“Compound Exercise Overload” to Force Muscle Growth and Gain Strength

Compound Exercise Overload is a technique I recently heard about through Nick Nilsson’s Newsletter.

While I have different goals than Nick, I respect him for being a trail blazer and thinking outside the box. I subscribe to a bunch of fitness newsletters to see who actually delivers solid info, and so far I’m pleased with the info I’ve received from Nick.

Good stuff! In this post I want to discuss one of his muscle growth techniques in more detail. Nick calls it “compound exercise overload”. I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks to me like it would work extremely well.

compound exercise overload
[I wish I would have known about this technique when I started out. I struggled with the bench press for quite a few years and this would have helped me avoid lengthy sticking points.]

The Story of “Bear” – The King of Our College Gym!

I went to the University of Washington in the late 80’s and early 90’s…and I probably spent too much time in the gym and not enough time studying back then. We had access to a free gym called the IMA. There was a big friendly giant that trained at our gym that went by the name of “Bear”.

Bear looked like a cross between Mike Tyson and the huge guy in the movie “The Green Mile”. He looked intimidating, but was friendly and made our gym a fun place to train.

I’m Pretty Certain That Bear Bench Pressed Every Day

I’ve never seen a guy with a thicker chest and upper back. When Bear shook your hand, it felt like it was made of stone. I’m pretty certain that 90% of Bear’s workout was set after set of the bench press. I’m not sure he did a whole lot else. I think we occasionally saw Bear hit incline presses and perhaps some behind the neck shoulder presses.

Most fitness magazines would tell you that bench pressing every day would lead to over-training…but why then was Bear the so impressive at the bench press?

Extraordinary Adaptation by Focusing on 1 Single Movement

Unlike Bear, you are not going to want to just perform and master one exercise forever. Instead, Nick Nilsson suggests focusing on just 1 single exercise for 5 days straight. As Nick puts it…

“The results you are going to see in these five short days could very well surpass what you’ve seen in the last 5 MONTHS”

The general idea of compound exercise overload is to train using just one exercise for 5 workout days in a row. The lift is going to be trained for multiple sets of 3 reps short of failure.

To ensure growth, the total volume of the workout is going to be very high. The rest periods are also going to be shorter than traditional strength training.

Avoiding Training to “Chemical Muscle Failure”

When you train with medium to high reps, the muscle fails due to lactic acid buildup or ATP stores getting low <—Nick calls this chemical muscle failure.

What happens is that chemicals in your body stop the muscle from being able to lift additional reps…so the muscle fibers aren’t worked to their full capacity. To avoid chemical failure completely, you will do sets of 3 reps. This is going to allow you to target muscle fibers.

You also want to avoid failure in this low rep range to allow you to do many more sets…a greater volume. High volume is important for gaining muscle quickly, so this makes sense.

* Low Reps for Growth? * The “Compound Exercise Overload” workout involves hitting the muscle with 120+ reps per workout…and hitting that same muscle with that volume each and every day for a week. This is crazy amounts of volume and fatigue done with low reps.

If you want to train for tone without growth, then you wouldn’t want to use Nick’s method.

How to Use the Compound Exercise Overload Technique:

  • Let’s say you want to focus on bench press.
  • Pick a weight you can do for 6-7 reps and do 3 reps.
  • Rest for 20 seconds, then do another 3 reps.
  • Repeat until you are unable to get 3 reps.
  • Now remove 10 pounds off the bar and do 3 reps.
  • Rest for 20 seconds, then do another 3 reps.
  • Repeat until you are unable to get 3 reps.
  • Continue on in this fashion for 20 minutes.

Note: On Day 1 it will be 20 minutes. Day 2 is 25 minutes (using 5-20 pounds more than Day 1). Day 3 is 30 minutes (using 5-20 pounds more than Day 2). Day 4 is 35 minutes (using 5-20 pounds more than Day 3). Day 5 is 40 minutes (using the same weight you used on Day 1).

Rest, Nutrition, Other Activities, etc.

