Progressive Overload For Building Muscle: The Ultimate Guide!


Building muscle mass is really simple. First you stress your muscles by lifting weights. Then your body responds to that stress by building more muscle tissue and making your muscles bigger and stronger.

If you continue lifting heavier and heavier weights then your muscles will continue to grow bigger and stronger. It really is that simple!

Introduction

  • Part 1: Dorian Yates’ “Blood And Guts” Training
  • Part 2: John Meadows’ Mountain Dog Training
  • Part 3: Dante Trudel’s DC Training
  • Part 4: Dr. Scott Stevenson’s Fortitude Training
  • Part 5: Charles Poliquin’s Undulating Periodization

In this comprehensive guide I will teach you how to use the progressive overload principle to build muscle mass using 5 of the most popular bodybuilding training programs in the world.

These programs were created by some of the world’s most successful bodybuilding coaches including Dorian Yates, Dante Trudel and John Meadows.

Some of these programs use high-volume workouts while others use low-volume / high-intensity workouts. The one thing they all have in common is they all use the progressive overload principle to build muscle mass over time. I am confident that at least one of these programs will work awesome for you.

Progressive overload is a training principle that says the best way to build bigger, stronger muscles is to lift heavier weights over time. Progressively heavier weights represent a powerful training stimulus to your muscles and your muscles respond to this stimulus by growing bigger and stronger. 

I really like the way Ronnie Coleman said it:

“Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but no one wants to lift no heavy ass weights!”

Ronnie’s statement is simple but very important: if you want to build muscle mass as fast as possible then you have to lift heavier weights over time!

Let’s look at two trainees: High-Volume Harry and Progressive Overload Paul. Both of these trainees want to build bigger legs and both of them can squat 200 pounds for 10 reps.

High-Volume Harry loves to destroy his legs with high-volume workouts. He performs 20+ sets per body part and uses tons of high-intensity techniques like supersets, giant sets and drop sets. After five years of training Harry is still squatting 200 pounds for 10 reps and his legs are the exact same size they were.

Progressive Overload Paul takes a completely different approach: he uses about 10 sets per body part and focuses on getting stronger over time. If he isn’t getting stronger then he makes some changes to his routine so he can start making progress again.

After 5 years of training Paul is squatting 400 pounds for 10 reps and he has legs that would make Tom Platz jealous!

Which trainee would you rather be? Would you rather kill yourself every day in the gym with your super high-volume workouts only to stay the same size year after year? Or would you rather find a way to train with progressively heavier weights over time so your body can grow bigger and stronger? The answer should be obvious!

If you want to build muscle mass as fast as possible then you must use the progressive overload principle and train with progressively heavier weights over time. And that is exactly what I am going to teach you in this article!

Note: if you have trouble reading the training routines in this article then check out this guide on how to read a training program. Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: Dorian Yates’ Blood And Guts Training

Dorian Yates was the Mr. Olympia champion six years in a row from 1992 – 1997. Dorian trained with a progressive overload bodybuilding program that he called “Blood And Guts” training.

Dorian’s whole program was based around performing multiple exercises per body part and 1 working set to failure per exercise. He performed as many warm up sets as he needed to get his body ready for his heavy set.

However, when he got to his heaviest weights he performed 1 working set to failure. Dorian even trained beyond failure on machine and isolation exercises using a high-intensity training method called “forced reps.” Here is what Dorian’s typical chest workout looked like:

Dorian Yates’ Chest Workout

  • A1: 30 degree incline bench press, 1 set of 6-8 reps
  • B1: Hammer strength flat press, 1 set of 6-8 reps**
  • C1: 30 degree incline DB fly, 1 set of 6-8 reps**
  • D1: Cable crossover (high pulley), 1 set of 6-8 reps**

**Perform 1-3 forced reps after reaching failure

Here is the training video for Dorian’s chest workout:

As you can see Dorian performed just 1 working set to failure per exercise. If you are used to performing high-volume programs then this may not sound like “enough volume” to stimulate muscle growth.

The truth is Dorian didn’t rely on training volume to stimulate growth. Instead he used progressive overload to build muscle. Dorian knew that if he kept getting stronger on key exercises in the traditional bodybuilding rep ranges then his body would have no choice but to grow.

