Principle of Progressive Overload

One of the major keys to growing bigger and stronger muscles is progressive overload. Wonder why you are not growing those big muscles after putting in so much effort with training 5 times a week and eating the right way? Or have reached a  plateau? And of course, you see your body never changes. I can’t imagine anything more discouraging and demotivating than doing the same thing over and over again and not accruing incremental results.

The body adapts to stress and challenges forcing us to survive and thrive. If you’re looking to improve, the main reason you are not successful can be due because you’re no longer challenging yourself. Skeletal muscle grows bigger and stronger in response to the training stimulus, but for further progress, you need to continue making greater demands on it. If you don’t progressively overload the muscles by forcing them to exert more than they’re accustomed to, they have no reason to further adapt or grow.

The human body will not evolve unless it’s forced to change and adapt. That’s why you should never grow complacent with your training. Once you fall into a comfort zone and the workouts are no longer challenging, you indefinitely will plateau.

What is progressive overload?

This principle is defined as continually increasing the requirement on the musculoskeletal system to continuously build and gain muscle size, strength, and endurance. To put it another way, in order to get bigger and stronger muscles, you must repeatedly make your muscles work harder than they’re used to.

Vice versa, if the requirements on the target muscle groups are not at least maintained or if they decrease, your muscles will atrophy, losing size, strength and endurance.

Progressive overload is a very easy to understand but crucial principle. Tailoring workouts around this principle is the basis to every resistance training method out there.

The progressive-overload principle is not exclusive to lifting weights for muscle growth and strength; it is also practiced in cardiovascular-fitness programs, creating physiological changes that affect aerobic metabolism and the cardiorespiratory system.

Methods to incorporate progressive overload into your workouts:

1. Increasing the Reps

Increasing the number of repetitions of an exercise can overall increase the overload. As you get stronger, you can increase more repetitions or never stop an exercise when you reach an arbitrary rep count; keep going until you can’t complete any more on your own with good form. Repetition to failure while performing with good form is also a method of progressively overload.

2. Increasing the Resistance

The most favorable method by many to increase the demands on muscles is to basically increase the load or weight. For example, if 50 kgs are not challenging while bench pressing, try to increase 5 kgs on each side of the bar, this would demand more from your muscles. There’s an inverse relationship between load and reps, so when you increase the weight, your reps are going to decrease to some degree. In the long run, you’ll get stronger with that resistance training and will be able to repeat the cycle over again.

3. Increasing  the Volume

Volume is defined as assets multiplied by reps multiplied by resistance. By increasing sets (either by doing more exercises or adding another set to your existing exercises), you’re progressively increasing the demands on your muscle tissue. Since your reps are best constrained to the 8-12 range (to ensure proper form and reduced risk of injuries) and the loads you use don’t change, increasing your total sets is the best way to increase total training volume. For an example, this could be achieved by doing 3 sets instead of 2 for all the exercises in your routine. 

4. Increase the Training Frequency

Increasing the frequency with which you train a muscle group can increase the total overload. This method works particularly well when targeting a lagging or weak body part. The traditional approach to training a  specific muscle group is once over the course of the training split which is usually 3   to 5 days, but training it more frequently may help improve and make it stronger, especially when used as a short-term strategy.

5. Decreasing Rest period Between Sets

Reducing the rest interval between working sets, ultimately allows you to do the same amount of work in less time. This mechanism requires your body to become more metabolically efficient with regard to anaerobic exercise (weightlifting). This method also keeps your heart rate elevated thus improving your cardiovascular endurance too.

Incorporating all these methods into your resistance training can be a huge task and can get complicated. I would recommend you to pick 1 and give it a try. Optimizing each method one step at a time will ensure sustainability and compliance to your workout training regime. As you get bigger, stronger and faster, remember that adaptation will eventually occur,  it’s good having a few options to tweak around.

Increasing total volume will be important to build more muscle, strength and power, decreasing the rest time between sets and increasing repetitions may be more beneficial to increase your endurance and improve cardiovascular fitness. The techniques you use should be in line with your fitness goals.

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