Updated: Mar 1
In this post I hope to simply explain the principle of progressive overload, how you achieve it and a few do’s and dont’s that are associated.
What is progressive overload?
In Lehman’s terms, progressive overload is doing more over time. Delving slightly deeper into this progressive overload is the gradual increase in weight, volume, intensity, frequency or training duration or a combination of these.
We need progressive overload as the body has a wonderful way of maintaining a stable internal state, avoiding stress and running like clockwork. This state is known as homeostasis. In order for adaption (improvement) to occur. Homeostasis needs to be disrupted, this is why you need progressive overload.
All (successful) workout programmes should have one thing in common, progressive overload. If you aren’t attempting to marginally improve each session in some way then you cannot call it training.
Creating stress and stimulus
Stress and stimuli (exercise) cause the body to adapt and improve.
In 1936 in a bid to prove the theory of progressive overload and homeostasis. Endocrinologist Hans Selye conducted an experiment on rats, subjecting them to small doses of poison. Gradually increasing the dose over time, the rats began to develop resistance to the poison. To the extent that certain rats remained unscathed when given the equivalent does that would have killed them at the start of the experiment. This, albeit quite an extreme example is a clear demonstration of the theory of adaption progressive overload (Edgley,2018).
What does this mean for your training?
In order to adapt in any way, you need to be subjected to stress.
For example, if I had the goal of taking my 50kg squat to 100kg. How would I get there? Progressive overload is the answer. I would have to ensure I am progressing in some way as often as possible. This could be done through a number of measures.
- Adding weight each session
- Adding reps each session
- Adding sets each session
- Doing more sessions
- Reducing rest between sets
My week one session could be a 5x5 at 50kg then week 2 session could be a 5x5 at 55kg, 5x6 at 50kg, 6x5 at 50kg or even the same 5x5 with less rest than week one. As long as I’m progressing in some way, I’m getting stronger. After 8 weeks if I were to add 5kg every other week I’d be hitting a 5x5 at 70kg and well on my way to a 100kg back squat!
This principle applies to all training (even the home training you are doing now). Whether its increasing your mile time, doing your favourite Crossfit workout, doing more push ups or hitting that illusive 100kg bench.
Adaption and overtraining
After you’ve finished your training session, your body goes through a number of phases. Initially (after the post workout buzz has worn off) you're left feeling beat up, sore and wondering who and where you are. What happens next? Well it can go one of two ways.
The adaption phase.
If you’ve provided your body with the right amount of stress and stimulus (those words again) then you will adapt and improve. While you are refuelling and resting a whole plethora of hormonal, neurological and muscular adaptions are taking place. You are getting stronger and fitter! It is important to remember that not one person is the same, some are able to handle more work than others and recover faster, this is why it’s essential to focus on yourself and not worry about what others are doing.
The second is the route of overtraining and exhaustion.
If you put too much stress and stimuli on the body, after the initial shock you will be left feeling fatigued and ill. This can be down to a number of factors i.e you did too much too soon, you haven’t had a rest day, you ran too far or lifted too heavy, the list goes on. The phase of overtraining should be avoided at all costs and is extremely counterproductive.
More is not always better
We are all guilty for this, myself included. In theory it sounds easy, just keep doing more and more and you will get better indefinitely. It's not as simple as just hammering yourself with reps and sets, day in and day out until you can deadlift as much as Eddie Hall (unfortunately).
Progressive overload must be constant but is not linear. Some days, for a number of biological and environmental reasons you may be able to do more and perform better than other days. These are the days you should take advantage of and progress. Do not expect to feel like this every session, in the real world this simply isn't possible.
Listen to your body on the days you aren’t feeling tip top. Progress in different ways, work on mobility, technique, some light active recovery or simply go home and rest. Progressive overload is a marathon and not a sprint. Avoid exhaustion and strive to live in the adaption phase for as long as possible.
In the video above you can see one of our online members getting a PR on his back squat. This is after following a four week progressive strength programme written by Matt.
Keep getting better everyone!