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The Ultimate Guide To Progressive Overload – Skyrocket Your Gains

Applying this one principle (progressive overload) to your training program will take your physique to the next level. In fact, it could double or even triple your results quickly!

Look, I know you are confused about this whole progressive overload thing. I was in your position up until recently, trust me.

I think you’ll agree with me when I say:

It’s difficult to build a nice aesthetic physique naturally. It could also be frustrating to hit a stubborn plateau that seems unbreakable. I mean, if you’ve been stuck on 225 lbs. bench press that must be your genetic limit, right? Or, maybe your genetics suck and the 20 pounds of muscle you’ve built so far are all you’re going to get in your lifting career.

Well, not really.

It’s normal and expected to hit some stubborn plateaus during your lifting career. It’s also normal to be stuck at a weight for some time. It happens to the best of us. Don’t stress it though. I am going to show you how to continue making progress in your physique by teaching you how to properly apply the principle of progressive overload.

…the only tool you need to make continuous strength and muscle gains. Or, maybe you’re an athlete who wants to maximize his/her athletic performance. Read along.


Chapter 1 – What is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload refers to the increase of stimulus over time. That increase in stimulus could be achieved by increasing volume, intensity, or frequency. It could also be achieved through all 3 factors combined. Progressive overload is the key to building muscle, improving athletic performance, and gaining strength.

progressive overload bodybuilding

I’m sure you’ve come across this image during your quest to find out what the principle of progressive overload is. This picture represents what is arguably the first application of the principle in the history of mankind. The character’s name in this comic is Milo of Croton. Milo was a wrestler in ancient Greece during the the 6th-century BC era. One day, Milo decided that he needed to get stronger to beat the best wrestlers in the country. So, he had a brilliant idea. He thought that if he carried a newborn calf every day on his way home, he would get stronger. So, Milo went through with his plan and the calf grew as the days went by. As the calf grew and became heavier, Milo’s body adapted to the imposed stress and got bigger and stronger. Eventually, Milo could carry a grown bull.

Whether this story is true or not is irrelevant. What we are concerned with is the fact that Milo applied the principle of progressive overload without realizing. The increasing imposed stress in Milo’s case was intensity. Intensity here refers to how heavy the weight of the calf was. Obviously, the calf’s weight increased as it grew into a bull. And since intensity increased, the volume of Milo’s “workouts” increased as well. Frequency didn’t change since Milo did the same exact workout every day. Only the weight and inevitably the volume (weight * repetitions) changed.

Now, fast forward to the contemporary world.

The principle of progressive overload was developed by Thomas Delorme, M.D. Thomas was a reputable doctor during the WWII era. He developed and used this principle in rehabilitating injured soldiers post the war. Hence why physical therapists use it today too.

So, does progressive overload mean that we need to increase the weight every training session?

No…

The principle of progression states that imposed stress must increase over time. It doesn’t state that you need to lift significantly heavier weights every time you set foot in the gym. So, how can you properly apply this principle to your bodybuilding or strength training program?

Let’s see…


Chapter 2 – The myth of lifting heavy – Light weights build muscle too!

Look:

You probably think that you need to increase the weight used every training session, right? It’s okay, it’s not your fault. You’ve been led to believe this myth.

Well, it turns out you can build as much muscle with light weights as if you were using heavy weights. In fact, light weights are usually superior!

You might say “But, you said you have to progressively overload the muscle for it to grow!”. Well, you are right. I did say that. But, I never said that you must use heavy weights all the time or that you need to increase the weights every session. The truth is your muscles don’t know how much weight you’re lifting. And frankly, they don’t care either.

Let me explain.

heavy weight myth

Credit: Schoenfeld et al. (2017)

Schoenfeld et al. (2017) sought to see whether heavy or light weights would elicit better hypertrophy. The researchers conducted a meta-analysis on the subject. For those who don’t know, a meta-analysis is done by reviewing all the studies available on a specific topic. Thus, the results of a meta-analysis are the combination of results from tons of studies on one subject.

