Breaking Though Your Plateau with Progressive Overload
You were making great progress in the gym, getting bigger, stronger and dropping that body fat percentage – then it all stopped…time to introduce you to the concept of progressive overload. In short, progressive overload is the addition of new or increased stimulus to the body in order to keep it adapting.
Your body fundamentally gains muscle as a defensive mechanism, i.e. your body is placed under stress and responds by changing itself to better handle that stress. In the case of bodybuilding, your body is adapting to increased stress by increasing the cross sectional area, a.k.a. size of the muscle. However, once your body has adapted to that stress it will no longer need to change or grow, so if you keep training with the same resistance week in week out, don’t expect to get any bigger. This article will explore not only the science behind progressive overload, but also how you can apply it, how you can incorporate it into your current workout, and a real workout example to get you started on the road to constant muscle gain.
The Science behind Progressive Overload
The idea of pushing your body harder in order to continually adapt is not a new one, and has been present in warriors and athletes dating back thousands of years. The phrase Progressive Overload Principle, however, is actually a fairly modern invention, dating back to Doctor Thomas Delorme and his rehabilitative treatment of soldiers following world war two. He believed that the backlog of rehabilitative patients in the hospital to which he was assigned was not just due to massive demand, but also due to inefficient methods of rehabilitation. As a result of this belief, Delorme began testing new principles to speed up the recovery of rehabilitative patients. His testing was a great success, and his new methodology became known as the Progressive Overload Principle.
The principle, as mentioned above, is simply that more stimulation needs to be added to the body on a regular basis in order for it to maintain its adaptive processes. To give a very basic example, say you were squatting around 110lb for three sets of ten repetitions. You would begin and likely find the set challenging, but over a few weeks your body would adapt until you began to find it much easier. At this point your body will not grow stronger using these training parameters, and so they must be changed. You could, then, decide to aim for twelve repetitions using the same weight, or simply to add a small amount of weight to your squat, bringing it up to 115lb for example.
The benefit of progressive overload is that you will continue to get bigger, stronger or fitter depending on the training variables you have manipulated. Without progressive overload your progress will halt, you will not pass go, and you will not collect $200, it’s as simple as that.
As far as studies go into the subject of progressive overload, it is best to start where it all began, with none other than Thomas Delorme and Arthur Watkins’ Technics of Progressive Resistance exercise, released in May 1948. The text is not a study in the modern sense in the word, it is not focussed on analysing results or drawing broader inferences, rather it is a text aimed explicitly at demonstrating how best to apply progressive resistance in a rehabilitative capacity. More recent studies have only served to further demonstrate the beneficial effects of progressive resistance training. BW Craig’s study found that progressive resistance training had a positive impact on growth hormone and testosterone levels in both young and elderly subjects, with a much more noticeable increase in the younger (age 20-25) subjects, for more information check out:
Craig BW1, Brown R, Everhart J., ‘Effects of progressive resistance training on growth hormone and testosterone levels in young and elderly subjects.’
JE Layne’s study found that Progressive Resistance training had a positive impact on bone density, making it especially useful within rehabilitative circles and for combating the effects of osteoporosis as we age. For more on this see:
Layne JE, Nelson ME., ‘The effects of progressive resistance training on bone density: a review. Med Sci Sports Exercise 1999 Jan; 31(1):25-30.
And last, though certainly not least, BS Cheema’s study found that progressive overload training had noticeable positive effects on muscular hypertrophy, muscular strength and health related quality of life in patients with chronic kidney disease. For more information have a look at:
Cheema BS, Chan D, Fahey P, Atlantis E., ‘Effect of progressive resistance training on measures of skeletal muscle hypertrophy, muscular strength and health-related quality of life in patients with chronic kidney disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis.’ Sports Med. 2014 Aug;44(8):1125-38. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0176-8.
To summarise, then, progressive overload based training programmes have been shown to increase testosterone, growth hormone, bone density, muscle size and muscle strength in young, old, healthy and health impaired subjects.
Practical applications of using progressive overload training
Now that you know more about Progressive Overload as a process, you’re probably wondering how to put it into practice in the real world. Luckily this is fairly straightforward and comes down to manipulating certain variables involved in the process of training. The five main variables that can be manipulated are as follows:
Load: In order to apply progressive overload in this sense, you would add an additional amount of weight or resistance to the exercise in question
Volume: To progress volume you would increase the total amount of repetitions or sets completed in a workout
Density: This is all about rest intervals, if rest is reduced then the same volume of exercise is fitted into a smaller timeframe, making the overall session more difficult.
