Author: Brian Oddo
Overview: This article explains the most important concept in improving your fitness and how you can apply it to your own routine: progressive overload.
Estimated Read Time: 3-5 minutes
First to set the scene, imagine a picture of a sunset or a really aesthetic action shot of someone hiking up a mountain. Got it? Great. This is about to be so inspirational.
Here comes the italics, brace yourself.
“If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done” - Thomas Jefferson
Hope you’re fired up because this post is going to explain the most important concept in fitness.
In this hypothetical situation, someone comes up to me and goes "Brian, I need your advice, I’m not seeing any results even though I’m following that routine from Bodybuilding.com that they posted."
I first ask, “What exactly are you doing in this routine?”
Well first I bench 135 for 3 sets of 10 reps, then I go do DB Incline press with 40lbs for 3 sets of 10, and then finish up with some pec flys for 3 sets of 10 with about 30 lbs.
“And that’s every time you go and do a chest workout?”
“Yeah, pretty much”
Definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Side note about your body:
Your body doesn’t care about your bench press goal that you want to hit with your boys at LA Fitness. We didn’t go through years and years of evolutionary hardship running from saber tooth tigers and bearing long winters in huts to care about bench pressing. Your body wants to keep you alive. Period. It’s stubborn and resilient and hates change.
You have to force your body to change. You need it to adapt. Your body needs to respond to stress in order to achieve homeostasis.
Have you heard that when you break a bone that it actually heals stronger? Your body doesn’t want to have to deal with that trauma again so to defend against it in case it happens again, it heals your bone to be even stronger than before.
So finally we are going to introduce the concept of progressive overload. By definition, it means to gradually expose an increasing amount stress or tension to your body over time. This is where we see results.
When we lift weights, we essentially are damaging the muscles. We are creating little micro-tears that are body responds to and repairs to make the tissue stronger. If you were to face that stimulus again in the future, you will now be better equipped to handle it.
So how do we achieve progressive overload? There are a ton of ways!
1. Increase in Total Volume
Volume is calculated by taking sets multiplied by reps multiplied by weight. If you bench pressed 135 for 3 sets of 10 your volume would be (135 x 3 x 10 = 4,050lbs of volume)
This is probably the easiest variable to manipulate in order to achieve progressive overload. You can do an extra set, more reps, or increase weight from session to session. Easy in theory, but as you become a more experienced lifter, progress doesn’t happen as linearly, but we will save that discussion for another post.
You can do more work by way of increasing volume as mentioned above, but another way to progress would be by doing the same amount of work in less time. If you performed 135 pounds in 3 sets for 10 reps with 2 minutes rest, and the next session you took 90 seconds rest in between sets, you have made progress in density.
3. Improving Technique
Maybe you are unable to lift more weight in your next session, but don’t be discouraged. If you improved your bench press just 5 pounds a month over the course of 5 years, that’d be an increase of 300 pounds. That just isn’t realistic for most people. So one way you can still improve is by honing in your technique. Focus on smoother reps, proper breathing, placing tension on the intended muscle, and lifting with control as opposed to overusing momentum by swinging or jerking the weight up. Improvements in technique will yield improvements in efficiency and efficiency will pay off in the long run. If you have poor technique and practice bad motor patterns, that is a recipe for injury!
4. Reduction in Bodyweight while Maintaining Strength
If you are able to lift 200 pounds at 140 pounds of bodyweight then you lose 10 pounds and are still able to lift 200 pounds, you have achieved progressive overload. Even though you didn’t have an improvement in absolute strength, you have increased your relative strength, which is still an awesome sign of improvement!
5. Range of Motion
I’m sure everyone has seen a guy at their gym slap 500 pounds on a squat bar, unrack it, and barley bend their knees before racking it and screaming for attention to overcompensate for getting cut from their JV football team. Now I highly doubt that someone who is quarter squatting would be able to do that 500 pounds through a full squat. As we all know, performing exercising in a full range of motion is more beneficial for both strength and muscle1. So, if you’re able to increase your range of motion for a specific exercise over time using the same weight, that is also progressive overload. Over time, you can then add weight as an intensifier.
Now that we have learned the different variables of progressive overload, in an upcoming post, I'll share some examples of what this would actually look like in a program!
1. Impact of Range of Motion During Ecologically Valid Resistance Training Protocols on Muscle Size, Subcutaneous Fat, and Strength