Massive Gains Using Progressive Overload Training Principal
Progressive overload is the basic law of strength and falls under the umbrella of Weider Training Principles. It’s continually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system every training session. The idea is to constantly overload the muscles for massive gains.
The Problems and the Fix
Usually, when people notice a drop in their gains or lifts, they will add more exercises, reps, sets, weight, days, etc. They will literally just jack-around with their training with no structure whatsoever. Such sloppy tactics will surely guarantee an injury, overtraining, or another plateau in just weeks.
In addition, doing the same exercises with the same weight, same rep scheme, and same rest periods week after week will quickly lead to a plateau. Naturally, changing up your training variable will break a plateau. To keep stimulating growth and change, you need to progressively overload your body. Progressive overload is a steady and trackable increase of stress on the body to build muscle and strength. These stresses, or stimuli, are gradual, manageable, calculated, scalable, and trackable. This way, you can move forward safely while always heading toward your specific goal. Rather than doing something will result in another dead end, try progress overload and get results.
A 2011 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology tested a progressive overload regimen. Researchers observed 83 people over a period of 12 weeks as they performed a series of arm strengthening exercises. They discovered that progressive overload, gradually increasing the weight and number of repetitions of exercises, to be effective for increasing biceps strength and muscle growth in both men and women.
Breaking It Down
On the very basic level, progressive overload is gradually increasing the weight or reps in your training over the course of weeks and months. Doing so, challenges your muscles. By constantly challenging your training with increased tension, your muscles can avoid plateaus and grow. In the end, it creates more productive training sessions. What this boils down to is, you are training more intensely over time. The results of this principle are not overnight.
Wikipedia tells us, “Progressive overload is a method of strength training that advocates for the gradual increase of the stress placed upon the musculoskeletal and nervous system. The principle of progressive overload suggests that the continual increase in the total workload during training sessions will stimulate muscle growth and strength gain. This improvement in overall performance will, in turn, allow the athlete to keep increasing the intensity of their training sessions.” Progressive overload is a lost art and it’s usually embraced by the elites that truly know it’s benefits.
Your body changes to what you subject it to. In order to build muscle and strength, you need to subject it to anaerobic intensity in a progressive manner, continually. It’s an intentional and calculated process. You go into your training knowing what you are going to do, not winging it. That’s how winners train.
When to Start Using Progressive Overload
Anyone can use this if they are properly coached. A qualified personal trainer can work with anyone on progressive overload safely, even beginners. Otherwise, it’s best to wait until you have exhausted other training methods, can actually feel your muscles being worked when training, can use the mind-muscle connection, and have hit a plateau. The plateau part is not as important as the other three.
The reason this tactic is reserved for the advanced lifter is because it’s somewhat technical to a degree. Some work has to be done before you graduate to this level of training. Someone who doesn’t have muscle control or a mind-muscle connection can get injured training themselves on progressive overload. Once you have mastered perfect form with heavy weights, then you can advance to using this training method.
How to Implement Progressive Overload
There’s not a lot of detailed information out there on this principle. It’s a bit more in-depth than just adding more weight or doing more reps each week. It’s a little more comprehensive than that. In a nutshell, it is advancing your training each week to do more overtime. Slowly packing on muscle as you go. Not wasting away by overtraining.
Before you attempt progressive overload, you need to have good form and use a full range of motion when training. These are two critical aspects of training that I have seen disappear in the last decade. Most people I see in the gym have piss-poor form and do half-reps. If you have good form, a solid mind-muscle connection nailed, and have been training over a year, you can test drive this training method.
Now, this training principle requires you to journal your training so you can capitalize on it each week. If you don’t know where you’ve been, how do you know where you are going and how are you going to get there? Your training log is literally your road map to muscle strength and gains. Below are the two methods I like to use for progressive overload. Let’s look at each:
Increase the Resistance
Undoubtedly, the most apparent way to increase the demands you place on your muscles is to increase poundage used. For example, if you typically bench 135 pounds for 12 reps every week, then you have room to add weight to make your chest training more challenging. You have to overload the muscles for them to be responsive. So, rather than doing 135 pounds for 12 reps, try increasing the weight and using 10 reps to failure. If you master that, that’s your bench mark to move forward.
