When we set out to design a workout program, the end goal is to get results. At the beginning of any person’s fitness journey, there seems to be no stopping the progress. However, after about a year to a year and a half, this is when the easy gains come to a stop. What was one ten pounds added to the bench press, what felt like, every week; is now using the same weights and not feeling any stronger? How can this be? Why did all the momentum come to a stop?
Ask yourself a simple question, do you tend to do the same workouts with the same sets, reps, movements, rest periods, and weights week by week? Or have you been following the same beginner plan you had since day one? The body’s job is to adapt to the new stimuli giving to it and overcome this by being stronger. Whether this is going for a run, swimming, or lifting any heavy object. If you are using the same program every week, the body has no reason to change. It can handle this way of training without a problem. You are not ‘forcing the body to change’. Meet Progressive Overloading.
“Progressive overload requires a gradual increase in volume, intensity, frequency, or time in order to achieve the targeted goal of the user. In this context, volume and intensity are defined as follows: Volume is the total number of repetitions multiplied by the resistance (weight) used to perform each repetition.”1
This has been using for all styles of training. Adding a little more weight to a lift, changing the sets or reps, or even doing a rest-pause set to feel the lift differently will apply a new form of stimulation to the body. You might have heard the story of Milo of Croton. He was one of the original wrestlers in the original Olympic games. “In order to build the strength he needed, Milo had an unusual approach to training. He decided to begin carrying a baby calf on his shoulders. Every day he carried this calf, even though people would laugh at him. Over time, the calf grew larger and Milo grew stronger day by day. After 4 years of waking up every morning and picking up the calf, Milo eventually was carrying a full-grown ox on his shoulders. At that point, the laughter was silenced by Milo’s incredible strength and he became the strongest wrestler in Greece.”2 This story may sound crazy but it is a clear example of overload training. As the calf gained in size, Milo was still able to lift and carry it. This was not an overnight success.
Okay, so you might be asking yourself, ‘What can I do with this information? I don’t have a cow to carry.’ No worries!
Step one: Workload
This might be the most obvious way to increase the demand on your muscles. Add weight. If 60kg is too easy for a set of ten, try 65 or 70kg. But don’t get discouraged if you cannot do 10 reps with 70kg. As you increase the weight, the number of reps you can do will go down. This is the inverse relationship between load and reps.
Step two: Rep Range
If adding weight is not something you would like to do, you can always increase the reps. If 10 reps are too easy, try 12 or 15, or maybe even going to failure. This is another way to overload the muscles. Always keep good form when attempting reps to failure.
Step three: Volume
Volume is another way to progressive overload. Let’s say you did 100kg for three sets of 10 reps. That would be 3000kg of total volume (100kg x 3 sets x 10 reps = 3000). This is a simple but effective way to track your workouts. You can use this to compare the volume of workouts with the same lift and different rep ranges. You’ll see with the same number of sets with different working weights and reps that the volume might not be much different, that is okay. It is easier to add more sets to see a bigger difference in volume.
Step four: Frequency
Let’s say you train three days a week. Adding in another day and making it four days a week would also increase to volume. You can use this extra day to work areas of the body you might have missed or use it to split training over more days. But remember, too much volume can have its negative sides as well. When adding extra days, remember how it might impact your other workouts.
Step five: Rest Periods
Progressive overload does not always have to be about adding weight or volume to a workout. Think of a good HIIT (High-intensity interval training) workout, do they have long periods of resting? This is another way you can train to overload the muscle. If you normally would rest for two minutes between a set of squats, try 1:30 or even one minute. This will dramatically change how you feel when training and put new stress on the muscles.
The program design looks so easy at first. We all wonder how everyone doesn’t have a massive bench and look jacked year-round, Progressive overload is a key principle of training to keep the body moving forward with the results we want. Whether you are a beginner or a long time player in the game, stick to training smart.