For beginners, both understanding and utilising progressive overload in their training can be the difference between creating a new habit of training and not. If you can create great result within the first six months of training using progressive overload and other principles of training you will be able to build an excellent base going forward.
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Overload is the reason why we train, we place a stress or load on our body in such a way that the body adapts. We are overloading the body and thereby creating adaptations. Progressive overload is just the process of doing this over a long period of time.
Understanding the principle of progressive overload will massively help following a plan as knowing the why behind the programming can dramatically increase buy in. The principle of progressive overload is the structured augmentation of stress placed upon the body to create an adaptation. Progressive overload can be created through manipulating two training variables, the volume and intensity of the training. This can be applied to any physiological adaptation you’re trying to create, from running to muscle gain, the progressive overload principle can be used.
Although beginners tend to progress very fast, as they have never been exposed to a stimulus before, using progressive overload correctly can ensure rapid progress. This can be extremely motivating when you’re just getting into training and can really help you build a habit around training and exercise.
Beginners can also massively benefit from organised training around exercise selection. If we look at someone who can’t perform a press up, the process of getting your first press up can be relatively short compared to other goals like pull ups, but only if the training is correctly organised.
There are two ways to implement progressive overload when training in monthly training blocks or meso cycles. Progressive overload can be implemented from cycle to cycle making training more difficult throughout long periods of times. Or it can be done intra-cycle, manipulation of volume and intensity from week to week.
To turn the abstract principle of progressive overload into a visual representation of how progressive overload can be applied a press up over the period of six months. Let’s say a client has just started training and has very limited upper body strength and no back ground in strength training at all. One of their big goals is to be able to do a press up in a six month time frame. Using progressive overload will massively help you achieve this goal, here is an example of six months of strength and hypertrophy training to move towards the goal of performing a press up for a complete beginner. In this example they will be training twice per week with a few days in between sessions. One exercise each session will be used to work the horizontal pressing movement pattern. The training will work through monthly training blocks, where the same exercises are used for four weeks with slight alterations to the volume and intensity throughout. Then the exercises are changed every month.
Now I have given a bodyweight example of a beginner trainee using progressive overload, I want to take a look at how a beginner could use progressive overload to increase their strength.
Let’s say you’re a beginner who has managed to develop good technique in the squat, you’re athletic and have good mobility. Now you’re looking to increase your strength levels in the squat. Using progressive overload from the beginner will help you build a large base of strength in a 6 month period.
Here is an example of a strength training block that applies the principle of progressive overload over a period of 3 weeks. As a beginner know your one repetition maximum can be difficult. The best is to build to a weight you find challenging and perform the most amount of reps possible, then use a 1RM calculator like this one . Three weeks of training is an extremely short period of time, but this is just to give you an example of how a beginner might use progress overload in a cycle by increasing volume and intensity.
Back Squat Cycle
Week 1 - 3 x 5 @70%
Week 2 - 4 x 5 @72.5%
Week 3 - 5 x 5 @75%
Beginner’s should use workout routines with progressive overload training for gaining muscle size. This can be to implement progressive overload in a simple way, it doesn’t have to be complex. Progressive overload works exceptionally well for beginners from muscle growth to general fitness. Just slowly increasing the number of sets or kilometres run is progressive overload, keep it simple and effective.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.