Progressive Overload: What it is and how to apply it

History has it that the ancient Greek Olympian Milo of Croton trained for the Olympics and gained inhuman amounts strength by carrying a newborn calf on his shoulders every day for years.  The average weight of a newborn calf ranges from 50 to 100 pounds.  So initially, the calf was relatively easy for a reasonably strong man to carry, but each day the calf grew slightly bigger and heavier and in response to that Milo adapted to the growing weight of the animal by growing stronger himself!  The years of consistently doing this and gradually getting stronger by forcing his body to adapt to new heights eventually lead him to carrying a full grown cow on his shoulders.  An average cow weighs 1600 pounds.  In his peak he could carry a full-size bull – the average being 2400 pounds.  The principle that this conveys is that Inch by inch life is a synch; yard by hard life is hard. Milo’s body made micro small improvements each day that on the macro scale of a few years he became insanely strong.

This demonstrates the core principle of weight training and what the writer’s on this blog believe should be the foundation of your exercise program and an unrivaled method to gain muscle and build strength.  Here is a formal definition of progressive overload – Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training. does a great job summing up seven ways to apply progressive overload.

1.      Increase resistance

2.      Increase sets

3.      Increase repetitions

4.      Increase frequency

5.      Increase exercises

6.      Increase intensity

7.      Decrease rest time

If your goal is to improve you have to make each workout tougher than the previous one in some way.  Personally, I find that increasing resistance and repetitions works best.  An example of this is how I gained 30 pounds on the bench press in 3 ½ months.

I worked out my chest once every five days; the workout consisted of one weight exercise and one body weight exercise.  I always did the weight exercise first in the workout and my first set (not including the warm up sets) was always the heaviest and the one I compared to the previous workout.  My goal for the bench press was to hit at least eight reps, if I hit eight reps this workout I added five pounds to the bar in next one and sought to hit eight reps then.  Once I had a workout with no improvements at all, I stopped doing bench press and switched to dumbbell chest press and did the same thing.  Gains usually came quickly and only when they stopped coming would I switch back over to the bench press.

In addition, actively applying progressive overload to your workout has two beneficial side effects.

1.       A psychological edge

2.       A Motivational boost

The psychological edge gives you confidence that you are stronger, which enables you to perform with more weight or more repetitions.  It goes like this, because I bench pressed 180 lbs for six reps last workout and I’m fully recovered (I hope) and therefore stronger,  I know that I can bench 180 lbs for at least seven or eight reps.  In essence, because you know you can do more, you can do more.

The motivational boost comes from the prospect of doing more than before and getting closer to your goal.  If you know that it is in your capability to rip out a more challenging set than you’ve ever done before, chances are you are going to go for it and seek the satisfaction it gives you.  Timothy Ferriss in his book “The Four Hour Body” sums up the motivation factor excellently saying “You don’t need better genetics or more discipline. You need immediate results that compel you to continue.”

Conclusion:  Always integrate progressive overload into your routine in some way or another.  If you want to make gains you have to consistently place more and more demand on your body, you cannot go to the gym and perform the same workout with the same weight for the same number of repetitions and expect to look any different.  The key word here is increase, not same.  Force your body to adapt, don’t perform something you’ve ALREADY adapted to.


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