03 November 2020

Training and working towards a better physique have always had some myths and possible untruths associated with them, in order to sell information and products; these lies continue to this day with cherry-picked studies and folk science, otherwise known as ‘broscience’.

However, one of the elements of training that everyone can depend is the effective and efficient’progressive overload’. It’s an old technique that has been implemented for a very long time across a variety of different sports.

How the body responds to workload

When it comes to training and reaching a certain goal, it’s all about being efficient in your workload capacity. Do too little and you’ll get nowhere, do too much and you’ll cause injuries that will set you back even further. Your body responds to workload as stimulus that you have to create, in order to get better with every training session.

Your job in training is to create a type of stimulus that will have an effect on your body when recovering – so you can get better again inthe next training session. Powerlifting uses workload efficiently by reaching a level of perceived exertion. The workload capacity becomes as important as anything else (such as diet, recovery, and sleep).

Progress vs. hard training

Progress is often misunderstood for hard training and going over your limits. Though these two might seem synonymous, they aren’t the same and can in fact can be opposites.

Both hard training and progress have the same aim: reaching a certain goal. But while progress aims to make consistent improvements over time, hard training is all about intensity and going over your limits every single session.

There are times when you need to train hard, but your primary goal should be to make progress – not training hard for the sake of training hard, and potentially causing unwanted injuries that can stick for a very long time.

The importance of progressive overload in training

There are many reasons why implementing progressive overload as a base method in training is crucial, including goal management. Progressive overload ensures that you stay in line with what you do. It keeps you consistent on your goals, rather than wasting your energy and nervous system stimulus on less important priorities (as shown in study data.)

Progressive overload is also important because it helps you to consistently make progress.As you dive deeper into over-training, you’ll realise that it isn’t always about lifting heavier weights; sometimes it’s about pushing yourself harder, doing more reps, more sets, adding bands, resting more, or recovering faster.

How to apply progressive overload into your training

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One of the easiest ways to add progressive overload to your training is to add more weight or resistance every time you train. For example if you’re an athlete, add a tougher hurdle to jump over in your sprints, increase the incline in your treadmill, or add more weight. Note that you can’t do all of those examples at once without the risk of risk under-recovering.

If your main goal is to build strength overtime for specific lifts, then add a few more pounds to your lifts every time you train. Although this may prove impossible to maintain overtime, it’s still something you should consider trying while at a manageable weight. Some of the most famous programs in the world in strength such as the 5.3.1 or the starting strength method by Mark Rippetoe encourage their trainees to add 5 pounds to their lifts each time they train. Eventually, a 5 pound increment would seem almost impossible – and that would be the time to embark on a new progressive overload training.

If you’re experiencing a plateau in your training then the best way to progressively overload is to not add more weight, but to add more volume. For instance, if you continuously experience the same plateau of not being able to deadlift 405 pounds, then it would be smart to lower the weight, and do 4 sets of 5 reps at 345 pounds. This would still challenge you, but would be more achievable than the intensity of adding more weight.

Progressive overload training still applies if your goal is to build muscle, all you need to do is to put your muscles at tension and challenge your muscles every time. For instance, instead of using heavier weights during your next bicep training, try adding negative reps and time under tension in your training. Instead of focusing on the amount of weight your bicep is curling, challenge your muscles to work for a longer, harder time.

Why progressive overload is king

Progressive overload is a technique where you build increments of strength every time you train, in order to progress in your training journey. These small increments are not always about the actual weight; sometimes they’re about how many repetitions are done, how many sets, amount of volume, using external forces such as bands, chains, deficit training and other tools to create and measure improvement.

Progressive overload is all about having a set plan that you follow. It’s not instinctive training, and it’s a training method that takes into account both the current standards and the goals. There are two cycles for the progressive overload: the big cycle that has the overall start and finish, and meso cycles. These cycles are interlinked micro progressive overload training phases.

Progressive overload training stands above other training methods because it’s the base of almost every training method available. Progressive overloading seeks to consistently increase the workload in a way that stimulates growth in strength and muscle, without overworking the body. This is true not only in practice, but also in numerous studies that found the effects of adding more weight consistently beneficial

Progressive overload in athletes

One of the biggest problems athletes face in their training journey is overtraining.

Many athletes suffer injuries while training because of an approach focused on running faster, lifting more weight, jumping higher, and working for longer in every training session. This style of training might work for a few days or weeks, but it sets the trainee or the athlete up to fail because it overworks the training capacity.

Progressive overload comes in handy for athletes, because it can be sport-specific and modelled in a way that simulates just enough tension without over-exerting the athlete. In addition to that, progressive overload is all about specific training, so it allows athletes to focus on different goals for different phases instead of trying to excel at everything at the same time.

Progressive overload is a tried and true formula that always works. As effective as progressive overload can be, it risks being harmful to athletes if overdone. Other elements of the methods that are just as essential as the training itself are the diet and recovery aspects. These are what will ensure that your muscles and nervous system are ready for more stimulus the next time you train.

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