Progressive overload is one of the key principles that allows us to design effective training programmes in both the long and short term. Understanding and implementing it can help us move towards our goals much more effectively.
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Overload is so important because it is the base of all adaptation we create through training. Without overload there can be no progressive overload, so having a good understanding of how this works is crucial if you want to successfully implement progressive overload into your training. The body is an extremely smart, extremely complex system, it responds to what is exposed to to its best ability.
If you think about overload like your body learning in the way your brain learns when it needs to. If you expose yourself to a stressor of any sort, your body will respond by allowing your to be more prepared for this stimulus in the future. Image in order to successful hunt a zebra you have to track it, run after it for 8-12 hours. Your body will be trained an adapted to this stimulus and therefore you’re physiology will adapt over time to be able to perform this task.
Adaptation doesn’t occur when you don’t impose enough stress or work. If all you had to do was order your dinner on Uber eats, there is no stress imposed on the body and no adaptation takes place. This highlights why exercise is so important to humans in modern society as our daily life no longer requires and activity that we can adapt too, but thats for another article.
So now that we understand that overload is when we place a stress on the body and it adapts to be able to deal with the demand, then progressive overload is simply the augmentation of this stress over a period of time.
If we take our example from above where a hunter gatherer adapts to the demands imposed on him/her by their environment, but we imagine they are experienced and have done these sorts of stressors (hunting) hundreds of times. The body will be adapted to the stressor, it will not impose a new stress or a stress that the body hasn’t already adapted too. Therefore the stress no longer creates an overload and the body doesn’t adapt to the stressor. The stressor isn’t progressive over time and therefore isn’t creating new physiological adaptations.
Now let’s jump forward a few thousand years to modern humans in the context of weight training. We are going to use and example of someone who has never stepped in the gym before. They perform five sets of five on then bench press at 40kg, it’s difficult, but they manage to lift the load with good technique. The next day they are sore and their muscles ache due to the effort they performed. They come in over the next 8 weeks and perform the exact same session and by the 8th week the weight feels very light and almost as if they are not doing any work. They have adapted to the initial overload so much that the same weight is no longer creating a physiological adaption as it’s not stressful enough. This individual comes in every week for the year and performs the same weights and same number of repetitions, they will maintain there current levels of strength and muscle mass but they will not progress. Inhere comes the principle of progressive overload and the many techniques to implement it. Thats’s the principle, augmenting the stress placed upon the body over time to create a specific adaptation.
The major benefit of progressive overload is that it allows us to design exercise programmes in such a way that we can continue to progress towards our physiological goals for either health or performance. Stagnation in physical exercise can be very frustrating and make us feel very unmotivated, so successfully implementing this principle will enable us to find long term motivation to move. Exercise programmes that don’t incorporate progressive overload or programmes that are not followed with consistency and therefor progressive overload can not be applied will mean stagnation and often frustration, another reason for consistent most likely being the most important training variable for success, without it progressive overload cannot be applied.
Learning a base level of technique is absolutely crucial to successfully apply the principle of progressive overload. Without it you will be adding volume and intensity to positions which cannot deal with high levels of stress and will eventually create ingrained poor movement patterns which will lead to injury and low performance.
As an example, let’s take a 25 year old male who wants to perform a bodyweight back squat. Currently he can only do 50% of his bodyweight but has poor squat technique, poor hip mobility and poor ankle mobility. We cannot just write a great back squat progression and watch his squat grow, if we overload these positions with poor technique, they will stay there and eventually something will break and the ceiling of performance would be set lower than if we had fixed the movement in the first place. This is why creating solid movement quality in any physiological attribute you are trying to progress is so important, without it you’re just loading bad positions.
We know that the stressor needs to be increased in order to create an adaptation, but what tools do we have to increase the stress placed on the body. We place stress on the body in two ways, volume (amount of work performed) and intensity (the difficulty of the work). These are the two variables which we can manipulate to place higher and higher levels of stress on the body. There are many different ways to increase and decrease volume and intensity, giving you so many different avenues to play with you or your clients training. I like to think about these as the toggles you can turn to create stressors on different physiological attributes. Here are some examples of how you can turn the toggles of the two key ways to create stress.