Frequency: Here you would be keeping the same volume or load, but training that volume or load much more regularly across the week.
Intensity of Effort: Although intensity is usually expressed in relation to your one rep maximum, it can also be increased through a better focus on controlled form, or through utilising more advanced training methods such as rest pause, negatives and forced repetitions.
In order to achieve progressive overload you can choose to progress according to one of these principles, or according to multiple principles in combination. The next section will go into greater detail about how to choose which variables to overload.
Getting the most out of your current workout with progressive overloading
If you’re not already incorporating progressive overload (many of us do so without even realising that we are doing so!) then you need to start doing so as soon as possible. Moreover, even if you are using the progressive overload principle, there is always room to more intelligently organise and structure your training in order to achieve better results.
There are, of course, a few factors to take into account when deciding on the best way to apply progressive overload to your own training. The most important of these factors is training level, i.e. whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced lifter*. A beginner level lifter will want to keep their overload choices as simple as possible, pick one variable and stick to it for as many weeks as possible until progress starts to diminish. As a beginner you do not want to be over-complicating your training, keep things simple and you will enjoy the best results of your entire training career. If you’re a more experienced lifter then you may have to look at ways of incorporating multiple overload variables in order to maintain progress, and the more experienced you get the more sophisticated your programming of these variables must become.
To give a brief example, a beginner lifter on a three day per week full body workout programme could apply progressive overload based purely on load. They should be able to add weight or resistance to the bar every single week providing their nutrition is acceptable. An intermediate lifter, however, might have to increase their frequency to four days per week and increase their volume in order to see their progress maintained.
Another important factor when applying progressive overload to your workout is your training goal. If your goal is to gain muscle, for instance, then you should be aiming to progressively overload volume until your repetitions begin to exceed twelve, at which point you would add a little more resistance and then begin again with progressing volume. As an extension of this, there would not be much point for a bodybuilder to keep adding load if they were only ever performing five or fewer repetitions.
To summarise, then, applying progressive overload to your own workout programme will depend largely on your training level and on your training goal. Aim to keep your overload as simple and as specific as possible for as long as possible in order to maximise your results!
*There are no set rules as to what constitutes a beginner, intermediate or advanced lifter as you can theoretically be lifting for years and still be a beginner in terms of muscle and strength gain. As a guideline, though, an intermediate lifter is someone who has pretty much exhausted their potential using a three day full body style training programme such as a classic body part split or a 5×5 strength programme. An advanced lifter will typically be someone who has exhausted most of their programming options as an intermediate and needs more complex periodization to allow for recovery. Remember, less is more, and you will make slower progress on more advanced workouts, so keep things simple as long as possible.
Progressive overload programme example:
The following programme three days per week and trains the whole body in each session. It is intended for someone training at a beginner level with the goal of gaining as much muscle mass as possible. It is divided into four weeks with progressive overload of volume applied (occasionally assisted by an increase in load.) All exercises are performed using a load that is 70% of an estimated one rep maximum. For a quick tool to help you with this check out: http://www.exrx.net/Calculators/OneRepMax.html
Back Squat 4 sets of 8 reps
Chest Press 3 sets of 8 reps
Barbell Row 3 sets of 8 reps
Workout B: Lunge 3 sets of 8 reps
Shoulder Press 3 sets of 8 reps
Romanian Deadlift 3 sets of 8 reps
Back Squat 4 sets of 10 reps
Chest Press 3 sets of 10 reps
Barbell Row 3 sets of 10 reps
Workout B: Lunge 3 sets of 10 reps
Shoulder Press 3 sets of 10 reps
Romanian Deadlift 3 sets of 10 reps
Back Squat 4 sets of 12 reps
Chest Press 3 sets of 12 reps
Barbell Row 3 sets of 12 reps
Workout B: Lunge 3 sets of 12 reps
Shoulder Press 3 sets of 12 reps
Romanian Deadlift 3 sets of 12 reps
Since you want to be training with 8-12 repetitions for maximum size gains, it makes no sense to keep adding repetitions. Instead you would re-calculate your new one rep max based on week three’s totals and begin the programme at week one but using a slighter greater resistance.
Follow this programme of progressive overload alongside a good quality nutritional plan (remember that muscles grow when you rest and recover) and you should be well on your way to some serious and, most importantly, non-stop muscle growth.