So what is progressive overload? It's possibly the most important law in weight training for muscular development, strength and overall growth.
- Incrementally increasing demand on your body
- Not just limited to increasing weight
- Time under tension, minimizing breaks, increasing reps, increasing sets, frequency
- Body cannot see any gains without progressive overload
- Body must be challenged in order to see any growth
- Same exercises not always futile, but same intensity and no progression is
- Important to have a goal in order to progressively overload
- Whether it’s strength, mobility, muscle gain
- Affects the type of progressive overload needed
- Applies to every part of fitness, every sport, every goal
So you’ve been going to the gym for a good while now. You’ve got the consistency thing down. You set out without any specific aim (you just want to be fit) and you leave the gym feeling like you do every time you leave the gym; like you’ve done exactly what you expected, again. You then take a look at yourself in the mirror to see if the last 14 months of work has reaped any benefits. You notice no more gains than the ones you noticed 8 months ago. You think ok, at least you have gotten stronger, but then realize you have been putting the same 35lbs on either side of the bar for 4 sets of 12. In an attempt to reassure yourself you are on the right path, you then remind yourself of how many weeks in a row you have made it to the gym to do the exact same workout and feel the exact same burn every single time you leave. Are you detecting a common theme here?
You may be neglecting the single most important aspect of fitness, which is progressive overload. This is the principle of incrementally increasing the demand on specific functions of the body. This principle also suggests that if your body is not being challenged in a certain manner, the body has no reason to adapt or change to meet the challenge. If you find yourself toiling away at the gym for hours a day with no benefit, that may be one of the first issues to address. You may just be doing exactly what your body expects you to do and thus it doesn’t have to use any extra resources to do so. There are many ways to challenge or overload your body and we will get into that shortly.
Progressive overload is not a term that only pertains to weightlifting and adding more weight over time. Adding weight is not the only way to create a challenge for your body. This principle can be used no matter the form of physical activity. So for instance, if you are training to run a marathon, heading to the track everyday with cleats in hand to run the same 200 metres will probably not get you there. It would be necessary for you to run increasingly longer distances until the marathon distance is manageable for your system. Now, as it pertains to weightlifting, your goal (which should be in place before you step into a gym or embark on any fitness journey) is what will determine what kind of progressive overload you will use.
Everyone has a different reason to work out. Weight loss and muscle gain are probably the 2 most popular reasons (even though they hide under the veils of “toning up”, “being more defined” or “I wanna be bigger but not too big because I don’t want to be a bodybuilder like you, just...stronger”). So for weight loss, obviously the more you burn with your workout, the better. Though adding weight will cause you to use more resources over time, your form and the effectiveness of the exercise may begin to suffer as the weights become too heavy to control. Switching to another way to overload your body is in order. Increasing the reps of the exercise would probably work better in this instance since the goal is to burn calories and stimulate your muscles. You now find yourself doing a high amount of reps and you are no longer feeling as challenged. Here is another opportunity to overload your body once again. Shortening the rest times is another way to do so. For instance, circuit training, or stacking different exercises into one set, is an excellent way to challenge your body without maxing out the amount of weight you’re using and compromising effectiveness. You now have 2 more ways to challenge yourself once what you’ve been doing becomes stale.
Now, for muscle gain, you will find a lot of people continuously adding weight until their bodies inevitably become unstable and they put themselves on the shelf for weeks, even months. Don’t get me wrong, at some point, adding weight is necessary to progressively overload the muscles. However, there are other methods that could, and in most cases, should come before this method. Now, if your goal is to stimulate your muscles and give them a reason to grow, it should be a logical step to have your muscles be stimulated for a longer amount of time. This is why time under tension is such a powerful and necessary method when it comes to building muscle. Instead of flying through those dumbbell presses, try using a time count to better control the speed of your press (tempo). For instance, as you press upward (concentric), maintain an explosive count ( 1 sec or less) and on way down (eccentric), try to maintain a 3 count. This not only puts your muscle under tension for more time, but it uses the eccentric movement as a method of further stimulating the muscle.
Take note that I didn’t mention switching exercises for variety. Doing the same exercises does not always lead to a plateau. However, if you don’t use at least one of these methods of progressive overload, you will almost certainly find yourself stuck. If your sole reason for existing is to have arms bigger than Hulk Hogan’s, then doing the same 4 types of bicep curls with varying methods of progressive overload may work for you (with no regard for the rest of your body and proper nutrition of course). And conversely, if you’re doing the same full body workout with aspirations to lose 7% body fat and maintain muscle but you have not changed anything we have just talked about, it’s time to shake things up! It’s all about principle. The progressive overload principle.
If you always use the same weight for the same amount of sets and reps, your body will never change.