Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is a misunderstood concept. Progressive overload is essentially the idea of increasing load or intensity of a workout over time. However, it’s commonly thought that you must increase the load on the bar in order to “force” the body to adapt and get stronger. 

More contemporary research suggests that this thought process is actually backwards:  you’re able to increase weight on the bar BECAUSE your body has adapted to the loads you’ve been using.  This may sound like a semantic argument, but the difference is important.  Trying to force the body to adapt to a load it’s unprepared for is a great way to stall your progress and potentially increase your risk of injury.

Here’s a real world example:  You’ve been doing 100 pounds on your deadlift for the past few weeks, and on your third set this week you hit a personal record of 110 pounds.  Awesome!  Does this mean your body has now adapted to 110 pounds and you should shoot for 115 next week?  Not necessarily.  Exposing your body to this new load, 110 pounds in this example, once or twice is probably not enough in order for your body to adapt and get stronger.  But, this is very individual and your coach can guide you through the process of deciding if you need to add weight or not.

You should stick with this new weight for as long as it takes for this weight to become your normal working weight for multiple sets.  What’s the easiest way to know that your body has adapted to your current working loads?  Complete the prescribed number of sets and reps, and by the end of your 3rd set do a quick appraisal:  ask yourself, “did my third set feel like an RPE 7-8?”  If yes, then your body has probably adapted and you’re ready to make it harder next week.  If your third set felt more like a 9-10 RPE, you’re better off sticking at this current weight a bit longer.

The above example  is particularly true for individuals who have a year of training experience or more.  Once you’re past the “newbie gains” phase of resistance training, progress is very slow and very incremental if you’re doing it right.

One last point about progressive overload:  There is a difference between progressively loading a barbell and progressively overloading tissue.  Unless you’re an athlete competing in powerlifting or olympic lifting, the weight that’s on the bar is simply a means to an end rather than the goal itself.  There are several ways to promote increases in strength, hypertrophy and endurance that do not involve manipulating the weight on the bar.  For example:

  • Increase reps per set
  • Increase sets
  • Improve technique
  • Increase range of motion
  • Improve control/add tempo

If adding load to the bar results in a decreased range of motion, loss of control, or any other technique breakdown, we’re no longer overloading the tissue, we’re just adding load to the bar.  This is great for the ego but probably counterproductive to our goals long term.

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