Practical Progression Approaches for Muscle Building

Steve Shaw
Written By: Steve Shaw
November 18th, 2010
Updated: June 13th, 2020
59.5K Reads
Take your muscle building to a new level by learning when and how to add weight for the many different rep and set schemes featured in popular workouts.

A consistent effort yields results.Progression is the systematic and structured increase in the amount of weight used in a bodybuilding or strength building workout. Progression of weight drives both muscle growth, and obviously, strength gains. But progression can be a mystery.

Take a look at popular weight training workouts and you quickly discover one confusing reality...there appears to be an endless variations of how sets and reps can be structured. When you lay these confusing set and rep schemes side by side with the need for progression of weight, the obvious question becomes:

How do I progress using that set and rep scheme?

I am going to try and answer this question for you. Taking popular workout set and rep schemes from the Muscle & Strength Workout database, I will provide you with variations and solutions on how to progress in weight.

Keep in mind that there is no “best” way to progress. Use an approach that you enjoy, and that most motivates you to hit the gym. As long as you are progressing some way, some how, you will be reaching your goals.

Workout Effort

Before I begin I would like to stress an important point. You must try to progress on every set of every workout. This dedication to the training process will maximize results. Any effort less than this will reduce your results. Once you begin to stagnate, and stop pushing your body, you are in essence telling your body it’s ok to stop building new muscle now.

It is not uncommon to hear the following on a bodybuilding forum: “I don’t want to look like Arnold, I just want to add some muscle.” There is a good chance when a statement like this is made, the true meaning is: “I don’t want to push myself in the gym with heavy weights or hard work, or make too many dietary changes, I just want results.”

Unfortunately for those who want an easy way, there is no easy way. Even modest goals – say adding a "little bit" of muscle, maybe "only" 10 pounds – still requires progression of weight (hard work) and a solid bodybuilding-style eating approach.

If you wants results – any results, no matter how small – progression is the key to achieving your goals.

Progression – Blocked Sets

Blocked sets appear as one of the following in a workout:

  • 3 sets x 8 reps
  • 4 sets x 10 reps

Blocked sets do not specify a rep range, but rather a rep total or goal. This rep goal is the same for all sets of a given exercise. For example purposes, we will look at several ways of progressing with block sets using 3 sets of 10 reps.

  • Progression Goal - First Set. Use the same weight for all 3 sets. When you are able to perform 10 reps on the first set, add weight. On the second and third set, the number of reps that you can perform will drop due to fatigue.
  • Progression Goal – All Sets. Use the same weight for all 3 sets. When you are able to perform 10 reps on all 3 sets, add weight. You may or may not choose to perform more then 10 reps per set when possible.

Progression of weight drives both muscle growth and strength gains.

Progression – Defined Rep Range

Many workout routines define a specific rep range that you should work within. These rep ranges generally look like the following:

  • 3 sets x 6-10 reps
  • 4 sets x 10-15 reps

Progression using a defined rep range works the same way as progression with blocked reps. Using the example of 3 sets by 6-10 reps, you may either add weight after you are able to perform 10 reps on the first set, or add weight after you are able to perform 10 reps for all 3 sets.

It is natural for a trainee to believe that they must use different reps and weights for sets within a defined rep range. This is not the case. You certainly can change weight from set to set if you would like, but doing so requires a constant shifting and monitoring of every set of every workout, which can quickly becoming burdensome.

In addition, you are in the gym to lift weights, and sticking with the same weight reduces down time and keeps you focused on the task at hand. For defined rep ranges, I strongly recommend using the same weight for all sets when possible and basing your progression strategy around this.

Progression – Decreasing Pyramid Sets

Pyramid sets are a very popular approach. Generally, when you find them in a workout they are decreasing pyramid sets, meaning that the rep goal gets smaller with each additional set. Here is a popular example of decreasing pyramid sets:

  • 4 sets – 12, 10, 8, 6 reps

There are 2 primary methods of progressing using decreasing pyramid sets:

Same Weight Progression. Using our above example (4 sets – 12, 10, 8, 6 reps), a trainee would use the same weight for all 4 sets. When you can perform 12 reps for the first set, you would add weight. As you fatigue, you will not be able to perform as many reps per set. Because of this, a decreasing pyramid rep scheme is a very natural approach to training. Don’t get hung up on hitting each rep range exactly. It is more important to give a quality effort on every set, than to worry about performing 12, 10, 8 and 6 reps on the nose.

