Progressive Overload Is the Holy Grail of Building Muscle and Strength

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progressive overload

The Principle of Progressive Overload is crucial for building muscle and gaining strength.

The concept is simple: you must continually increase the demand placed on your body – over time.

If you implement this principle, muscle and strength gains are guaranteed. Period.

Whether you are struggling to gain muscle mass, want to increase your bench press or squat, or if you simply want to build muscle and strength faster, this article is for you.

Why and How Does Progressive Overload Work?

Your body is lazy. It won’t change unless it “thinks” it has to. Your job is to make it do just that.

By continuously increasing the demand placed on the body during training, your muscles adapt by growing bigger and stronger so that you can handle this type of intense stimulus if/when it occurs again.

This isn’t a one-time thing, though. It’s an ongoing process. If you stop challenging your body for just a short period of time, your gains will plateau. Remember, your body is lazy, so you gotta keep pushing it.

Note: It is impossible to follow the principle of progressive overload if you’re not adhering to a sound bodybuilding diet or if you fail to get enough rest at night and between workouts.

Before I discuss how to apply the principle of progressive overload to your routine, I’ll list out its benefits in the section below.

Benefits of Progressive Overload

Why You Need Progressive Overload. I’ll continue by going over the many benefits of progressive overload to underline why everyone should want to know about and use this essential training principle:

  • “Muscle Memory.” The body – and the mind – is always being challenged. When doing new or varying exercises, neural circuits are being formed and strengthened. This is because while new movements stress the muscles in a new way, they are also connected to the spine and brain, which have to learn the movements as well. The neural circuits formed are a large part of the workout. They are the reaction to a movement you want the muscle to do, while the muscle simply moves the load.
  • Build Muscle and Strength. Simply, by pushing and stressing the muscle to move more, it will do what it must to meet the demands placed on it. The muscle fibers will grow in size and will have the increased contraction capacity needed for serious strength.
  • Hypertrophy. This is the proper term for physical growth of the muscle. Physiologically, the muscle will grow in size only under certain conditions. While strength can be improved fairly easily, hypertrophy is dependent upon the number of sets, reps, and each individual’s muscular structure.
  • Rapid Improvement. By setting yourself up for a challenging and ever changing routine, you are also setting yourself up for great results.
  • Keeping it Interesting. Getting out to the gym 4 or 5 or 6 days a week can become boring, especially if it’s always the same, predictable workout. The same predictable workout gets tedious, easy, and unfortunately, boring. A part of progressive overloading is not only to change reps and sets, but also to use as many different exercises to challenge the same muscles in a variety of ways.

How to Implement the Principle of Progressive Overload

The Big Picture: Intensity, Volume and Frequency

There are three major variables involved in progressive overload: Intensity, volume and frequency, which constitute the core of all weight lifting routines. In case you need a review…

  1. Intensity is the heaviness of the weight used to train a muscle group (Intensity can also refer to your perceived effort, or how close to failure you go)
  2. Volume is the total work (sets x reps) done when training a muscle group
  3. Frequency is the number of times a muscle group is trained per week

Implementing progressive overload is fundamentally a matter of increasing one or more of these three variables. However, these variables are not independent of one another. If you increase one, you’ll probably have to decrease one or both of the other variables. Or, in other words…

  • If you increase intensity, then you must decrease volume and/or frequency.
  • If you increase volume, then you must decrease intensity and/or frequency.
  • If you increase frequency, then you must decrease intensity and/or volume.

Specific Tactics for Applying the Principle of Progressive Overload

Okay, now you understand the big picture of how to manipulate your routine to achieve progressive overload.

Now, I’ll provide you with some practical tactics for manipulating intensity, volume and frequency to implement progressive overload in your routine. Try one or two of these tricks at a time to jump start your gains:

  1. Add More Weight. This is the most obvious way of practicing progressive overload. Add more weight once you are ready for a particular exercise. You can do it when, for example, whatever you are currently lifting becomes easy. A good way to determine if you are ready is if you are able to do an extra rep or two. (For All Levels of Experience)
  2. Do More Reps. Adding one or two reps to whatever exercise you’re doing is also a good way to test yourself. You can use a spotter and if you are able to add 2 reps on your own, you’ll know that it is time to up the resistance for that particular exercise. (For All Levels of Experience)
  3. Do More Sets. Increasing the number of sets you perform is also a great way to improve muscle endurance. You can add one set which will essentially fatigue the muscle completely. (For All Levels of Experience)
  4. Train More Frequently. Be careful with this one; ensure that your body is ready to increase from the usual once a week to slightly more frequently. Truthfully, every individual is different and you know your body best, and what works best for you. (For Advanced Lifters)
  5. Add More Exercises. Adding exercises to the program that target the same muscle groups can be useful, especially if you are trying to improve the size of a particular muscle or improve proportionality. (For Intermediate and Advanced Lifters)
  6. Increase Your Intensity of Effort. This is a psychological factor that really works. It means increasing your perception of the effort you have to put into each set. (For All Levels of Experience)
  7. Reduce Your Rest Time Between Sets. This refers to the time you take between sets – usually rest time is 90 seconds, and this can be shortened which forces the muscles to do more work in less time. (For Advanced Lifters)

Note: You only need to resort to these techniques once your progress slows down or stalls completely. If you’re still making good gains with your current program, then you shouldn’t change a thing. In other words, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

How Training to Failure Relates to Progressive Overload

There is a distinction I must make when it comes to training to failure and progressive overload:

Training to failure is merely one tool that you can use to achieve progress overload. It is best when used in moderation, yet many people use it like its their only tool.

Going to failure on most if not all of your sets won’t provide the best results, over the long term. Sure, it can work very well for a while (see Max OT), but your progress will eventually slow to a crawl. This happens for two reasons:

  1. It is far too taxing on the body for most lifters. It is the equivalent of maxing out every single session. Symptoms of overtraining/overreaching are common with this approach because you’re more likely to get insufficient recovery between training sessions of the same muscle groups.
  2. Even if you have enough recovery time before hitting the same muscles again, the fact remains that your training frequency is low. Generally, the most efficient way to build strength and muscle in the long term is to work your muscles as frequently as you can while still allowing for sufficient stimulation and recovery (usually 2x/week for intermediates/advanced; 3x/week for beginners).

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