Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is, without doubt, the most important concept you will ever come across as a weightlifter. If you want to achieve your weightlifting goals, then progressive overload should become your religion in the gym. 

Everything that you do in the gym should be based around progressive overload. With it, you can’t go wrong. If you are looking for limitless weightlifting progress, then it’s now time to make progressive overload your new best friend. Whatever else you read, hear, or the training methodologies you decide to try, ensure that all your weightlifting is planned with progressive overload in mind. The concept of progressive overload is simple and easy to implement and extremely effective. The problem is, progressive overload seems to be a commonly overlooked treasure among natural, recreational weightlifters. Now for the question:

•What is progressive overload and how can I program it into my weight training?

The true nature of progressive overload

It’s all about forcing your body out of its comfort zone. As a weightlifter, if you want to get bigger and stronger, then you need to give your body a reason to want to get bigger and stronger. That reason is progressive overload.

In its simplest form, progressive overload means to ‘continually challenge your body to push it to new limits, forcing it to adapt’.

You might of heard the expression ‘No Pain, No Gain’? Well, this pretty much sums up progressive overload. Don’t worry, it does not mean that you need to suffer pain. There is no pain involved. That would be counterproductive! But, it does mean that you need to sweat, push yourself, and train in ways that during your gym session get you to say to yourself: I can do this, I will make it, a bit of discomfort is nothing!

Progressive overload is not easy. But that is the magic behind it. It gives your body a powerful motivation to want to develop into something better, fitter, stronger and bigger. The gym is a place where we go to develop ourselves, step out of our comfort zone and give it all we have got. Therefore, this gives us the perfect opportunity to utilize the true power of progressive overload.

As a weightlifter, progressive overload is going to involve a training stimulus that consistently challenges the body to adapt. In other words, become stronger and bigger. There is of course, a whole range of different training stimulus (volume, intensity, exercise selection, training frequency, rest intervals, range of exercise motion etc.) that you can use to your advantage.

Training volume and intensity are considered the two biggest and most important manipulated training variables.

In fact, if your goal is increased strength and size, then volume and intensity should take priority in progressive overload, and therefore your weight-training program (in a later article, I will talk more about the importance of volume and intensity in size and strength potential).

In progressive overload, the trick will be to focus on increasing your intensity or volume over time (I will show you how to do both later on – this will be important for long-term gains). By doing this, you are forcing your body to adapt to the increasing volume and intensity. The result? You body comes back stronger and bigger than ever!

An important question next then is how can I effectively utilize training volume and intensity to progressively overload?

Progressive Overload: Volume and Intensity

It helps to know what volume and intensity is. This will allow you to effectively utilize these training variables in your weight lifting programming.

Volume (total amount of work you do), is made up of exercise repetitions x exercise sets x load lifted.

Intensity is the amount of weight lifted as a % of your 1RM (your 1RM is the maximal amount of weight that you can lift, in one rep, on a particular exercise, at that point in time).

Try not to stress too much on the definitions. These definitions will tend to vary depending on what and where you read. But generally, they give you a nice idea of what intensity and volume is.

Now, say you are performing the compound exercise: flat barbell bench press (great exercise for your triceps, shoulders and, of course chest). Progressive overload on this exercise could include (for a given weight on the bar) increasing the repetitions and/or sets. By increasing either the number of repetitions and/or number of sets, the total volume of work done has increased.

Progressive Overload: Training Volume

Progressive Overload (Volume Block): Week 1 – Week 4 (flat bench, two sessions per week)

Week 1 (8 repetitions x 5 sets x 150 lbs)

Week 2 (10 repetitions x 5 sets x 150 lbs)

Week 3 (12 repetitions x 5 sets x 150 lbs)

Week 4 (15 repetitions x 5 sets x 150 lbs)

After 4 weeks, with two flat bench sessions per week, you might start to bump up the weight on the bar (say to 155 lbs). From here, you can begin to increase the exercise repetitions and/or sets (hence volume) in a similar fashion.

Progressive Overload: Training Intensity

Progressive Overload (Intensity Block): Week 1-Week 4 (flat bench, two sessions per week)

Week 1 (5 repetitions x 4 sets x 170 lbs)

Week 2 (5 repetitions x 4 sets x 172 lbs)

Week 3 (5 repetitions x 4 sets x 175 lbs)

Week 4 (5 repetitions x 4 sets x 178 lbs)

As you can see, increasing volume and intensity plays a big role in progressive overload. By increasing volume and/or intensity over time, we are challenging our bodies and forcing them to adapt to these greater training demands. While I have used some arbitrary numbers in this article, they are only there to help us understand the importance of volume and intensity in progressive overload. In fact, when it comes to your training, it really doesn’t matter what numbers you use. We are all different, and therefore, we will all have different starting points.

The important point to take away is that wherever you start, increasing volume and/or intensity becomes your goal in progressive overload.

Progressive Overload extends beyond volume and intensity

As most of you will have probably noticed, I have so far mentioned progressive overload only in terms of volume and intensity. While they are the two biggest variables to consider and most of the time, play a dominant role in someone’s weight training program; they are not the only variables.

As a short example of what I mean, take ROM (Range of motion) for example. If you are new to the barbell squat, you might not want to jump into the deep end straight away and go straight to parallel (that will come later with increased flexibility, mobility and technique). But, for a given weight on the bar (or even just your bodyweight to begin), you could work on going slightly deeper each time you squat. Although your volume and intensity are not changing, your ROM is. It’s getting greater, and therefore more challenging to your body. This is just an example of something outside of progressively overloading only through volume and intensity.

If I were to expand upon everything, this article would become HUGE! This article just gives you a glimpse into an ever expanding, important area of training methodology.

Progressive Overload is never a smooth process

Another important thing to notice is that I have talked about progressive overload in a linear fashion. The reality is however, that it becomes almost impossible to constantly increase the intensity or volume each training session (at least past the beginner stage). It would be nice! That constant source of motivation! Unfortunately, our bodies would quickly stall and burn out if we were to keep adding more weight, repetitions and sets each session.

Adaptation is a slow process, but adding more weight to the bar takes only a few seconds! We need time to let our bodies catch up, heal and adjust. Some training days you might improve and feel on top of the world, and on others, the complete opposite! 

What is important is that when it comes to progressive overload, it’s best to try and analyse your progress over a period of time, not from session to session.

There will always be ups and downs on the road to success! The good news is, that it is very possible to program our weight training in ways that allow us to progressively overload on a more consistent basis. It just means that a little more planning is needed in terms of manipulating training variables (which I will talk about more in-depth, in later articles).

When it comes to gaining size and strength, progressive overload becomes a powerful tool at your disposal. Whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced lifter, progressive overloading should always be at the forefront of your training. It’s a large topic and it would take a lot of studying to understand progressive overload in its entirety. But thankfully, you don’t have to know everything about progressive overload in order to meet your size and strength goals. However, by tapping into the magic of progressive overload, will you be one step closer to achieving those goals.

If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below. I would love to hear your thoughts on one of the most important areas of weightlifting theory! 


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