Get Swole Without Getting Stronger

Do you require a half gallon of Lakota cream on your aching knees before a set of squats?

Do you need to jump in an ice bath after every set of presses?

There just comes a time in a lifter’s life where you may have to make provisions to your training for safety and longevity.

But this doesn’t mean you have to retire your weight belt and take up an aquafit class.

Train smarter, not harder.

When most think of progress, they think of continuously adding weight to the bar week after week.

But there are many ways to go about it.

The progressive overload principle basically states: In order for a muscle to grow, strength to be gained, performance to increase, or for any similar improvement to occur, the human body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced.

Here are 11 ways to increase progressive overload without loading up the barbell and trying to get stronger every workout.

1. Increase Rep Ranges

Move your rep ranges northward.

Instead of trying to routinely go for 1RM or sets of 6 reps or less, aim for sets in the 15-plus rep range.

Of course, this assumes you’ve been throwing iron around for decades and have a solid base of strength.

I’m not suggesting you go down to 135×20 when your max is over 400 pounds. It’s simply changing course from sets of 405 x 6 to 315 x 12, working at 60-70% of your 1RM rather than pushing maximal loads.

2. Slowing The Negative

Increased the amount of eccentric work your muscles are required to perform in a given lift.

Emphasizing the eccentric or negative phase of your lifts can ramp up protein synthesis and trigger muscle growth, without having to go really heavy.

As reported at T-Nation, scientists in Sao Paulo, Brazil, say “slow speed” reps can help you build muscle up to 3 times faster than “fast speed” lifting.

After 12 weeks, the men in the slow speed group built three times as much muscle as the fast speed lifters. Interestingly, they also showed nearly five times the progression of strength than that shown by the fast speed lifters.

Here’s an example using the preacher curl bench for biceps.

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3. Drop Sets

Use the weight of your heaviest set for 6, drop the weight by 20-30%, do another set right away for 8 reps, drop the weight by another 20-30% and finish with as many reps as possible.

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4. Mechanical Advantage Drop Sets

You’re modifying the movement with each subsequent set as the muscle starts to fatigue, without reducing the weight used.

Take dumbbell chest presses. Set the adjustable incline bench to 45 degrees. Pick a weight you can complete for 8-10 repetitions. Complete one set. Upon failure, immediately lower the incline bench to 25 degrees and press the dumbbells to failure at this position. When you fail there, lower the bench to a flat position and rep out as many as you can.

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5. Rest Pause Sets

Do a set of 8-10 reps. Take 5-6 deep breaths. Rep out the same weight for as many as you can (it’ll be less than the first set). Take 5-6 deep breaths. Rep out the same weight for a few more. /End set.

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6. Partial Reps

Why partial reps? You can go beyond failure and increase time under tension (i.e. get yoked!) without going for max lifts.

Basically, when you get to a point where you can no longer perform a rep fully, just involve the bottom few inches of a rep (1/4 reps) to extend the set and push past failure.

*Use a safe machine (in this case Smith) or competent spotter**

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7. Myo Reps

Perform an activation set of 15 reps. Rest for 5 seconds. Each set afterward is referred to as a myo-rep set, where your goal is to hit 5 reps for as many sets as you can. When you can no longer hit that target rep range, the exercise is complete.

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8. Density Training

In the simplest terms, density training involves increasing the amount of work you do in a given amount of time, increasing total volume. As you know, volume is king when it comes to building muscle.

You can read all about this training technique here

9. Weighted Stretches

You’ll perform a weighted stretch or an intense static stretch following a movement).

Animal studies have shown that weighted stretches can lead to size increases of 300%. A study reported on T-Nation that I wrote about has shown humans get a similar effect.

To emulate the study’s protocol, use a weight you can lift for 12 or more reps and then let the weight stretch the targeted muscle for at least 30 seconds.

Follow the stretch with 2-3 drop sets, repeating the weighted stretch at the end of the set each time.

Take incline dumbbell curls. Between sets, let the weight pull you into controlled hyperextension at the shoulder for at least 30 seconds. Be sure to flex your triceps at full extension to maximize stretch and tension. Drop the weight and repeat the process 2 or 3 more times.

10. Accommodating Resistance with bands

Bands allow for accommodating resistance through the entire range of motion, matching your strength curve. In other words, the bands are most resistant when you’re at your strongest (i.e. band is fully lengthened at the peak of a dumbbell press when you’re near full extension), challenging you equally throughout the entire distance that your targeted muscle group travels.

This adds a whole other level of difficulty to any exercise, without having to go too heavy and sacrifice form.

There’s also the benefit of eccentric overload, which is a fancy word for putting added tension on a movement during the eccentric/negative portion.
Here’s one example in the video. Double up on heavy bands on the incline hammer strength press. This is a good warm-up exercise to pump blood into the chest and shoulders before getting into your heavier work for the day.

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11. Alternating Static Holds

Best done with dumbbells or cables, holding a weight in the contracted or starting position (while performing reps with the opposite arm)

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Some Rules Of Thumb For Longevity (i.e. Avoid injury as you get old as F)

1. Always hydrate before lifitng.

2. Warm up appropriately. Don’t walk into the gym cold and go for your heaviest set of squats. Dynamic warmups and pyramiding up and weight is key as you age.

3. Use supportive gear. Don’t be “too tough” to use a belt or wrist wraps. This can make a measurable difference on joint health.


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Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based fitness coach for men and women like his former self. Heavyset in his 20s, he lost 60 pounds and now helps clients find their spark and lose the weight for life.