Progressive Overload is Your New Best Friend
Progressive overload is a term that’s quite often tossed around a lot. Many people think it’s as simple as slapping on more weight, but it’s more nuanced than this.
Many people debate whether progressive overload is the precursor to adaptation or if it’s the result of adaptations. The chicken vs the egg type of situation.
In principle, progressive overload is more of a precursor. It’s an increase in training stress imposed for further adaptations.
However, in practice, progressive overload doesn’t inherently cause muscle growth. Each time, you add more weight than you could previously handle, it’s not this overloading act that causes adaptations, but it’s the previous adaptations that allowed you to apply further overload. So you’re not necessarily bigger because you’re attempting to display more strength, but rather, you’re able to display more strength this workout because you got bigger.
In fact, currently being able to overload doesn’t even guarantee future adaptations or overload. It merely implies it. For example, many people can beat their performance last week, but not experience muscle growth due to hypertrophy being such a slow process or the fact that didn’t get a hypertrophy adaptation.
So while this may sound contradicting, based on what progressive overload is in nature and what it does in practice, both of these set of views can be true:
- Progressive overload drives strength/hypertrophy. It literally brings you in the direction for more gains. In addition, more overload generally correlates with more adaptations (1).
- Progressive overload does not technically cause adaptations. Adaptations reveals progressive overload to be possible. Arguably, progressive overload is more of a proxy measurement of gains rather than the direct cause of them.
Regardless, we know progressive overload must be in a training program or else that program is painfully sub-optimal.
How Necessary is Progressive Overload?
Progressive overload is like our way to track calories, but for our training stimulus. If we don’t do it, we don’t truly know where we’re at. We won’t know if the signal for muscle growth we’re attempting is strong enough to expand our tissues.
From a fat loss perspective, progressive overload also allows you to know your workout is burning more calories over time. This effect is minor, but if you’re able to go from lifting 200 lbs for 8 reps to lifting 250 lbs for 12 reps, your body is going to be expending much more energy in the latter scenario.
How to Apply Progressive Overload
Progressive overload can be applied in many ways, but the 2 true and accurate way of doing so is weight and reps. If you can lift heavier weights for the same reps, then the stimulus has objectively increased.
Similarly, if you can lift the same weight for more reps, surely overload has occurred.
Other methods have more flaws and can’t make up the bulk of your progression. For example, increasing sets is useful, but it is truly not overload. If you do the same work, but add another set, you are technically imposing a greater stressor than last week, but it won’t reveal if overload is taking place.
This is because you could’ve done an extra set last week, but you simply didn’t add it. So adding sets can be useful for other reasons, but to truly know you’re overloading and adapting, load or rep progressions must take place.
In practical settings, we know that overload doesn’t take place linearly. We can’t just add weight and reps without changing other factors every week. If we could, we’d all be able to bench 400 lbs for 50 reps in a matter of months.
The most basic way of applying overload over time is a double progression model. You set a rep range and once you’re able to reach the end of the rep range with a weight for all assigned sets, you increase the load. Afterwards, you increase reps until you max out the rep range again in which it’ll be time to add weight again.
It could look something like this for 3 sets of squats with a rep range of 8-12.
Week 1: 225 x 12, 10, 8
Week 2: 225 x 12, 12, 12
Week 3: 250 x 12, 11, 9
Week 4: 250 x 12, 12, 12
Week 5: 255 x 11, 9, 8
Week 6: 255 x 12, 11, 10
Week 7: 255 x 12, 12, 11
Week 8: 255 x 12, 12, 12
You will need a logbook to do this, which is simply a fancy word meaning notebook or app to track. Really any dollar store notebook will be fine. If you’re not currently tracking your performance, this is the wake up to do so. What gets measured gets managed and your muscle and strength are too precious to leave to chance.
Keep in mind, your form must be solid and consistent. If you don’t squat to depth or the bar doesn’t touch your chest on bench, you don’t count it. The logbook is essentially where you’re tracking your training stimulus. Just like you wouldn’t track calories inaccurately, you only count reps with solid form to the full range you’re intending.
In addition, it’s important to be patient with overload during a deficit. If you’re cutting, total food intake and bodyweight are lower, so some of your big lifts may progress slower. Keep in mind, some progression should still take place. If it’s not, you might be sacrificing too much performance by dieting needlessly aggressive.
But at the end of the day, focus on adding weight and reps to your performance week to week. Don’t go into the gym with the mindset of training hard. Go into the gym with a mindset of tracking your performance and beating the logbook. Feelings don’t bring growth. Numbers will. Show me someone who can lift heavy weights for a bunch of reps and I’ll show you someone who’s got tons of muscle.