Anyway, the researchers compared hypertrophy in the groups that trained with high loads (heavy weights) and those who trained with low loads (light weights). They found that both approaches resulted in the same amount of hypertrophy! Meaning, both groups gained an equal amount of muscle mass despite their painfully different training protocols.

The light weights group used weights less than 60% of their 1rm (maximum weight). While the heavy weights group used weights greater than 60% of their 1rm. Results are in the picture above.

So, what’s the difference?

Well, the researchers found hypertrophy was equal among groups. However, the groups 1rm were quite different. The group that exclusively trained with heavy weights significantly increased their 1rm. On the other hand, the light weights group didn’t gain as much strength on their 1rm.

So, what’s the lesson here?

The lesson is that unless you’re a powerlifter who is concerned with lifting maximum weight, you’ll build the same amount of muscle if not more with using much less weight. Our bodies are freakishly smart. They human body adapts to any imposed stress in the specific way it’s applied.

Confused?

Don’t be. This simply means that whatever way you apply a certain stress, the body will adapt in that same exact way. So, if you exclusively train in the 1-5 rep range, you will get stronger in the 1-5 rep range. If you train in the 13-15 rep range, your body will get stronger in the 13-15 rep range. You’ll also get stronger in the 1-5 rep range, but you won’t be as strong as the guy who exclusively trains in the 1-5 rep range. This is called the principle of specificity. With that said, who cares? If you solely concerned with aesthetics, why the hell do you care if your 1rm increases or not? Drop the ego and your results will skyrocket. If you are bodybuilder, lift like a bodybuilder and vice versa.

The principle of specificity also applies to the joint angle you’re training. So, for instance, if you deadlift from pins (rack pulls) as opposed to from the floor, you will get stronger in that specific range of motion. Therefore, whatever strength you gain will not carryover to floor deadlifts.

How many reps should I do?

weight lifting percentage chart

As a rule, the body of scientific evidence points that to maximize hypertrophy, you need to lift weights that are at least 65% of your 1rm. So, if your bench press 1rm is 225 pounds, you would need to lift about 146 pounds. Obviously, you won’t lift 146 lbs. for 1 or 2 reps. You need to challenge yourself. You need to provide a strong enough stimulus for your muscles to grow. 65% of someone’s 1rm works out to about 15 reps. Meaning, you can probably do a maximum of 15 repetitions with 146 pounds before you reach muscular failure. However, you don’t need (or should) reach muscular failure. Lifting close to failure while leaving 1 to 2 reps in the tank will provide the same results if not better. Lifting to failure all the time will result in tons of fatigue and may eventually lead to overtraining.


Chapter 3 – Why is Progressive Overload Important?

Good question. Let me give you an analogy:

Why can’t newborn babies walk? Because they lack the neurological coordination and muscular development to do so. Have you ever seen a baby wake up one day and decide to walk? Of course not! A baby starts with rolling then progresses to crawling then starts to walk with some help (wobble) till he/she can eventually walk on their own. The baby’s body slowly adapts to surrounding demands and keeps on progressing and adapting to imposed stress (rolling, crawling, and wobbling) till they can eventually walk. Babies can usually fully walk within 2 years.

If we forced our baby in question to lay down for those 2 years, will he be able to walk? No. Why? Because the baby’s body didn’t see any need to adapt and do so. In other words, the baby’s body needed stimulus to adapt. It needed a good enough reason to adapt, otherwise, why bother?

Weight lifting is the same.

If you don’t give your body a good reason to adapt, it won’t. Especially because lean tissue consumes more energy than fat. Since the human body only cares about surviving, it won’t waste precious energy by building unnecessary muscle mass. It would rather conserve that energy for times of famine. Thus, the stimulus must be strong enough to elicit adaptation. This is why bench pressing your broom won’t build your chest as much as an extra 100 pounds will.

Therefore, the body needs a powerful stimulus to adapt. To make matters worse, as your body adapts, further adaptation becomes more difficult. That’s why newbies make the best gains in their entire training careers. Once you’re past the newbie stage, building more muscle and gaining more strength becomes harder.

You may think, “but wait, I became stronger, Should I not be building muscle faster?”.

