Progressive Overload Made Simple
FACT: your body doesn’t know that you want to get stronger. It doesn’t know you want a bigger squat, diced up quads, or a leaner tummy.
All it knows is survival.
Your body’s ONLY goal is quite literally to keep you alive and functioning.
The good news is that it’s pretty good at it. That’s the reason you’re able to survive colds and other infections. It’s the reason why you tan when you catch a little sun, and as you’ll soon see, it’s also the reason why progress in strength and fitness is a possibility at all.
The bad news, though, it’s that it’s too good at keeping you alive and well. It’s extremely efficient at using only the resources it needs, on things that need it the most.
That’s the reason why we don’t only lose fat but also muscle mass when we diet. It’s also the reason why we need to continuously challenge ourselves if we want to keep making strength, muscle and performance gains.
How do we let our body know what we want it to do? How does it know to grow muscle, lose fat, or get stronger?
The answer is simple: adaptation.
The body responds exactly to the demands imposed on it by adapting in the most efficient way.
If you lift a weight that’s slightly above your capacity (as in, a weight that you haven’t lifted before), it will adapt by getting stronger. I mean, it’s slightly more complicated than that, and there are many factors that must come together to create an optimal environment for success*, but we won’t get into the nitty gritty of it now. Suffice to say, your body demands a little challenge, outside of its comfort zone, in order to promote growth.
And that’s the basis of progressive overload: in order to keep getting stronger, we need to continuously challenge ourselves by doing a little more work over time.
Now, ‘more work’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘heavier weights’. As you can imagine, it’s impossible to keep adding plates to the bar week in and week out.
Thankfully, that’s not the only type of overload you can impose on your body.
Overload, or ‘more work’, comes in many shapes and forms. You can do more work by doing one more repetition than you did last week.
You can change the difficulty of an exercise, say, by increasing its range of motion or altering the lifting speed (tempo).
Switching up the position of the load is another great way to increase the difficulty of an exercise without swapping it out for something else entirely. If you only do lunges holding dumbbells by your side, try holding a barbell on the front of your shoulders for an increase in stimulus without having to change the movement.
It’s worth noting that progressive overload doesn’t mean constant training variety; you need to give your body enough time to adapt and produce the results you want. This means sticking it out with a certain exercise variation for at least 4 weeks. The alternative means you’ll always be spinning your wheels, trying different things, but never getting any good at anything. Oh, yeah, and the results won’t come either.
Think about this next time you’re at the gym, and be honest with yourself: have you been pushing yourself hard enough for the gains to come?
If you haven’t, now you know what you need to do.
If you have and still aren’t seeing the results you’re after, there may be something else in your routine that’s preventing you from moving forward. (Feel free to send us a message – we’d love to help you figure it out!)
To your strength,
*Note: Progressive overload is the cornerstone of strength training. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to make any progress at all. However, factors such as training frequency, intensity. weekly volume and fatigue management must all be dialed in to make sure you get the most out of your training.
About The Author
Since 2013, Barbara has helped women of all fitness backgrounds get stronger, leaner and more confident, both inside and outside the gym.
Her passion lies in educating, empowering and encouraging women to find out what they’re capable of, and more.
You may also like
RPE and RIR are both methods of autoregulating training variables for the purpose of improved performance and better fatigue management. Find out what the different is between the two, and when to pick the best tool for the job.
Training at Barbell Strength isn’t only about moving weight, it’s also about the connections you make along the way. In this blog post, a member shares their experience with navigating the powerlifting scene as part of the LGBTQ community.
In this article, you’ll get the full scoop on what exactly the mind-muscle connection is, when and how to use it, and what the practical applications are for powerlifters and other strength athletes.