Progressive overload is the concept of continually increasing the demands on the body. The goal behind this is to facilitate adaptation within the body (if adequate rest and recovery is performed) of increasing strength, hypertrophy, power, endurance, and so on.
Progressive overload can be achieved with a multitude of different training methods and tactics. Below I’ll outline a handful of methods to ensure you’re abiding by the concept of progressive overload.
METHODS OF PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
1. IMPROVE RANGE OF MOTION
Sometimes the best way to get the body used to a movement is by performing a movement with a partial range of motion. For example, it can be useful for some individuals to perform a barbell squat to a box and then returning to the start position, rather than lowering all the way down.
One of the best ways, if not the best way, to progress a movement is by ensuring you’re performing it with the full range of motion.
2. IMPROVE FORM
Once you’re able to perform a movement throughout its full range of motion, the primary goal should be ensuring that you’re performing the movement in the most efficient way for your body; i.e. performing a movement with proper technique.
When many people begin performing a movement for the first time the technique is often not that smooth. One might shake, or wobble in some parts of the body during certain phases of the movement. Over time, however, the body (often with some concentration) begins to perform the movement with a more mechanically efficient movement. This progresses will usually be noticeable fairly quick if people stay consistent, but over time improving technique will become less and less noticeable.
This isn’t to say that technique shouldn’t be focused once you feel you’re “good” at a movement. Rather, improving, or at least maintaining, the technique of your movements should often be at the forefront of your mind when training. This provides a multitude of benefits with arguably the most notable being that of reducing the chance of injury.
3. INCREASE REPETITIONS
In general, this and all following variables should only be introduced when you’ve completed the previous two variables mentioned above – i.e. you’re able to perform a movement with full range of motion and with relatively good technique (this can be somewhat subjective so use your best judgement).
Increasing repetitions (even with no change to weight and sets) is one of the most basic and tremendously useful ways of implementing progressive overload. It’s usefulness is largely due to the fact that increased reps can be done very gradually, without inducing an excessive amount of stress to the body.
4. INCREASE WEIGHT
What many people often strive to do, increasing the weight is the fundamental principle of getting stronger.
Increase the weight on your movements every now and then.
5. DECREASE REST
Even if nothing else changes (weight, sets, reps), decreasing the rest between your sets increases the demand that is placed upon your body. The result? Progressive overload.
6. MOVE THE WEIGHT FASTER
Forcing your body to move a weight (or your body in the case of bodyweight movements) faster than you’re typically used to is progress.
7. DO MORE IN THE SAME TIME FRAME
This ties in a bit to decreasing the rest but extends in to all other facets of packing more in to less time.
For example, if, during week 1, someone set a time for 20 minutes and performed 83 push ups, then in week 2 set the same 20 minute timer and performed 91 push ups.
Another example would be someone performing 2 workouts a week for the first month, then performing 3 workouts a week in the second month. It’s a larger scale than the previous example but the principle of doing more in the same length of time is still present.
8. DO THE SAME IN LESS TIME
This ties in a bit to a few variables previously mentioned, such as decreasing rest and moving the weight faster. Both of these abide by the principle of doing the same thing but in a smaller period of time.
Another example could be someone performing 100 push ups as fast as possible from week to week. If in week 1 that person takes 20 minutes to perform 100 push ups and next week they perform the same 100 push ups in 19 and a half minutes, that’s progress.
9. MORE SETS
This is fairly straightforward. If you add a set (or more) to any part of your workout then you’re progressing.
It can be helpful to understand that adding a set to a workout is generally a bit more taxing than progressing by adding just a rep or two. This isn’t to advocate against increasing your sets, I am absolutely in favor of it, but I feel it’s important to simply be aware of the increased stress it could have on the body and act accordingly. An often used method of accounting for an increased set (or sets) is by increasing the rest, decreasing the reps, or a combination of the two (although neither of these need occur).
10. DO THE SAME WORKOUT MORE OFTEN
At this point I imagine this is fairly simple to understand why this is a method of ensuring progressive overload.
If you do the same workout more often then you will, as a result, automatically be adding more sets, reps, weight, and so on.
11. MAINTAIN STRENGTH WHILE LOSING WEIGHT
When one loses weight we often know that the person is losing fat but time and time again weight loss also includes lost lean mass – i.e. if you lose weight you’re likely losing muscle. Additionally, traditional strength movements such as the bench press, squat, deadlift, and more are benefited by an individual having a higher body weight, even if that increase in body weight isn’t all muscle. The reason of this, very simply put, is the benefit of leverages.
With this in mind, if you’re able to lose both fat and or muscle while maintaining your maximal strength performance, you made progress.
PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD IS NOT LINEAR
I often find it unfavorable to use absolutes, but in this case I feel safe doing so – you will never be able to add sets, reps, weight, and so on each week, week after week, forever.
This is where the story of Milo of Croton came about. Milo was a well known wrestler in ancient Greece. The story is that Milo got prolific strength by lifting a newborn calf one day when he was a boy. As the calf grew to a bull, Milo continued to lift it day by day as he grew into a man at about the same pace.
In theory, this sounds like it ought to work. In practice, however, this simply isn’t the case. Interestingly, science has yet to uncover the specific reason, or more likely reasons, as to why we can’t continuously add weight and adapt each week. But as it stands, we can’t progress at the same rate forever.
What we can do is manage each of the variables over time according to your knowledge and, above all, personal experience.
You may find that some variables work better for you than others. For example, I seemingly respond better to decreasing reps before I start to add reps (and when I add reps I generally increase the rest to accommodate the increased demand on the body).
A simple system of programming your training that’s often used by athletes is by breaking your training in to separate blocks. For the sake of keeping things simple in this article, we’ll use two blocks for an example: a working block (~3-8 weeks), and a taper block (~1-2 weeks).
There’s a lot of potential variability with the blocks and within the blocks, but this is not the point of this article so I’ll keep things short.
The general idea is that you’ll progress your workouts (using whatever variables you deem preferable, in whatever combination you deem preferable) for the duration of the working block. Towards the end of the working block it’s not uncommon for the final week or more to be fairly tough as a result for the continually progressing demand of the workouts. As a result we often benefit from a 1 to 2 week (depending on the previous demands placed on the body) to allow the body to recover. At the end of the taper block you’ll then start back up at the beginning of a block where you aim to progress again for another number of weeks.
Ultimately, I would recommend to play around with all the different variables in a multitude of ways that you feel might be good for you. Over time step back and assess your training and ask yourself “What do I think works best for me?”.
Arguably the most important thing with creating your own training program is finding what works best for you, both mentally and physically.