There are many circumstances when you just can’t add another 5 lbs. to the bar, but maybe you can add 1, 2, or 3 lbs. Barbell movements that use smaller amounts of muscle mass or movements that are technique dependent can benefit from microloading. A few examples are the bench press, over-head press, and Olympic lifts. Even though the bench and standing press are known as major/primary barbell movements, the muscle mass involved can’t always adapt fast enough or thoroughly enough to produce a 5lb. increase in strength. This is especially true for isolation exercises, but we’ll get to that in a bit. The power clean, clean & jerk, power snatch, etc., require greater coordination and technique to be properly executed. When a person is already performing these lifts at a relatively high percentage of their 1RM, a 5 lb. increase can be too large of a jump for the lifter to handle. This will increase the likelihood of the lifter missing the rep. Smaller jumps are more manageable and increase the chances of success.
Women, kids and older adults can use microloading on everything, in my opinion. These populations adapt at a slower rate, which necessitates a more conservative approach.
Accessory exercises such as tricep extensions (aka skull crushers), curls, rows, and any other exercise you can think of that either isolates or uses small amounts of muscle mass can benefit from microloading. It’s hard to maintain progress on something like a skull crusher, or barbell curl, isn’t it? You may be able to get away with 5 lb. jumps for a few workouts, but then the brakes come on real fast. Changing the sets and reps isn’t a bad idea. Neither is switching to a different exercise. But if you want to get bigger and stronger you eventually have to lift more weight.
I call microloading “the secret weapon” because it isn’t very well known, and even those who do know about it don’t often use it. That’s a shame because it’s too damn effective to be neglected. I often use this method for my bench press, standing press, and clean, with consistent results. Now, this won’t work forever, but it can certainly keep you from plateauing prematurely. The simplicity of adding 1-2 pounds per workout is also very appealing to me. I would rather make a simple - and potentially very effective - change then have to revamp the entire workout.
A WORD OF CAUTION – If you’re using collars while bench pressing, use a spotter. If one is unavailable, either bench press inside of a power rack with the safety pins set to the proper height, or bench in a half-rack with the spotter arms set properly. Properly set safety arms/pins will be low enough to allow for a normal, full range of motion, and high enough that the weight won’t crush your chest or neck, should you get stuck.
About the Author:
Scott is a Starting Strength Coach, USA Powerlifting Coach, Westside Barbell Strength Coach, ACSM Personal Trainer, and competitive raw powerlifter.
Scott’s best competition lifts are a 540 lb. squat, 392 lb. bench press, and 606 lb. deadlift in the 231 lb. men’s open weight class.