Workouts - Progressive Overload

Workouts - Progressive Overload

The intention of this article is not to dictate a right or wrong way for progressive load strategies, rather show what goes on behind designing an effective training program. There is a lot more science supporting progressive overload than people think - it’s not as simple as just adding weight. This subject is very relevant for constant muscle development and many coaches use different strategies. Scitec Nutrition athlete Emi Roberti has implemented 3 strategies and collected data from research papers in Stronger by Science that evolves with you.

Main Points

  • There are various ways to progress load, and all have both positive and negative aspects.
  • An arbitrary progression does not take into account the individual rate of adaptation.
  • Autoregulation strategies to progress load can be individualized but can also fail based upon atypical performance.
  • Ultimately, you will not progress the training load every week, but if you stay consistent, the long-term process will inevitably occur.

Load Progression Strategies

Arbitrary Progression

An arbitrary progression is the simplest strategy we will cover and is simply adding a pre-determined “arbitrary” amount of weight from week to week. This would be commonly accomplished by adding 2.5 or 5kg each week. An example of this strategy can be seen in Table 1, in which a sample mesocycle for training the squat is presented and 5kg is added from week 1 to week 2 and then 2.5kg is added after that. This progression is pre-determined for the lifter. 


The reason that 5 kg is added from weeks 1 to 2 and then only 2.5kg is added thereafter is because progression should slow over time; obviously, you cannot add 5kg forever. However, simply slowing the progression from 5 to 2.5kg after a week may not be enough to make this simple method the most viable one. Let’s talk about the positives and negatives of this strategy, beginning with the negatives.

Table 1 Example of an Arbitrary Progression

Note: This table shows a pre-determined progression for each week in the training block.

Negatives: The negative consequences of an arbitrary progression are easy to determine. Quite simply, someone may not progress at a fast enough rate to meet the pre-determined progression. This will cause a lifter to miss repetitions, which would cause failure to meet training volume requirements and likely cause unnecessary fatigue. Think logically for a second: When’s the last time you missed repetitions consistently and still had a successful training block?  If you are missing repetitions consistently, you’ll likely have to taper and start the training block over. On the other hand, someone could progress faster than the pre-determined progression and place too little stress on themselves over the course of the training block. Now, I would argue that the latter problem is not too much of an issue, but the main point is that an arbitrary progression has its obvious problems, as adaptation rates are highly individual. 

Positives: Despite the obvious drawbacks, there is a strong positive to arbitrary progression.  In novice or even intermediate lifters, progression can be very rapid, even to the point where 5-10kg could be added with ease each week for the duration of a block or even two training blocks. However, just because you can add 10kg, doesn’t mean that you should. Similarly, autoregulated progression strategies (discussed in-depth below) can lead to a large increase in absolute load for a novice individual every week, and once again, just because you can increase load to a large degree each week doesn’t mean that you should. 

When a novice individual increases load too fast, this causes a constant increase in volume, and in the short-term, moderate volumes may be preferable for both strength and hypertrophy to high volumes. Therefore, I see no reason for a novice individual to adapt to a higher training volume early on, especially if there is no guarantee that extra benefit will occur. Further, it is likely that a novice individual is still making great strides to improve their technique on multi-joint lifts (i.e. squat, bench press, deadlift, etc.), thus rapid load progressions could increase injury risk when technical mastery is not yet achieved. Therefore, in novice to intermediate lifters, it may be a successful strategy to prescribe an excellent load with a simple 2.5kg progression increase. 

Now, this exact prescribed load should be very easy in week 1 of the training block, maybe around a 4-5 RPE. That is certainly a very light RPE; however, if someone is a novice and they were previously doing no training, and now they are doing some training, their progress will be rapid even if leaving 5-6 repetitions (or even more) in the tank. Ultimately, a simple 2.5kg pre-determined load progression for a novice lifter can keep them from progressing too much too soon and provides one positive use example of an arbitrary progression.

Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE)

Using APRE to progress weekly training load is a form of autoregulation in that you are using the previous week’s performance to dictate load for the current week. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the concept of doing what the internet calls an “as many reps as possible set” (AMRAP) or what I call a plus set. Essentially, for a plus set, you have prescribed sets and reps and you take the last set to failure. Thus, 5X4+ would be 4 sets of 4 reps with the 5th set taken to failure. 

To implement APRE you would increase the load for the following weekly directly proportional to the plus set, in that more reps on the plus set would be a greater increase in training load for the next week. In this example, the minimum prescribed reps are 4, so if you got 9-10, you would increase the load for the following week by +7.5kg, 7-8 reps would equal an increase of 5kg, and 5-6 reps would cause an increase of 2.5kg. This progression scheme can be seen in Table 2. In short, more reps on a plus set equals a greater increase in load for the following week’s training. Let’s move onto positives and negatives, this time beginning with the positives.

Table 2 Example of APRE

Positives: Since we have already established that the rate of strength adaptation is individual, the positives here are clear: APRE individualizes progression. Quite simply, the goal of this strategy allows an individual to progress based on their performance. From a coaching perspective, this is a viable strategy if you do not have weekly check-ins with a client. In this case, you could send a 4-week training block and provide a chart similar to Table 2 and the lifter could progress accordingly. 

If coaching in a team setting, in which many people are given the same program, this strategy could be successful since it allows each lifter in the setting to progress on their own. In fact, Dr Bryan Mann coined the term APRE and demonstrated its superiority to a pre-determined load progression in a large team setting of collegiate football players.

Table 3 Example of APRE

Negatives: There are also some clear negative aspects to solely using this progression model. 

First, APRE bases progression on only one set during the entire week. In Table 1, the lifter is doing 12 squat sets per week, yet only the very last set of the entire week would be used for progression in an APRE model. This is a problem because there is likely atypical performance on a plus set. If you do 5 sets of 4+ at 80% of 1RM, you will likely be at a 6-8 RPE (2 repetitions in reserve – RIR) on each set. 

Additionally, because you know the first 4 sets are submaximal and your last set is to failure, you probably won’t get as psyched up on the first 4 sets. Then, on the 5th set, your excitability is higher (the music is turned up a little louder and the focus is greater), so you might get 10 reps, whereas you would have only gotten 7-8 in a normal state of excitability. 

If using APRE, you would have increased load for every squat set on every day of the following week based upon atypical performance due to enhanced excitability. There is no way that someone can maintain that level of excitability for each and every set the following week, nor would it be advisable. Thus, basing load progression solely off of one set performed in an artificial state of excitability would likely lead to progressing load too much and could possibly lead to missed repetitions.

Secondly, while APRE does allow a lifter to progress individually, it doesn’t take into account day-to-day fluctuations. Since APRE progresses load based upon the previous week, it cannot account for someone not feeling good during the following week, which could happen for a variety of reasons such as sleep deprivation, long workday, and the extra activity causing fatigue, etc. Thus, if APRE calls for a load progression of 5kg, but the lifter cannot meet those demands due to only sleeping for 4 hours the previous night, further autoregulation strategies are needed.

Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

Figure 1 Resistance Training-Specific RPE Scale

Adapted from Zourdos et al. 2016 (5)

We mostly use the RPE scale to assign load. For example, we might prescribe 3 sets of 5 @7-8 RPE, and the lifter would then do sets of 5 with 2 to 3 reps in the tank on each set and would adjust the load if it fell outside of that range. There are actually many other ways to utilize this scale, though. One of them is load progression. 

To utilize RPE for load progression, you would simply have a reciprocal relationship between RPE and week-to-week progression, in that a lower RPE would result in a greater increase in load and a higher RPE would result in a smaller load progression or simply maintaining the same load. 

This can actually be accomplished in a few ways: 1) You could progress load based upon only the last set RPE of each training session or 2) Progression could occur based upon the average RPE across all sets. Further, if you have an RPE goal or target for the training block, then the lower the actual RPE is, the greater the load increase should be. Below, Tables 4a and 4b demonstrate this progression scheme. For these tables, let’s assume the goal RPE for week 1 is 7-8, and the actual RPE listed in the table is the average RPE per set for the specific training day.

