This article was written by one of The Food Medic team; personal trainer and fitness writer – Adam Willis
When it comes to getting training results possibly the most important principle you must understand, and pursue, is progressive overload.
Seeking, and achieving, progressive overload over weeks, months, and years, will help you get stronger, become more powerful, increase muscle, improve your endurance etc.
Whatever your training goal, progressive overload, in some capacity, must be achieved.
But what is Progressive Overload?
The principle of Progressive Overload is the continuous pursuit to place increasingly harder demands on the body to increase strength, power, muscle, and endurance. This is achieved through stressing the body beyond what it is currently used to so that it adapts to a greater extent in preparation to being exposed to that stress again.
So, why is progressive overload so important?
Put very simply, without progressive overload, nothing changes. You won’t change.
You see, your body loves to maintain homeostasis and stay where it is, even if you don’t like where you’re currently at. Just the act of showing up to the gym and training is not enough to make your body change and adapt. You must challenge it. You must stress it, and that stress must be specific to the desired outcome you’re after. You must progressively overload your body in a specific fashion, over time, to create the training outcomes and results you want.
You need progressive overload to stress your body so that it is challenged beyond what it is usually accustomed to and then it adapts so that it can deal with that stress when exposed to it again. That adaptation to the stress placed upon it is what is also referred to as training progress, or training results.
Now, your body is great at adapting to stress, and will often do so very quickly, so you must try to pursue some form of progressive overload most week’s during your training, or at the very least, the intent to pursue progressive overload must be there.
In an imaginary fairyland progressive overload would happen every week, but unfortunately training progress isn’t linear. I mean, if it was, and you could add 2.5kg to your squat every week and over a year you’d increase your squat by 130kg. Therefore, going into every training session with the intent of progressively overloading your body must be there.
If you squatted 50kg for 3 sets of 5 reps last week, you must go into the same session the following week with the aim of doing 3 set of 5 with a slightly heavier weight, or doing the same weight for an extra set, or an extra rep, as an example. Sure, some weeks it won’t be possible, as progress isn’t linear, however, having the intent of doing it will allow you to take advantage of the training sessions where progress is possible.
If you go into the gym and follow the same programme for months on end, if you lift the same weights for the same sets and reps week in and week out, very quickly you’ll stop seeing results as no forward progress is being made because your body has adapted to the stress once placed upon it and now no longer has a new, and more significant stress, to challenge it to develop further. In many cases, prolonged periods of training with no new stress from progressive overload, will see results reduce, your muscle will atrophy, and from a lifting perspective, that means getting weaker and losing hard earned muscle.
Now, progressive overload, in lifting terms, can be achieved in several ways. Here are some of the most common approaches for progressive overload.
- you can lift heavier weights for the same reps or volume
- you can lift the same weight for more reps, increasing overall volume
- you can lift the same weight and reps for more sets, increasing overall volume
- you can lift the same weight and volume with better technique
- you can lift the same weight and volume over a greater range of motion
- you can lift the same weight and volume with less rest between sets increasing the training density
- you can do more volume in the same amount of time, increasing training density
- you can the same volume in less time, increasing training density
Before you jump the gun, and try to increase your weights and volume, while also decreasing your rest periods increasing training density, don’t get caught up in thinking more types of progressive overload means more results, unfortunately it doesn’t.
You want to choose just one means of progressive overload to pursue for each 3–6-week training phase you undertake and remember each method of progressive overload creates a different stress and therefore a different adaptation.
Three examples using the most common methods for achieving progressive overload.
1] Lifting heavier weights for the same reps or volume week to week:
In this example the progressive overload comes from lifting heavier weights, or a higher percentage of 1 rep max, for the same number of reps each week, whilst also keeping rest periods and form/range of motion the same.
Week 1: 3 sets of 5 reps @78% of 1RM = 70kg
Week 2: 3 sets of 5 reps @80% of 1RM = 72kg
Week 3: 3 sets of 5 reps @82% of 1RM = 74kg
Week 4: 3 sets of 5 reps @84% of 1RM = 76kg
*Based upon a 1RM of 90kg
2] Lifting the same weight for more reps, increasing overall volume week to week:
In this example the progressive overload comes from lifting the same weight, for more reps each week, whilst keeping rest periods and form/range of motion the same week to week.
Week 1: 3 sets of 5 reps @70kg [15 reps or 1050kg of total volume]
Week 2: 3 sets of 6 reps @70kg [18 reps or 1260kg of total volume]
Week 3: 3 sets of 7 reps @70kg [21 reps or 1470kg of total volume]
Week 4: 3 sets of 8 reps @70kg [24 reps or 1680kg of total volume]
3] Lifting the same weight and reps for more sets, increasing overall volume week to week:
In this example the progressive overload comes from lifting the same weight, for the same reps each week, but for more sets, whilst also keeping rest periods and form/range of motion the same.
Week 1: 3 sets of 5 reps @70kg [15 reps or 1050kg of total volume]
Week 2: 4 sets of 5 reps @70kg [20 reps or 1400kg of total volume]
Week 3: 5 sets of 5 reps @70kg [25 reps or 1750kg of total volume]
Week 4: 6 sets of 5 reps @70kg [30 reps or 2100kg of total volume]
Progressive Overload doesn’t have to be complicated to get the results you want; however, you do have to have the intent to challenge yourself every session to strive and achieve it in some way.
Progress won’t be linear, but the pursuit of it over weeks, months and years is where all great training results come from.
The extra weight lifted more than in previous weeks.
The extra rep completed more than in previous weeks.
The extra set…
The slightly less rest between sets…
The increase in training density…
The increase in range of motion…
The improved lifting technique…
It all counts, no matter how small the progress seems.
It all adds up.
It all moves the needle forward and progressively overloads your body to achieve greater and greater results.
Progressive overload is the most important factor to consider when it comes to all your training progress.
Progressive overload – the most important training principle was last modified: June 24th, 2022 by