If your goal is to change, grow or improve, then understanding the fundamentals of progressive overload is a must. In the Ancient Greek era, there is a story about an athlete called Milo. He would train by carrying a baby calf on his back until it became a full-sized bull. Since the calf would grow everyday, the stress applied on his muscle would too. His muscle would have no option but to adapt over time.
When you stress a muscle, it is forced to respond and grow larger and stronger. The stress applied on the muscle must be good enough so the muscle has no other options than to grow. This is what we call overload. It means you are forcing your muscles to work beyond their capacities. Progressive overload simply means you are continuously overloading your muscle over time. Keep in mind the body is lazy, without progressive overload, it will at a certain point never feel the need to adapt itself and therefore will never get stronger or bigger. The body will never change unless you challenge it.
How to apply progressive overload to your workout
Progressive overload contains 3 major key factors which can be broken down into 5 steps you can include in your workout.
- Frequency : number of time you train a muscle group each week.
- Intensity : how heavy you lift, the heavier the better.
- Volume : number of sets and reps you perform for a muscle group.
When using the principles of progressive overload, it is important to only play on one of these variable at a time. You can not increase them all at once during your workouts, but over time, as you train and get bigger, stronger, you will see an increase in all of them.
5 ways to implement progressive overload to your workout
1 - Increase frequency
Training more frequently is mostly useful for improving a weaker muscle group. For some people, training a muscle group once a week is just not enough. Yet, you need to be careful on this one and listen to your body, it may not be ready to move from the usual once a week to twice a week workout. For the most of us, training our muscles as frequently as possible is the best way to build strength and muscle mass in the long run, while still allowing time for sufficient recovery.
2 - Increase weights
This is the easiest one to figure out. When your lifts become easier and you are able to perform more repetitions than your workout demands you to, it means it's time to put extra weight on the bar! Keep in mind that adding weight shouldn't be done at the expense of your form. Adding weight should never be prioritized over good form; if you can't lift with proper form then you shouldn't be adding weight.
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3 - Increase repetitions
As you get stronger, you will be able to perform more repetitions with a given weight. It is important to keep pushing and doing more repetitions without sacrificing good form instead of stopping at the target repetitions you aimed for. As a general rule for muscle mass and strength, you do not want to make more than 12 repetitions. If you can perform more than 12 repetitions, then it's time to increase the weight on the bar.
4 - Increase sets
Increasing the number of sets you perform for a muscle group is great because it allows you to work the muscle from a different angle. You can't work on your back thickness and width on the same set, but you can if you perform multiples sets. It basically allows you to do different exercises for a muscle group.
5 - Reduce rest time
Forcing a muscle group to accomplish the same work in less time is one type of progressive overload. You might not be able to add weight on the bar or do 1 extra repetition at every workout, but you might be able to perform an exercise for the same weight and repetition target with less resting time between sets, and this is an improvement that people often neglect. Reducing your rest time between sets forces your body to adapt metabolically and increase its recovery efficiency.
Understanding the principle of progressive overload is pretty easy, but mastering it takes time and experience. Every time you hit the gym, you should be noticing alterations, even if it's a small one. If you are doing the same lifts, with the same weight for the same number of repetitions everyday, then you are doing something wrong. To make sure you aren't guilty of this mistake, it is important that you stay aware of your progress and analyse the last workouts you did, here is 5 ways to track your progress to help you out with this.
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