When it comes to gaining muscle and size, progressive overload is the king. Without implementing progressive overload to your training programme, your body will not need to adapt and therefore will not get bigger and stronger. And let’s be honest, that’s what the majority of us want when we go to the gym and train, to get bigger and stronger!
You see it all the time, guys and girls doing the same workout they’ve been doing for years, 5 times a week, simply maintaining what they have and never progressing. Everyone has the capacity to progress in the gym, you simply need to know the right tools, and progressive overload is certainly one of those tools.
What is progressive overload?
In principle, progressive overload is the process of continuing to increase the demands on the musculo-skeletal system in order to make gains in muscle size, increase strength, power and endurance. Put simply, to get bigger and stronger, you must continue to keep adding weight to your lifts in the gym, to stimulate muscle growth and make the muscle work harder. If you don’t do this, your muscles will just adapt to what you currently lift, resulting in no precious “gains”.
Let’s use an example of a certain exercise with progressive overload. Let’s take the squat. The best exercise out there to get bigger and stronger legs, but also for developing core strength too.
If you do 3 sets of 10 reps of barbell back squats on 80kg for several weeks, eventually that weight will become easy for you to perform with that amount of sets and reps. This is because all the muscles in your legs (hamstrings, quads, glutes, calf’s etc.) have grown in size from when they first started and have stopped getting bigger, you’ve hit a plateau. The muscles have adapted to the weight that you have been lifting, they will no longer grow or get stronger unless you add on more weight, or change other variables, which we will explain. You need to place more demand on these muscles until you reach your genetic potential.
How to create progressive overload?
There are a number of ways to create progressive overload, to help you continue to make gains in the gym.1.Increase the weight- As explained above, the first thing to do before changing anything else is to add weight to the bar. It doesn’t have to be just barbell exercises either, for example, a good indicator of knowing when to go up in weight was if you were doing 8 reps on 20kg dumbbell chest press. If you can get in 9 reps comfortably, go up to 22kg. 2.Increase sets- The next step to take would be to increase the amount of sets you do within that exercise. We normally get beginners to start on 2-3 sets but once they become comfortable with that, we would then increase that to 3-4 sets, or maybe even 5. This will really fatigue the muscles by adding in that extra set. We always say, the last set of any exercise you shouldn’t be able to do anymore reps, or have “1 rep left in the tank”, but no more! 3.Increase reps- You can then increase the amount of reps you do within that set. Generally speaking, reps between 4-6 will be performed at a heavier weight increasing strength. Whereas reps between 6-12 would be slightly lighter and will be working muscular hypertrophy (increase in lean muscle tissue). 12-20+ reps would need to be performed with lighter weights helping increase muscular endurance. It is important to work in between all these rep ranges when training in the gym, and “mixing it up” depending on what you’re training for. If you're training to increase strength, then the majority of your training will be made up of 4-6 reps, whereas if you're training for muscle hypertrophy, the majority of your training should be made up of reps 6-12. This goes back to adding weight, if you’re training for strength, and can do more than 6 reps on a 50kg overhead press, then you need to go up in weight! 4.Increase frequency of training- Once you’ve done the above 3, the next best option is to increase the amount of times you go to the gym. For example if you do an upper body and lower body split, training twice a week, and have increased the above 3 variables yet are still not gaining, then you need to hit those muscle groups more frequently. When you see big muscular physiques, they probably train muscle groups more than once a week. For example, who’s going to have a bigger chest at the end of the year, the guy who benches once a week or the guy who benches twice a week? It’s common sense really, but only as long as you feel you can train a certain muscle group twice a week. If you have a hard and intense squat session on a Monday and want to squat again Wednesday, but still feel sore, then you haven’t recovered properly and should wait another day or 2 for those muscle to fully recover. Although it may be worth training a muscle group that hasn’t fully recovered every once in a while to shock that muscle and keep it guessing, however we wouldn’t recommend doing that often, it’s just another tactic to keep in your locker in case of a plateau. 5.Increase and add new exercises to your programme- We normally get beginners to base their training around the 4 big lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead/military press) we will then add in some isolation exercises such as leg extensions, lateral raises and bicep curls. And also bodyweight exercises such as chin ups, dips and press ups. Now it’s important to add weight, set, reps to all these exercises, but it’s also important to change these exercises around every 4-6 weeks for example. We’d even go as far to say if you’re an experienced trainer then to change exercises around every week. This will again keep your body guessing and hit different muscle groups from all angles adding muscle symmetry. Another bonus of this is it keeps your training fresh and stops it from getting boring. When people do the same programmes with the same exercises, they will get bored really quickly and lose motivation because their body will adapt to it, stopping your progression. So change it up! 6.Increase intensity- The final point would be to increase your intensity. We see too many people in the gym these days talking, on their phones, taking long rest periods and simply not training hard enough. You need to push your body out its comfort zone every training session, otherwise you will not change physically or mentally. Decrease rest times when appropriate, turn your phone onto “do not disturb” and just get your head down and do the work. When you see people in great shape, it’s because they’ve worked hard for it, for several years pushing their body in every session. Don’t train to failure on every set of every exercise, but challenge yourself, make progress, and note things down. What is the point of simply turning up and doing your time in the gym because you have to? Not only will you feel good for pushing yourself, but will look good, of course over a period of several months and years. Building the body of your dream requires time, dedication and consistency! Conclusion Take a look at your current training programme and decide what you need to use above in order to progress in the gym. Take each of the above points one at a time or even try them all at once, it depends on what you feel you need to change in order overcome a recent plateau you’ve hit. Some may only apply to your current training, for example if you're training for strength you may not need to increase your reps, or decrease your rest time, but you may just need to increase the weight you are lifting. On the flipside, if you’re training for an endurance event, or play a sport that doesn’t require you to have big arms and a big chest, then you probably don’t need to focus much on the weight or frequency of training. But please bear in mind, ANYONE can progress in the gym. ANYONE can get bigger and stronger providing they abide by the above points of progressive overload. Listen to your body when you need to increase any variable, but also listen to your body when you need to rest, because you can train all you like in the gym but you must rest your body appropriately, or you won’t grow. Likewise you need to nourish your body and muscles with the right food and supplements, or you won’t be able to recover efficiently. Don’t just read this blog, but read it and apply it to your training. We hope by reading this blog we can help you overcome many plateaus to come and continue to help you grow and make the gains you so desperately want!