The Principle Of Progressive Overload

What would you say is the number one thing that holds people back with their training?

I’d argue that it’s program hopping. We all know someone that does it – they start a new training routine with bounding enthusiasm, give it 2-3 weeks, then read some conflicting information elsewhere and decide that they need to switch things up. This programming ADHD – the search for the perfect training program – is the cause of the phenomenon of the perpetual beginner.

In the short-term the difference between an effective and ineffective exercise program is simply whether it was followed long enough for it to produce a noticeable training effect -which nearly anything will for a beginner. This will last around 4-6 weeks.

For a program to be effective past this phase however it needs to follow the Principle Of Progressive Overload’. If you feel you’ve been spinning your wheels down the gym lately, or want to check that your routine is capable of giving you the results that your efforts deserve, this may be the article that you need.

Should I Choose Program X or Y?

Mark Rippetoe is famous for recommending sets of 5, Jim Wendler for his 5/3/1 program, and Martin Berkhan for a double-progression ‘reverse-pyramid’ set-rep system. Who is more correct?  – They’re all right. There are many different training programs that work and these coaches know this. The only reason they may appear dogmatic in their writing is that they know it can be counterproductive to allow people too many choices with their training.

  • The most important thing for the beginner trainee is that you get on a good strength training program then stick to it.
  • The most important thing for the intermediate and advanced trainee becomes not what program you follow (for you must have followed a good one or you wouldn’t be intermediate or advanced), but how you tweak it to follow this principle of progressive overload so that you keep advancing with your training.

I’m thrilled to have a guest post by S&C coach and widely respected researcher, Naoki Kawamori explaining the subject. The main points can be summarized as follows:

  • Adaptation of the body to a progressively increasing load is essential.
  • There are a variety of ways you can create overload to force adaptation.
  • Continuing to workout with the same load is called ‘exercise’, not ‘training’.

The Principles of Progressive Overload

by Naoki Kawamori

There are various aims of performing resistance training such as muscular hypertrophy, increasing muscular strength and power, and reducing the risk of injury, etc. Whatever the aim, there are several “principles of training” that should be adhered to in order to perform resistance training effectively and efficiently.

Once you have made the decision to follow this ‘principle of progressive overload‘, your chances of making bad decisions when setting program variables such as exercises and the number of sets and reps are far lower. On the other hand, if you ignore the ‘principle of progressive overload‘ and decide to engage in flashy-looking training in pursuit of the latest craze, you are not as likely to achieve the desired effect.

In this article I would like to explain about this ‘principle of progressive overload’. First, the term ‘principle of progressive overload’ can be divided into the “principle of overload” and the “principle of progression” which can be considered separately.

The latter “principle of overload” tells you that it is necessary to stimulate the body with a stimulus (=overload) which exceeds the stimulus the body receives on a regular basis (and to which it is accustomed) in order to make the body adapt for your intended purpose (such as muscular hypertrophy, increasing muscular strength and power, etc.)

Let’s take a person performing 3 sets x 5 reps of 40kg squats three times per week. For this individual, 3 sets x 5 reps of 40kg squats three times per week is a stimulus their body receives on a regular basis; if they continue with this exact same routine, overload will never be applied to their body and they cannot expect any further training adaptation.

To create overload for this individual, it is necessary to increase one of the program variables (frequency, weight, sets, reps, etc.) If we increase the squat weight from 40kg to 45kg, for example, this weight of 45kg will provide a new stimulus for this individual (=overload) and their body will try to adapt to the change in environment, resulting in physiological adaptation such as muscular hypertrophy and increases in muscular strength and power, etc.


Notes on Overload and Adaptation

It is necessary to point out that there are a variety of ways of creating overload and the adaptation that is caused by each method differs. There are several methods to create overload in resistance training such as:

    1. Increasing the weight lifted
    2. Increasing the number of reps per set
    3. Increasing the number of sets
    4. Shortening the rest time between sets
    5. Increasing the difficulty of the exercise
    6. Expanding the range of motion
    7. Increasing the frequency of training

There are also other methods of creating overload which are not mentioned here; they have been omitted as the purpose of this article is not to cover them all.

Once again, what I want to say here is that the type of physiological adaptation that will be caused will differ depending on the manner in which the program variables are manipulated and the type of overload that is created.