In order to track his progress Dorian recorded all of his workouts in a training logbook. Before every workout Dorian looked at his logbook to see what he did in the previous workout for those body parts. His goal was to match his previous best or set a personal record on every single exercise.

Here is what Dorian’s logbook looked like before his chest workout:

Dorian Yates’ Chest Day Logbook

A1: 30 degree incline bench press, 1 set of 6-8 reps

  • LT: 415 x 8
  • TT:

B1: Hammer strength flat press, 1 set of 6-8 reps**

  • LT: 330 x 6 + 2 forced reps
  • TT:

C1: 30 degree incline DB fly, 1 set of 6-8 reps**

  • LT: 90’s x 7+3 forced reps
  • TT:

D1: Cable crossover (high pulley), 1 set of 6-8 reps**

  • LT: 200 x 6 + 2 forced reps
  • TT:

The symbol “LT” stands for “Last Time” and the symbol “TT” stands for “This Time.” After his workout Dorian would right down how much weight he lifted on each exercise. His goal was to match his previous best or set a personal record on each exercise.

If Dorian went a few weeks without beating the logbook on an exercise then he would swap it out for a different exercise and start beating the logbook on the new exercise. For example Dorian sometimes performed the decline bench press instead of the incline bench press if he had a hard time making progress.

If you want to see Dorian’s exact training program then check out the following article:

Dorian’s training program was so effective because he trained with progressive overload and always tried to beat the logbook. If you have the guts to wage a never-ending war on the logbook then the Dorian Yates Training Program is an awesome way to train.

If you get stronger over time on key exercises in the bodybuilding rep ranges then your body will have no choice but to grow.

Part 2: John Meadows’ Mountain Dog Training

John Meadows is an IFBB professional bodybuilder and the creator of the Mountain Dog Training program. John says that his bodybuilding program is all about building muscle mass as fast as possible while staying healthy and avoiding injuries.

Most people believe John’s program is all about high-volume and “chasing the pump” but the truth is John uses the progressive overload principle in his training programs.

One of John’s favorite strategies is to pick one key exercise per body part to train progressively on. You use that same exercise for several workouts in a row and really try to lift heavier each workout. All of the other exercises get rotated which adds variety to the workout and helps with muscle growth. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

One of John’s favorite chest exercises is the incline barbell press. John loves to use the progressive overload principle on this exercise and train with heavy sets of 6.

Here is what a typical Mountain Dog chest workout might look like:

Week #1 Mountain Dog Chest Workout 

  • A1: Flat DB press, 3-4 sets of 8 reps
  • B1: 30 degree incline barbell press, 3-4 sets of 6 reps
  • C1: Pec minor dips, 3 sets of 10-15 reps**
  • D1: Fly machine, 3 sets of 10 reps

**All sets performed to failure

Here is the full training video for this workout:

As you can see John performs the incline bench press second in his routine and ramps up to a really heavy set of 6 reps. This is the exercise where he is really trying to get stronger using the progressive overload principle.

The next time John trains chest he will perform the incline bench press second in his routine and try to beat his old record. However, the rest of his chest routine will look completely different. For example:

Week #2 Mountain Dog Chest Workout

  • A1: Hammer strength flat press, 5 sets of 8 reps
  • B1: 30 degree incline barbell press, 4 sets of 6 reps
  • C1: Decline smith machine press, sets of 25, 12, 8 reps**
  • D1: Flat DB press, 3 sets of 8 reps****

**Perform a double drop set on the last set. Perform 8 reps, drop the weight, perform 8 reps, drop the weight, perform 8 reps, done!

****Perform a 10-second static hold in the stretched position right after your last rep. Have your training partner slightly press down on the dumbbells for an enhanced stretch.

Here is the full training video for this workout:

As you can see John keeps the second exercise the same but changes literally everything else in the routine. John doesn’t use a training logbook but he does make a mental note of how much weight he lifted on the incline bench press and tries to beat his record at each workout.

This lets John train progressively over time while still getting the benefits of a wider variety of exercises. If John were to change literally every exercise from workout to workout then it may be impossible to track his progress and train progressively over time.

John often uses a similar strategy for other body parts such as legs. John might use banded leg presses or back squats as his main quadriceps exercise for several weeks in a row. This would be his main progressive overload exercise while everything else would be rotated in and out as needed for variety and improved muscle hypertrophy.

