Progressive overload is a principle that dates back to the years to follow the end of World War II. The general concept of this principle is that the human body will be forced to adapt to any constant repetition of stimulus which gradually increases by building muscle, strength, performance, or any other specific attribute in response to frequent exposure. This principle was originally used for rehab from injuries but has been proven beneficial for anybody who is looking to improve their body composition, build strength or improve their overall performance during physical exercise or sports.
Although this may seem like a generally easy to understand concept, there are many ways to apply progressive overload to a structured training program to yield the greatest benefits. The application of this principle may look different depending on the individual, their abilities, and goals. In this article, I will discuss different applications to know of when considering using it in your own training routine.
Whether in a rehabilitation setting, or in a weight training program in the gym, the objectives of these programs are to increase strength, muscle tone and stability to aid in daily function, performance, or overall health. By putting the muscles, joints, connective tissues, and other structural components of the body under a physical stress, a natural adaptation process will begin. It just like beginning a new job, if the job has movements or postures that your body is not used to, they will be perceived as a new physical stimulus. Initially, you may feel some muscle fatigue or discomfort, but as you perform your role day after day, your body will adapt and soon you will no longer experience these feelings.
If your job became gradually more difficult, or you were required to perform it quicker, this would be a very simple example of a progressive overload. Other then just having benefits to the physical structures of the body, applying progressive overload technique also yield benefits to central nervous system by improving neural connectivity to the muscles and improving the circulation of blood to the worked areas. This effect will increase the effected areas responsiveness which further promotes positive adaptations to the stimulus. If progressive overload is not applied and the stimulus that is being applied does not change, the body will become incredibly effective at responding to it and it will not stimulate adaptations in the body to progress. In essence, the body will only ever be as strong as it needs to be.
One of the easiest and more widely known ways to begin applying progressive overload is simply to add more weight. This seems easy enough, but with all things relating to fitness and resistance training, the way this is performed is key! Assuming technique is good, once you are comfortable moving a specific weight with good control, making a small increment in the weight will provide a greater stimulus for the body to adapt to. Keep in mind this likely will not be every single workout, but say you are performing 3 sets, the first 2 moved well, and you felt like you could have done more reps, it would be reasonable to make a gradual increase for the last 1 set. Or you may choose to stay at the weight you began with and note that the next time you return to that exercise you will be increasing.
The next most common method to apply overload to your routine would be by adding more reps. If every time you perform a given exercise, you always do the same amount of reps then there would be great benefit to changing your rep range to anything you are not familiar with. Whether you have typically always worked out in a lower (1-8) rep range because you have been trying to build strength, or a higher (15-20) rep range because you are trying to tone or build endurance – switching to whatever you are not familiar with will reap great benefits.
This change is not forever but allowing your body to experience a stimulus that is vastly different then what it normally experiences will spark the body to adapt in a way it never has. As you are increasing your reps, obviously the weight does need to decrease and vice versa with the increase of weights as the reps decrease. This change may only be 2-4 weeks before you return to your previous methods, but by making this change you will likely push past your abilities where you once sat with your normal rep range. Try changing this parameter up in your routine and watch how you body changes.
For years now, bodybuilders have mastered this next method of progressive overload to help sculpt their bodies and achieve greater definition in their physiques. Adding exercise volume. This means that you will perform many different exercises all for the same muscle group by working it in a slightly different fashion each time to better target and maximize fatigue in all muscle fibers.
So what this means is if you were someone who had a tendency to only do barbell bench press to help build strength and muscle in your chest, then you would now also add the addition of dips, incline dumbbell press, close grip machine press, and cables to do flies from different angles to really target all the muscle fibers of the chest from all different angle and functions of that muscle group. By way of adding 2-4 additional exercises for the same muscle group, you have now added a greater stimulus for all the involved muscles to respond to, eliciting growth and strength.
In my opinion, this next variable can be one of the most effective for a lot of people in the gym and hosts many of benefits for recovery and strength gains outside of just the progressive overload principles. Exercise tempo. The tempo at which you work out is such a simple parameter to be able to adjust and for most can be done more safely than adding more weight. Sometimes the ego can take over too much when it comes to adding weight to the bar and this can result in technique breakdown and injuries. When working with the someone from the general population who just wants to improve their body composition and feel good about themselves; often, how much is being lifted is normally not the most important thing. But easily enough, forgetting that something as easy as slowing down the tempo and having control throughout the entire motion can yield just as great of benefit as adding more weight. Controlling the lowering phase of a movement, also known as the eccentric or negative, is an excellent variable to use to overload the body and promote strong muscle, ligaments, connective tissues, and central nervous system response. When working with clients and they are feeling comfortable at a weight, my next move is always to make them perform their next set with the same weight but take 4-5 seconds in this eccentric phase of the movement. If they can perform this at a slower tempo, I know have built the proper strength and control in movement to support a greater load. The body has this tough to explain ability to sustain approximately 40% greater loads in the eccentric portion of a movement, so being able to develop that control in this portion also allows for ability to overload this segment.
