Weight Lifting Tips Part 4: Progressive Overload, Body Part Splits, Cardio & Overtraining Prevention

In Part 3 of this series on weight lifting tips, we discussed the sequence of exercises in a workout, number of sets & repetitions to perform, rest between sets and frequency of workouts. The most important takeaway is to vary your repetition ranges over time, limit overall workout volume as a beginner and allow at least 48-72 hours before training the same muscle group again.

In the finale, Part 4 below, we'll be going over the critical concept of Progressive Overload, bodypart segmentation, incorporating cardio and avoiding overtraining. If you want to continue getting results from your routine, this information will be very valuable to you.

Note: if you're in a rush, there's quick "summary points" at the bottom of the article, BUT we highly recommend that you read everything on this page to get the most out of this super important info.

Progressive Overload

What would happen if you trained with the exact same exercises, sets, reps AND weight workout after workout for months at a time? You guessed right, the strength & size of your muscles wouldn't change much. But is goes beyond common sense, both the real world and hard scientific data supports the "Progressive Overload" principle for gaining muscle and strength.

Progressive Overload basically refers to challenging the muscles by increasing their workload and/or intensity over time, forcing them to adapt by becoming bigger and stronger. The most widely accepted explanation is that muscle tissue suffers "micro-trauma", or tiny, beneficial damage that kickstarts the growth process. Over time, muscle tissue becomes resistant to this damage, at which point a greater stimulus is needed to continue causing the micro-trauma.

So how do you increase the stimulus to overload the muscles? Well, your can either increase the volume or the intensity, or a combination of both.

Increase Volume

Workout Volume is the total number of Sets & Repetitions that you complete in a workout. If you added up all the sets & reps completed for an entire week, that would be your weekly workout volume. So, the first way to overload the muscles is to increase the repetitions in an exercise, and then increase the number of sets. This is a very simple way to increase the "workload" of a muscle over time. Remember, there are limits to the overall volume that you can handle depending on your experience level.

Decrease Rest

If you're doing multiple sets and exercises on a particular muscle group, simply reduce the rest time between each set. As a beginner, you'll probably need about 2-3 minutes of rest between each set to allow for enough recovery. Over time, you can start to reduce the rest times by 15-30 seconds to make each set more challenging.

Using challenging weights under conditions of fatigue is one of the clear factors for influencing muscle growth, and this strategy can aid with fatloss too by keeping your heart rate elevated. Although decreasing rest times will help you get stronger in the short run, its not the most optimal way to increase strength and power.

Increase Loads

The most obvious way to increase intensity is by raising the weight/resistance on an exercise, instantly challenging your muscles to work harder. Although this is the most effective way to induce muscle growth, its also the least practical, because there are clear limits on how much and how often you can increase the weight on an exercise.

Therefore, the most effective strategy for creating an overload stimulus is to balance out the above three in a strategic way to ensure continued, steady progress week after week, month after month. The most common mistake is to increase the weights too fast or to add too much volume, both of which need to be controlled in order to prevent overuse injuries, stubborn plateaus and feelings of burnout.

Bodypart Splits

The three common approaches to organizing a routine is to train the entire body in a single workout, train either the upper or lower body in a single session, or split the bodyparts and train 2-3 muscle groups per workout.

So you're either doing full-body workouts, or splitting up the upper & lower regions, or splitting up the muscle groups even further. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, but more importantly, each approach can work very well for building muscle and increasing strength.

For beginners, circuit training style workouts that train the entire body are generally recommended, with overall workout volume kept low and a frequency of 2-3 times per week with at least a day break between each workout.

As beginners progress, the upper and lower body can be split to allow for an increased workout volume. Depending on the individual and how long they've been training, the next level can be to train only 1-2 muscle groups per workout.

Generally, the greater the split, the lower the frequency of training each muscle group. In other words, if you're only training 1-2 muscle groups per day, you'll most likely be waiting 5-7 days before training the same muscle group again, hence the lower frequency.

Cycling between low volume/high frequency workouts and high volume/low frequency workouts can continue to challenge the body and prevent it from adapting, provided that you're lifting at high enough intensities. Its also highly beneficial to lower the intensities for extended periods of time and take a break from training, in order to allow your bones, ligaments and tendons to heal and recover.

Strategically lowering volume and intensity for extended periods of time can also increase the sensitivity of your muscle tissues to growth. Basically, by giving your muscles a break, you can effectively make them more responsive to intense training in the future, allowing for increased growth.

Incorporating Cardio

If you're trying to purely build muscle mass, there isn't a real need for cardio unless you're putting on unwanted bodyfat. However, if you want to strip a little bodyfat while building muscle, a little bit of strategic cardio can help.

Keep in mind that without an adeqate weekly calorie deficit, losing bodyfat will be very difficult, unless you're a beginner. So the main key to losing bodyfat is eating less overall calories than your maintenance level on a weekly basis.

Its best to do Cardio on off days when you're not training with weights. Otherwise, if thats not possible, low to moderate intensity cardio for durations of less than 20 minutes can be performed right after your weight training sessions. Higher intensity and longer duration cardio may counteract the effects of weight training, so as long as you keep the cardio light & short, your weight lifting efforts won't be compromised.

Overtraining

The term overtraining, most of the time, refers to a state in which a person is not well enough conditioned to handle their current workout, leading to excessive soreness, feelings of burnout and extended fatigue. True overtraining refers to a condition in which health problems and chronic injuries can develop, but this is a relatively difficult state to reach unless you're a competitive performance or physique athlete.

Please refer to Part 3 of this series to see the recommendations on Sets and Reps for beginners to intermediate/advanced levels, as well as reading the Progressive Overload section on the top of this page. Basically, the best way to start is with lighter weights, a low overall volume and moderate frequency, gradually adjusting these things over time by paying attention to your body week after week.

If muscle soreness isn't gradually reducing over the weeks, and your energy and strength levels are stagnating or declining, these could be clear signs of overtraining, so listen to your body and pay close attention to how you feel after a workout and the next day.

Summary Points:

  • To continue making progress, you can increase reps & sets, decrease rest between sets and/or increase the weights.
     
  • The most effective way to apply progressive overload is to use each of the above 3 overload methods in a strategic and gradual way over time.
     
  • Cycle your workouts by using full-body, upper/lower and bodypart splits, at a variety of repetition ranges and different volumes & frequencies.
     
  • Lowering both volume & intensity for an extended period of time can allow your connective tissues to recover and make the muscles more responsive to intense training.
     
  • The most important key to losing bodyfat is to create a weekly calorie deficit, which can be achieved through dieting and cardio workouts.
     
  • Its best to keep cardio workouts for non-weight training days, but as an alternative, light & brief cardio sessions after a weight lifting session can also help.
     
  • Avoid overtraining by beginning with lighter weights and lower volume, gradually increasing each in a slow manner over time, paying attention to your strength, fatigue and soreness levels.

Weight Lifting Tips: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Move on to Workout Routines: Build Muscle | Burn FatGain Strength/Power

Related Article: Beginner's Guide to an Effective Weight Lifting Program