Progressive overload is a term anyone who wishes to make long term progress should learn and understand. This is because almost any training plan will allow a new trainer to progress toward their goals over the first 1-3 months, as their body adapts to deal with the new stimulus (resistance training), but beyond this ‘newbie gains’ period, things get more tricky! Progressive overload means to increase the stimulus the muscles/body is exposed to over time, so it doesn’t get used to the training volume, which causes a plateau in results (muscle gain and also fat loss).
We can employ progressive overload in some simple ways, with each being used to increase the total volume used during the session and training week:
- Increase amount of sets
- Increase reps per sets
- Increase the load (weight) used
- Bonus: increasing planes, range of motion and technique in general (better quality muscle contractions and less injuries)
(Sets x reps) weight = total volume
Now, whilst at the beginning of your lifting life you can and do use all methods together for relatively linear increases, soon overload becomes more dependent on manipulating the load used. This is because you cannot continually increase sets and reps, because you will exceed the target rep ranges and end up spending half your day in the gym!
Increasing the weight used is also paramount to strength gains, which are integral for muscle gain beyond the newbie gains period (first 1-6 months of training) and the average gym goer’s most common shortcoming.
Progressive Overload and Taper/De-load Weeks:
As a newer trainer having tactical breaks from progressive overload by reducing the total volume is less important, as factors such as your ability to train to failure and the weight used combine to lessen the impact of wear and tear, accumulated fatigue, etc. However, as a more experienced trainer we (unfortunately) need to be more meticulous, more dedicated and closer to our maximum more and more often, for less and less rapid results.
As an experienced trainer reducing the total volume by reducing the sets used per exercise, or by reducing the weight used can be useful. The idea is to let the body fully recover and adapt to the recent training volume without totally removing the stimulus placed upon it. This means that we can then start another block of progressive overload in better conditioning. These blocks of overload can be between 3-10 weeks long and depend on your training programme, experience, schedule and more.
HIIT Cardio and Hypertrophy/Strength Training:
Both interval training and increasing muscle strength and size have gained in popularity massively over the past decade with both sexes. This is because they are easier to consistently progress with, because they are easier to employ and track progressive overload with.
Both will force both muscular and metabolic adaptations with the correct programmes, which is how we progress with relation to body composition related goals. Higher rep work and long bouts of lower intensity cardio – both of which were championed for fat loss and ‘toning’ related goals – are both harder to increase accurately, and to get yourself motivated for.
With HIIT we can increase the interval amount over weeks, adding 1-5 more minutes of cardio to a 10 minute session. Or we could increase the resistance, speed or distance covered. These are easier to manipulate than a 45-60 minute bout of cardio, and more sensible too.
Does Progressive Overload Relate to Food Intake too?
For muscle gain we know continually increasing strength and total volume over time is paramount to long term progress, but increasing food intake may be useful for harder gainers too. In our Muscle Building Bible we cover building calories in a sensible manner to cope with any metabolic adaptations to the increased kcal intake (and muscle mass).
For fat loss goals, progressive overload in your training is not essential. This is because dropping fat is down to being in a caloric deficit, and if you maintain your output but decrease your input (from food and drink) then you will use body fat stores for energy. Building strength whilst in a calorie deficit can also be an issue for intermediate and advanced trainers. Our Cutting Guide and Bikini Guides offer the most effective, sustainable and progressive methods to drop fat whilst maintaining muscle mass/strength.
In conclusion, progressive overload is essential to advance from the sticky intermediate stages of your weight lifting career (so to speak). This is the time after the ‘newbie gains’ period, where we keep doing the same thing expecting results. Lots of us find ourselves in this situation, spinning our wheels until we become demotivated and either change our exercise routine or pack it in altogether.
In regards to food intake, as net calories and protein are both extremely important for long term progress, keeping a legible log is also highly recommended. Trying to simply ‘eat clean’ or ‘eat intuitively’ will not be as accurate, effective or sustainable for your goals and lifestyle (and you need to hone skills by tracking calories and improving food knowledge) than calorie (and macro) counting.