If you aren’t seeing the gains you want in the gym and your nutrition is on point, it may be because you have a case of programming ADHD (you just aren’t consistent enough). The difference between an effective and ineffective training program is simply whether or not it was followed through for long enough in order for it to produce noticeable changes. This time frame is generally anywhere from 4 – 8 weeks. The cardinal rule in gaining size and strength? Progressive overload.

What Is Progressive Overload?

In essence, progressive overload simply means “to do more over time”. It is the process of slowly overloading the body with either volume, intensity, frequency, or time to reach a specific goal. Effectively, all you are doing is forcing your body to adapt by training it to do more work and become efficient in the new demands you place on it. Your body will not change or improve unless you force it to.
In order for muscle to grow and to see increases in strength and performance, the body must be required to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced.

The Benefits of Progressive Overload.

Progressive overload techniques are a safe and efficient way to acquire strength gains and manipulate body composition over time. By increasing weights slowly for example, you are protecting the joints and growing your body accustomed to lifting heavier loads rather than just negatively shocking it with huge increases. If you went from squatting 100kgs on Monday to squatting 150kgs on Tuesday for example, you’re setting yourself up for injury. Your body needs time to adjust to new demands and to build up the strength to appropriately handle new weight. That’s why it’s called progressive overload: it helps you improve over time, step by step.

If we weren’t implementing principals such as progressive overload, our bodies become very accustomed to the physical demands we place on them through exercise stimulus, and as a result they become extremely efficient at that task over time. What this would mean is that your body would stay the same, you would never grow stronger, become fitter, gain new muscle etc. By adjusting our routines and including periodisation techniques like this we are able to noticeably see the benefits of our training; improved body composition, muscular strength, endurance, fitness and so on.

In addition to these physical effects, there are positive psychological impacts of progressive overload too. Every time we play with stimulus (more on this below) we are shocking our body. This challenge has positive impacts on the brain; when you achieve something, you become proud of yourself which is incredible for building self-confidence and elevating mood. They say that momentum builds motivation, so by constantly improving your techniques and lifts, progressive overload also keeps you engaged in your workouts allowing you to stay motivated every session. 

How To Use Progressive Overload.

When it comes to progressive overload, there are a variety of ways in which this can be achieved other than just adding weight to a bar and the adaptation that is caused by each method will differ. Once form is perfected and you are moving efficiently, you can begin playing with varying stressors on the body, such as:
  • Lifting the same load with a greater range of motion
  • Lifting the same weight load and volume with better form, control and less effort
  • Lifting the same weight for a greater volume (reps)
  • Increasing sets with the same load and reps
  • Increasing weight
  • Decreasing rest time in between sets
  • Lifting with more speed and greater intensity
  • Doing more reps in a set amount of time
  • Doing the same work in less amount of time
  • Lifting more often throughout the week (volume and frequency)
  • Utilizing variables such as static holds, slower tempos, forced reps, drop sets, partial reps, etc., whilst using the same load.

Do I Have To Progress Every Workout?

You won’t progress every workout, no. In fact, doing so is near impossible. Thinking about it logically, if we progressed every workout there would be guys benching literal “tonnes” of weight. That’s just not realistic. In saying this, we should absolutely be trying to increase the demands being placed on our bodies as often as we possibly can.

Another important factor to note is that progressive overload and strength gains are not linear. The body doesn’t work that way; adaptions always occur in ebbs and flows. Sometimes you’ll make huge progress in a week of a particular quality, whilst at other times you’ll stall for weeks. The key is to stay consistent regardless. 

Form First. 

Check your ego at the door my friends. Yeah you hit a PB, that’s great, how was your form though? It’s easy for lifters to trick themselves in to thinking that they’ve gotten stronger, but their ranges of motions shrink, and/or their form goes down the drain. In my books, these lifters didn’t get stronger at all, they got sloppier. Progressive overload only works when you challenge the muscles to do more over time, and your muscles will not be forced to do more if your form gets lazy or you’re swinging weight around. In addition, you won’t be hitting any new PBs if you’re injured; keep your form tight and do it right.

The only way you will ever know whether or not you’ve gained true strength is to perform the lifts and reps exactly the same way each time. True gains require proper depth, tempo, and execution.

Leave your ego at the door, form first, always!

To recap; progressive overload is simply a training tool in which we add tension to your training regime in various forms. It is probably the fundamental key in growth and strength gains as far as training is concerned. Essentially, it is about shocking the body in small, safe increments so that it is never able to adapt and become efficient at its workload.