How To Progress Without Increasing The Load

If you’re stuck training at home doing bodyweight movements or using light loads, you can still progress. You just need to manipulate other variables to support progression. 

Here I’m showcasing how you can overload multiple different ways. You could do this across each new week of the training program, for each new program or both. All support progression and all don’t require heavier loads, though that would help. 

Adding Reps

This is a great option to illustrate your strength progression and micro progress. If you can only do 10 reps for a movement in week 1, but can do 12 reps in week 3, you have progressed. This option also works well in the gym, when the next load jump up is too big. For instance, many gyms have dumbbells which increase in 2.5kg increments, which can be too large in some instances. 

Visually, the adding reps approach would look like this:

Week 1: 3 sets x 10 reps

Week 2: 3 sets x 11 reps

Week 3: 3 sets x 12 reps

Now if we focus on the total tonnage lifted, you’ll clearly see the progress. Tonnage = sets x reps x load. This will quantify the total work performed and illustrate the progress. If we use the example of a 100kg Back Squat, the tonnage results would be:  

Week 1: 3 sets x 10 reps = 3000 kg (1000kg per set x 3 sets)

Week 2: 3 sets x 11 reps = 3300kg 

Week 3: 3 sets x 12 reps = 3600 kg

Adding Sets

This is the easiest way to add more training volume, with more total load lifted over each new week of the program. 

Week 1: 3 sets x 10 reps

Week 2: 4 sets x 10 reps

Week 3: 5 sets x 10 reps

If we again use the example of a 100kg Back Squat and focus on the tonnage, the results would be:

Week 1: 3 sets x 10 reps = 3000kg

Week 2: 4 sets x 10 reps = 4000kg 

Week 3: 5 sets x 10 reps = 5000kg 

This clearly shows a large increase in tonnage lifted, that is work performed over the 3 weeks of this program. This increase in stress imposed is crucial when the goal is physique and/or performance enhancement. Naturally, you could also combine this approach of adding sets with adding reps to ensure even greater overload.

Adding Time

This is a rarely used method but one which allows for more work to progressively occur within the set. Here you could add 5 seconds each new week which would likely allow another 1-2 reps to be performed. This example would look like this: 

Week 1: 30 seconds working set duration

Week 2: 35 seconds working set duration

Week 3: 40 seconds working set duration

Personally, I like this approach best for body weight movements e.g. push ups, when it’s easier to add reps then load. Alternatively, you could keep the reps constant, and slow down the tempo in each new week for increased time under tension. 

With this option, the results could look something like this:

Week 1 – 30 seconds working set = 10 reps

Week 2 – 35 seconds working set = 12 reps

Week 3 – 40 seconds working set = 14 reps

In this example, if the ability to add time is limited because it is too difficult to surpass this time domain, you can implement the rest / pause method. Here you would include intra set rest periods for anywhere from 10-30 seconds, which allows for brief restoration and the ability to then perform more work. In this example, you would stop the working clock when resting. For instance, in week 2 you could rest / pause for 15 seconds after working for 30 seconds, then work for another 5 seconds equating to 2 reps + of actual work. 

Alternatively, you could keep the reps the same and instead slow down the lifting tempo. This would typically work best for slowing down the eccentric phase or by adding in progressively longer pauses at the weak point. For instance:

Week 1 – 20X0 tempo for 10 reps = 20 seconds time under tension

Week 2 – 30X0 tempo for 10 reps = 30 seconds time under tension

Week 3 – 40X0 tempo for 10 reps = 40 seconds time under tension

Adding Density

Here you will work within a prescribed time cap, such as 30 minutes, performing as many rounds or reps as possible. You self-regulate rest as required and are forced to think and strategise. The goal is to increase the work performed each new week, overloading via density and volume. This would involve you doing the following: 

Week 1: Set baseline work performed within time block

Week 2: Add more work within time block (increase sets and/or reps)

Week 3: Add even more work within time block (increase sets and/or reps)

If we again use an example, you could prescribe a 30-minute time block to work within. Here you could perform two different exercises and alternate between the two for max rounds, performing 3 reps per movement. Load selection would be dictated by the goal but let’s say you do 60% of your 1RM for a Back Squat and do body weight Chin Ups. The results across the week, when aiming for density could look like this. 

Week 1: 8 total rounds

Week 2: 10 total rounds 

Week 3: 12 total rounds 

For all these methods, to ensure progression is easier to achieve, a good strategy would be to match each training week to an intensity cap, such an RPE chart.