What is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed the body during exercise training in such a way that triggers the body’s natural, adaptive response to new demands placed on it with the goal of increasing strength and muscle mass (as opposed to maintaining current muscularity & strength levels.)
Its been said that "if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten."
If you’re content with your current strength levels and your physique, then, feel free to continue to train as you have. However, for those of us who are never content, always seeking to make steady improvements from month to month and year to year, progressive overload becomes the driving force behind the bulk of those physical goals and ambitions.
In fact, you won’t achieve your fitness goals without continually pushing and challenging yourself. Just take care to bring a measured approach to progressively overloading the body as going too hard can lead to under-recovery and injury. The key is to incorporate intensity and recovery in such a way so that stimulus and repair are always in balance.
Stimulus & Recovery Drive Progression
The funny thing about our body is that it’s kind of lazy and doesn’t want to carry extra muscle if it doesn’t have to. Carrying more weight in any form (fat or muscle) is a burden that our bodies will look to escape anytime the opportunity present itself.
Therefore, when we are inactive due to injury or lack of interest, we start to lose much our hard-earned gains. If we are continually inactive, our muscles will deteriorate until our body reaches a state of balance (homeostasis).
Training is a stress to the body. If we stress the body to a level that it is accustomed to, the result will be the maintenance of that fitness level. However, if we disrupt homeostasis by stimulating the body above its current adapted state of fitness, cells are forced to grow in size, strength & number in order to adjust to those increased demands. In fact, because our body doesn’t like to be out of its comfort zone, it will often overcompensate in response to training.
How to Progressive Overload:
- Improve your form
- Increase the weight/resistance
- Increase the volume (reps & sets)
- Increase frequency of training
- Decrease rest between sets
- Increase range of motion
- Alter your lifting tempo
- Go past failure (negatives, forced reps, drop sets, partial reps)
A closer look at each of the techniques used to progressively overload the body reveals some interesting truths:
1. Improve your form
If you’re newer to weight training, there’s a fair chance that you’re using less-than-ideal form on a lot of your lifts. Maybe you’re guilty of bouncing weight up off your chest when bench pressing or perhaps you like to add a little body English to your curls. Whatever the case may be, muscles grow in response to being challenged. By not adhering to strict form you’re not only letting your muscles off the hook easy, but you may be leaving yourself vulnerable to injury & extended time out of the gym.
2. Increase the weight/resistance
This is the most obvious way to progressively overload an exercise. As far as many are concerned, this is the only way to grow bigger & stronger. While this is a very valid means of achieving muscle hypertrophy, it is not the be-all-end-all.
3. Increase the volume (reps & sets)
As you get stronger, you become able to perform more and more repetitions over time. If the weight remains constant, but you’ve performed more reps, the result is more work done and more gains. Intensity is key; upping your training volume is just another way to stimulate new muscle growth. Volume can be in the form of more reps, extra sets, or adding more exercises to your workout routine. Just remember, muscles don’t count, they feel; so be sure to focus on squeezing every repetition to get the most out of your volume.
4. Increase frequency of training
Increasing the frequency with which you train a muscle group is yet another way of increasing the overload. Let’s say you have a certain muscle group that is weak or lagging; training it an extra time every week is a great way to bring it up to speed if you’re seeking to balance out your physique.
5. Decrease rest between sets
You could always accomplish the same work in less time or perform more work in the same amount of time. By taking shorter rest breaks in between sets you force your body to adapt and grow under the increase in metabolic stress, so let’s do less “talky” and more “lifty”!
6. Increase range of motion
The greater the distance that the weight travels, the more work that is done. Taking the weight through a greater range of motion is a subtle way of increasing the difficulty of a lift without having to do anything else different. Makes sense, right?
7. Alter your lifting tempo
Whether you like to accelerate the weight quickly performing explosive repetitions or prefer to slow down your lifts to take momentum out of the equation, changing your tempo to one that you’re not accustomed to can be surprisingly challenging to your body. It’s not always about how much or how many, but the way in which you perform your reps that makes all the difference in the world. Your tempo/cadence is the most effective way you can make 100 lbs. feel like 175 lbs.
8. Go past failure (negatives, forced reps, drop sets, partial reps)
This last option is probably the best option when it comes to potential for variety & creativity in a training program. This method will often, but not necessarily require a training buddy or spotter. By taking your sets past failure by means of negatives, forced reps, drop sets, partial reps or even, cheat reps, you force your muscles to struggle, going above and beyond what can be accomplished with the typical set. Taking sets past failure is an extremely taxing way of training and should be used sparingly and strategically. Using this high intensity technique can really burn you out and lead to potential injury if used on every single set, so take care to pick and choose your spots.
The Two Rules of Progressive Overload:
- Only change one variable at a time. We don’t increase our weight, volume, time under tension and incorporate training to failure all at the same time. Doing so is too many stressors for the body to adjust to at once. It is wise to focus on progressing slowly but steadily so that we don’t overstress the body and break down with injury or illness.
- Increase volume before increasing intensity. This means we perform more reps with the same amount of weight before we resort to increasing the weight. By focusing on volume first, we ensure that the integrity of our form stays intact before challenging our body with heavier poundage and more intensity. This approach helps to ensure that we continue to stimulate muscle with minimal risk of under-recovering.