If you have read enough fitness articles or follow a few fitness youtubers, you learn that the biggest factor for training progress is progressive overload. In short, progressive overload is adding a stimulus your body is not used to in order to trigger an adaptation. Though you may know how important progressive overload is, you may not know different ways to facilitate it. Most individuals think of progressive overload as adding weight to the bar, which is the most common form of progressive overload. Though that is one way to progressive overload, that is not the only way. Below I will list and explain different ways to progressive overload in your workouts.
As briefly mentioned above, one of the most common ways to facilitate progressive overload in your training plan is to add weight to the bar (or add any resistance to an exercise). There is not much to explain here besides that you should progress in slower increments with longer training plans towards a given goal. Rregardless of your progress or plan, you will eventually stall at a given weight, so jumping 30 pounds "because you can" could make your plan last only 2 weeks....rather than the 7 weeks with 5 pounds jumps. This provides a bigger jump, but a much lower amount of stimulus over time and will require you to reset every 2 weeks.
Shorten Rest Times
Though adding resistance is the most common way to progressive overload, there are many other ways to provide more stimulus. Another way to add stimulus would be to shorten the rest time between sets. This method provides a stimulus that requires the muscles to work harder due to being in a greater fatigue state and causing more metabolic damage. I would recommend only dropping 5-15 seconds at a time due to wanting to use the most amount of weight for each set.
You can also use methods that provide progressive overload without changing anything except the speed (tempo) in which you perform the exercise. Slowing down the tempo and adding more "time under tension" can provide greater muscle growth due to breaking down the muscles farther with the extended eccentric phase. I would recommend a 4 count negative (lowering phase of any given exercise) followed by an explosive concentric (phase in which you contract/shorten the muscles).
Many believe that in order to get stronger you must always add weight to the bar. You can actually provide progressive overload by doing more reps with the same amount of sets. There are many successful programs such as " the russian squat routine" that are strength focused and go through a period of time with only adding reps with the same weight. I recommend adding 1 rep for each set per week if the exercise is not very taxing, but if the exercise is set for high intensity/low volume I would only add 1 rep to the first/last set depending on your preference.
Some believe after your common 3 sets of 12 you have done enough to provide stimulus for adaptation. Eventually those 3 sets will not be enough and adding more than 12 reps becomes pushing the rep limit for most goals of being both big and strong (the farther you are from you 1 rep max, the more you focus on hypertrophy, and then into endurance). Adding a set with the same amount of reps could be just what you need to continue progressive by only sacrificing another 1-3 minutes. I would recommend only adding 1 set per training cycle due to most sets providing multiple repetitions (with doing sets of 12 you added a whole 12 reps to your exercise rather than just 1-5 reps with the adding repetition method).
Sometimes changing your grip width and bar placement will not only build up weak points, but also provide a progressive stimulus due to the added difficulty. By either narrowing your grip or stance, you can increase the difficulty of the lift and provide the muscles to go through a longer range of motion. A good example would be to go from wide grip benching to shoulder width (regular) bench pressing, then from shoulder width grip pressing into narrow grip bench pressing. Even with the same weight, narrowing your grip/stance will provide a bigger focus on specific muscles and lengthening the range of motion. There is no specific recommendation besides to bring your grip/stance in slowly by coming in a few inches at most per attempt to change the difficulty (do not make a drastic change).
Lengthen The Range Of Motion
Kind of braaching off of the previous method of progressive overload, adding in range of motion (without changing bar placement) is a useful way to add stimulus. A good example would be anderson pin squats. These are done with a short range of motion that gets lengthened each session by lowering the pins one-by-one. Another example would be doing rack pulls for your dead lift and lowering the pins each session until you lift the specific weight from the floor. I would recommend lowering by only one level per session due to the steady change in start position mechanics.
Do you ever see people do cheat curls? Looks horrid and counterproductive, right? What if I told you that you could utilize them into your training ever so often? Adding some momentum or "body language" during your sets (such as with curls) can be used during times of "overload" though it should only be used for the concentric portion (during the contraction part of the repetition). A negative (slow lowering of each repetition) should be used to overload the muscles with a higher amount of stimulus (given you are stronger in the lowering phase/eccentric than you are on the concentric/contracting phase). A combination of momentum and negatives can be used during a short "overload" phase of your training plan (I would recommend against doing it often).
Increase Stability Requirement
The final way to progressive overload (and most underutilized) is to add the need for stability for an exercise. This requires the minor muscles (all stability muscles) to work much harder as the stability requirement increases. Though this can play a part in progressive overload, you should not use thing excessively due to the diminishing returns. After you increase the stability requirement too much the weight used will need to decrease. If the weight gets decreased, the most important/most common factors (adding weight/repetitions/sets) will be put secondary. Never sacrifice your top factors for something that can supplement your progressive overload. With this in mind, I would recommend using exercises that require the minor muscles to work, but does not ruin your ability to keep progressing on all other factors. This could mean doing a standing military press rather than a sitting military press, doing dumbbell presses instead of barbell, or adding kettlebells attached to bands on each side of the bench press bar.
Which Are The Best?
There are many ways you can provide progressive overload to stimulate an adaptation. Between adding volume, adding weight, changing grip/stance width, changing range of motion, shortening rest periods, and increasing the stability requirement, you will always have ways you can add stimulus. The question is, which are the best? The answer is....
They all have a place in your training! Each method of progressive overload can be beneficial to any training program at different times. You could add repetitions and sets during a volume phase, add weight to the bar during an intensity or peaking phase, or even slow down the tempo and lift slower during a rehabilitation phase. The best method is the method you can utilize best during a specific time in your training. If it does not have a purpose in your training....it's best that it is not there. If it does, then that's the best method to use during that time.
There are always more than one way to skin a cat....but we're not skinning cats. We are lifting some heavy a** weight.