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Exercise Prescription & Progressive Overload 101 (A Beginner’s Guide)

Optimize Your Workouts

Posted by TimeIsMuscle - August 15th, 2019

Learning About Your Own Body

When I was a teenager making all kinds of newbie gains, I would often go into the gym and if, for example, I was training arms, I would spend one to two hours doing every variation of a biceps curl and triceps extension you could think of. Sound familiar? The point I am trying to make here is back then I was a little wet behind the ears and I was overly keen to build muscle as quickly as possible by doing what I thought at the time seemed optimal.

Experience and knowledge is gained over time with whatever you do in life and when it comes to bodybuilding it's no different. For me, I have noticed that I don’t need to perform more than 2 exercises over 8 working sets on smaller muscle groups such as biceps and triceps to stimulate the muscle and promote growth. Whereas in comparison with larger muscle groups such as legs or back I opt for 3-4 exercises over 5 working sets. My ethos now when it comes to the number of exercises that I do is “Less is More”.

To complement this methodology, I choose specific exercises that I find best stimulate the muscle I am working aligned to my own personal goals. For example, currently I am trying to bring up my upper chest. Therefore, I am doing mostly incline based variations of chest exercises only. Now that I provided you with a little background to this training style lets discuss further as to why I have adopted this approach and methodology as opposed to what I did 20 years ago when I first started working out.

Less Is More

When it comes to bodybuilding, we all share the same common goal of building muscle. Having said that, what must be acknowledged is to achieve this goal you must always stimulate the muscle by putting it under stress. This is commonly done through what is known as progressive overload which is one of the training methodologies for increasing the weight and stress on the working muscle in stages throughout your working sets.

An example of this approach and something I frequently like to do to stimulate muscle growth as well as increase some strength to a degree is to progressively overload/pyramid up in weight until I reach my final set. Your final set should be a weight which puts you at some risk of failure but not too much risk. We want to be as safe as humanly possible when trying to make GAINS, so please don’t get too carried away too fast. Ideally, I would advise that you ensure that you have a training partner or spotter to aid you through your working sets.

For me, when using pyramid reps/progressively overloading the muscle, this normally involves working up gradually to around 85% -90% of your 1 rep max. Generally, I like to perform 4- 5 working sets (not warm-up sets, I am talking actual working sets) per exercise adopting this progressive overload/pyramid method. See below a sample workout from one of my “Push” days.

One Sample Push Workout Of Mine / Post-Warm-Up (Chest, Shoulders & Triceps)

Taking this sample workout above into consideration, if you try to implement this same approach when trying to do more than 5 or 6 exercises during a workout you may well struggle to perform to the best of your ability for the full duration and stimulate overall muscle growth. But why? Simply because naturally, you will fatigue the muscle and your energy levels early on during your workout due to the number of sets and reps, providing you are also progressively overloading and stimulating the working muscles throughout your intensive working sets. Now that we have discussed progressive overloading let's move on to exercise prescription.

Exercise Prescription – Choosing The Right Exercises

I wish I had a really simple and clear definition for this one, but I am afraid I don’t. This is because this subject will differ from one person to another. To optimize your workouts through choosing the right exercises for you personally is something one must investigate, experience and record over time.

I kept a diary for many years (particularly in my newbies years), noting and recording my reps, sets, weights, my lagging body parts and most importantly how I felt after performing each exercise. Over time through trial and error, I was able to establish which specific exercises would help me bring up weak body parts, stimulate muscle growth and give me that physical and mental feeling that the working muscles were being taxed versus the exercises that didn’t do this for me.


For example, I don’t do the 45-degree angle leg press that often when I train legs. Why I hear you say? Because it's an exercise/machine that I personally find can be redundant as it's not an exercise/machine where I personally always feel my hamstrings genuinely being stimulated. This is especially true when I pyramid up in weight and later increase the weight excessively. This for me is down to my lack of mind to muscle connection for this muscle group and the fact that I find that the quality of leg press machines, in particular, varies from gym to gym. I prefer to stick to the pronated leg curl machine, seated leg curl machine and stiff-legged deadlifts as I feel I get some much more in return for my output and time spent doing those particular exercises. This is, of course, my personal opinion and I am not saying that the 45-degree angle leg press exercise cannot work for you. It is just one example of an exercise that I am sharing with you that just doesn´t seem to work for me too often.


To build muscle and stimulate growth you have to find what works for you and analyse carefully what it is you want to achieve. You have to be dedicated, committed and be willing to push the boundaries (when it comes to progressive overloading in particular). Doing this alone, however, may only yield a certain amount of results if you don’t also take the time to identify and perform the specific exercises that are best tailored to you and your overall personal goals.

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