Get Faster Gains with Progressive Overload

Get Faster Gains with Progressive Overload

You’re sure to have heard of progressive overload – it’s one of those phrases that’s bandied around gyms a lot these days.

But what, exactly, is progressive overload and what’s the fuss all about?

Truth is – lots of people misunderstand what it is and frequently misuse the phrase to describe something completely different.

This article is going to try and dispel any misconceptions you may have and lift the veil on progressive overload so you can apply the concept and use it to your advantage when training.

Oh, and don’t worry – it’s not too complicated or technical. But it is effective, so it’s definitely worth checking the effort.

Progressive Overload in a Nutshell

Fit man in gym using leg press machine

In everyday language progressive overload could be described as doing more next week, month or year than you do now. In other words, it’s making pre-planned progress over time.

The biggest misconception people have is associating it only to increasing weight for your One Rep Max (1RM). The is the maximum weight you can lift once.

For example, this year your 1RM might be 225, but next year you plan for it to be 275. That’s progressive overload? Well, in a way, yes, it is. But it’s also so much more than that.

The reason why people limit the concept to just weight is because of the name. Overloading sounds like it is simply referring to load or weight. The image that pops into your head is loading up a barbell with progressively heavier weights.

Progressive Overload can refer to anything that you want to improve.

Perhaps it’s increasing the size of your biceps, your vertical jump, doing more pull-ups, running faster, trimming down your body fat - basically, any physical activity that you perform consistently over an extended period and that you’re trying to improve your performance in some way.

The concept is applicable outside the gym too. If you’re trying to learn a foreign language, you wouldn’t try to do it in a day or week. You would progressively add words to your vocabulary and learn new concepts over a period of weeks, months and years.

Why Does It Matter?

Our bodies adapt, and if you want to get bigger/stronger or to improve other aspects of fitness, you must set yourself new challenges.

This is so obvious, but so many people do it wrong. Probably because of laziness, procrastination and not being sure how to go about it. Also, if most people are honest, the idea of leaving their comfort zone may scare them.

There could also be a fear of being seen as being weak. Doing front squats, pause bench, or overhead presses with light dumbbells to achieve greater volume isn't something that you brag about.

But, if you want to improve, you can’t just do the same workout with the same weights, reps and sets every single week for the rest of your life. This will not only stop progress, but you are probably going to lose some gains once your body fully adapts. Plus, let’s face it – it’s pretty boring! Variety is the spice of life, so it’s good to add some variety to your workouts to keep them fresh.

Linear Periodization Vs. Progressive Overload

Fit man in gym grabbing barbell, getting ready to perform a deadlift

The truth is that most people do try to make improvements. But they only do one thing - try to add more weight to the bar.

Adding more weight every week, also known as Linear Periodisation (or progression) works well for beginners. Not so much for intermediate or advanced lifters.

You’ll often see people who recently stepped into the gym adding weight to the bar (and also muscle to their frame) at a crazy pace, every single week.

The truth is that although more weight usually means more strength, with beginners it's more important to increase their skill. People who haven't lifted the iron off their chest before need to learn how to do it properly. And with technique improvements, better coordination, and generally more skill while performing the movement, linear weight increase is the logical way to increase strength at the same time.

The problem starts once you fully adapt, iron out your technique, and the progress starts slowing down and eventually stops altogether - you've hit a plateau. Unless you’re perfectly happy with your looks and the weight you lift, you’ll have to do something different to break through that ceiling.

Progressive Overload Techniques

Besides the now familiar linear periodization - there are many different methods to achieve progressive overload:

Increasing volume

You need to stop focusing on your 1RM. If you only target that number, the chances are that you will fail to break it at some point – in other words, you can’t keep adding to it indefinitely. What you need to do is actually lower the weight and increase the number of reps you do in each set.

If your 1RM is 225, go ahead and put 180 on the bar, and up the reps.

For example, if you can perform 3x5 the first week, go try 4x5 next. After you get to 5x5, try 3x10, then 4x10, then 5x10 etc.