Do you remember how long it took you to finally bench press 135 pounds (1 plate)? Probably 2-3 months at most. Now, try to remember how long it took you to go from 135 pounds to 225 pounds. Not as fast, right? That’s the law of diminishing returns. Progress is not and will never be linear unless you are a newbie.

When you start resistance training, the body adapts in two primary way: neurological and muscular adaptations. Your central nervous system becomes more efficient at lifting a certain weight. It does so by learning how to fire neurons better. Additionally, your muscles become larger and stronger to handle whatever weight you were lifting. But, that’s not all.

Enter the repeated bout effect

repeated bout effect bodybuilding

In addition to your muscles becoming stronger and bigger to handle the imposed stress, they also become more “rigid”. Do you remember how sore you were the first day you lifted weights? How come you don’t get as sore anymore? That’s because in addition to becoming larger and stronger, the muscles also adapted to become harder and more resilient to lifting weight. Meaning, your muscle fibers don’t break down as easily as they used to. This is called the repeated bought effect.

Now, let me show you how you can safely apply the principle of progressive overload to your training program in various ways.



Chapter 4 – Practical Application of Progressive Overload

how to apply progressive overload

We can discuss principles and science all day, but there is no point if we don’t learn how to practically apply something. With all this talk about heavy and light weights you’re probably still confused about applying progressive overload to your program. As previously mentioned, you don’t need to lift heavier weights every training session. Doing so will make you hit a plateau quicker than you think and the risk of injury increases rapidly. What good is lifting if you can’t move or walk?

Now, there are various methods to apply progressive overload. Those methods are increasing repetitions, sets, weight, and improving your technique! Let’s go over each one.

 

Add more reps

Let’s assume you can squat 225 lbs. and that your program tells you to perform 10 reps. Let’s also assume that you can squat 225 pounds for 10 reps after which you fail.  Most people will increase the weight the next time they squat. That’s all nice and dandy, but what if you don’t want to increase the weight? What if you don’t care about squatting heavy? What if you have a lower body injury that prevents you from going heavy on lower body movements?

The answer is to add more repetitions! Your program may tell you to do 10 reps, but why don’t you add an extra one for a total of 11 reps? Broaden your rep range. It’s not like if you perform 11 reps instead of 10 your body will stop growing and the world will end.

Instead of doing 8-10 reps, do 13-15. When you can squat 225 lbs. for 13-15 reps, increase your rep range to 18-20. When you can finally squat 225 lbs. for 18-20 reps. You can either increase the weight by the lowest increment possible (usually 5 lbs.) or sticking to the same rep range for all sets!

Example

Let’s say I am instructed to 3 sets of squats. I will be using 225 pounds for all my sets. My rep range is 18-20 reps. It could go something like this:

1st set – 20 reps

2nd set – 19 reps

3rd set – 18 reps

In this case, I have successfully done all my sets within the prescribed rep range. Thereafter, I should either add an extra set or increase the weight by 5-10 lbs. next session and repeat the process. But what if you fail to get all your sets within a rep range? What if it goes something like this:

1st set – 20 reps

2nd set – 19 reps

3rd set – 15 reps

In this case, stick with the same weight until you can do 18-20 reps on your third set then you can progress to a heavier weight.

How is this progression?

The answer is volume! Remember when I said that your muscles don’t know or care how much weight you’re lifting? Your muscles only recognize tension. Increasing tension over time is still applying progressive overload. Volume is the amount of weight lifted multiplied by number of repetitions performed.

If you squatted 225 lbs. for 10 reps yesterday, that means you squatted a total of 225 * 10 = 2250 lbs. This is assuming you did only 1 set. Thus, your legs were exposed to a tension of 2250 lbs. that session.

Now, let’s say today you squatted 225 lbs. for 12 reps. That’s a total volume of 225 * 12 = 2700 lbs.! That’s an extra 450 pounds of tension your muscles had to endure! Did you not achieve progressive overload? Of course, you did! Which takes us to the second way of applying progressive overload.

 

Add more sets

Let’s stick with the example above. If you can do all your sets within a certain rep range with a specific weight, you can add an extra set as a way of applying progressive overload.