It’s important to take both long and short term progressive overload into consideration when designing you’re training or a clients training. You might progress training on a week to week but you may chose to do it on a monthly basis You will be able to manipulate the training training variables In order to understand the principle, people often give weekly examples of progressive overload.
Week 1: 3 Sets
Week 2: 4 Sets
Week 3: 5 Sets
This shows a very basic form of progressive overload over a three week training block. But what isn’t often taken into account is the fact that adaptation takes place over a very long period of time. You don’t have to use a strict weekly increase, or strict percentage increase, you need to understand the principle and apply it to your training over a long period of time. This is especially true if you’re an experienced trainee and need to fight harder for your adaptations.
A training Meso cycle is a way to organise training into blocks, these blocks consist of different training sessions depending on the current goal of an individual. There are three types of cycles used to periodise (organise) training.
Using this structure we can see how we move from a long term training goal to a single session in that 6 months of training. The macro cycles are not extremely relevant for general population clients unless they have a very specific long term goal to orientate towards. Meso cycles however can help us conceptualise a month of training in such a way that progressive overload is very easy to achieve. They allow us to plan 3-6 weeks of training where we apply the principle of progressive overload and put emphasis on specific movements. If we were to just write training randomly, session by session, we would get better, but ensuring progressive overload would be a huge challenge. Also orientating towards a specific goal would be very difficult.
If you’re going to successfully implement progressive overload into your training, I think that using this structure of training blocks makes the implementation more effective and efficient. Progressive overload can be achieved in other ways, but it’s hard to track and harder to implement.
Now we understand how training written in blocks (cycles) is more effective for creating progressive overload, we can look at two different ways to use these blocks of training to create progressive overload. The first is within a block of training, if we have written a training cycle to increase overload strength, specifically in the back squat, we would progressively overload the weight in the back squat overtime. Here is an example:
Week 1 - 5 x 5 @70% of 1RM
Week 2 - 5 x 5 @72.5% of 1RM
Week 3 - 5 x 5 @75% of 1RM
This is a very clear and simple linear progression within a cycle to progressively overload the back squat. Then we could write another block and progress the back squat in a different way.
There is another form of progressive overload we can use when using training cycles to organise our training. This can be progressing from one cycle to the next, making the stressor greater over a long period of time. This can be done with any of the toggles we have in the tool box. We could progress exercise difficulty, weight, repetitions, training frequency etc. Either way both of these progressive overload strategies used in conjunction with each other are a great way to ensure you or your clients progress.
Tracking progressive overload can be a blessing and a curse, yes we want to know our numbers, but we don’t want to get so sucked into the figures that it takes the joy out of training. Tracking some key metrics is the secret to tracking successfully, if you try to track to many variables it will be very difficult to keep on track of everything. Chose what you want to get better at specifically and forget the rest. The tool you use doesn’t matter when tracking progressive overload, the most important is the fact that you’re tracking it consistently and have a good process to do so.
Week 1 - 3 x 5 @70%
Week 2 - 4 x 5 @70%
Week 3 - 4 x 5 @75%
Week 4 - 5 x 5 @75%
This shows how we can manipulate a back squat load and volume throughout a training cycle. We play with the two key toggles and progressively add difficulty over the cycle. Then we would pull back and start another cycle taking some of the stress away.
Cycle 1 Exercise Selection
Cycle 2 Exercise Selection
Cycle 3 Exercise Selection
Cycle 4 Exercise Selection
Here we can see how we can progressively overload the body by moving from one exercise to a more challenging one over time. We are not manipulating just the sets and the reps, but the actual exercise can create the progressive overload effect as its more difficult.
