There’s more to building muscle than just lifting weights and eating protein…
If you want to pack on mass at an optimal rate, then your training needs to be on point.
But what exactly makes a workout routine ‘good’ for building muscle?
There are many factors to this equation, but the most important one is progressive overload. In this article, I’ll go over what progressive overload is, and how to apply it to your workouts starting today…
But first I quickly want to review the basic correlation between strength and muscle growth, so you can understand why progressive overload is so important.
Why Strength is King (if Your Goal is Mass)
There are 2 main ways we can build strength: neural gains or muscular hypertrophy.
The first way to build strength is to get better at performing a given exercise.
Take squats for example. During your first few months of squatting, increases in strength will come primarily from your body ‘learning’ how to squat.
The exact means by which this happens are twofold:
- First is simply learning proper squat form and fixing any mistakes you’re making
- Second is your nervous system adapting to the movement, and being able to activate more motor units and recruit more muscle fibers 
As you perform repetition after repetition, your brain and nervous system become more and more efficient at executing this specific movement. This allows you to build strength, and lift progressively heavier weights.
Hypertrophy (Muscle Growth)
Assuming you learn how to perform an exercise with proper form, these neural gains will be close to ‘maxed out’ after a few months of consistent training.
Don’t get me wrong, your nervous system will continue to adapt to the exercise, but the rate of improvement will extremely slow at this point.
In order to continue building strength, your body will begin to synthesize new muscle tissue. 
Just like with neural gains, this process will be fast at first (aka “noob gains”), but slow down over time. In order to maximize the amount of muscle you build, you need a properly programmed workout routine. In other words, you need progressive overload.
What is Progressive Overload?
Now that you understand why getting stronger is such an integral part of building muscle, let’s talk about progressive overload.
At it’s core, progressive overload is a very simple concept: by slowly increasing the weights you lift, your body must synthesize new muscle tissue to keep up with the ever-increasing demands.
Note: You can also increase the volume (sets X reps) of your workouts in order to achieve progressive overload. However, I recommend focusing only on the weights at first (while keeping the volume constant) to keep things simple.
One key thing to note is that you must start BELOW your current max. If you start by lifting the heaviest weights possible, you won’t be able to consistently increase the weights that you’re lifting.
Far too many guys make this mistake, and end up compensating by using poor form to lift more weight. This can lead to burnout and injury, and actually cause you to plateau… so avoid this at all costs.
However, assuming you start by lifting weights that are relatively light for you, and then increase the weight slowly, your body should be able to keep up and build mass as you go (eventually surpassing your previous max strength levels).
How to Start Using Progressive Overload Today
Now let’s get into the good stuff: how can you apply this to your training routine and kickstart your muscle growth TODAY?
There are many different ways to go about this, but I’m going to offer you what I consider to be the simplest and most elegant solution.
Just follow these steps:
- Choose a number of sets and reps for every exercise you do. Keep this simple and go with 3×8 if you’re unsure (or read my article on rep ranges).
- For each exercise, choose a starting weight that’s relatively easy for you. You should be able to do all of your sets and reps with good form.
- Increase the weight by 5 pounds every week. Keep the number of sets and reps constant.
- When you fail, subtract 10% of the total weight. Next week, use 90% of the weight you failed with and start again from there.
*Note: FAILURE means “technical failure”. When your form breaks down EVEN A LITTLE BIT, that means you failed.
It’s so important to drop the weight when you fail, because otherwise you won’t be able to continue increasing the weight. And this will lead to a plateau (in regards to your strength AND your muscle mass). Dropping the weight allows your body to “reset” and recover. You will likely break through that plateau once you increase the weights back to that point.
Also, your diet needs to be in check or you will fail to build new muscle and quickly plateau. Aim to eat enough calories to gain a little bit of weight (about 2 pounds per month). This will give your body the extra energy it needs to build muscle mass, but not so much that you gain a bunch of fat in the process.
The rest should be self explanatory. If you follow these steps, you will successfully apply progressive overload to your training, and your gains will go through the roof as a result!