I’m ashamed to admit that I used to do exactly the same workout week after week, month after month.
Then when I didn’t see the results I hoped for, I’d jump onto the next workout full of optimism that this one would be the one.
I went round and round in circles for years without a clue as to what I was doing.
One thing that was missing from almost all of my workouts was some form of consistent progressive overload.
I would see a little benefit when I jumped onto the latest workout, but as soon as my body adapted to the new workout, my progress would come to a screeching halt. Rather than training my body to become stronger, I was simply doing the same thing over and over again.
No wonder I was frustrated and stuck in a rut.
I just didn’t understand the importance of progressive overload and how it would help me to become bigger and stronger.
Fortunately I’m going to break down exactly what it is, why it’s important and how to ensure that you set yourself up for long term progress.
What is Progressive Overload
Before I dive into progressive overload, I think its worth recapping on the science of muscle growth. It took me years to understand this and my sloppy workouts and lack of progress highlighted this.
Every time you lift more than your muscles are able to handle, you cause tiny tears in your muscle fibres. When you’re outside of the gym, your body is busy repairing these tears. This is your body’s way of ensuring that your muscles are equipped to cope with the same level of stress next time.
So what happens when you do the same workout again and again?
The truth is not a lot.
Your muscles are already adapted to handle the workout, so they’re not going to get the tears necessary to stimulate muscle growth.
Over time your body becomes more and more efficient meaning it needs less muscle to complete the workout. This is why you see some people in the gym for months or even years with nothing to show for their efforts.
In order to keep your muscles growing, you need to gradually increase the training stimulus.
Progressive overload is often illustrated with the story of Milo of Croton, an ancient Greek wrestler.
Legend has it that Milo carried a new born calf every day until it became an adult bull. As the weight of the animal became heavier, Milo’s muscles adapted to the ever increasing load by increasing in size.
Whilst there’s some debate as to whether this is just an ancient myth, and muscle growth certainly isn’t as linear as story likes to suggest, it does illustrate how progressive overload works.
More Than Just Increasing The Weight
There are a number of different ways that you can apply progressive overload to your training.
Adding more weight to the bar is the most obvious way but here’s a quick run down of some of the options:
- Increased Weight Lifted
- Increased Number of Reps
- Increased Number of Sets
- Increased Training Frequency
- Increased Difficulty of Exercise
- Decreased Rest Between Sets
All of these methods will help you get bigger and stronger providing you’re not cutting corners with your form.
But with so many different variables, it can be easy to lose track of where you are. That’s why it’s so important to track your workouts so you know exactly what you’ve done in your previous workouts.
Whilst you may be able to remember a workout that never changes, trying to remember one that has a constantly evolving number of weights, reps and sets is nigh on impossible.
Without knowing exactly what you did on the last workout, how can you be sure that you’ll be making progress on this workout? Or worse still, get your numbers mixed up and end up injuring yourself with a weight that’s too heavy for you.
Do yourself a favour and start a simple training log in a notebook, or download one of the many apps out there. The important thing is that you actually track, not how you decide to do it.
Putting it into Practice
With all of these methods available it can be easy to get overwhelmed so let’s break it down into an example to show you how this all looks in practice.
You’re going to do overhead press and last time you managed 4 sets of 6 reps at 60kg with 3 minutes rest between sets.
In order to keep getting stronger you need to make the lift more challenging. There are a number of ways you can do this including:
- Increasing the weight and trying to complete 4 sets of 6 reps with 3 minutes rest between sets
- Keeping the weight at 60kg and trying to complete 5 set of 6 reps with 3 minutes rest between sets
- Keeping the weight at 60kg and trying to complete 4 sets of 7 reps with 3 minutes rest between sets
- Keeping the weight at 60kg and trying to complete 4 sets of 6 reps with 2 minutes 30 seconds between sets
Following any of those four methods will stimulate your muscles to grow. The method which you use will depend on your level of experience and how you performed last time you did the exercise.
How to Get Started
When you’re a novice, you’ll be able to add weight to your lifts every workout.
Programmes such as StrongLifts 5×5 recommend you start with an empty barbell when you’re learning the lifts, I completely agree with this approach.
Whilst your ego will urge you to put more weight on the bar, don’t give into this temptation.
By steadily increasing the amount you’re lifting every workout, your strength will skyrocket. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your body changes over the first few weeks and months of training.
Aim to increase your lifts by a small amount each workout (2.5kg is ideal) and you’ll set yourself up for long term success rather than the all or nothing approach that leaves so many burned out.
As you progress and the weight gets heavier, you’ll start to miss some reps. Instead of adding weight on your next workout, you should keep the weight the same and try to complete the required reps this time.
Even if you only manage one more rep in your last set, that’s still progress.
Unfortunately as you become more advanced, the rate at which you can keep increasing the weight will slow down dramatically. This is perfectly normal and is all part of the progression of moving from a novice to an intermediate lifter and beyond.
Mark Rippetoe suggests that a novice should aim to increase the weight every workout, an intermediate every week and advanced lifters just once a month. Hell, an Olympic weightlifter would be ecstatic if they could add 20kg to their totals between Olympic competitions!
Progressive overload is probably the most important principle for building muscle. You should approach every workout with the aim of improving on your last workout.
There are a number of different ways you can do this, but as a novice the focus should be on increasing the weight that you’re able to lift.
As you become more advanced, the other methods outlined will help you to increase the workout volume and difficulty.
Remember that progress is rarely linear and there will be times when you’re frustrated at what feels like painfully slow progress. But if you’re prepared to play the long game and are determined to improve every time you set foot in the gym, you’ve got a great shot of hitting your goals.