5 Ways to Program Progressive Overload for Clients without Adding Weight
The process of designing a client’s fitness program can feel a little like building with Legos.
The client's lifestyle and current fitness levels, as well as their occupation and preferences, will all be considered when you decide on the bricks to go into your project.
That’s why every client’s “finished building project” (i.e., customized training plan) is unique.
But no matter how different a client may be from the next, you’d notice that there’s one building block you must use—no exceptions.
What is that building block?
It’s progressive overload. In other words, the strength and conditioning principle that states we need to increase the demands on the neuromuscular systems over time to create and sustain physiological adaptations from resistance training.
And contrary to popular belief, progressive overload isn’t just about adding weights.
This article outlines five ways you can keep your clients progressing—without resorting to heavier dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells.
Have Your Client Perform More Reps
Let’s say your client is deadlifting 235 pounds. Adding 22 pounds to the barbell is just a 9% increase in weight—and, in most cases, your client would be able to handle the load.
It is not possible to implement the same level of increased weight for isolation exercises such as bicep curls or triceps pressdowns. This is a huge jump of 50% in weight for your client to go from 10 to 15 pounds dumbbells.
There’s no way your client would be able to perform the exercise with proper form and technique. It's unlikely.
How can you make your client go progressive overload?
You can ask them to do another set with the same load. Imagine your client performing dumbbell-lateral raises using 10 pounds of weight for 10 reps. You don't have to give your client a dumbbell that is heavier the next week. Instead, ask them to do 12 reps using the 10 pound dumbbells.
You'll know it's time to (finally) increase the load when your client can perform anywhere between 15 to 20 reps—with nothing less than perfect form—on all their working sets.
Program Shorter Rest Periods
Get your client to work harder during their sessions by cutting down on their inter-set rest periods.
This forces your client’s muscles to work “overtime,” significantly increasing metabolic stress—one of three key contributing factors to muscle hypertrophy (the other two being mechanical tension and muscle damage).
There’s an important disclaimer here, though.
Don’t be over-enthusiastic about reducing your client’s rest times. Doing so can hurt their overall training volume—since they’d be struggling with a high level of accumulated fatigue during their working sets—and make them fear turning up for their sessions!
This begs the question, "How much can I cut my client's rest time?"
That depends on the type of exercises they’re doing. Here’s a general guideline to help you decide:
- Single-joint exercises: 2 minutes
- Compound exercises: At least 3 minutes
In general, you can afford to be a little more “generous” with your client’s rest periods on compound movements. While excessive fatigue and the resulting form-breakdown are unlikely to cause serious injuries on the lateral raises, the same can’t be said for deadlifts or squats.
Change Up Your Client’s Exercise Tempo
Get your client to lift to a fixed tempo.
This is particularly useful for clients who love to “cheat” and bounce out of the bottom positions of their lifts (e.g., squats and bench press) because tempo training is all about moving slowly and under control—which increases time under tension (TUT).
The time that a muscle works under tension is called TUT.
In other words, increasing your client’s TUT raises the demands you’re placing on their muscles. And that’s essentially the crux of progressive overload. Once again, though, don’t take this method of progressive overload to the extreme.
There’s typically no need to have your client perform any phase of any movement for more than 10 seconds.
In addition to being an unpleasant experience overall, having your client lower themselves for 12 seconds on a pull-up only hurts their training volume and reduces the effectiveness of their workouts (if they’re even able to do it in the first place).
Improve Your Client’s Range of Motion
Pay attention to how your client is performing each exercise. Do they struggle to achieve their full range (ROM) of motion?
If so, improving your client’s range of motion (ROM) is a great way to gradually overload your client without adding weight.
As an example, suppose your client is unable to go as deep (i.e. more than a 90 degree bend in the knees) when using the leg press. Their hip flexors are too tight and their ankle mobility limited.
The client is only moving 40cm on their leg press machine.
Then, you can have your client work on their ankle mobility with something like the weighted ankle stretch or knee-to-wall drill.
How does it all work? Thanks to improved mobility, they’re able to—at the very least—hit a 90-degree bend in their knees at the bottom position.
So, instead of only moving the load 40 cm, they've now increased the “effective working distance” to 50 cm on the machine. Progressive overloading is basically getting clients' muscles to work harder and faster over time.
Sometimes all your client requires is an instruction to allow them to move in a wide range of motion.
For instance, with an exercise like bicep curls, you can say something like, "Make sure you lower the dumbbells back to the starting position before starting on another rep."
Maintain Training Volume Even as Your Client Loses Weight
If your client has been sticking to the weight loss workout plan you’ve created, chances are they have lost weight. Bravo!
Here’s something worth remembering about the process: When your client loses weight, they’d inevitably lose a proportion of muscle mass along with fat—even if they’re still training hard and keeping their protein intake high.
It can lead to progressive overload if your client does their work outs using the same set of exercises and different rep ranges.
Consider that the client has a body mass of 88 lbs when they first started working with you. The client was able to lift 220 pounds. They now weigh 77 pounds, after just three months following your training program. You're right!
You can still get 220 lbs for as many sets or reps.
You wait. What's the progressive overload? Relativity is the key to this progressive overload. A simple way to think about it would be with the “load lifted to lean mass ratio.” Let's calculate the ratios together:
- Before your client lost weight: 220/88 = 2.5
- After your client lost weight: 220/77 = 2.86
There you have it: Because there’s less lean muscle mass to “shoulder the burden,” your client’s muscles have to work harder now!
As you can see, there are many ways to achieve progressive overload without increasing weights.
That’s why it’s so important to adopt a holistic view of your client’s training—doing so allows you to decide on the most suitable approach that’ll get your client the results they’re searching for.
Remember this: Progressive overload, with or without extra weights, should be built on solid lifting form and proper technique.
There’s little point in placing additional demands on your client’s muscles just for the sake of it. You’d be cheating yourself, shortchanging your client, and, worse, putting them at increased risk of injuries.