Table 4A Weekly Progression When RPE is Lower than Target

Note: Target RPE in week 1 is 7-8. The average recorded RPEs were 5-6, thus a +5kg change was made.

Table 4B Weekly Progression When RPE is at Target

Note: Target RPE in week 1 is 7-8. The average recorded RPEs across the week was 8, thus no change was made.

As you can see, a substantial 5kg increase was made when the average RPE was lower than the target, while no-load progression occurred when the average RPE was right on (or slightly above) the target. It must also be noted that you don’t have to increase each individual day by the same amount. 

For example, if you have different repetitions schemes within a week, as our examples do, then a lifter who is better at high volume work may record low RPEs on the high rep days and high RPEs on the low rep days. In this case, you can increase load differentially across the days, and RPEs should even out in the following weeks. Table 5 illustrates this.

Table 5 Progressing Days of the Week Differently

Note: Target RPE in week 1 is 8. The average RPEs were markedly different between days, thus each individual day was progressed in accordance with its own RPE.

Positives: On the positive side, RPE not only individualizes week-to-week progression, but it allows for different days within a week to be progressed individually, which is an added benefit over APRE. It is true that simply using RPE as a weekly guide doesn’t take into account daily fatigue, which was also a limitation of APRE. 

An easy fix for this is to simply use the weekly RPE progression as a guide while also using RPE to help stay within your intended range. For example, if you progress 5kg, and your goal RPE range at the end of each set for the following week is 7-8, and you record a 9 RPE on the first set, then simply decrease the load 5kg to fall within the range (i.e. a 2.5kg change for every 0.5 point off of the goal RPE is a decent guide to altering intra-session load).

Negatives: The clear negative of this strategy it is that it is assuming a lifter is providing accurate RPEs. We know that RPE is influenced by training status; experienced lifters are better at gauging RPE than novice lifters. However, the experience is not a guarantee that RPEs are accurate. An underestimation of RPE – such as a lifter recording a 6 when it was, in fact, an 8 – would cause too aggressive of a load increase and possibly lead to missed repetitions. 

Therefore, using RPE to progress load should only be implemented if the lifter is good at providing RPEs. Beginner and some intermediate lifters will not be able to utilize this strategy effectively. However, as a coach, I would still highly recommend that you ask your inexperienced lifters to record RPE, even if you don’t use it to dictate load for a while. 

If someone is going to improve their skills using RPE, then they have to practice with it. If a lifter records an RPE and takes a video of that set, then the coach can watch the set and assign their own RPE and compare the lifter’s and coach’s perceptions. Eventually, as the RPEs become more accurate, then they can be used to assign or progress training load. However, recording inaccurate RPEs is still possible (even in trained lifters), which could result in inappropriate load progression.

These are the references that have been used to produce data for this type of progression loading strategies.  These research papers have been released in 2016 and have been updated since.

References

1.Hubal MJ, Gordish-Dressman HE, Thompson PD, Price TB, Hoffman EP, Angelopoulos TJ, Gordon PM, Moyna NM, Pescatello LS, Visich PS, Zoeller RF. Variability in muscle size and strength gain after unilateral resistance training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2005 Jun 1;37(6):964-72.

2.González-Badillo JJ, Gorostiaga EM, Arellano R, Izquierdo M. Moderate resistance training volume produces more favourable strength gains than high or low volumes during a short-term training cycle. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2005 Aug 1;19(3):689-97.

3.Amirthalingam T, Mavros Y, Wilson GC, Clarke JL, Mitchell L, Hackett DA. Effects of a Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research. 2016 Nov.

4.Mann JB, Thyfault JP, Ivey PA, Sayers SP. The effect of autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise vs. linear periodization on strength improvement in college athletes. The Journal of strength & conditioning research. 2010 Jul 1;24(7):1718-23.

5.Zourdos MC, Klemp A, Dolan C, Quiles JM, Schau KA, Jo E, Helms E, Esgro B, Duncan S, Merino SG, Blanco R. Novel resistance training the specific rating of perceived exertion scale measuring repetitions in reserve. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning

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