You will try to keep all other activities to a minimum during this time. That means no cardio, no abs, no sports, etc. Try to avoid anything that is physically demanding during this week.  Nick puts it best…

“We don’t want to confuse the body with any other stimulus”.

You also want to eat A LOT during these 5 days. There is an exceptional amount of muscle fiber breakdown and you will need some additional nutrients. You will also want to drink a lot of water to maximize muscle growth.

Some Additional Pointers from Nick

End each set before failure. Stop at 2 reps if the 3rd rep is going to be a struggle…then reduce the weight on the next set. After your final set, when the time is up…rest 2 minutes then do one final set with as many reps as you can at that weight you ended with.

You should be able to get 5-8 reps.



110 thoughts on ““Compound Exercise Overload” to Force Muscle Growth and Gain Strength”

  1. It’s hardly news that exercise is great for your heart, breathing, and mental outlook. Here’s another reason to lift weights and do cardio: Regular exercise is one of the keys to healthy skin. We do skin care at spa lane in naperville and tell this to all of our clients.

  2. The recovery period after the workout is extremely important as well, it’s important to take a day to recover and let your muscle fibers build back up after they have been torn down. It is also important to implement various self massage techniques, my friend boris has a bunch of them on his massage naperville site.

  3. **Update**

    After doing this for a 5 day one-leg squat routine, I enjoyed the intensity so much, I decided to add it to my regular workout routine. Of course I don’t do the 5 day version every week.
    Every 6 days I do one-legged squats, 3 reps every 30 seconds for 30 minutes. Every week I am able to go up in weight and I plan to continue to use it as long as I see improvements. Todays workout was at 170lbs and I was able to finish strong and after the 30 mins, I rested for 2 minutes and completed 8 more reps. I have found I really look forward to this workout. I don’t see any difference in size but the amount of strength I have gone up is well worth it.

  4. Do you suggest a any specific stretching or mobility work while you completing a week of compound exercise overload. I have visions of walking around like he-man! “By the power of grayskull!”

  5. It seems like a good system but muscles aside, I will be slightly more cautious with it… seems to really overload the joints.

  6. As an above knee amputee, I gave this a shot. I chose to use it with one legged squats.
    I started squating 135lbs on day 1 and added 10lbs each day. The biggest thing I noticed by day three was how much easier it was to keep with it. Day 1 was a struggle to only rest for 20 seconds and there were a few times I rested for a lot longer. But as each day passed I returned much stronger. By the fifth day, I went to the original weight of 135lbs and blew throw it with ease and at the time of 45 minutes, a big jump from 20 minutes on day one.
    I regret not measuring my leg before hand, but I plan on using this routine in the future on other muscles and I won’t make that mistake again. I can say I saw a huge jump in my strength and stamina in the end though.
    I will also add, by the end of day 3, I was concerned on how well I was recovering and if I should continue. After day four, My leg ached so much that I had trouble sleeping. But the intensity that I was able to produce on day 5 was well worth the pain. The gym I use is very small and day 5 was on a Sunday morning, I didn’t expect the amount of people that were there and a group of guys looked a little irrated by the amount of time I spent hogging the squat rack. I almost felt bad but then I realized I was a guy some would consider “disabled” but I was in much better shape than any of them and when I finished my workout, I knew they couldn’t match the amount of sweat and work I put into it. Nothing is more motivating then walking out of the gym drenched in sweat from a single leg workout.

  7. **Update**

    I did this 5 day overload program first with barbell bicep curls. I definitely was able to add weight to the bar. Day 1 I started at 95 for more than half of my workout. Day 2 was 100, day 3 105, and day 4 I was still able to add more and get to 110. Not sure that I noticed much in the way of size gains, but my biceps are stubborn.

    I also did this with incline barbell chest press. This seemed to add some slightly noticeable size to the upper chest. Perhaps this theory really is for a ‘compound’ exercise and not necessarily a small individual muscle.

