Mastering Progressive Overload

Hey Angels & Alphas!

Without a doubt, one of the most (if not the most) important concept in all of fitness is progressive overload.

Let’s be honest. Some people go to the gym day after day, week after week, and do the exact same routine every single time. They generally don’t last a long time in the gym, since they quickly get stuck on that beginner stage and don’t make any real progress.

Without any changes in weight, sets, repetitions, frequency, tempo, effort, among other things, you cannot expect your body to change. By training, you’re adapting your body to a particular stimulus. In this case, lifting weights, or building endurance.

Therefore, the most counterproductive thing you can do is keep yourself at one level. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting results is the biggest no-no in the fitness world.

If you’re really looking to improve your health and your physique, and you’re not familiar with the concept of progressive overload, you’re missing out.

Learning how to challenge yourself is essential to your long-term progress. And you’re going to learn that the first time you hit a real plateau. You’re going to learn that if you want your body to improve, you have to make it improve.

But how do you do that? When do you increase the intensity? How do you know it’s time to put more weight on the bar? How much do you put on every time? Is there a linear path you should follow?

All these questions arise from a brief look at progressive overload.

And it’s those questions that we’re going to do our best to answer today!

First of all, what is progressive overload all about?

Progressive overload is a concept that involves you to train with a continuous increase in effort in order to regularly meet the body’s requirements to grow.

In science-y terms, it’s all about creating more and more demand on the musculoskeletal system with different purposes: muscle size, muscle strength, muscle endurance, etc. It’s all about consistently working as hard as you have to in order to push yourself forward.

In fitness, most people believe that progressive overload is all about increasing weight. And even though that’s part of it, it’s totally missing the real picture. Progressive overload is a universal concept, not just one that applies to fitness. You use it to improve your endurance in high-intensity cardio, your strength in the major lifts, and your explosiveness on sport-specific functional movements. It applies to any skill and task you perform, with its core elements being consistency, patience, and guaranteed results.

It just so happens to be the foundation of every successful training regime ever.

Of course, when you increase that demand over time, you also have to sustain that demand if you stop using that skill or task. Otherwise, just like a muscle, it shrinks and loses its strength. But it retains its “memory” of the patterns it has learned. That will help you get back into it more quickly.

There is a pre-requisite to progressive overload. No matter how you plan on increasing your workout intensity, one thing is for sure – you have to maintain perfect form in the weight room and outside of it. If you don’t, you’re risking much more than a bad training habit. Proper form is the pre-requisite of all training, and it’s crucial when it comes to progressive overload. Simply because if you’re going to be doing it over and over, you need to make sure it’s actually good for you.

Three Keys to Success in Progressive Overload

Once you’re acquainted with the pre-requisites of progressive overload, you need to set some guidelines for how you’re going to approach your training.

  • First, remember that if you’re just now stepping into the gym, you’re going to see quick results. Progress comes easy, and this can last up to a year! This is a period of habit-forming for you, so do your best to set only healthy habits *cough* good form.
  • Second, make sure that you have a clear goal for each metric you’re trying to improve. You have to be patient, and remember that the path to progress is never linear. There are ups and downs, but you will get there. Always adjust yourself to your results and don’t keep your workout linear and repetitive.
  • Third, know that progress comes through small changes. The way to see quicker progress is to focus on one specific metric at a time. Don’t make substantial changes, as they will overwhelm you and most likely won’t last. If you’re changing your program entirely, approach it with an open mind and as more of a continuance than a change.

How does Progressive Overload Work?

Imagine the first time you stepped in the gym.

You probably grabbed a small dumbbell and started doing curls or got on the treadmill/exercise bike immediately.

The first time you really gave it your best, you realized that there are a set of metrics that you’re now associated with in terms of how you performed.

Example: You performed a set of bicep curls for 10 reps with 10 lbs. The first time you introduced an overload, you probably got really sore the next day. You do that a couple of days later, and you hit your 8 reps just a little easier. You keep doing that, and after three or four weeks, you can throw around that weight for 15-20 reps!

But if you stay at the stage, you’re not going to see much of an improvement. This weight isn’t going to provide the right amount of stimulus to engage muscle fatigue.

By increasing the intensity of your workout, you can achieve that much-desired muscle growth.

There are a couple of ways you can increase the intensity of your exercise.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the six most significant ones.

How to Trigger Progressive Overload

Let’s look at the six most significant ways for you to trigger progressive overload in the body and bring that extra challenge your workout needs.

Every trigger is essentially a metric that’s being worked on. You should only focus on one or two of these at a time if you want to be productive. Working on more results in confusion and makes it harder for you to know if you’re really progressing on each individual dimension.

If you work toward improving these metrics in your workouts, you’re going to achieve your goal quickly and without much resistance.

Let’s look at the six of them individually.

First, repetition count

As we said earlier, the first instinct of someone trying to improve their fitness is to increase the amount of weight they’re putting on a bar. Alternatively, you can decide to do more repetitions.

This will help you reach that “burn” point faster and develop a little extra metabolic fatigue. Plus, some exercises are meant for a little heavier weights – like the squat.

And other exercises, for example, the lateral raise, are just made for high rep counts and should be trained that way.

Second, resistance.

As a surprise to no one, resistance is a great way to increase the energy demand you put on your muscles.

People in the fitness community have discussed it for a very long time, and haven’t made a definitive conclusion on whether it’s better to increase resistance or reps.

That’s because increasing resistance is mostly for those whose goal is to get stronger and bigger. And increasing repetitions is for those who are looking for functional endurance. The two are, of course, inversely proportional.

Third, training volume.

Training volume is one of the more important metrics, yet one of those that people are least familiar with.

Multiply your sets X your reps X your resistance – you have your training volume.

In the fitness community, training volume is often a metric for how many sets you do a week (of a particular body part).

But technically, by increasing any of the three, you’re increasing your training volume.

You’re increasing the demand for energy on your muscle tissues, and you’re challenging yourself a little more. Regardless if you add an extra few reps at the end of an exercise, an additional set on top of your workout, or the weight you put on the bar, you’re giving the body something to adapt to.

Fourth, decrease your rest periods.

A great way to increase overload – it allows you to train your explosiveness and do more training in less time.

If you usually rest for a minute between sets, try cutting that in 2/3 for the last exercise of a muscle group. It will spike up the intensity of your workout and keep it there until your very last rep.

Fifth, increase your tempo.

Tempo is one of your best friends when it comes to boosting workout intensity.

By progressively focusing on improving the tempo of your workout and making it faster, you’re creating a new way for your body to adapt to training. Increasing your running speed or your lifting explosiveness helps you improve your endurance and generate more muscle fatigue. Not to mention, it does wonders for your cardiovascular health.

Putting it All Together

Regardless of what method you choose to focus on, what’s important is that you continuously increase the demand for your energy your body needs.

As your body adapts to the new stimulus and you start hitting plateaus, you’re going to need to use more and more of these to keep up with your body’s demands for growth. More weight on the bar simply doesn’t cut it, but now, you have the solution.

Keep in mind that everyone has different goals, so adjust your goals to the metrics you need to improve!

Power and hypertrophy are important for bodybuilders, low rest periods and explosiveness are important for endurance athletes, and so on.

Use the right technique, with the right metric, add progressive overload to the equation, and you’re going to achieve your goal – guaranteed.

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