Progressive Overload - Are you progressing your training?
May 28, 2022

Are you progressing in your training?

Our body will adapt to the stimulus that we provide it - we call it GAS (General Adaptation Syndrome). Once our body adapts to the stimulus, reapplication of the stimulus will no longer drive change. The stimulus applied does not need to "reinvent the wheel", it just needs to be challenging enough to drive adaptation.

For example, you can't expect to be able to play Beethoven No.9 on piano by only practising Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. You will need to slowly play harder pieces and develop skills to play more complicated music.

The exact same thing happens in the body. Progression is the name of the game in transforming your body. If you're not progressing your training, you will not change your body. Doing the same thing every day is just spinning your wheels and making you tired.

We call progression in training Progressive Overload - we're trying to slowly load out training to drive adaptations. Put simply, we want to be looking for ways to make training harder. Progression can be something easily measurable, such as weight on the bar, something that requires tools, such as velocity based training, or a qualitative measure, such as mind-muscle connection.

There are four primary variables that we can manipulate in our training to adjust the training stimulus - Technique, Intensity, Volume and Density (TIVD). Here are ways that you can adjust your training to ensure that you are progressing.

Technique

We can modify our technique to make the exercise stimulus harder.

Exercise selection

Some exercises are easier than others. For example:

  • Push up against a wall → Push up against a bench → Push up on your knees → Push up on your toes → Clapping push up
  • Box squat → bodyweight squat → squat jump

Note: Changing exercises may change the target muscle group.

Range of motion (ROM)

Increasing the ROM of an exercise will make it more difficult. For example:

  • ¼ squat → parallel squat → full depth squat (hamstrings on calves)
  • Rack pull → deadlift off blocks → standard deadlift → deficit deadlift

Note: Changing ROM may change the target muscle group.

Efficiency

You may progress by improving how efficient you are at the exercise. Some exercises require certain timing to create power output. You may not change any other variable in your training, but you may be experiencing progression in your technique timing which will drive adaptation. For example:

  • Improving the timing of your Clean and Jerk (Olympic Weightlifting) between the different phases of the pull
  • Improving the co-contraction of your leg muscles during a squat

Proficiency

Your technique may be progressing. Similar to Efficiency, you may not change any other variable, but you are improving your balance, coordination and technical skill of the exercise. For example:

  • Not requiring external cues to competently perform a squat
  • Improving your control of the dumbbells during a chest press

Mind-muscle connection

Closely linked to both proficiency and efficiency, mind-muscle connection involved feeling the muscle contract. Improvements in the feeling of mind-muscle connection are mostly qualitative (self-reported). The mind-muscle connection is associated with "the pump" (or cellular swelling). Examples include:

  • Feeling your back muscles during a lat pulldown
  • Reporting a muscle pump after bicep curls

Intensity

Intensity relates to how hard we train. We can increase or decrease our intensity to scale the training difficulty.

Proximity from failure

Failure can be defined as being unable to complete a concentric repetition with proficient technique - put simply, you can't do another rep with "good form". Your training will become more difficult the closer you are to failure. For example:

  • You know that your technique falls apart at rep 10 of squats @100kg. Completing a set and stopping at 9 reps (1 Rep In Reserve) will be more challenging than completing a set and stopping at 6 reps (4 Reps in Reserve).

Speed

Speed manipulation works in both directions. The faster you move the load, the more challenging the exercise will become (also known as Velocity Based Training). Also the slower you move the load, the more challenging the exercise will become (also known as Time Under Tension - TUT). Manipulation of speed often involves moving faster in the concentric phase of an exercise (e.g. being more explosive) and moving slower in the eccentric phase of an exercise (e.g. lowering the weight with more control).

Examples of increasing speed:

  • Moving the bar faster during a deadlift

Examples of decreasing speed:

  • Slowly lowering into a squat

Load

Probably the most well-known way of progressing an exercise - adding more weight to the bar. It's often the easiest way to progress because it's measurable and easy to modify. For example:

  • Bench pressing 60kg → bench pressing 70kg
  • Squatting 80kg → squatting 90kg

Volume

Volume refers to the total amount of exercise completed.

