Strength Training Basics: Progressive Overload

Mar 2, 2018

In the first installment of this series, I will be introducing a concept that I hope will broaden your understanding of what drives progress in the gym, and that is the concept of progressive overload.

Undoubtedly one of the most important principles underlying any sound training program, progressive overload is also one of the easiest to understand and apply.

By definition, overload simply refers to the increase in stimulus placed on a system in order to bring about positive adaptations.

In plain English, overload implies doing more today than you did last week. It means continuously challenging our bodies to overcome physical stresses, such as lifting increasingly heavier weights.

In turn, it is this gradual increase in stimulus that poses a demand on our systems to become stronger, increase muscle mass, or improve aerobic conditioning. In other words, the result is the exact physiological adaptation that we are striving for.

 

Specificity

One of the tenets of progressive overload is that your body will only adapt in direct response to the stresses placed upon it. That means training for improved aerobic capacity isn’t exactly the best way to incur strength gains, as the two training modalities result in different physiological outcomes.

This principle is known as Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID), and is one of the reasons why progressive overload is so important. Without a progressive increase in work over time, your strength gains will eventually come to a halt, as you are no longer introducing the stimulus that forces your body to adapt by becoming stronger.

Think about it this way: without progressive overload, we would be spinning our wheels in the gym doing the same thing repeatedly, and consequently not getting any better at what we’re doing.

Putting It Into Practice

There are countless way in which we can continue to increase the amount of work that we do. By far the most intuitive method of chasing overload is to do the same work with heavier weights. For a raw beginner, this can be achieved as simply as adding 5-10 lbs on the bar every week.

The quick increase in strength at the beginning of one’s strength journey is a result of enhanced coordination, technique, and overall neurological proficiency. If you haven’t yet surpassed your beginning stages of lifting, enjoy it while it lasts!

A more intermediate or advanced lifter will have a much harder time making such fast and linear strength gains. Once those newbie gains have faded, there will be a need for a more sensible and schematic approach to the manipulation of different training variables, such as intensity and frequency. It is important to keep in mind that over months and years of strength training, progressive overload never ceases to be one of the main determinants of training progress.

Overall, there will always be a need for increasing total training volume over time. Recall that volume simply refers to the load x reps x set performed in a workout, training week, training cycle, or any other measurable amount of time.

With that being said, note that training volume within a training cycle might not always increase; in fact, many strength-geared programs tend to decrease volume as intensity of load increases. However, when analyzed over the long-term, a lifter must be doing more overall volume per cycle to reach a desired overload.

Another caveat of progressive overload in the more advanced stages of strength training is the increased need for recovery. Whereas a beginner can, for the most part, focus on simply adding weights and reps over time, advanced trainees must carefully manage variables such as fatigue in order to continue making progress.

There are many ways in which overload can be achieved, and they’re not at all mutually exclusive.

The list below covers some of the most common methods:

1. Increasing the weight being used

2. Increasing the number of reps performed in a set

3. Increasing the number of sets performed

4. Increasing the range of motion of an exercise

5. Increasing training frequency

6. Increasing the amount of work done in a set amount of time

7. Doing the same amount of work in less time

8. Decreasing the rest time between sets

9. Choosing a harder variation of an exercise

On a final note, it is worth mentioning that one must still aim to achieve overload within the range which will bring the desired adaptations. Simply put, doing endless sets of 15+ reps is not very efficient in increasing your 1RM. With that being said, beginners will still see a strength benefit from many training modalities, be it geared towards building muscular endurance or muscular strength, but the need for specificity certainly increases over time.

Practical Takeaways

Putting the principle of overload into practice is simple. If you want to keep gaining muscle and getting stronger, you need to continuously do more work in the gym over time.

If you are a beginner, the most important thing for you to pay attention to should be progressive overload – focus on adding more weight to the bar over time. If you can easily manage all prescribed reps in a set, aim to increase the load or push past those reps in your next session.

Lastly, many coaches won’t explicitly admit this, but any sound program that uses overload as its basis for driving progress will work for a raw beginner. Overload paired with consistency should be the foundation for anyone looking to get started on their strength journey!