Exercise Is Like Evolution On A Micro Scale
Progressive Overload is a necessity when it comes to building muscle and getting stronger. The whole point of working out is to induce a change in the body. Whether it be increasing muscle size, dropping unwanted body fat or increasing strength, the need to continually increase your workload in one way or another is always present.
I like to think of any exercise related sport to be sort of like watching evolution on a microscale. Whereas true evolution takes thousands of years, you have the ability to essentially make yourself a lab experiment by stressing your body and watching the impending adaptation occur.
When you exercise, you're stressing your body. You're putting a certain type of stress on the body to encourage it to adapt in a certain way. If you want to increase muscle size, you can train in one way and if you want to increase the strength ability of that muscle, you train in a different way. By doing so, the body adapts to the stress by growing bigger and stronger so that the next time you encounter it, it's not as much of a threat.
While adaptation is a natural and appropriate response, it poses a problem for those of us looking to put on serious muscle or increase strength.
Once you've adapted to the original stressor, you'll need to increase the workload via either increasing the weight you use, increasing the repetitions, or both. This is known as practicing Progressive Overload.
Progressive overload is simply a concept to ensure that you're actually able to continue to adapt. When you think of exercise inducing adaptation, it stands to reason that once you've adapted to a given stimulus, using the same stimulus repeatedly won't produce any additional benefit. Look at it this way:
Let's say when you first start working out, you can bench 135 for 10 reps. So, you go into the gym and complete 3 sets of 10 reps for the bench, using 135. You get pretty sore, recover and then come back to the gym. You go to bench press again and you complete 3 sets of 10 reps for bench, using 135.
This time, it's a bit easier and you don't get as sore. Obviously, this is because the body has adapted by increasing strength and fatigue resistance. But, where do you go from here? In order to continually progress, you need to increase the stress. If you continue to use 135 for 3 sets of 10, you'd expect that it would produce the same result right? You wouldn't expect to magically be able to now bench 145 for 3 sets of 10, right?
In this scenario, the next logical steps would be one of the following:
This is a prime example of progressive overload. Increasing 1 or all of those pillars is essentially for continually progressing, otherwise you should expect to never actually grow.
Keep in mind that the same thing is necessary if your goals of exercising is to burn fat. Progressive overload in this instance would be the same as above, but would also include variables like number of exercises, reducing the time your workouts take you, reducing rest periods, etc.
How to Implement Progressive Overload
Other than the steps laid out above, there are a few other strategies that you can use to ensure that you're practicing progressive overload in your own training.
Keep A Training Journal
Keeping a training journal not only gives you structure, but allows you to ensure that you are doing more than you have in the past.
If your goal of the day is to bench press for 8 repetitions, you can look back at the last time and view how you performed. Based on previous workouts, you can either increase the weight you use, increase the repetitions you do with the same weight, increase sets, or all three depending on how you feel.
Even more, you can go as far as write down how you feel during workouts, what you ate, how much quality sleep you received the night prior and just about anything else that might happen to influence your ability in the gym. All of this information together is a great opportunity to really learn something about yourself, including what works and what does not work for you as an individual.
Adjust Weight, Reps & Sets For Similar Exercises
Some people suggest changing workouts often while others perform the same workout over and over again. They key is to have a good balance between change and familiar exercises. It's perfectly acceptable to have healthy exercise variation, it's just that many people think that attempting to "confuse" your muscles is appropriate.
Rather than changing workouts every time, to never return, consider re-executing workouts, but ensuring you do improve in one or more of the 3 categories of overload (weight, reps and sets). I suggest rotating exercises for certain muscle groups out on a monthly basis. For example, if you're primarily back squatting and doing RDLs for legs this month, perhaps next month you can do front squat and leg press.
Certainly changing exercises on occasion is beneficial, since you can adapt to certain movement patterns just as you can reps, weight and sets. But changing too often can hamper your adaptations for certain movements.
Progressive Overload doesn't need to happen over night
Many people strive to do more and more each session in attempts to get bigger and stronger. While progressively overloading the muscle is a primary factor in growth, it can often lead people to train too much. If you are consistently training and are progressing in at least one of the 3 categories of progressive overload, you are probably in good shape when it comes to progressing.
But also, don't get discouraged if you can't increase from one session to the next. There are a number of reasons that you might not be progressing, from poor nutrition, lack of sleep and increase of stress or maybe you just weren't feeling it that day. While progressive overload is essential, it's more of an average thing, rather than dependent on single workouts. If you're regularly progressing in one of the 3 categories necessary for progressive overload, then you are probably moving in the right direction.
A Note On Training To Failure
Many people take "progressive overload" to mean "train to failure." Let me clarify, that's not what I'm recommending and further, I almost never recommend training to failure other than with extremely light loads (>50% 1RM).
Training to failure is dangerous; there's no way around it, plus, it has almost zero transferable benefit. "But how will I grow then?" you might ask. Well, remember that progressive overload has 3 categories, which all relate to total volume load, or the amount of work you completed during a workout. THIS is far more important than taking single sets to failure or beyond.
Further, you also have to consider what effect training to failure has on performance and recovery. If you fail on your fist few sets of your first exercise of the day, it's likely your performance on subsequent sets will suffer. Not to mention, you'll probably have a hard time recovering due to the large, damaging stimulus you just placed on your body.
Just remember, progressive overload is more about increasing the total volume you perform, for much longer time frames than a single workout or even a single set. Train smart and avoid true failure and you'll progress faster; plain and simple.
Progressive Overload is essential for progressing both in and out of the gym. Make sure to try to improve in one of the 3 categories of progressive overload each time you perform a similar exercise or workout routine.
If you don't overload the muscle in one way or another, after you adapt, you won't grow. Simple as that.
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