3 things to know about progressive overload

written by Philip Stefanov  |  AUGUST 29, 2023

We’ve all heard of progressive overload, and most lifters have at least some idea of the principle and why it matters. However, there are also some misconceptions about it.

To that end, I’ve dedicated this week’s newsletter to helping you understand three crucial truths about progressive overload: what it is, how it occurs, and how it might look.

Let’s talk about it.

1. What’s First: The Chicken or the Egg?

This might sound like a weird comparison, but bear with me. I bring up the chicken and the egg dilemma because there is similar uncertainty about progressive overload and what it means.

Too many people see progressive overload as the effort we put into training. For example, if you did 3x12 on the bench with 135 last week and now push yourself to do 3x13 with the same weight, that’s progressive overload.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because making gradual progress requires pushing beyond your comfort zone to force your body to adapt. You can’t ask your biceps nicely, “Hey, mind if you grow and get stronger? I’d really love that.” To make them grow, you need to push yourself hard during curls and see improvements.

No, because performance improvements (being able to lift more weight, do more reps, rest less between sets, train through a longer range of motion, do reps more smoothly, etc.) are more so the by-product of the training stimulus we’ve provided in the past.

In other words, you can now bench press more weight because you’ve put in the work before, and your body has adapted.

So, by continually adapting to training stress and doing more disruptive training, you create the necessary overload to drive further adaptations, getting yourself closer to your physique and performance goals.

Effort is important, but what would happen if progressive overload only relied on grinding out more reps or lifting more weight? Eventually, your technique would break down, and any extra reps you do would become less effective and more dangerous.

In contrast, by being able to do more work over time, you create an increasingly larger stimulus and promote progress without putting yourself in a position where you constantly have to train to failure and grind out reps with ugly form just to beat your previous performance.

2. Progress Occurs at Different Rates

This one is more straightforward but still worth discussing, even to remind people. Progress occurs at different rates. Newbies can see improvements more quickly and easily predict how their performance might change weekly.

In contrast, more advanced trainees might need to grind for weeks or months to see 10 percent of that progress.

The only thing you can do about this is remain mindful of the fact and take what you can get without being too eager. There is no point in trying to lift more weight or do more reps before you’re ready because that often leads to technique breakdown, increasing the injury risk.

However, you should also be mindful of effort and keep working hard. Too many trainees become complacent and put in the bare minimum, expecting huge gains.

3. Progression Differs Based on the Specific Exercise

Progression is as much about performance improvements as it is about recognizing what you can get from each exercise. But what does that mean?

You need to understand that you won’t be able to progress all exercises in the same way and at the same rate. For example, certain exercises are more suited for load progression, others are better for rep progression, and the third type of movements fall somewhere in between.

For example, isolation exercises like lateral raises and overhead tricep extensions are more suited for rep progression. The reason is that increasing the load even a little could easily lead to technique breakdown, making the movement less beneficial for its primary objective (growth).

In contrast, activities like the conventional and Romanian deadlift are more suited for load progression. Doing too many reps can lead to excessive fatigue and affect movement mechanics. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can freely add weight to the bar because attempting to lift too much can also affect your form.

Then, we have movements like the bench press, shoulder press, and barbell row, where you can go either way. These movements are well suited for heavy training, as well as light, hypertrophy-focused sets. As a result, you can enjoy greater flexibility when deciding how to do the extra work necessary to keep seeing improvements.

Thanks for sticking around. I'll catch you next week!


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