The biggest limitation of progressive overload is that it requires a rigid structure, making it very difficult to adhere too. On top of that, the training can be viewed as repetitive or boring, which I will discuss below. This rigid structure can be overbearing and make people dislike this type of training. That’s fine, if people are happy with how they are currently exercising, they feel health and good in themselves, then why force them onto a rigid strength training program that optimises the progressive overload principle? If you use an example of someone who swims twice per week, runs once with friends and hikes regularly, they are aware of the benefits of strength training but feel for the moment it’s not something they want to add into their lives, then thats great too. Progressive overload isn’t a requirement to be a healthy, functioning individual. If you have physiological goals that are going to be hard to achieve however, using this principle is going to be very important.
Training cannot simply keep getting more and more difficult infinitum, otherwise anyone who trains consistently for 10 years would be unimaginably strong. Understanding the concept of periodisation here can help apply the principle of progressive overload over longer periods of time.
This is another reason why conceptualising training into cycles or blocks can be beneficial, we progressively overload a movement pattern within a cycle and then move to another cycle and we can reduce the stimulus slightly at the beginning of the cycle only to increase higher than it’s previous peak in the last cycle. This will give the body plenty of time to adapt to the previous stimulus while maintaining current properties and skills.
Adaptive resistance can help us understand the concept of why training can’t be linear. Adaptive resistance is the idea that we can “use up” the adaptation of a specific exercise and that once we reach this point, it’s time to move onto a different exercise to elicit this adaptation. We adapt to a certain exercise, we take the benefits from it by improving our physiology then we change the exercise. As an example, in one block of training we might use inverse press ups to create adaptations in the horizontal pull movement pattern, we progressively overload this over a cycle and adapt to it. Then in the next cycle we change the exercise to a different horizontal pull variation to continue to make adaptations in the movement pattern, for this example we could use a 1-Arm Low Row.
There are probably around 30 exercises you could use to stay in amazing shape for the rest of your life, you could probably even reduce this to 10 if you had to. You could run well written training cycles on these movements until you die and keep getting better not taking into account the ageing process. But humans don’t work like that, they like novelty, they want to set new goals, try new things and enjoy their physical experience.
There are so many ways you can find a balance between well written programming and enjoying doing new things with your body. They key is to find the physiological attributes you would like to progress and ensure they are being manipulated in such a way that they follow the principles of progressive overload.
We do all this in order to move closer towards our goals, we have to structure training in such a way because adaptation is difficult. The body will not adapt unless a stressor is consistently placed upon it, so being patient while applying this stress is going to be crucial to your success. Take your time, let your body adapt and enjoy your training in the process, this is the key to long term progress towards your goals.
One misconception about progressive overload is that we need to constantly be increasing the weight in order to create progressive, this just simple isn’t the case. We need to be consistently adding difficulty, but as we have seen, there are so many ways to increase difficulty that weight doesn’t constantly need to be increased. In this study , they showed that in order to create adaptation using the principle of progressive overload, that increasing weight wasn’t a necessity and that manipulating other variable like volume can be extremely effective.
It can be very easy to conceptualise progressive overload as just something used to get stronger, but it can be applied to any physiological adaptation your striving towards, from muscle growth to running a faster 10km. In this study we see an excellent representation of specificity and how different the adaptation can be using the same principle of progressive overload. Just by changing the number of repetitions we can create very different adaptations within the muscles.
Don’t get bogged down in complexity, movement is one of the key pillars to health. Obsessing over a perfect, progressively overloading programme can sometime stop people from doing anything. Don’t forget to move for the sake of it, not everything needs to be goal orientated and organised.
Neither is more important, but a volume is the key metric to muscle gain, increasing the repetitions will likely have a bigger impact on your or a client muscle gain. Training progressive overload depends on the goal and here it is hypertrophy, so increasing the repetitions and overall volume will be very important. If it was to increase barbell back squat strength, increase the weight lifted in an overload workout plan would be key.
A progressive overloading workout plan for increased strength or fitness needs to have specific goals. Once these goals are established and the exercises are selected to achieve the goals you will need to progressive overload exercises to place a stressor on the body.
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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.