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Achieving Progressive Overload

The cornerstone of developing a toned, muscular body is progressive overload, a term I'm sure you've heard many times, and may even feel you understand it sufficiently enough to put the concept to good and effective use.

But to make sure we're all talking the same language, in the context of weight training, progressive overload simply means that you place more stress on the muscle at this workout than you did in your previous workout, and that you place more stress still at your next workout.

Now if we place a moderate level of stress on our body, it reacts by adapting. It adapts to protect itself against this stress, and so long as the training stress is the right kind we adapt by building muscle tissue. Once we recover, we train a little harder, again placing a stress on the body, and we adapt yet again by building still more muscle tissue.

Wow, building muscle is a sure thing!. You must be wondering, as I did, why if its so simple in theory it doesn't seem quite so straight forward in real life.

As it happens progressive overload is the problem. Although it sounds easy to achieve, you're workout, like mine used to be, probably makes it almost impossible to guarantee you'll achieve it.

These are the 3 things you need to be in control of:

  • Force. The force your muscle applies through the range of contraction.
  • Work. The work done is the force applied over the distance moved.
  • Power. The power is the amount of work done divided by the time taken to do it.

Inferno 2

Now as a person with a background in mathematical sciences, I ought to point out that I have simplified these meanings, but they remain accurate enough to demonstrate the problem we have in training.

If we were to use the same weight for the same number of reps, you might think we couldn't be applying an overload on the muscle right? well if we increase the rep speed then the force increase, the work done increases, and the power increases, so it turns out that all 3 stresses we can apply to the muscle have increased.

Similarly, if we slow the speed of a rep and keep rep count and weight the same as the last workout, we decrease all 3 stresses.

If we use the last example but increase the weight what happens to the stresses placed on the muscle? The answer depends on how much we increase the weight and decrease the rep speed.

Ok, well a little long winded, but the point I wanted to show you is the difficulty we have in actually applying progressive overload. Its just not easy to do. And when you apply it over many sets for each body part, it becomes impossible to monitor.

But there is an answer:

  • Perform each rep of a set with the same 'form'
  • Raise the weight, in a none ballistic style in a set time period (say 1 second)
  • Hold the weight at the top of the movement for a fixed time period (say 1 second)
  • Lower the weight in a controlled fashion, resisting it just dropping, over a set time frame (say 2 secods)
  • Perform the same number of reps for an exercise at each workout, for instance always do 10 reps (example only!)
  • Only perform one set of an exercise
  • Change only the weight used for the exercise by increasing it the smallest possible amount, at each successive workout.

This approach gives us the nearest thing we can get to progressive overload.

Your Feedback and Comments

Posted By: Saul J   Posted: 03/03/2015 11:41:03

Would like a bit more background on this. The article is too short

Reply From: Moderator

Posted By: Gary Pickering   Posted: 21/07/2014 10:32:11

You say force, work and power are the 3 main stresses, which one is most responsible for muscle growth

Please join in the discussion. Ask a question, make a point, suggest a solution..

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