So, if you did 3 sets with 225 pounds for 20, 19, and 18 reps, you can add a 4th set to your next session. So, your training session would look like this:

1st set – 225 lbs. for 20 reps.

2nd set – 225 lbs. for 19 reps.

3rd set – 225 lbs. for 18 reps.

4th set – 225 lbs. for 15 reps.

Now, you can continue lifting the same weight till your fourth set is within the rep range. After that, you can increase the weight.

How is this progression?

Doing 3 sets with 225 pounds for a total of 57 reps would yield 225 * 57 = 12,825 lbs. of volume.

Add an extra set of 15 reps and your volume goes up to 225 * 72 = 16,200 lbs. That’s a lot of extra volume! And remember, volume is the main driver of hypertrophy.

 

Add more weight

The most obvious and popular way of applying progressive overload is adding extra weight. With this method, you simply add more weight when you hit a certain number of repetitions for a specific number of sets. That could be only your 1st set or all working sets. Simply add the least amount of weight possible on your next training session. Unless you are a powerlifter, or someone concerned with lifting maximum weights, I don’t recommend this approach. That’s because most people add too much weight too quickly and end up getting injured. I know because I have been there.

 

Improve your technique

The last and my favorite way of applying progressive overload is simply improving your technique. There is a big difference between bench pressing 2 plates with a crooked form while letting your front deltoids and triceps do all the work and pressing the same weight with a retracted scapula and proper form. The latter will force you the intended muscles (chest) to take most of the stress as opposed to the former technique. This is where bodybuilders came up with the term mind muscle connection. Basically, you want to feel the intended muscle working. Well, you don’t have to be that extreme, but simply improve your form and make sure you’re using the intended muscles rather than using momentum and your whole body to lift the weight.

This is the simplest form of progression.

Improve your form before you add weight.


Chapter 5 – Sample Progressive Overload Program

This is a sample program that assumes you only care about aesthetics and hypertrophy. It’s not meant to maximize strength gains.

Upper body

ExerciseWeightSetsReps
Flat Barbell Bench Press80% of 1rm36-8
Chin-ups85% of 1rm34-6
Shoulder press70% of 1rm313-15
Seated Rows70% of 1rm313-15
KAATSU Barbell Curls30% of 1rm328-30
KAATSU Overhead triceps extensions30% of 1rm328-30

Notes:

  • For all exercises, increase your rep range by 2 reps once you can successfully get all your sets within the prescribed rep range. After that, feel free to add a little bit of weight (smallest increment). For example, when you can bench press 175 (if that’s 80% of your 1rm) with good form for 6-8 reps on all your sets, do the same weight for 8-10 reps. When you get all your sets within the 8-10 rep range, add 5-10 lbs.
  • For the last 2 exercises, you simply add weight once your first set is done within the prescribed rep range. So, if you can curl 30 lbs. for 30 reps on your first set, do 35 lbs. next session. This employs simple linear progression.

 

Lower body

ExerciseWeightSetsReps
Romanian Deadlifts80% of 1rm36-8
Squats or front squats80% of 1rm36-8
Laying leg curls70% of 1rm313-15
KAATSU leg extensions30% of 1rm328-30
KAATSU seated calf raises30% of 1rm328-30

Notes:

  • For all exercises, increase your rep range by 2 reps once you can successfully get all your sets within the prescribed rep range. After that, feel free to add a little bit of weight (smallest increment). For example, when you can squat 225 (assuming that’s 80% of your 1rm) with good form for 6-8 reps on all your sets, perform the same weight for 8-10 reps. When you get all your sets within the 8-10 rep range, add 5-10 lbs.
  • For the last 2 exercises, you simply add weight once your first set is done within the prescribed rep range. So, if you can curl 30 lbs. for 30 reps on your first set, do 35 lbs. next session. This employs simple linear progression.

Conclusion

You don’t need fancy equipment or “special secret muscle hack that will help you build 14 lbs. of muscles in two weeks” to build an awesome physique. It is true that we are all different and that we all need slightly different approaches for optimal results. However, consistency beats perfectionism any day. Stay consistent, apply progressive overload in the ways discussed above and you will gain muscle and strength at a faster than you would’ve thought possible


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