Sets

We can make our training session more challenging by adding more sets to an exercise or muscle group by adding another exercise. A general guide is that if you are completing 4 sets of an exercise to train a target muscle group, and you wish to add another set, you're probably better off adding another exercise instead of doing 5 sets (for variation purposes). For example:

  • Completing 2 sets of squats → completing 3 sets of squats
  • Completing 4 sets of bench presses → completing 3 sets of bench press + 2 sets of chest flyes

Repetitions

We can make the training more challenging by adding more reps. The reps performed is closely linked with Proximity from failure (see above). Examples of progression:

  • Completing 5 push-ups → completing 6 push-ups
  • Completing 10 reps of squats @100kg → completing 12 reps of squats @100kg

Density

Density refers to the total amount of volume completed divided by the time taken to complete it.

Rest

We can make our training sessions more challenging by reducing the rest period between sets. Less rest means that we are doing more exercise in a shorter time. For example:

  • 3-minute rest between sets → 2-minute rest between sets

Frequency

Increasing the frequency of training increases the total volume completed within a time period. For example:

  • Training legs 1x/week → training legs 2x/week

Under application of Progressive Overload

Biopsychosocial factors

There are a variety of factors and influences that may stop us from progressing our training. We need to consider biopsychosocial factors such as our environment, the people around us, our beliefs, fears and anxieties. Many of those factors are not within the scope of this article, and you may need to stop and reflect on the reason why you are not progressing or choosing not to progress. Maybe you're scared about lifting heavier loads, or worried that you'll look silly by doing a certain exercise, or don't want to get sweaty in front of strangers.

The first step is to acknowledge those barriers. Your barriers are there, and there's no reason to be ashamed of them.
The next step is to determine if it's something that you have control over (internal locus of control) or have no control over (external locus of control). Maybe the barrier is something that doesn't even exist, or maybe you can modify your environment (such as using safety rails in a squat rack).
Finally, it's up to you to decide. If there's a barrier that you can modify, then you choose if you want to modify it and progress, or stay where you are.

Lack of experience or understanding

Many of the variables outlined above take time to experience and understand. Take the technique as an example, you may take a long time to learn a technique or never experience the full ROM of an exercise. Or consider intensity, you may have never experienced true failure, so you don't have an understanding of what it's like to actually train to your complete potential.

Experience and understanding take time - just like playing the piano, you will make mistakes and there is a learning curve. You can shorten the learning curve by seeking out mentors or hiring a PT/coach. An investment into a PT for just one session may pay back dividends for years to come. They may be able to pass on lessons they've learned, or tweak your technique so that you can progress it further.

Over application of Progressive Overload

False Progression

Often we find ourselves in positions of False Progression - where we think that we're progressing in one domain, at the expense of another.

For example:
Increasing the weight on the bar (intensity), at the expense of proficiency (technique), ROM (technique), the number of reps performed (volume) and increases in rest (density).

You may be in a similar situation where you are trying to progress your training by focusing on one domain at the expense of another. You might try to decrease your rest times by decreasing your intensity or trying to do more reps by cutting your ROM.

Some sports specific or advanced programming may involve some skewing of variables.

For example - a Powerlifting athlete:
Increasing the weight on the bar (intensity), at the expense of efficiency (technique), the number of sets performed (volume) and decreases in frequency (density).

To ensure that you are not experiencing False Progression, aim to measure each variable (or as many as you can) and consistently re-apply the stimulus (uniformity). Once the stimulus is measured and uniform, then you can increase one domain at a time. Examples would be:
Keep the exercise selection the same, with the same ROM, same speed of movement, similar rest between sets, same reps and sets performed, but increasing the load on the bar by 2.5kg.

Increased risk of injury

Overapplication and rapid progression increase the risk of injury. The basic mechanism of injury occurrence is when the Load > Capacity in the body. To limit your risk of injury while progressing your training, consider the Acute-to-Chronic Ratio; where we compare the total load placed on the body over a week to the total average load placed on the body over a month.

For example:
You average a total of 15 sets per week of chest work over the last month, it would not be wise to increase the sets next week to 30 sets - which would be double your monthly average.

The sweet spot of progression is between 10-30% the monthly average over a week.

For example:
You average a total of 15 sets per week of chest work over the last month, increase the sets to 20 sets per week for a month, then 25 next month, and then 30 the month after.

keen to keep reading?