress”.
Manipulating many other variables can help you kick past plateaus in a safe way that creates a new world of stimulus for your muscles.
Training smart will pay off.