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Progressive Overload

In this article, I’ll be explaining one of the key principles of exercise science – progressive overload. This simple law of training is critical for your success, no matter your goals. I’ll explain what progressive overload is, provide examples, and then finish off with practical advice. Don’t make this common mistake, one that I was guilty of for quite some time.

For some perspective - my first job as a personal trainer out of college was at a health club. The majority of the clientelle were middle-aged, consisting of businessmen and housewives. As a result, I was able to watch a lot of people exercise based on what they’ve read, watched on TV, or heard at the water cooler. Among many insights, one stands out – people gravitate to what’s routine. In the case of exercise, this can be seen in people who have ‘their routine’ – the same exercises, with the same sets, reps, and weights – every time. To be fair, simplicity is best. That said, progressions are a critical component of any successful fitness program.

In my first year of training, I saw tremendous gains in strength on a very simple, very basic program. Besides newbie gains in strength from improved coordination, the key to my success was progressive overload. Here’s how I did it, using weighted chinups as an example:

I began by performing 3 sets of 10 chinups. At first, I could do 6-7 reps. Rapidly, I could do 3 sets of 10. I added a 5lb dumbbell, and strove to achieve 3 sets of 10 again. Around 20lbs, I started doing 3 sets of 5. Every time I met my set and rep goal for a weight, I increased it by another 5lbs. Within several months of starting, I could perform 5 chinups with 50lbs, 1 with 75lbs, and over 20 without weight. Similarly, I had drastically improved on my overhead press, weighted dip, and squat in the same way. The key – progressive overload.

What is Progressive Overload?

Scientifically speaking, progressive overload is a scientific principle of exercise science that states that the tissues of a body will adapt to the stimulus it receives, and that incremental change in the intensity of stimulus is key to preventing stagnation. In English – your body will adapt to whatever physical demands are placed on it. Once it adapts to those particular demands, it will not continue to change.

I see the human body as the greatest, most universally adaptable machine in the world. However, it will do the least amount of adaptation possible to survive. While this is great out in the wilderness, this doesn’t bode well for your continued fitness development.

The bottom line – you must continually increase the difficulty of a program in order to keep reaping the benefits.

I know what you’re thinking - “Is progressive overload the same thing as muscle confusion?” Progressive overload is the cornerstone of the muscle confusion theory. While I don’t agree with changing every component of a program daily (truly random training, which seems to be how the media presents muscle confusion), adaptation is key.

With that out of the way, let’s go over some examples. The most common way to increase the intensity of a workout is by increasing the weight. Here are some of the ways to maintain progressive overload:

  • Increase the weight (the classic – do 3 sets of 10-12, once you can perform all 3 sets for 12 reps, advance the weight by 5lbs. Simple, yet effective.)
  • Increase the amount of sets for an exercise (increase the volume)
  • Increase the amount of reps performed per set (increase the volume)
  • Increase the difficulty of an exercise (moving to a harder exercise variation, like a split squat to a reverse lunge)
  • Change the variation of an exercise (changing from a flat bench press to an incline bench press) to stress the muscle in different ways
  • Increase the speed of a movement (increase the power generated in a movement)
  • Increase the time under tension or tempo of an exercise (time under load, literally how many seconds a muscle works during a set of a particular exercise. Different times result in the improvement of different qualities)
  • Decrease the rest period between sets (higher intensity or training density)
  • Increase the amount of exercises performed in a session
  • Reduce the stability of an exercise (this is not an invitation to start squatting on swiss balls, to be clear)

That’s a lot of options! And it’s hardly comprehensive. For beginners, focusing on weight used, reps performed, and tempo should see the best results. Now, for the practical portion of this article.

What happens when progressing in weight isn’t the ideal option?

Eventually, you will reach your potential on an exercise and it becomes more difficult to add weight. Here, you have a few options:

1 – Continue focusing on only strength, accepting that gains will be slower.

2 – Focus on a different adaptation, in order to improve strength through different means.

3 - Focus on a different exercise variation, and gain proficiency in that.

Focusing on Different Adaptations

Take a bench press, for example. Let’s say that “Joe” can bench press 225lbs for 1 rep, and 210 for 5 reps. But the two are ugly, and a real grind. “Joe” could declare 210 a success, and immediately attempt 5 reps at 215. The reps are real ugly, real slow, and a little rough on his shoulder. But hey, it’s more weight, right?

But what if Joe stayed at 210, and focused on “owning” that weight. Joe stays at 210 and begins focusing on a slower negative, with a pause at the bottom, and a more explosive lockout. He’s still developing strength, but in a different way. Now, Joe is emphasing these additional adaptations:

  • Greater time under tension, resulting in more myofibrillar (muscle fiber) hypertrophy.
  • Greater power, accomplished through a faster bar speed at the same weight.

Through a combination of increased power and muscle size, Joe could continue improving his bench press – with a less stressful alternative. A confession: A while ago, I lifted like “Joe”. I was beat up, losing motivation, and frustrated with a lack of progress. When I focused on ‘owning’ the weight, I continued to see progress in multiple areas.

Approached differently, this method is used when lifters take 20-30% off of their lifts during a plateau and restart the progressive overload process. I’ve personally stalled on the overhead press at a 3RM, only to decrease the weight by 30%, perform 3 sets of 5, and gradually build back into what is now a former 3RM for additional reps.

Focusing on Different Variations

In block training, this can be seen by cycling variations of main exercises. Month 1 is a flat bench press, month 2 is incline, month 3 is floor close grip, etc. It may also be done with exercise progressions and regressions. Commonly, this is used when teaching somebody how to squat. Wall Squat -> Box squat -> Plate Squat -> Goblet Squat -> Front Squat -> Back Squat -> Overhead Squat, etc.

As one last example – “Jane” is new to exercising. She works a desk job and has incredibly stiff hip flexors. Her friend “Becky” has great legs, and attributes them to heaps of walking lunges. Jane tries them, wobbles all over the place, and either crashlands to the floor or simply dips an inch or two each rep. Sound extreme? It’s something that I see with the majority of my new clients.

Jane has 2 options:

1 – Continue lunging, hopefully improve her range of motion and leg strength, although she’ll likely develop some knee or hip pain along the way.

2 – Regress to a stationary split squat, holding onto a smith rack, a TRX, or hooked into some superbands to help her with the movement. She can use a full range of motion this way, and can perform a higher amount of reps. This will amount in a longer time under tension throughout a greater amount of muscle tissue. She’s increased the hypertrophic response on a greater amount of tissue. By regressing the exercise, she’s able to improve her fitness pain-free. In a few weeks, she’ll progress by increasing the difficulty of the exercise variation.

Now, multiple methods work. Many people have become excellent at pushups by simply doing more pushups. However, many of my clients have become fantastic at pushups by working down from an incline. When they eventually reach the floor, and they all do, their form is impeccable because they have perfected it in over time – at a weight their body could handle. To be frank, my female clients that work down from an incline bar have better form than 90% of male athletes that I assess on day 1 because of their superior core strength & stability. It’s my preferred method of training pushups, and I’ve regressed several male athletes and clients for similar reasons. In my opinion, the better method is the safest method.

That was a long post, but I wanted to provide a thorough overview of the topic. Focus on a few adaptations (don’t go changing everything all at once) for 3-4 weeks, and mark your progress. Questions? Stalled and can’t think of a way to progress? Leave your questions or comments below, and I’ll see if I can’t add some perspective.