Putting The Progress In Progressive Overload

Heavy dumbbells are great for progressive overload.

The body is remarkably proficient at adapting to stress.  This is fantastic for we attempting to make changes to our physique.  Make your body lift a difficult load repeatedly, and it will grow stronger and more muscular.  Make it sprint some distance over and over, and it will grow faster and leaner.  The point most people tend to overlook, however, is that we must continue to place stress on the body as it adapts, or we will cease to illicit a “training response.”

That’s right, lift the same weight long enough, and your body will grow strong enough that the weight is no longer enough to create a training response.  Same with sprinting and steady state cardio.  In order to continue progress, we must gradually increase the training stimulus we place on the body.  This is the principle of progressive overload.  Without it, your progress will stall quickly.

There are many ways to achieve progressive overload in your training programs.  I will go over a few of them here.

Weight Training

  • Resistance Progression – Increase the weight you’re using workout to workout.  Simple as that.  Ideally you would increase by a small amount every time you train, but the levels of resistance available may not make this feasible.  In this case, a jump every few weeks may be the best you can do.  Often this form of progression is combined with set or rep progression.
  • Repetition Progression – Increase the number of repetitions you perform in each set.  Often this is done within a pre-decided range before increasing the resistance (resistance progression).  For example, I may gradually increase the reps I am able to perform in each set over the course of 3 weeks from 8 to 10 reps.  At that time, I increase the weight I use, which decreases the reps I can complete.  The cycle begins anew.
  • Set Progression – Increase the number of sets you perform, holding repetitions constant.  This is a rarer and possibly more advanced form of progression, often used for more maximal strength training using many sets of low repetitions using near-maximal loading.  For example, I may perform 6 sets of 3 reps, then 7, then 8 over the course of 3 training weeks.
  • Rest Progression – Decrease the length of your rest periods.  For example, I may start with 60 seconds of rest and decrease by 10 seconds each training week.  This method is more often used when the goal is more fat loss oriented, although Density Progression, which is related, is often used for hypertrophy (muscle growth) as well.
  • Density Progression – Perform more work in the same amount of time.  Often this is achieved by performing additional sets and reps while reducing the rest period between sets.  Fitness legend Charles Staley is a proponent of this style of training and explains it in detail in his article, Escalating Density Training.

High Intensity Interval Training (sprints, etc)

  • Interval Progression – Add intervals (be they sprints, cycle sprints, Tabata rounds, etc) each time.  This week I did 8 hill sprints; next week I do 9.
  • Resistance Progression – Increase the resistance.  This is easiest to do when performing intervals on a piece of equipment with variable resistance (stationary bike, etc).
  • Velocity Progression – Increase your speed during your intervals.  Again, easiest to do on a piece of equipment with a speed indicator.
  • Distance/Duration Progression – Increase the distance or duration of your interval.  When using this method, you want to be careful not to allow the interval to become so long that it stops being “high intensity.”  Probably should be combined with another method in order to allow for a distance “reset” once you reach a certain threshold.
  • Rest Progression – Decrease the rest periods between intervals.

Deciding which of these methods (or combination thereof) to use is up to personal preference and situational factors, which I wont go into here. Much more important than the method you choose is that you constantly practice progressive overload to avoid stagnation.