Decreasing Weight Progression. Many trainees prefer to increase weight as they move along in sets. For example, on bench press a typical set and weight scheme might look something like this:

  • 195 x 12 reps
  • 215 x 10 reps
  • 235 x 8 reps
  • 255 x 6 reps

This is a perfectly acceptable way to approach decreasing pyramid sets, but it can create some chaos when you try to decide just how to progress. My recommendation is to base your progression on the heaviest set, meaning that when you can perform 6 reps on this set, add weight for all sets.

You can, of course, add weight for each individual set when you hit the stated rep goal. The problem with this approach is that over time, you will most likely start to use the same weight for all 4 sets – or close to it.

As stated, when a muscle fatigues, you are less likely to peform as many reps on subsequent set(s). So if you are able to perform 225 for 12 reps on the first set, and are pushing with an all out effort, you will most likely only be able to perform 225 for 8-10 reps on the second set, and possibly 225 x 5-8 reps on the third set.

Final Thoughts

All to often trainees see a workout plan and obsess over reps. They wrongly believe that the magic of a workout lies in hitting the specific rep total as outlined by the author. This is not the case.

The magic of a workout does not come from specific rep totals. For most workouts, reps are merely a guideline or goal. Do not obsess about performing the exact number of reps as listed in a workout, and do not obsess about how much weight to drop from set to set so that you can perform the exact number of reps listed. Pick a solid method of progression, and focus on it instead.

Weight training is not magic. Be persistent and don’t miss workouts. Use a proper bodybuilding style eating plan. And focus on progression in the gym.

Matt G
Posted on: Sun, 11/13/2022 - 07:14

Steve et (anyone with experience)

How can progression be applied when limits have been reached due to injury. I have a shoulder injury that prevents me from using the Bar or machines on chest day due to the fixed placement of the hands. I use dumbells and cables for nearly all chest exercises. My flat bench consists of 4-5 sets. I start with 115lbs dumbbells for 12-14 reps and work to muscle failure on all remains sets, 6-10 reps each set. My current gym does not have any heavier weights.

How do I apply this to my program or what can be done to continue my gains. I have been lifting for just over 2 years. I am a 35 year old male, looking to gain muscle.

Note the lifting with DBs does not cause any pain to the shoulder.

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Sat, 11/19/2022 - 09:16

You can slow the reps down and do static holds at the top when you reach the end of the set. For the cable exercises, do static stretches at the end.

You can also superset the movements if the gym is set up right so you can do that. You can even alternate doing one side at a time on the dumbbells. Start with the left arm and perform reps while the right arm is pressed up. Switch after you finish your reps on the left side.

Hope all this helps!

Posted on: Sat, 10/31/2020 - 07:22

Great article. I would add that I don't use the same weight on every set. I would use the same weight for the first 2 sets then drop it down by 10% and do another 2 sets. I do this to keep within a certain rep range, also because it gives you a bit of a psychological break from doing multiply sets with a top weight and to get more volume in.

So for example if I were doing barbell curls it would look like this

Set 1 8 to 10 reps
Set 2 6 to 8 reps
Drop weight by 10%
Set 3 8 to 10 reps
Set 4 6 to 8 reps

All sets stopping 1 to 3 reps shy of failure. Rest periods are a minute to a minute and a half.

Posted on: Mon, 05/27/2019 - 07:13

I like pyramiding but keep the weight the same on each set. I do 5 sets of 15 12 10 8 6, once I can do 15 reps or more with a weight with good form, I increase the weight in the next workout. Very simple to keep track and progress on. I don’t go to failure, I stop 1-3 reps shy of failure. Failure training burns me out.

Example chest
Bench press 5x 15 12 10 8 6
Incline press 5x 15 12 10 8 6
Flys 5x 15 12 10 8 6
Pullovers 5x15 12 10 8 6

Posted on: Thu, 08/29/2013 - 16:06

Hi Steve. I just started your workout man

Posted on: Mon, 02/06/2012 - 16:09

Hi Steve

I find it really difficult to progress in weights in my workouts. I think i recover really slowly. I have looked at my diet and cant see that being the problem as im only 5 ft 4 and can eat 3,000 - 3,500 quality calories a day. I have tried decreasing the volume of my workouts, Training 3 times a week, i get enough sleep, stopped training to failure and started taking deload weeks. Can you give me any advice as this has been happening for an awful long time now. Someone said when i start a new programme i start to heavy and close to my maxes so stall to quickly. An example would be below

