If you are looking to improve your physique and have not been able to do so, the chances are that you are not following a fundamental law of training - Progressive Overload.
Progressive overload is a very important principle in strength training. Without progressive overload, it may be difficult to build strength and gain muscle in the long run.In the beginning, your skeletal muscle grows bigger and stronger in response to the new training stimulus. But to get stronger and make gains further, you need to continue providing new stimuli to your muscles. If you don't progressively overload your muscles by forcing them to do more than they're used to, they don't have any reason to make further adaptations and grow.
Unless it is forced to change, the human body will not change. As a result, you must never become complacent in your training regimen. Your progress will stall once you fall into your comfort zone and your workouts are no longer challenging.
What is Progressive Overload?
The principle of progressive overload states that -
"For an individual to achieve a certain training adaptation, the body must be stressed by working against a stimulus or load that is greater than that to which it is accustomed."
In other words, you must exert more effort than your body is accustomed to. This principle entails constantly increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system to achieve consistent gains in muscle size, strength, and endurance. Simply put, if you want to get bigger and stronger, you must constantly force your muscles to work harder than they are accustomed to.
In contrast, if the demands on the target muscle groups are not maintained or even reduced, your muscles will atrophy, losing size and strength.
Progressive overload is a simple but important concept that serves as the foundation for effective resistance training. The progressive-overload principle is not limited to weightlifting to increase muscle growth and strength; it can also be applied to cardiovascular fitness routines, resulting in physiological changes that affect aerobic metabolism and the cardiorespiratory system.
Progressive Overload: How Is It Done?
In this article, we discuss six ways of progressive overloading to achieve great results over time.
Increase The Load/Resistance
The most obvious way to increase the tension/stress on your muscles is to increase the weight/load on your bar. For example, if you were bench pressing 100 Kgs previously and it starts feeling too easy for you, try adding 5 Kgs on both sides of the bar to make it challenging. But here's the thing - when you increase the weight, the number of reps might fall to some degree, and that's completely fine because you will be stronger soon enough to do the same number of reps.
Increase The Reps
You don't have to add weights necessarily; instead, add more reps to that particular exercise. For example - If you were performing 6-8 reps set of deadlifts, you can add the number of reps and go up to 10-12 reps to make it more challenging. However, we won't suggest you increase the reps indefinitely as it would enhance your muscle endurance rather than increase your strength. To maximize your strength and muscle building, you need to keep your rep range in the hypertrophy range of 8 and 12.
Increase The Overall Volume
This is another way to progressive overload. In this method, you either add more sets to your existing exercises or simply add more exercises to your workout routine.
Volume = Sets * Reps * Weights
For example - Let's say you were performing three sets of squats in your workout. To progressively overload, you need to increase the number of sets or just add another exercise that would emphasizes your quads, like leg press or lunges.
Increase The Frequency
Frequency basically refers to how often you are performing a set of exercises in a week. So, there are two concepts here: -
Overall Training Frequency: This means the number of times you are training per week. It could be any form of training like weight/strength training, cardio, calisthenics, etc.
Muscle Frequency: This means the number of times you are training a single muscle group per week.
This technique works particularly well when targeting a lagging or weak body part. For example, suppose you have small calves and want to work on them and make gains. Of course, you can add weights or more reps to progressive overload but training your calves one additional day in the week will increase the load significantly and help you make the most gains.
Decrease Rest Time between Sets
By decreasing your rest intervals between the sets, you perform the same amount of work in less time. This mechanism makes your body more metabolically efficient.
Increase The Tension
Increase the duration of each repetition within an exercise. You need to prolong the time under the tension of a muscle while performing an exercise. This is a common technique used in bodybuilding and known as time under tension (TUT). For example - While doing biceps curls next time, focus on a 4-second descent () movement. This should make your workout more challenging. The longer your muscles stay under tension, the more significant stimulus it receives to get bigger and stronger.
Rules to Incorporate Progressive Overload
Overloading should always be gradual and progressive. Excessive increases in intensity, reps, frequency and other aspects of training are risky. It can result in injuries, muscle soreness, and, of course, overtraining. To keep overload safe and progressive, follow these guidelines:
The Bottom Line
The overload principle is a crucial, foundational idea in fitness. If you don't overload the body, you will never see gains in muscle strength, endurance, or overall fitness. Therefore, make sure to keep challenging yourself in the gym and keep those gains coming your way.
Peterson, M. D., Pistilli, E., Haff, G. G., Hoffman, E. P., & Gordon, P. M. (2010). Progression of volume load and muscular adaptation during resistance exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111(6), 1063–1071. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-010-1735-9
Gonzalez, A. M. (2016). Effect of Interset Rest Interval Length on Resistance Exercise Performance and Muscular Adaptation. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 38(6), 65–68. https://doi.org/10.1519/ssc.0000000000000257
La Scala Teixeira, C. V., Evangelista, A. L., Pereira, P. E. D. A., da Silva-Grigoletto, M. E., Bocalini, D. S., & Behm, D. G. (2019). Complexity: A Novel Load Progression Strategy in Strength Training. Frontiers in Physiology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.00839