Part 3: Dante Trudel’s DC Training Program

wave loading vs step loading

DC Training is one of the most popular bodybuilding training programs ever invented. It was invented by Dante Trudel to help bodybuilders build muscle at the fastest rate possible. Dante Trudel is a HUGE believer in the progressive overload principle.

Dante believes that the key to building muscle is to get stronger on key exercises in the traditional bodybuilding rep ranges.

One of the things that makes DC Training different from any other bodybuilding program is that you have to rotate through 3 different exercises per body part. Each workout you try to hit a record on just one of those exercises.

Let’s say that your three favorite back thickness exercises are barbell rows, deadlifts and t-bar rows. Each time you train your back you would pick just one of those exercises and try to get stronger on it. For example:

  • Workouts 1, 4, 7, 10: Barbell Rows
  • Workouts 2, 5, 8, 11: Deadlifts
  • Workouts 3, 6, 9, 12: T-Bar Rows

You just keep rotating through these three different exercises. Each time you perform an exercise your goal is to beat your performance on that exercise from 3 workouts ago.

For example when you perform barbell rows on workout #4 your goal is to beat your performance with barbell rows on workout #1.

Here is what your progress might look like over several workouts:

  • Workout #1: Barbell row 275 x 10
  • Workout #2: Deadlift 405 x 8
  • Workout #3: T-bar row 315 x 12
  • Workout #4: Barbell row 280 x 11
  • Workout #5: Deadlift 415 x 7
  • Workout #6: T-bar row 325 x 10
  • Workout #7: Barbell row 290 x 9
  • Workout #8: Deadlift 415 x 9
  • Workout #9: T-bar row 325 x 13

This 3-way exercise rotation scheme is one of the reasons DC Training works so well. Many bodybuilders will try to say that you can’t just keep gaining strength forever and that eventually you will hit a plateau. This is absolutely true!

If you perform the exact same workout over and over then eventually you will hit a plateau and you won’t get any stronger. DC Training gets around this problem by having you rotate through three different exercises for each body part.

Just think about it: if you perform deadlifts every single day for back thickness you will plateau pretty quickly. However, if you rotate through deadlifts, heavy t-bar rows and heavy barbell rows then you will be able to train for much longer without reaching a plateau.

Eventually you will stall on every exercise, even if you are rotating through 3 different exercises per body part. When that happens Dante recommends that you swap that exercise out for a new one and then try to “beat the logbook” all over again on the new exercise.

Here is what your logbook might look like before an upper body day:

Sample DC Upper Body Day

A1: Hammer strength incline press, 1 x 11-20 RP**

  • LT: 270 x 15 RP
  • TT:

B1: Seated DB overhead press, 1 x 20-30 RP**

  • LT: 70s x 27RP
  • TT:

C1: Dead stop skull crushers, 1 x 11-20 RP**

  • LT: 90 x 12 RP
  • TT:

D1: Rack chins, 1 x 11-20 RP**

  • LT: BW + 50 x 13 RP
  • TT:

E1: Conventional deadlift, 2 x (5-7, 8-10)

  • LT: 405 x 6, 355 x 9
  • TT:

**Performed as a DC-style rest-pause set. Perform 3 sets to failure with the same weight and 20-30 seconds rest in between each set. The rep range is your goal for all 3 sets combined. If the rep range is 11-20 RP then you might get 9+4+2 = 15 RP.

With DC training your goal is to “beat the logbook” on every single exercise that you do. Right before your working set you look back at your previous best and then try to beat it by adding more weight to the bar or busting out more reps.

Knowing that you have to “beat the logbook” really lights a fire under your ass and forces you to push yourself as hard as possible. This is a lot like Dorian Yates’ program except you are rotating through three different exercises per body part rather than using the same exercises every single workout.

The biggest drawback for the 3-way exercise rotation as used by DC Training is that it only works for advanced trainees.

If you are more of a beginner then your body will “forget” how to perform each exercise and you will have a harder time making progress. This is one of the big reasons Dante Trudel says DC Training is only for advanced bodybuilders with at least 3 years of hardcore training experience under their belts.

If you are an advanced trainee then I highly recommend you try out a 3-way exercise rotation as used by DC Training. It is one of the best ways to use progressive overload without hitting a plateau. Of course you can also give the full DC Training program a shot.

