Progressive overload is one of the key ingredients to building muscle effectively. It will help to organise an effective training structure that will enable you to continuously add muscle over long periods of time. This doesn’t mean you’ll be able to put on muscle quickly, no matter what technique is used gaining muscle takes time and patience mixed with a calorie surplus and plenty of hard work.
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Hypertrophy is the word used for muscle gain in the strength and conditioning / sports science industry. It involves overloading a muscle in such a way that it adapts and grows in response to a stimulus.
Progressive overload is the training principle that consists of increasing the physiological stress placed on the body over time to create an adaptation. This principle is used in all different types of training to create effective adaptation, you should be using it in your training to make sure you’re getting the most out of your time, including if you’re making a hypertrophy plan.
The key metric when training for muscle growth is working sets of the muscle group you’re trying to grow. By consistently applying mechanical tension to a muscle with large amounts of working sets in the 50-70% of 1RM weight range is a sure fire way to grow new muscle mass. So when trying to apply progressive overload to create hypertrophy, the key variable is slowly augmenting the amount of sets being performed on a muscle group, on a weekly bases. The amount of sets you start with will really depend on your current training age and volume tolerance. This may mean that 4 sets a week will be enough to induce change to muscles size for a beginner but an advanced individual will be more like 12-15 working sets in the week. Either way, the principle of progressive overload stays the same, both a beginner and advanced individual need to slowly augment the stress placed on their body while periodically taking breaks to recover.
When creating a training plan for hypertrophy, you will need to consider all the muscles your wanting to grow. From here you can pick which exercises your going to use to target these muscles and how your going to structure the training sessions (full body, Upper-lower split , specific days for specific muscles). Once you have designed this template you will want to make a decision on what your minimal effective volume, and maximal recoverable volume are. Then progressively increase the volume of an exercise from the minimal effective volume towards the maximal recoverable volume throughout a training cycle. The next cycle will start with a reduction in volume, as we cannot just keep linearly increasing the volume.
For example if your a beginner, your minimal effective volume for the pectoral muscles might be 3 working sets a week and your maximal recoverable volume might be 8 sets per week (obviously these change based on the person and their lifestyle, but some assumptions need to be made in order to offer an example). Once you have these two numbers we can use blocks of 3-4 weeks on a specific exercise, say the bench press with the volume slowly increasing from week to week. In the beginners case they might start on 3 sets of bench press on week one then move to 4 and 5 respectively. Here we can see how progressive overload is being used to successfully induce hypertrophy. This can be done for every muscle group that is trying to be grown.
The exact same principle would be used for an advanced individual, but the numbers and weights might change dramatically. An advanced individual might have 4-5 sessions a week and have a minimum effective dose at 10 sets, building to 16 working sets throughout a 3-4 week cycle. Let’s use an example of someone who is trying to grow their hamstrings, they might perform three hamstring exercises in the week with 3-4 sets on each for a total of 10 working sets. Then this might move to 4-5 and 5-6 sets per exercise per week. Finishing with a total of 16 sets on the hamstrings, close to the individuals maximal recoverable volume.
Adaptive resistance is based on the idea that once we have adapted to an exercises for a while, we begin to resist the adaptation to that exercises, almost as if the adaption from that exercise has been “used up”. This is hard to study or have any empirical evidence for its existence, but if your experienced in training, you might have had the feeling that the movement your performing just isn’t budging and it’s time to move onto a different exercise and come back to this one later. A lot can be said about just using this for reducing mundanity of training. Sticking to a plan can be hard enough as it is, let alone having to worry about doing the same exercises for months on end. So when using the progressive overload principle, make sure you take into consideration adaptive resistance, over the long course of your training journey it can make a huge difference. Keeping a training journal every training day can be really useful for tracking reps and total volume.
The specifics of a plan don’t really make difference at all, they are the minutia that we like to geek out on, but the most important thing is that the principle is being adhered to. Are you progressively overloading your hypertrophy training by adding more working sets overtime? If in two years you moved from 5 sets per muscle group to 10, the likelihood is that you have successfully carried out an effective hypertrophy protocol. Always remember that following the principle is the most important, not the minutia of the plan.
You can overload the muscles using a wide variety of weights, anything from 40-70% of your 1RM can be effective at creating load progression models. Progressive overload training can be very effective at light weight, this can seem counter intuitive but the recent studies show that great results can be obtained from using light weights.
Getting certified personal training should mean that they are using the progressive overloading strategies and using volume load progression to get progressive results. If a personal trainer isn’t using progressive overload to improve any areas of fitness of their client then they are missing out on optimising their training.
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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.