Increase the Reps
I like to use poundage and reps together, like a buddy system. I find that I can gain more power, size, and mass that way. As with any muscle-building program, take all sets to complete failure for the suggested number of reps. If you can so more than the suggested number of reps the weight is too light and vise-versa.
Now, we know that the 8-12 rep range is the general strength and muscle-building zone. That’s still general. There are precise rep ranges for strength, muscle-building, and endurance. So, the idea is not to keep adding reps. The idea is to find your rep niche for your goal and train to failure with heavy poundage in that respected rep range.
I like grouping these two together because you have a solid line to follow to track your progress. Here’s an example of how to implement it:
Incline Barbell Press
- Week#1 – Bench Press 135 lbs – Set #1 – 10 reps: Set #2 – 10 reps: Set #3 – 9 reps: Set #4 – 9 reps
- Week #2 – Bench Press 135 lbs – Set #1 – 10 reps: Set #2 – 10 reps: Set #3 – 10 reps: Set #4 – 10 reps
- Week #3 – Bench Press 140 lbs – Set #1 – 10 reps: Set #2 – 9 reps: Set #3 – 9 reps: Set #4 – 9 reps
- Week #4 – Bench Press 140 lbs – Set #1 – 10 reps: Set #2 – 10 reps: Set #3 – 10 reps: Set #4 – 10 reps
- Week #5 – Bench Press 145 lbs – Set #1 – 9 reps: Set #2 – 8 reps: Set #3 – 8 reps: Set #4 – 7 reps
- Week #6 – Bench Press 145 lbs – Set #1 – 10 reps: Set #2 – 9 reps: Set #3 – 9 reps: Set #4 – 8 reps
Notice the gradual improvement over time. There are other principles you can add to the equation such as frequency, range of motion, volume, tempo, duration. However, I feel those lead you away from true progressive overload and it’s potential. I rather use the above to really build that mass and power. It’s a tweaking process, changing just one thing at a time. Once you have mastered the above, you can tinker with some of the other tactics to see how they work for you. In addition, when you feel you have exhausted the bench press, you can do this training principle with the flat bench press. The, when you exhausted the flat bench, go back to the incline bench and see how much more you can lift!
Starting Poundage (Strength / Muscle)
If you are serious about this lifting method, it will do you good to know your one rep max (1RM). From there you can set your poundage, reps, and sets accordingly. If you are a seasoned lifter, then starting at about 85% of your 1RM is ideal for strength gains. Of course, your rep range would be in the 6-8 area. If you are more drawn to muscle gains, then shoot more for about 75% of your 1RM in the 8-10 rep range.
Your form should be number one when it comes to training. If your from, technique, or mechanics are sacrificed, your efforts can be a total waste; or worse injury. Just as with life, in lifting you’ll experience highs and lows. Changes in your diet, sleep, hormones, stress, and environment can all affect your training performance. Pace yourself. This lifting principle has to be done gradually. Increasing the load of training too fast can be dangerous and lead to injury.
By adding more stress to your muscles, it allows them to break down, rebuild, get stronger, and grow larger. When 10-12 reps (muscle building rep range) are child’s play to you, it’s time to increase the poundage. Ideally, you want to start with a poundage you can lift for about 10 reps, making the last 2-3 reps challenging. Add weight slowly until you can master 8 reps to failure. It’s important to take rest days. You need at least 1-2 rest days between lifting sessions to allow your muscles to recover. Training too soon after your last workout can lead to overtraining. Every other day training works well for progressive overload.
Progressive Overload is Fun the First 3 Months
As with anything, the first few months you are going to see amazing changes fast. You’ll see your strength and muscle development will shoot through the roof. Enjoy it! In the beginning, you’ll have new personal bests. That weight that use to be so heavy will be easy once you master the first 3-6 months of this training principle. Welcome to the rapid gains of intermuscular coordination. Ride the wave because those easily noticeable gains will slow down and that’s when the real work and real dedication comes into play. This is the part that separates the winners from the losers. Winners will stick to this tactic if they want to really build muscle size, strength, and density. The others will go back to their overtraining methods and lose all their gains.
Serious Approach and Knowledge
Newbie lifers can do anything, even train incorrectly, and gain strength. That’s because it’s new to the body. After several months to a year, those newbie gains dissipate. That’s when lifters need to take a look at themselves and their method of training. After several years of training, you have to get smart about it if you want continual progress. If the muscle is not challenged or shocked, it’s not going to grow.