This next one is greatly beneficial but can come with its downfalls as well if it cannot be performed correctly. As you perform any exercise, there is a certain amount of force required to move the respective load. This force generation dictates whether the load can be lifted, the speed at which it can be moved and how efficiently your body moves throughout the movement. Many limiting factors such as mobility, stability and mechanics could potentially reduce the range available for a movement to be performed with ease and pain-free. Being able to fully take a muscle through its entire range of motion will always elicit a greater force production as well as recruit more muscle fibers leading to greater development of muscle and strength. If your current range of motion does not take the muscle through a full range of motion, and you are structurally able to do so, this is another way to apply progressive overload. This can be tricky though because if the body is not effectively able to reach full range of motion but you let the applied weight push your body into position, distorting the body up or down stream of the effected muscle/joint then this opens the door for potential injury. This could mean that putting some emphasis towards discovering why your body cannot successfully reach a full range of motion and addressing the underlying factors with mobility work would be recommended. By addressing this underlying issue and opening the body up to greater ranges of motion, you will greatly increase your efficiency with your exercise and then you will see tremendous change in your body’s response to this specific exercise.
This next variable is often interchangeable depending on your current training style as was the reps with the weight using. Rest periods are something that seem to vary dramatically depending on many things such as your training style, goals, and social habits. It is very common to see those who are strength training or powerlifters resting for 3-5(+) minutes between sets to allow their bodies to recover, whereas it is more common to see someone who is training for fat loss or muscular endurance to hardly at all between sets or rounds of a circuit. As with the reps, you are always sticking to one length of rest period – changing that up can really through a curveball at your body to figure out. Like when changing reps, when changing rest period, you do need to consider the weight and/or the reps. It will not be possible to perform a heavy 1-3 rep max and only rest 20-30 seconds and be recovered well enough to do it again. If you want to stick with lifting heavy and you are used to taking a 5-minute break, reduce your rest by 1-2 minutes. If you traditionally have short rest periods and are performing circuit style training, take your focus towards doing only single exercise sets or supersets of non-competing muscle groups and make those movements more challenging by adding weight or slowing tempo. Now rest for long enough to allow yourself time to successfully be able to perform again, increasing your rest from 20-40 seconds to upwards of 1-2 minutes.
The last variable that I am going to discuss is mind muscle connectivity. For me, this is always one of the last implemented techniques to apply but not because it is any less effective. All the above, require the proper technique to effectively execute and assuming that is happening then progressing through the above methods will often result in this happening along the way. If, however, the technique remains clean throughout and all the other methods have been implemented and for some reason you simply do not feel your muscles firing then this is something to address. By establishing a better mind-muscle connection during your exercises your muscle will send a louder signal to your CNS and in response a stronger neural signal to stimulate the target muscles and drive blood through the muscle.
Creating this connection can be done by way of doing activation techniques prior to your main lifts so that your body is primed, and the corresponding muscles are “turned on” and ready to fire. This could be something as simple as performing clamshells to get the glute medius firing to help with knee tracking in your squat, or external rotation and band pull aparts to prime the antagonist muscles of the back to help support a better press while doing chest work. This could also be something such as perform joint mobilization techniques with a stretch band or a manual therapist to allow for better joint spacing and movement before entering a workout. These are a few examples of things that will help build a better connection between the muscles and the brain which will help increase effectiveness of your exercise.
In summary to the topic of progressive overload, there are many different methods to utilize that can help to build muscle, increase strength and improve overall health by way of managing a lower body fat percentage which is linked to a decrease in mortality. Every one of these methods should be utilized and the proper implementation of these can ensure that you are being as efficient as possible with your workout routine and you are going to maximize your result potential. Neglecting to implement progressive overload will likely have you risking your routine becoming stagnant and plateaus occurring which can be frustrating, so take some time to understand each method and have some fun practicing something new!