A Guide to Progressive Overload

The inner workings behind progressive overload as a training method.

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Sebastian Beasant
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The concept behind progressive overload is simply adding external load on a progressive basis. As simple as it is, this training mechanism is one of the most influential ways to improve strength, endurance, size, and ultimately get better. In strength training, the external load comprises all the acute and chronic variables that can be manipulated in a session or in a training program, for example, resistance load (weight lifted), number of repetitions, speed of execution, range of motion, number of sets, rest interval between the sets and weekly frequency. This progression involves the increase or variation of the external loads, thus generating larger internal loads (muscle forces or torques) and increasing adaptations over time.  The most common use of progressive overload is increasing training volume eg, increasing the number of sets, reps, or exercises in a training session. There are a number of ways to utilize progressive overload in your training, and we touch on some of them below.

 

When it comes to methods, there are four main ways you can implement progressive overload in a search of progress.

 Volume

Increasing volume is one of the most common training methods used in achieving progressive overload. Increasing volume is a very simple and effective method if your aim is muscle hypertrophy and muscular endurance. Volume in this case is increasing the number of sets, reps, or exercises in a training session. An example here would be; week 1 you perform 3 sets of 8 reps of bench press and then week 2 you perform 4 sets of 8 reps bench press at the same weight.

 

Intensity

Increasing intensity is also a very common strategy used in progressive overload. Simply put, increasing intensity refers to increasing external resistance (weight lifted) in the exercises. By lifting more weight, your muscles become stronger and the micro-tears result in muscle growth. An example of increasing intensity looks like this; week 1 you perform 3 sets of 8 reps of bench press at 80kg, week 2 you perform 3 sets of 8 reps at 82.5kg, week 3 you perform 3 sets of 8 reps at 85kg, and so on.

 

Density

Training density is probably the least utilized method of progressive overload. Density refers to the relationship between stimulus and recovery. In practical terms, it represents how much volume and intensity are applied over a period of time. The most common forms of increased training density are the reduction of rest intervals between sets and exercises and the application of advanced training techniques (e.g., drop-sets, rest-pause, circuit) since volume and intensity are unchanged. This strategy of load progression is generally used in training with goals related to muscular hypertrophy.

 

Complexity

The last two decades have seen the rise of functional training, that being, multi-component, integrated, task-specific style of training. Complexity looks at raising the technical difficulty of an exercise, consequently increasing the demand for other physical capabilities. One way to increase complexity is to increase execution speed, mainly in the concentric phase of the exercises. As power is the amount of work performed over a given period of time, increasing execution speed places a greater emphasis on power outputs. This technique is successfully used in sport-specific training.

Instability is another way to increase the complexity of a movement. By disturbing the position of the body’s center of gravity it raises the demand for balance and as a consequence, joint, and core stability. Another possibility of progression is working with unstable loads. Although maximal loads are reduced with unstable loads, the core (trunk) and limb muscle activation are increased when the load is offset. This is a great technique to strengthen your core and any imbalances in the body.