Part 4: Dr. Scott Stevenson’s Fortitude Training

Dr. Scott Stevenson is a national-level bodybuilder, a world-class bodybuilding coach, a researcher and an all-around really smart dude. He trained using Dante Trudel’s DC Training program for many years and was even IFBB pro David Henry’s training partner for many years.

More recently Scott created his own bodybuilding training program called “Fortitude Training.”

Fortitude Training is a high-frequency bodybuilding training program that uses many different set types such as heavy loading sets, pump sets, muscle rounds and loaded stretches to stimulate muscular hypertrophy through as many different pathways as possible.

Scott knows the importance of training with progressively heavier weights over time for building muscle mass so he made progressive overload one of the core parts of his program. However, Scott’s application of the progressive overload principle is unlike anything you have ever seen.

Scott has four major types of sets in his program:

  • Heavy loading sets
  • Pump sets
  • Muscle rounds
  • Loaded stretches

With Fortitude Training you perform all four of these set types during a single training week. Even though these set types are radically different from each other you are still recording your workouts in a training logbook and trying to “beat the logbook” each workout.

In many ways it is easier to beat the logbook on this type of program because you have so much variety built into each training week. Here is what a typical week of Fortitude Training looks like:

Fortitude Training Weekly Schedule

Monday

  • Upper Body: Loading Sets / Loaded Stretches
  • Lower Body: Pump Sets

Wednesday

  • Lower Body: Loading Sets / Loaded Stretches
  • Upper Body: Pump Sets

Friday

  • Upper Body: Muscle Rounds / Loaded Stretches
  • Lower Body: Pump Sets

Saturday

  • Lower Body: Muscle Rounds / Loaded Stretches
  • Lower Body: Pump Sets

Fortitude Training uses a modified version of a 4 day upper body / lower body split. The big difference is you also perform some lighter “pump” sets for the other half of your body after your heavy sets for each day.

If you perform heavier loading sets for your upper body on Monday then you would also perform some lighter pump sets at the end of your workout for your lower body.

With Fortitude Training you are using the progressive overload principle on the “loading sets” and the “muscle rounds.” Loading sets are really just heavy sets of 6-12 reps taken to failure or near failure. The muscle rounds is where things get really interesting.

A muscle round is a special type of cluster set where you perform 6 sets of 4 reps with 10 seconds rest in between sets. For example:

  • Attempt #1: Perform 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
  • Attempt #2: Perform 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
  • Attempt #3: Perform 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
  • Attempt #4: Perform 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
  • Attempt #5: Perform 4 reps, rest 10 seconds
  • Attempt #6: Perform 4 reps, done!

Scott really likes muscle rounds because they let you train with progressive overload but without burning out your central nervous system. The 10-second pauses in between each attempt let your muscles partially recover so you can use a much heavier weight than if you performed 24 straight reps.

The heavy loading sets early in the week and the muscle rounds later in the week overload your muscles in completely different ways.

This variation in the type of stimulus from early in the week to later in the week helps to prevent your body from adapting to your routine and helps you to train with progressive overload over longer periods of time.

If you want to learn more about Fortitude Training then check out Scott’s personal website.

Part 5: Charles Poliquin’s Accumulation / Intensification Model

Charles Poliquin is one of the most popular strength coaches in the world. Charles believed that most bodybuilders were too weak and would build muscle mass faster if they started using the progressive overload principle in their training programs.

Charles believed that most bodybuilders get their best results if they alternate between accumulation and intensification phases. In other words they would alternate back and forth between higher-rep muscle-building workouts and lower-rep strength-building workouts.

Your higher rep workouts would be typical bodybuilding-style workouts with lots of sets, reps and exercises to cause as much muscular fatigue as possible. You won’t gain very much strength from these workouts but you will build a ton of muscle mass from them.

After 2-4 weeks you would switch over to a lower-rep strength workout where you focused on lifting moderately heavy weights with longer rest periods. These lower-rep workouts are ideal for building strength so that you can train with progressively heavier weights over time.

Charles Poliquin’s accumulation / intensification model of periodization is more complicated than the other bodybuilding programs covered so far in this article. However, it is an incredibly effective way to build muscle mass while still boosting your strength levels over time.