Bench Press

Week 1 3 x 8 at 150lb (as i hit 8 reps for all 3 sets i will increase weight next week)
Week 2 3 x 8,7,5 152lb (as you can see reps decrease due to fatigue)
Week 3 3 x 8,7,5 152lb (as you can see the same as last week and this will continue for another 3 sessions until i eventually take a deload week and start again)

Can you help or give me tips to start progressing in weight again as my gains have completely stopped and its becoming very frustrating now. I also change my programmes around every couple of months but no luck.

Thanks in advance

Posted on: Mon, 11/28/2011 - 14:37

hi steve one more question say i hit 12 reps on my 1st set hould i increase weigght next set or next workout...?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Thu, 12/15/2011 - 14:16

Either way is ok.

I generally stay convenient and use the same weight for each set.

Posted on: Mon, 11/28/2011 - 14:30

hi steve, which scheme do u prefer to use for "optimal" size and strength games becsuse if you use 3x10 for ex and wsait till u get 3 sets of 10 arent u robbing the 1st 2 sets potential

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Thu, 12/15/2011 - 14:15

There is no optimal range during the first couple years. As long as you are working between 5-12 reps on most sets of compound lifts and pushing for more weight on the bar, you will get both big and strong.

Posted on: Wed, 07/27/2011 - 21:15

should i stick in the 4 to six rep range when doing power exercises such as the bench and squat. And should i add weight to each set or keep it the same.

Posted on: Mon, 06/27/2011 - 00:50

whats best in your opinion to use when wanting to build alot of muscle

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 15:05

There is no best form of progression. Use one that most appeals to you.

Posted on: Sat, 06/18/2011 - 07:40

I have been doing gym last 3.5 month and i am not seeing any effects on my biceps. When i ask to my gym trainer about this he told me that you have long biceps muscles so it will take time to built biceps. My height is 6'0 and weight 79. Does long muscles effect on biceps? I do work rout on Monday, Tuesday,Thursday and Friday and following is my workout routine. do i need to change my workout plane. I take scivation whey protein two scoop a day one is after work out and another is during evening.

Week-1: One, Two, Three, One.
Week-2: Two, Three, One, Two.
Week-3: Three, One, Two, Three.

For All Muscle Groups Do 1 Set Of Warm-Up Of 20 Reps.
On All Workout Days Intensity Should Be Progressive Overload.

Workout One:

1: Lying Leg Raise On Incline Bench Or Hanging Leg Raise (5 Sets Of 15 To 8 Reps)
2: Weighted Decline Crunch (5 Sets Of 15 To 8 Reps)

1: Barbell Squats (5 Sets Of 8 To 6 Reps)
2: Leg Extension (4 Sets Of 12 To 8 Reps)
3: Leg Press (4 Sets Of 12 To 8 Reps)

1: Leg Curls (6 Sets Of 15 To 8 Reps)

1: Standing Calf Raise (5 Sets Of 15 To 8 Reps)
2: Seated Calf Raise (5 Sets Of 12 To 8 Reps)

1: Barbell Wrist Curls (5 Sets Of 15 To 8 Reps)
2: Barbell Reverse Wrist Curls (5 Sets Of 15 To 8 Reps)

Workout Two:
1: Flat Bench Dumbbell Press (5 Sets Of 8 To 6 Reps)
2: Incline Bench Barbell Press (4 Sets Of 12 To 8 Reps)
3: Flat Bench Dumbbell Fly (4 Sets Of 12 To 8 Reps)

1: Standing Barbell Shoulder Press (5 Sets Of 8 To 6 Reps)
2: Seated Machine Lateral Raises (4 Sets Of 12 To 8 Reps)
3: Rear Lateral Raise On Incline Bench (4 Sets Of 12 To 8 Reps)

1: Dumbbell Shrugs (5 Sets Of 12 To 6 Reps)

Workout Three:
1: Barbell Bent-Over Rows (5 Sets Of 8 To 6 Reps)
2: Shoulder Wide Grip Pull-Ups (4 Sets Of 12 To 8 Reps)
3: Close Grip Pull-Down (4 Sets Of 12 To 8 Reps)

1: Close Grip Decline Bench Press (5 Sets Of 8 To 6 Reps)
2: Barbell Extension (Lying) (4 Sets Of 12 To 8 Reps)

1: Barbell Curls (5 Sets Of 8 To 6 Reps)
2: Incline Dumbbell Curls (4 Sets Of 12 To 8 Reps)

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 07/12/2011 - 15:01

Hi Sagar,

Bicep length won't impact how fast your biceps grow. Focus on progression of reps and weight using good form, and make sure you eat enough so that you can build muscle tissue.

