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  • Nicola Dale

Progressive Overload

What is it and why is it important?

Progressive Overload is simply to gradually increase the stress or demand placed on the body overtime in order to continually improve. It is essential if you want to become fitter and stronger.

When you exercise, you’re putting your body under stress. In order to keep gaining strength, building endurance, increasing performance and other improvements like these, you need to gradually increase this stress. Your body naturally starts to adapt to endure the level of stress it is put under, becoming more capable of dealing with it and thus you get better at doing it. Therefore, to keep making progress you need to increase this stress to force your body to continue making the adaptations.

For example, if you lift x amount of weight for x number of sets and reps, at first it might feel difficult. The more you do it, the stronger your muscles get and the easier it is to lift the weight. Your body makes the necessary adaptations to be capable of lifting that weight for that number of sets and reps, therefore that exact lift no longer places enough stress on the body to keep building your strength. You need to increase one of the numbers in order to progressively overload and place the required stress on your body to continue the adaptations. You could do this by increasing the weight or the number of reps or sets and so on.

The principle can be applied to cardiovascular sports like running as well. If you want to be able to run long distances you need to gradually add distance to your runs overtime (progressively overloading them) until you can run the desired distance.

On the contrary if the stresses on the body aren’t maintained or are decreased you will lose the gains you made. This is why you can’t go back to lifting the same weights or running the same distance etc. after a prolonged period off training.

Now you know what progressive overload is, here is how you can implement it.

How to Implement Progressive Overload

1. Increase the Weight (it’s normal for the number of reps completed to slightly decrease when you first add weight).

2. Increase the Repetitions Completed.

3. Increase the Volume/Sets (you could increase the sets of an existing exercise or add sets of an exercise working the same muscle group).

4. Increase the Frequency (how often you train a muscle group. For example, you may go from training full body 3 times a week to splitting your workouts into upper and lower body sessions 4 times a week).

5. Reducing Rest Periods (Doing the same amount of work in less time).

6. Increasing the Intensity (Adding Supersets, Post/Pre-exhaustion, Tri-Sets, Drop Sets, Static Holds, Partial Reps and more).

You won’t necessarily make improvements every single workout but you should aim to increase the demands placed on your body as often as possible. Beginners will be able to progress much quicker because of ‘beginner’s gains’ (yes that’s actually a thing) and then as you become more experienced progress will take more time.

You also don’t need to make big changes to progressively overload. It could be as little as adding 1 rep or increasing the weight by 1kg. This is still increasing the stress placed on the body and triggering the adaptations.

Useful Tips for Progressive Overload

Start from whatever you can do with good form (This means performing the exercise comfortably, engaging the correct muscles and preventing injury). Don’t compare yourself to others as everybody’s body, flexibility, strength, balance and ability to move is different, thus what an exercise looks like and the capability to perform it will differ based on these.

When you first perform an exercise, go as light as possible and build up from there.

Don’t just use one of the above methods otherwise you’ll find your workouts getting longer and longer until they’re no longer sustainable. Using a combination will enable you to continually implement progressive overload without spending hours on end in the gym.

Keep track of what you’re doing in each workout so you can look back at what you’ve done and see if you are applying progressive overload. If you’re not, then plan how you are going to in future workouts.

If you’re unsure of how to do this, I’d recommend speaking to a coach or getting a programme. Any good workout programme will have progressive overload already written into it, then all you need to think about is completing the workouts and increasing the weights where relevant.

If you have any questions on implementing progressive overload into your workout routine drop them in the comments box below, along with any other topics you’d like me to cover on the blog.

Nicola x