SETS
REPS
SETS
REPS
WEEK 1
3
5
WEEK 4
3
10
WEEK 2
4
5
WEEK 5
4
10
WEEK 3
5
5
WEEK 6
5
10

 

Once you’ve reached a higher rep range for each exercise - 12 to 15 reps per set - then you can increase your weight and start the cycle again.

Doing new exercises

If you want to grow your chest size, doing the same Monday routine that consists of the bench, incline bench, flys, and pullover might not do it. Because you are doing the same for months, your CNS, joints, tendons and muscles become fully adapted. To get further gains you’ll have to present your body a new challenge by trying variations of those exercises, or completely different exercises altogether.

In our chest example, try switching the barbell with dumbbells, or changing the incline on the bench. Instead of just performing touch and go, try pause bench. You can also try underhand grip, or neutral on the dumbbell press. Pin press or floor press are also good options, as you have to push from a dead stop.

Mix it up. It will not only get you extra gains, but also make your workouts more interesting.

Taking shorter breaks between sets

Stop browsing through the Instagram feed during recovery. Leave your phone in the locker and bring a stopwatch instead. Rest starts as soon as you put down the weight and ends the moment you unrack it again. By shortening your rest periods, you’ll shock your body, and your muscles will be forced to adapt. Yes, your working weights will suffer at first, but it can help your progress in the long run.

Focusing on eccentric

Lifting weights is a vague term, describing only one-third of the activity that happens when you train. It consists of lifting (concentric) - pause (static) - and lowering (eccentric) parts, so three activities. And yet, we only focus on the first one, skipping the other two completely.

By focusing on static, and especially eccentric parts of the movement, you can significantly increase potential gains.

Take a bicep curl for example. When you’re lowering the weight, the muscle is at the same time under load and stretching, which will cause a lot of micro tears. If you concentrate on doing this part extremely slow, you’ll see more progress. You’ll also feel it, as you’ll likely be pretty sore over the next few days. The same principle goes for any movement - try to do the concentric (lifting) part explosively, and the eccentric (lowering) part as slowly as possible.

Training more often

This one’s tricky, as overtraining has the potential to destroy any progress, cause injuries, and may even make you sick with flu-like symptoms. But, all too often, weightlifters are undertrained. If you hit a muscle group only once per week – you’re probably undertraining.

Try switching your whole routine, going to full-body rather than traditional splits. By doing that, you’ll train each muscle group two to three times per week, which might give you a bigger edge, helping you to break the plateau.

Or, you can try upper/lower splits. So, Monday for upper body, Tuesday for lower, Wednesday break. Upper body on Thursday, lower on Friday, and the weekend off, or for active recovery.

Just remember, it takes at least 48 hours for muscles to recover, depending on the type of tissue and the type of training. Because overtraining leads to injuries, and undertraining only to lost gains, undertraining is the lesser of two evils. Your priority is your health. Try to aim for a happy medium.

The perfect balance is hard to achieve, but listen to you body. If you’re picking up minor injuries or starting to feel run-down all the time, it’s probably time to dial back on the workouts.

Strive for Growth Through Progressive Overload

While all the methods mentioned above work, the truth is that they work only for a limited amount of time - until your body adapts.

If you continue to try to lift more weight, you’re probably going to start doing it with bad form or injure yourself. If you try to do more and more volume, you might begin to experience joint pain or tendon inflammations. Or, if you focus on eccentric training too much, you will not be able to recover in time for the next workout, hindering performance and risking injuries. With more frequent training, you risk overtraining, etc.

The truth is that the only right approach is mixing things up. You need to put the effort in while in the gym, but you also have to do your homework outside of it.

Proper training requires even better planning. Track everything - your reps, sets, weight, rest, intensity, but also keep a food log.

By doing all of the above, you’ll make sure you never hit a wall, or when you do, you’ll know how to break through it.

The most important part is that when you make progress and see growth, go ahead and be proud of your achievements. Celebrate them. The only person responsible for them is you through hard work, dedication, and progressive overload.

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