Have you ever taken up a fitness routine or weightlifting program and found the workouts to be challenging the first time around, but easier to complete as time went on? Maybe you’re religiously ticking off a certain number of squats every week because a “fitfluencer” has promised this will grant you the booty of your dreams. Chances are in both situations, progress has been somewhat underwhelming – and this is due to a neglect of the scientific principle of “progressive overload”.
What is progressive overload?
Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training. The increase in stress can come from multiple variables, such as weight, time, reps, tempo, sets, better form and shorter rest periods. Progressive overload is not a new principle that is suddenly taking the fitness industry by storm. It was first developed by Thomas Deorme, M.D. while rehabilitating WW2 soldiers. It is one of the 4 strength and conditioning principles, the others being specificity, individuality and variety.
As Deorme explained, “To continue making gains in an exercise program, stress to the muscle must be progressively increased as it becomes capable of producing greater force, power, or endurance. Once the muscles adapt to an exercise program workload, they will not continue to progress in the desired training goal unless the workload is increased in some manner. Therefore, to continually improve physiologic function, progressive increases in load must be applied to which adaptations will again occur. If the athlete does not continue to adapt, he or she will eventually plateau and regress. Resistive exercises should be performed with enough frequency, load, and duration to produce overload without producing fatigue.”
Why is progressive overload important?
So, what happens if one of the 4 principles of strength and conditioning is ignored? Well, our bodies are pretty amazing things and can adapt quickly to stimulus. If they keep doing the same movements, they will get just strong enough so that they’re not challenging anymore. Without any additional stress, your body will then get comfortable and cease to change. When you really think about it, why would you? When you go to school and learn to read and write, you start off with the basics, master them and then continue to progress step-by-step. This is what our body demands of us when we are in an exercise environment in order to change and improve.
Without progressive overload, a workout routine will not yield any progress. Understandably, this can lead to a lot of frustration! This in turn can lead to program-hopping and a cycle of disappointment. “Mixing things up” and “keeping the body guessing” definitely has its place in progressive overload, but it has been misunderstood by many trainers, resulting in too many cases of clients being made to do different exercises every single workout, without focusing enough on nailing key important movements.
The idea of “keeping the body guessing” was originally brought about by fitness videos a decade or so ago. What people misunderstand is that the key is not to do a different type of movement every time you work out, but to learn the fundamentals properly, allow the body to adapt and only once they have been mastered to make adaptations to make it more stressful on the body. Patience, a key failure of the human condition, plays a major and perhaps the biggest role when seeking to make changes to one’s physical fitness and/or aesthetics. People are quick to complain that they’re not seeing results and then switch up their training, but all-too-often they do this at an inappropriate time. A fitness program should only be changed when the training is no longer challenging enough and causes a plateau (where progress dramatically slows or halts).
Mastering the fundamentals
There are certain exercise staples inside the gym that will need only be varied instead of moved on from completely. These include pressing and pulling movements (think bench press, push-ups,lat pull downs, pull-ups and rows) squats and hinge movements (think barbell squats and deadlifts). Picking exercises from these categories to progress from is recommended for your average gym goer as they provide work to all of the main muscle groups.
When training with clients, a good trainer will screen their ability to do the fundamental movements touched upon above, then pick exercises that will help them to master the proper technique. Only once they have nailed the technique on that exercise will they start to increase the stress carefully and gradually (by using more repetitions of the same weight or the same number of repetitions with an increased weight – or a combination of both).
Keys to success
Patience is a key obstacle when it comes to training and progressive overload, but another one is enjoyment. A challenge for trainers is to find exercises that not teach the client how to master a certain movement, but that they also enjoy doing. We don’t want exercise routines to become stagnant, but at the same time it is unavoidable that an element of repetition is involved – we get better through practice after all. One of our priorities as trainers is to help our clients fall in love with the progression aspect of working out. This means getting excited about being able to do more reps or celebrating hitting a new bench PB. It means learning to enjoy pushing your body past what you thought you were capable of.
Above all, to help you succeed it is really important to always remember why you started and what goals you have. The progressive overload approach is without doubt a more successful and beneficial for the client approach than doing a new type of squat exercise each week that presents more variables in which progress becomes difficult to measure.
Adding variety to fitness programs
The principle of progressive overload does not mean you cannot try new things and exercises in the gym! As trainers, once we have prioritized the exercises wish to progressively overload, we often save time at the end of the session for something new. This might be a high intensity cardio finisher, core specific exercises or mobility work. It all depends on the client and how their session went. New and exciting has its place once the basics have been covered. When training to gain muscle or strength, train with purpose and a sense of progression on the basic movements. This will ensure you see results within an appropriate time frame. If you are working with a fitness instructor that does not take into account progressive overload and you are always doing different movements with random weights, then this is a good indicator that you should look elsewhere when seeking maximum physical change. As with any strength training program – take into account other variables such as protein intake and appropriate rest when progressing on exercises.
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