One of the most fundamental concepts in all forms of strength training is the concept of progressive overload.
Think back to the first time you picked up a weight. My guess is you naturally added more weight, reps, or sets to improve without realizing this is a well-studied concept in training. What you were innately doing is progressive overload: The progressive increase of a stimulus to facilitate an increased training response, in a specific and individualized manner (my interpretation).
A lot of lifters understand progressive overload, but when it comes to the nitty gritty details they often lack knowledge. This is return makes it harder to thoughtfully create programs for one’s self that involve progressive overload methods.
To aid in your ventures programming or understanding programs, I wanted to give my favorite six ways to use and implement progressive overload.
Prerequisite of Progressive Overload
Proper form – In order to properly progress with anything in the weight room, one must have proper form (optimal ranges of motion). The inability to perform without proper form will leave you improving on imbalances and bad habits.
Think about it this way, if you have limited mobility in the back squat and continue to program the lift without fixing or catering to the issue, you’re then strengthening the issue – counterproductive.
Guidelines of Progressive Overload
Patience/Small Changes – There are multiple ways to progressively overload your training, be patient and choose one or two ways to do each time you program. Large changes made all at once can leave you guessing where improvement have occurred.
What about new programs though? Those are big changes. Yes, new programs are big changes, but a new program is often a continuance of a previous program, which will have some of your consistent variables.
Non-Linear – In addition to the point of patience, it’s important to understand that your progressive overload will reach a point of stagnation. This can take form as a complete halt of progress (plateau), or a point where smaller increases seem like a struggle (lifting vets understand this). This happens overtime and it’s a signal to change up a program, or reassess your current training state.
Newbie Gains – When you’re just beginning your weightlifting journey, progress will jump rapidly and come easy. This can last for 3-6 months, pending on training style and person. Enjoy this time period and structure accordingly, most newbies don’t understand this rule, so they haphazardly lift and miss an easy gains window.
Individualization – Once you’re in or transitioning to your veteran years of lifting, progressive overload gets harder. By this time you should have an understanding of how your body responds to different training stimuli, which brings up the rule of individualization. Understand your body and how it responds to optimally perform, this involves a lot of experimentation and listening to your body.
Common Ways To Program Progressive Overload
There are multiple ways to program progressive overload, below I’ll provide an example of a lift and show different ways you could use progressive overload with it.
Back Squat, 80% 1-RM, 5 sets by 5 reps, 2-minute rests, 3010 tempo
Training intensities are dictated by the amount on the bar relative to our 1-rep max (1-RM). For example, if you’re training at 80% intensity in a movement, then you’ll be hitting weight that accounts for 80% of your 1-RM. Using training intensity is an easy, periodized method of increasing strength.
Example: Week 1: 80% 5 x 5, Week 2: 82% 5 x 5, Week 3: 85% – 2-minute rest
**Reps provided in programs usually assume you understand your 1-RM. For example, if a program asks for 4-6 reps, it’s assumed you know what weight you can move for those reps without failing or doing so with ease. If you plan on using training intensities – I highly recommend finding your 1-RM, or at least gain a close idea of what they are.
Another method when programming progressive overload is by gradually increasing the amount of sets you perform. Although, if you’re increasing sets, in most cases reps & intensities will change, but for this example we’ll assume the 80% stays.
Example: Week 1: 80% 5 x 5, Week 2: 80% 6 x 5, Week 3: 80% 7 x 5 – 2-minute rest
Reps can also be easily manipulated and will typically correlate with sets and intensities.
Example: Week 1: 80% 5 x 6, Week 2: 80% 5 x 7, Week 3: 80% 5 x 8 – 2-minute rest
**Lower reps (1-3) are used for increasing power, mid range reps (4-7) are for relative strength, and higher ranges (8+) can be used for hypertrophy and muscular endurance.
Rest is usually overlooked, but manipulating how much you rest can be a great method for facilitating training adaptations. Often times, rest is correlated with intensity. When at high intensities, proper rest allows the muscles and nervous system the time it needs to recover for optimal performance each set.
Frequency is how often we’re lifting the load. For most athletes, this comes in the form of times a day or increase in days a week. In the below scenario, we’ll pretend all of the variables remain constant, but the athlete is performing the 5 x 5 workout twice a week.
Example: Week 1: Monday 80% 5 x 5 – 2-minute rest + Thursday 80% 5 x 5 – 2-minute rest.
Tempo can be an extremely useful tool when keeping variables constant, but producing a different training adaptation, such as increasing bar speed. Check out this article for a full description on how to use tempo in your training.
Example: Week 1: 80% 5 x 5 – 2-minute rest, 3010 tempo, Week 2: 80% 5 x 5 – 2-minute rest, 4010 tempo, Week 3: 80% 5 x 5 – 2-minute rest, 5010 tempo.
**The number increased in this example would be time of the eccentric portion of the back squat, so the time we’re able to absorb the load with our lengthening muscle.
Progressive overload is possibly the most important rule when strength training, it’s a systematic approach for continuance of improvement. When programming progressive overload always be conscious of how many variables you’re manipulating at once, too many can be a bad thing and leave you questioning where true improvements were made.
Although, when done properly with full understanding – progressive overload can be the easiest way to improve and create a well-rounded body.
Feature image of @rreisfernando from @BarBend Instagram page.