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What Is Progressive Overload And How Do You Apply It?

 Albert Einstein once said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Now you're probably wondering what this fitness has to do with. Well, basically everything..

If you want to build up strength and muscle mass, the intensity and thus the stimulus of your workouts will have to increase over time. This is the only way to force the body to get bigger and stronger.

If you don't do this, your progress in the gym will stagnate. When the work you do in the gym stays the same, the results will stay the same.

What is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload is the continuous and structural increase of the intensity of your training and load on the muscles, in order to continue to make constant progress in size, strength, and endurance. Simply put, to get bigger and stronger you have to constantly make the muscles work harder. 

This can be done by, for example, increasing the weight, but there are, as you can read further in the article, all kinds of other methods with which you can apply progressive overload.

The principle of progressive overload works the same in reverse. If you don't provide certain muscle groups with the minimum intensity and load they need, strength and size will remain the same or even decrease.

The progressive overload principle is very simple, but a crucial foundation for all types of resistance training. The principle does not only apply to weightlifting and bodybuilding where strength and muscle growth are achieved. It can also be applied to training programs where cardio and endurance is the goal. 

Applying progressive overload

Imagine you are doing the barbell bench press with your 10RM (10 rep max) with a weight of 60kg. Over time, your bench press will get stronger and 10 reps will be less challenging than before. 

Your muscles adapt to the resistance you give them. Now you have to ask yourself how to proceed. Do you continue with the same amount of weight for the same number of reps, or are there any adjustments you need to make?

If you keep doing that same set of 10 reps with 60kg every time, you shouldn't expect any progression. You don't give your muscles a reason to get bigger and stronger, the resistance you give them remains the same. If you keep increasing the resistance constantly, the muscles in your body will be forced to get bigger and stronger in order to handle the resistance.

Progressive Overload

Progressive overload methods

Increasing the resistance can therefore be done by increasing the weight or the number of repetitions. These are not the only ways to increase resistance. Below we discuss the five most effective methods to increase resistance in your workouts and apply progressive overload.

1. Increasing the resistance

Probably the most obvious way to apply progressive overload is by increasing the resistance in the form of weight. If the bench press is too easy at 60kg, try increasing the weight a bit. This should immediately make the exercise more challenging.

Keep in mind that there is an inverse relationship between weight and the number of reps you can do. As you increase the weight, the number of reps you can perform will decrease to a certain extent. This is no problem. 

Over time you will get stronger, so you can get the same number of reps with the increased weight, after which you can increase the weight again. In this way, you apply progressive overload by increasing the resistance.

2. Increasing the number of reps

Increasing weight is not always necessary and not always possible. Simply doing more reps during a set can also increase the total load. Make sure you never stop a set because you have achieved a predetermined number of reps. 

Continue until only two, one, or even no more reps could be performed. During the last set of the exercise, you always want to train to “failure”, which means that you actually perform the maximum number of repetitions that you can perform with good form.

Research indicates that sets between 8 and 15 reps are most effective for muscle hypertrophy. By adding reps to your sets you apply progressive overload. When a set exceeds 15 reps, it is wise to increase the weight. 

Then you can start adding reps with this new weight to ensure that you continue to apply progressive overload.

Advanced techniques such as doing forced repetitions with a training partner or performing drop set also count in this form of progressive overload.

3. Increase the volume

The volume is another variable of the total load. You can calculate the training volume by taking the number of repetitions times the number of sets times the amount of weight. So you can increase the volume by adding an extra set to an exercise or by adding a whole new exercise to your workout.

Keep in mind that you cannot add unlimited sets and repetitions. More is not always better. When your volume is too high, you run the risk of overtraining your muscles, which can even have a negative effect on muscle hypertrophy.  

4. Increasing Exercise Frequency

Increasing the frequency with which you train in a muscle group is also a way to apply progressive overload. Just like with increasing the volume, you also have to deal with a limit here. This technique is especially effective for training back muscle groups that could use some extra attention. 

For example, you can finish a push or chest workout with three sets of a seated calf raise. By training the calves in addition to the dedicated days for your legs and/or lower body, you create a higher training frequency for the calf muscles. This technique can be applied to any muscle group.

5. Reduce your rest time

Rest time is the last factor influencing the intensity and overall load on your muscles. The longer you rest between sets, the better your muscles will recover. For this reason, it is important to keep a close eye on your rest time and maybe even time it.

For example, if you manage to perform a set of deadlifts with one repetition more than you did the previous time, you have basically applied progressive overload. But if you unconsciously took a minute longer between sets this time, this may well be the reason that you were able to perform one extra repetition. So be aware of the rest time between sets!

Use a combination of methods

With progressive overload, one often immediately thinks of constantly increasing the weight. As you just read, this is one of the ways to apply progressive overload.

When muscle hypertrophy and strength gain are your goals, you'll need to apply progressive overload in some form. The stronger you get, the harder it is to apply progressive overload. So use all the methods out there, this is the best way to make sure you keep making consistent progress in the gym. Read: lower tricep exercises bodybuilding

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