  8. What are you eating – be specific? How often are you eating? It’s best to eat every 2-3 hours for a total of 5-7 meals a day instead of 2-3 giant meals. Protein shake or a high protein breakfast first thing in the morning, as well as high quality protein post workout are probably the two most important things when eating for mass. No junk food! An occassional small treat is fine to keep your sanity, but this is not a cake or cookie eating contest.

  9. i would love to try out bench press but trouble is I dont gain any mass, cauyse I cant eat a lot..When I eat more, I get an upset stomach..Any recommendations?

  10. Just starting gym after few years of break and this should be one thing that I could test after I get to the normal program and exercise routines. This sound like training for 100 push ups but the time zone is a little more intense.

  11. I just purchased the Visual impact program – which I plan to start in december. I’ve read so many different things across the web and in magazines about muscle building, but I really like everything Rusty has to say, so I’m putting my faith in him. But first I want to try this 5 day overload a few different times with different exercises.

    I’m a 6’3″ ectomorph and can’t ever seen to gain any size.

    I am going to try standing barbell curls for biceps. I will report back and let everyone know how it goes…very excited!


  12. I’m just reporting on my experience following this over the last few days. I also threw in some of the macro nutrient cycling that Nick Nilsson packages with the routine – couple of low carb days before commencing; almost zero protien on day 1 (I fasted about 18 hours and then just consumed fruit the rest of that day) then generous portions of food and creatine on the remaining 4 days.

    I’d been debating with myself what exercise I would use. I wanted to break a growth plateau for my shoulders, but definitely not at the cost of getting chunky ‘bodybuilder’ type traps development as a side effect.

    Thanks to a mention by Michael on the ‘Underwearbody’ blog, I found what I wanted: Larry Scott dumbbell shoulder presses for middle delt emphasis. I found this press a lot easier than something like lateral raises for maintaining alright form across the couple of hundred sets you need to complete over 5 days with compound overload.

    I would say doing this program with a smaller type of compond move (compared to say bench or deadlift) means you don’t get so physically wiped-out. I actually feel pretty good after my 5 days. The delts themselves are just feeling plenty of muscle fatigue, and as the the vital question – yes the side delts are looking significantly bulked up, as are my triceps.

  13. Interesting article. I don’t have a bench press or a squat rack in my home gym anymore (moving stinks) so I’m stuck with only bodyweight workouts at the moment.

    I think I’ll try it with pushups and see how that works.

  14. Hey Rusty,
    well ive seen my brother did this with triceps pushdowns i thought he was crazy but he actually increased the weight at end of the week he got stronger and build bigger tris im gonna try it out


  15. A great guide and article indeed! My friend also went to Results Room Personal Training Gym in Wellington. They are passionate about helping you achieve your health and fitness goals…Fast!

  16. bigdawgali,

    I used overload program on three different muscle parts. Started out with chest (as this has always been my weakest spot), then did my back and shoulders.

    Results were very good. I upped my bench press about 20 lbs, bent over row went up about 25lbs and my DB overhead press switched from 70lbs to 75 db’s.

    I’m kind of scared to try it with small muscles such as biceps or triceps as they tend to fail quicker than bigger muscles such as chest or quads.

    I definitely recommend doing that on your back, legs and shoulders. You can experiment with biceps if you’d like. Let me know how that works if you do decide to do it with biceps.

    Hope this helps a little



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  17. Will Visual Impact Muscle building help me even if I’m a 21 year old skinny guy (6’0″, 140lbs)? I really don’t care about becoming massive, I just want to look sharp and have the lean hollywood look.

  18. Thanks for the help and feedback. I was able to complete it last week when I was on a business trip and had access to a gym with a nice set of dumbbells, and I had no other activities to interfere with this.

    The results were pretty good, I believe I definitely increased in my skill at the lift, got stronger, and perhaps saw some better definition this morning after a few days of rest in the arms, and chest. I will definitely be doing this at least once a month to focus on areas I want to improve!

  19. I wonder if you could do it the opposite way? Increasing the weight while lowering the reps.

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