A training method that is often overlooked and under-appreciated by the average gym-goer is progressive overload.
So what is it?
Progressive overload by definition is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.
This can mean a variation of load manipulation and is especially different for beginners than it is for an intermediate or advanced lifter. Progressive overload can mean completing the same exercises each week but adding weight progressively. Some more examples include slowly increasing your range of motion each week if you find it difficult hitting parallel on squats, increasing speed or intensity, and increasing volume. The method to increase load will usually depend on the ability and mobility of the lifter.
Here are three key tips for incorporating progressive overload into your training:
Follow a program
Do your best to avoid ripping out exercises you found in a magazine or just going to the gym without a plan all willy nilly. It is optimal to follow a specific program that has been designed for you, according to your goals.
Anyone that tells you to switch up your training every day to “keep the body guessing” is not giving you the best advice. We want to achieve a certain level of adaptation so that our form and our movement patterns become second nature. If we aren’t repeating movement patterns consistently then progression will likely be stalled. It’s like starting an exercise with your 1RM without warming up: there’s no room for progression and you’ll be stuck in a rut for a long time. Proper programming is crucial to your success in changing body composition and increasing strength.
Form is function
Don’t sacrifice form to add more weight every week. Progression will occur with hills and valleys. There are many factors that affect strength and muscle growth including hormonal changes, weight loss, stress, muscle soreness, sleep and so on.
If you can’t increase load one week, don’t sweat it.
Remember that progressive overload can only occur with gradual stress to the muscles – gradual, not extreme. We want to force the muscles to move the weight, not the joints. The best way to ensure proper form is to take videos.
If you train alone, this allows you to analyze your form and your speed, which will give you a good indication on what you can achieve the following week. Always record your last sets, from the side, as it indicates your movement under stress and your failure point.
Whether you’re getting ready for a bodybuilding competition or a powerlifting meet (or simply trying to get stronger and leaner), tracking your workouts is imperative. It’s impossible to know where to go if you don’t know where you’re coming from. Any successful plan needs to be measurable.
This applies to nutrition as well, but that’s an entirely different story on its own. Each week, track your sets, reps, and weight, and make notes on how you were feeling during these training sessions.
Progressive overload is a method used to increase strength and muscle growth optimally. It’s important to remember that in order to increase muscle size, the muscle must get stronger. In order to increase muscle strength, the muscle must grow. The gradual muscular stress that progressive overload provides will ultimately aid in increasing strength and increasing the body’s lean muscle mass.
About the author
Ashley Bird is the co-owner of The BarBelles. She is a certified personal trainer & nutrition coach, a powerlifting and show prep coach, and a natural bikini competitor & powerlifter herself. Ashley has a BBA in Sport and Leisure Management and is currently studying human sciences.