Posted on: Tue, 12/07/2010 - 14:51

Hello I have the upper chest muscle does not improve quickly with what is the solution I've been practicing a lot

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 12/07/2010 - 15:01

Hi Yahea,

The upper can be a very difficult muscle to develop. Make sure you focus on heavy military and incline presses. Generally improvement will not be quick. It can take years to improve a weak area.

Posted on: Sun, 11/28/2010 - 22:31

thats some great inside thanks steve.

im currently trying to shread down/tone up..
a pretty popular scene for me is 3sets of 15,12,10.. with 30 sec rest.
since this is a pretty intense workout, should i be looking to try and progess here or use the progression method focussed on the last set (10reps)..

thanks, i appreciate your help in any way.

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Thu, 12/02/2010 - 15:03

Hi Hux,

I would focus on the last set. Once you are able to perform 10 reps, I would add a slight amount of weight the next time you perform that exercise.

Travis J Wilson
Posted on: Thu, 04/12/2012 - 20:12

But lets say you add weight and only can do 8 reps, do you then do the next set with same weight and reps?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Fri, 04/13/2012 - 09:10

Yes. Don't worry about about how many reps you hit. It will all average out in the end.

Worry about pushing for more reps and progressing. This is key.

Posted on: Thu, 11/25/2010 - 10:16

Hi Steve, I'm a 17 year old boy and I've been lifting for about 6 months now. I'm 6'1 and I weigh 185 pounds, right now I'm currently taking a casein and whey protein, a daily vitamin, and fish oil. I was wondering if you could recommend more supplements for me to take. I go to the gym 5 or 6 days a week and I eat very healthy for the most part. I'm asking you because your the most knowledgeable author on the web site in my opinion. I appreciate your help.

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Fri, 11/26/2010 - 14:39
Posted on: Mon, 11/22/2010 - 22:14

Ok thanks Steve! I'll make sure I keep form my #1 priority.

Posted on: Sat, 11/20/2010 - 10:21

Great article Steve!
But would you say that over a coarse of 10 weeks that your form might suffer since your constantly pushing for progression? I always notice by week 10 my form is still good but not as a great as it was on week 1 of that routine.
So I usually lower the weight a little when I switch tithe next routine and do it all over again. Do you think this is ok or should I keep my form perfect and maybe slow the progression a little bit?
Thanks in advance!

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Mon, 11/22/2010 - 12:01

Hi Brandon,

Progression is always used ONLY with good form. Your form will never suffer if done right. An extra rep is not more important than hurting yourself. Only lift what you can safely lift.

Even adding 1-2 reps per month adds up over the course of years to massive poundages with amazing form.

Posted on: Sun, 11/28/2010 - 23:53

I am 45 years old. I used to lift weights like a nut when I was younger and I learned from a lot from great older guys in the gym. I stopped lifting for 25 years,(stupid I know),thankfully started again a year ago. I haven't forgotten any of the lessons the "Old Guys" shared with me. You hit the nail on the head about gains, progress, hard work and form. I have made huge gains in the past year and what you outlined in this article says most of it, and pretty much sums up what I learned a long time ago. The gym is a fun place but it's for hard work, not socializing or showing off. Who cares if you have 280 lbs of weight on the bar if your form is bad and you cheat yourself. Get into your head, think and strive for what you want. Everything comes at a cost and the price for strength and fitness is hard work.
Great Article Steve

Posted on: Fri, 10/12/2012 - 14:08

I know Steve already gave you an answer, but I have a little bit of insight as well. I've always been of the mindset that you should do as many reps as you can with proper form then it's okay to break form to get a couple extra reps and push yourself that much farther.
There are certainly exercises where you don't want to break form because you can cause injury but for the most part you're just helping yourself by pushing past the breaking point. Swinging or swaying during a curl or arching your back a little for your last rep on the bench isn't going to injure you. Just my input, but I certainly respect Steve expertise.