Let’s look at 4 separate arm workouts that Charles wrote using his accumulation / intensification model of periodization. Here is how you sequence the workouts:

  • Workouts 1-6: Arm Workout #1
  • Workouts 7-12: Arm Workout #2
  • Workouts 13-18: Arm Workout #3
  • Workouts 19-24: Arm Workout #4

Charles recommends that you train your arms once every 5 days on this program although you can probably get away with training your arms anywhere from once every 3-7 days. Here are the workouts. Check it out:

Charles Poliquin Arm Workout #1

  • A1: Lying ez-bar extensions (to forehead), 3 x 6-8, 2/2/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: Lying ez-bar extensions (to chin), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: Bench press (shoulder width grip), 3 x 10-12, 2/2/1/0, 2 minutes
  • B1: Rope cable tricep pushdowns, 3 x 8-10, 4/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B2: Pronated cable tricep pushdowns, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B3: Supinated cable tricep pushdowns, 3 x 12-15, 2/0/1/0, 2 minutes

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise A3, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise B3.

Charles Poliquin Arm Workout #2

  • A1: 45 degree incline DB curls (supinated grip), 4-5 x 5-7, 5/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
  • A2: Decline ez-bar triceps extensions, 4-5 x 5-7, 5/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
  • B1: 90 degree barbell preacher curls (supinated grip), 4-5 x 5-7, 5/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
  • B2: Bench press (shoulder-width grip), 4-5 x 5-7, 5/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
  • C1: Seated zottman curls, 3-4 x 5-7, 5/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest
  • C2: Unilateral DB french press, 3-4 x 5-7, 5/0/1/0, 2 minutes rest

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise C1, exercise C2.

Charles Poliquin Arm Workout #3

  • A1: Lying triceps extensions (to forehead), 3 x 10-12, 3/0/2/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: Lying triceps extensions (to nose), 3 x 10-12, 3/0/2/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: Rope cable french presses, 3 x 10-12, 3/0/2/0, 2 minutes rest
  • B1: 30 degree incline DB curls (hammer grip), 3 x 8-10, 3/0/2/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B2: Preacher ez-bar curls (wide / supinated grip), 3 x 8-10, 3/0/2/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B3: Preacher cable curls (supinated grip), 3 x 8-10, 3/0/2/0, 2 minutes rest
  • C1: Cable palms-up wrist curls, 3 x 15-20, 2/0/1/0, 30 seconds rest
  • C2: Cable palms-down wrist curls, 3 x 15-20, 2/0/1/0, 30 seconds rest

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise A3, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise B3, exercise C1, exercise C2.

Charles Poliquin Arm Workout #4

  • A1: Standing ez-bar curls (wide / reverse grip), 6 x 2,2,4,4,6,6, 4/2/1/0, 2 minutes rest
  • A2: Bench press (shoulder-width grip), 6 x 2,2,4,4,6,6, 3/4/1/0, 2 minutes rest
  • B1: Unilateral preacher DB curl (offset grip), 3-4 x 5-6, 4/0/4/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: Unilateral DB french press, 3-4 x 5-6, 4/0/4/0, 60 seconds rest

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

Talk about some brutal arm workouts! If you are stuck in a training rut then these workouts may be just what you need to start making progress again.

Personally I really like how Charles hypertrophy and strength workouts so you can still train with progressive overload while keeping that bodybuilding-style look from the higher-rep hypertrophy workouts.

Conclusion

If you want to build muscle mass as fast as possible then there is no getting around it: you have to use the progressive overload principle and lift heavier weights over time. The good news is there are tons of different ways to apply the progressive overload principle in your training program.

Many of the most popular bodybuilding programs such as Blood And Guts Training, Mountain Dog Training, DC Training and Fortitude Training all use progressive overload in some form or fashion.

Charles Poliquin also has a more complicated but very effective style of periodization where he alternates back and forth between muscle-building workouts and strength-building workouts.

Whatever method you choose it is imperative that you train with progressively heavier weights over time. Even the legendary bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger had to lift some heavy weights to build his perfect physique. In his prime he could bench press 500+ pounds, squat 600+ pounds and deadlift 700+ pounds.

So what are you waiting for? Get back in the gym and start using the progressive overload principle and watch your gains shoot through the roof!

“The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen and I'm the founder of Revolutionary Program Design. If you want to reach your size and strength goals faster then you've come to the right place. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere in the world. So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to lift weights or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

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