What is progressive overload?
If you have been training for any length of time, you would have heard the term “progressive overload” before.
But what is it, and why does it matter for you?
By Coach Hunter Bennett
What is Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is one of the most important (if not THE most important) principles of effective training.
It can be thought of as “a gradual and continual increase in training stress, promoting adaptation.”
See, every time you perform a training session, you place your body under stress. This stress tells your body that it needs to adapt so that it can better handle that stress in the future.
This cycle determines how we become bigger, stronger, and more aerobically fit.
The Importance of Progressive Overload
I am sure that you have seen the guy in the gym who seems to do the same thing every single week.
Every session they do the same exercises, use the same weights, and make the same amount of progress — being zero.
This is a prime example of someone who completely ignores the principle of progressive overload.
After a few exposures to their program, they adapt to the point where it no longer provides enough training stress to create any meaningful change.
As a result, they end up spinning their wheels for years on end.
This is the last place you want to be.
How to Implement Progressive Overload
We have established that NOT making progress is probably not a good thing (I mean, why are you at the gym in the first place?), which begs the question — how can you keep making progress over the long-term?
Well, fortunately there are a few ways to approach this.
1. Increase Load
One of the easiest ways to ensure progressive overload is to try and add load on a regular basis.
For example, if you squatted 60kgs for 10 reps last week, and then 62.5kgs for 10 reps this week, you have successfully adapted to your last training session and then implemented progressive overload — ensuring more progress in the future.
2. Increase Reps
Another simple way is to increase reps.
If you squatted 60kgs for 10 reps last week, then 60kgs for 12 reps this week, you have adapted and implemented progressive overload.
3. Increase Sets
Now, there will be times where you simply cannot add more weight OR increase the number of reps you perform each set.
In this instance, adding an additional set offers a viable way to increase total training volume (and subsequently training stress) in a very efficient manner.
For example, if you squatted 60kgs for 3 sets of 10 last week, and 4 sets of 10 this week, you have again successfully implemented progressive overload (all aboard the gain train).
I should note that this something that should be reserved for the end of a training block, because an increase in sets causes a pretty substantial increase in volume, that you will need to recover from (more on that below).
4. Vary Your Exercises
Lastly, you can also change up your exercises.
If you have been training an exercise for a number of weeks, there is a likely possibility that you will reach a limit where the above methods of overload are no longer possible. In this instance, you have one of two options.
- Take a deload
- Change exercises
By changing exercises you provide the body with a novel stimulus, which allows you to start the “overload” process all over again. Then, after a time, you can return to the original exercise (which your body now perceives as a “new” stimulus), essentially repeating the process.
Don’t Force Progressive Overload
One thing that needs to be addressed is the fact that “progressive overload” cannot be forced.
You cannot simply add more load to the bar and expect to make progress every single week.
Because if you do, you will eventually crash and burn.
Arguably one of the best ways to describe this is by using the fitness-fatigue model.
The fitness-fatigue model highlights what occurs to you after a bout of training, where:
- Training causes a rapid increase in fatigue (green line)
- Training also causes adaptation, which is expressed as a change in fitness (blue line)
- However, you will not be able to observe this adaptation as a meaningful increase in performance (i.e. getting stronger) until fatigue has dissipated (performance is depicted by the red line)
Now, the trick to maximising progress is to commence your next training session as your performance from the previous session peaks. This means that you can successfully build on your previous session and make some serious progress.
But if you train again too soon, you are likely to underperform because fatigue is still present, and if you wait too long, you will underperform because your performance adaptation has started to decline.
It is for this reason that balancing training and recovery is so important.
However, this process will not last forever.
If you pay attention to the image above, you will notice that performance peaks before fatigue is completely dissipated. As a result, effective training will actually result in the accumulation of fatigue over time.
Meaning that after 3-5 weeks of accumulating fatigue, you will no longer be able to improve performance, and subsequently, apply the principle of progressive overload.
Which would be the perfect time to start a new training block with some new exercises (and likely a slightly lighter start to the block), or implement a deload.
And if you have ever wondered why we commonly program in 4 week blocks at BUILT., this is the reason.
What is Progressive Overload: Key Points
In the wise words of Rita Mae Brown “‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
If you want to progress, you need to do more. And this needs to be managed in a logical and effective way.
By using the tips outlined in this article you can implement progressive overload into your own training and stay on the gain train indefinitely.