When gains stop, that’s when it’s time to evaluate your training split and entertain the idea of advanced training principles. A lot of seasoned lifters and even IFBB pro’s use progressive overload. It’s because they know it’s a tried-and-true training tactic, guaranteed to deliver results; not overnight, but over time. It’s not uncommon for seasoned lifters to take a step back to evaluate their training in order to move forward. The trick is knowing so and doing something, that actually works, about it.
Use Uniform Training
This is the part most people have trouble with, uniform training. Most people working out want to do a variety of exercises, even diverse reps and sets. In a nutshell, their training is all over the place, with no rhyme-or-reason. In addition, they lie to themselves, assuming they gained muscle and strength when all they did was sacrifice form to lift more. You can get away with slopping training in the beginning, but not with progressive overload. If you want to build muscle and strength, you have to follow the exact same training protocol each and every training session. Muscle and strength gains involve correct tempo, depth, and execution that’s comparable.
So yes, your exercises will be routine. If you start your progressive overload training with chest training using the incline dumbbell (DB) press, flat bench press, and incline DB flyes, you’ll have to stick to those exact same exercise so you have something comparable to evaluate your results on. You have to compare apples with apples. It’s impossible to compare apples to oranges.
What If Training Stalls?
Sometimes, you’ll do everything right, yet you won’t get those great numbers in the gym. If and when this happens, evaluate your time away from the gym. Are you eating well or are you cheating on your diet too much? What about sleep, getting enough restful sleep? Are you stressed or overworked? Everything plays a part in your training. Some weeks you’ll make incredible improvements on your lifts and others weeks, not so much. Regardless, it’s the big picture that’s important. Don’t stop. Keep working for what’s down the line. Keep an eye on your 6-month progress and compare those.
Things to Keep in Mind When Using Progressive Overload
While this should be standard for all training, it’s utterly important when using progressive overload. Use that’s techniques for every training session, every exercise, every set, and every rep.
- Implement perfect form – Your form can make you or break you, literally. Bad form can lead to injuries that will affect you the rest of your life. So, pay attention to it. When you start using progressive overload, select a poundage high enough that you can still maintain proper form. If your form is off ANYWHERE in a lift, lower the poundage.
- Keep attention on reps and sets – Decide if you are going for muscle (8-10 rep range) or strength (6-8) rep range. Stick to your plan. Find your poundage zone for your exercise using your 1RM. Once you’ve been lifting and feel you have mastered the lift for the rep and set scheme, make sure you can do the lift, with perfect for, to complete failure, for your suggested number of reps. Only then should you add weight to the lift.
- Change one thing at a time – To know what to change, when to change, and how to change, you need to change just one thing at a time. If you increase your poundage and add 2 more sets and see results, you don’t know what really gave you the results, the increased poundage or the additional sets. You will make more substantial gains, longer by only changing one thing at a time. Be patient, you have plenty of time to progress your training. This isn’t a race, it’s a muscle marathon that delivers results, provided you follow the system.
- Journal your lifts – Going to a new destination works better and faster if you have a roadmap or GPS. That’s what a training log does, helps you get to your goal. Training logs work great for all forms of lifting. However, it’s beyond critical if you want to make progressive overload a success. You won’t make much improvement without a training journal. Log the days you train, time, exercises, reps, sets, rest time, etc. This gives you something to start your next training with and it also serves as a how you are improving. Your training is dead in the water without a training log.
- Increase poundage used – Remember, achieve progressive overload is to lift heavier poundage than you did week before, keeping maintaining proper form. Only when you can do that, should you add more poundage. Muscle and strength are built by heavy weight in a progressive manner, using good form.
- Pay attention to your rep range – Remember, for muscle gains your reps should be in the 8-10 range to complete failure. For strength gains, your reps should be in the 6-8 rep range to complete failure. Once you reach your max reps for your goal (muscle or strength) then you can add more poundage.
One Last Note on Progressive Overload…
When using this training tactic, choose a poundage you have full control over throughout the movement. Keep your body in line and keep good form. In order to get the most out of this principle you need a proper warm-up, quality nutrition, and rest. Results come in your training intensity, nutrition, and rest. It’s as simple as that. No rest, not gains.