If you want to know how to build muscle and make changes to your body, understanding the principle of progressive overload is essential.
Sometimes I feel like the fitness industry is just flooding the minds of gym goers with ambiguous and conflicting information regarding weight-training. The simple concept of building muscle has been drastically over complicated. This then leads most of us desperately searching for the “best exercises” and secrets to building muscle, and constantly ‘programme hopping’ to find the perfect training regimen.
Programme X or Y?!
I used to have a severe case of ‘programme ADHD’; I would start an exercise programme and then hear someone rave about ‘the BEST way to grow your butt’ or a flashy-looking style of training – and I would jump onto the next craze. There was no consistency, no strategic planning or structure to my workouts. I was just following Instagram trends and random youtube videos (lol). All my hard work and effort in the gym would’ve been a lot more effective if I had just stuck to a simple programme for a minimum of 6 weeks, and applied the principle of ‘progressive overload’.
What is Progressive Overload?
In basic terms, it literally means doing MORE work over a period of time. The idea is based on the principle that your body will eventually adapt to whatever stimulus it’s given. Therefore, in order to avoid a ‘plateau’ and to ensure you see continuous improvements in your physique and your lifts – you must continuously increase the demand of the stimulus. In turn, your body will continue to respond to the new stimulus and adapt. This is how muscular hypertrophy takes place, alongside increases in strength and power.
To give an example, imagine you perform 3 sets x 10 reps of 50KG squats twice a week. If you continue to do this week in, week out, your body will adapt and there is no demand for your muscles to grow or get stronger. = YOU WILL MAKE 0 PROGRESS.
However, if you want to make progress, it is necessary to increase at least one variable such as the weight, reps, sets, frequency. So if you add 5kg to your squat the week after, this appears as a ‘new stimulus’ to the body; (overload) and your body will then respond and adapt.
However, obviously it’s not feasible to continue adding weight every single time you go to the gym – if this was the case, you’d end up having to squat a crazy amount of weight. Luckily, there is a plethora of ways in which you can create this ‘overload’ to make progress.
How to Create More Overload
1. Lifting heavier weight (intensity of load)
2. Lifting the same weight for more reps (volume)
3. Increasing the number of sets you perform (volume)
4. Lifting the same weight and volume with less rest time between sets (density)
5. Lifting the same weight with increased range of motion / more control
6. Increasing the amount of times you train a muscle group (frequency)
7. Increasing the difficulty of the exercise (adding pauses, additional resistance, drop sets, rest pause, negatives, static holds, etc).
Can You Overload Too Much?
It’s important to remember that overload should not be applied excessively. You only need to slightly increase overload each week to see improvements. If you were to add weight, reps, sets in every single workout for every set- this would likely push your body past its ability to adapt; potentially resulting in a decrease in strength and negative implications (injury, ‘over-training’, poor recovery etc). This also heavily depends on your training experience, rest, sleep, nutrition, stress and genetic potential. Some people may have the capacity to progress and ‘overload’ their workouts significantly more than others; it’s all relative and depends on individual variance.
To give another example, let’s say you want to apply the principle of progressive overload to Hip-Thrusts. This is just one example of how you could do this:
Week 1: 3 sets of 10 reps at 60kg
Week 2: 3 sets of 10 reps at 65kg
Week 3: 3 sets of 12 reps at 65kg
Week 4: 4 sets of 12 reps at 65kg
Week 5: 4 sets of 10 reps at 70kg
Week 6: 4 sets of 10 reps at 70kg with reduced rest time between sets.
For the last 5 weeks I have been following a training programme with an emphasis on increasing my strength and muscle hypertrophy through progressive overload. I’ve included a screenshot of my progress over the last few weeks with the Barbell Hip thrust.
Tracking Your Workouts
I also want to emphasise how important it is to take note of what weight x reps x sets you’re doing in the gym. Obviously if you’re just going to get a good workout because you enjoy it and it makes you happy – there really isn’t any need to be writing it down. But if you’re serious about making improvements and progressing your training, keeping track of your workouts is the best way to do it.
Also, I find it pushes me even harder to make sure I increase my weight or reps when I have to write it down! And it’s motivating to look back and see the progress you’ve made over the space of a few weeks.
NEVER prioritise progressive overload over good form
Firstly, sacrificing proper form to hit a new squat PR, or excessively rounding your back to improve your 1RM on dead-lifts will just result in you injuring yourself; and setting your self back to where you started (or worse). Similarly, ‘cheating’ to get reps by adding a bit more full-body movement to an isolated exercise or doing a ‘half squat’ isn’t progressive overload. Technically if you do this, you’re not actually making it any more difficult for the muscle group you’re trying to focus on, so it won’t have any reason to respond and adapt. You’re simply just making it ‘easier’ to perform by using additional variables. Therefore, this will not result in effectively achieving muscle hypertrophy or increases in strength. So make sure you’re prioritising your form before you add any extra load.
I hope this helps anyone who may be slightly confused about how to implement an effective workout programme. It really doesn’t need to be over-complicated. As long as you’re making small incremental improvements each time you train, (provided your rest, recovery and nutrition is good) you will definitely see major improvements in your physique!
Here is a Youtube Video by Omar Isuf who explains Progressive Overload in a bit more detail (skip to 1.30mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMAdIeCeBTE
Let me know if you have any questions!