For example, increasing the number of reps per set is one method of creating overload, however this method would not suit the training purpose of increasing maximal strength, for instance. Even if you started benching 40kg×5, added an extra rep each week, and reached 40kg×17 after three months, it is doubtful as to whether you would experience significant improvement in maximal strength (bench press 1RM). This is because muscular endurance, rather than maximal strength, is primarily trained through this method.

Of course, beginners could still expect a certain increase in maximal strength through this method, however creating overload by increasing the weight lifted is much more efficient if your main objective is to increase maximal strength.

In short, while it is important to create overload in accordance with the “principle of overload”, it is also necessary to pay attention to the type of overload that is created. This leads on to a discussion of another training principle known as “the principle of specificity” which, if possible, I would like to leave for another time.


“Progression”: Continually increasing the load

When I refer to my dictionary to check the unfamiliar word “progressive” as it relates to the “principle of progression” (the first half of the ‘principle of progressive overload’), the definition of “proceeding step-by-step, little by little” is given. Applying this to training, it indicates that it is necessary to increase the training load little by little.

For example, if I increase my bench press weight from 40kg to 45kg in accordance with the “principle of overload”, physiological adaptation will occur as a result and my muscular strength will increase. However, if I continue to train with this weight of 45kg, I cannot expect further (continued) increases in muscular strength. This is because training with a weight of 45kg, along with my increased muscular strength, will become routine and cease to be a stimulus which causes further adaptation (=overload). Therefore, if continued training adaptation is desired, it is necessary to increase the training load little by little (progressively) in line with increases in physical strength.


“Exercise” and “Training”

I sometimes see people at the gym performing the same exercises with the same weight and for the same number of reps each time.

I take a sideways glance while thinking “That guy has been doing the exact same thing for the past year. That’s amazing in a way.” However, this means that “progression” is missing in this individual’s training. Even if he persists with this training, he cannot expect significant improvements in muscular strength.

Still, this is all good if his goal is to simply come to the gym, enjoy exercising and raising a sweat, and relax with a nice cold beer afterwards.

What this guy is doing is exercise, not training. Moving the body in and of itself is the purpose of exercise. If you enjoy moving your body and feeling good for a while, there’s absolutely no problem with that; I have nothing negative to say about it at all.

Training, on the other hand, is a process through which to achieve medium and long-term objectives (such as muscular hypertrophy and increasing muscular strength and power) and that differs from exercise which achieves a temporary purpose. In training, moving the body is merely a means, not the purpose itself.

If you are exercising, it’s not a problem to perform the same exercises with the same weight and for the same number of reps each time. However, systematic training in accordance with the “principle of progression” is necessary in order to achieve medium and long-term objectives such as muscular hypertrophy and increasing muscular strength and power.

As I’ve explained, increasing the training load, rather than continuing with the same load, is a very important essential in the “principle of progression”. However, another important point we must not forget is that these increases are little by little.

There are limits to the body’s ability to try to adapt to external overload. Not only does adaptation not occur when overload is created beyond these limits, it also leads to a temporary decrease in physical strength. And if this excessive overload continues for some time, the athlete may fall into an overtrained state. (Although personally I don’t think that it’s so easy to overtrain).

So, it is also important to increase the load little by little to avoid this negative state. The extent to which “little by little” refers will differ depending on various conditions such as the athlete’s training experience, genetic potential, nutrition, sleep, and rest, etc. For example, a beginner may be able to add 2.5kg to their squat each training session, however it is not practical for an intermediate trainee (training 2-3 times per week) to continue to increase their load at such a rate; their program will have to be changed so their load increases by 2.5kg every week, for instance. As the athlete builds experience and reaches an advanced level, it may become necessary to wait a few months before increasing the weight by 2.5kg. In addition, the rate of progression that is appropriate for an athlete who maintains proper nutrition and gets a good night’s sleep and quality rest will differ from the rate appropriate for an athlete who neglects these essentials. For that matter, the appropriate rate of progression will also differ depending on the characteristics of the exercise, as well as factors related to the athlete himself. For example, the appropriate rate or speed of progression will be faster for compound  (multi-joint) exercises which utilize more muscle groups and muscle mass compared with isolation (single-joint) exercises which train small muscle groups. Successfully ascertaining and adjusting the degree of progression while taking into account these various factors can also be considered a way for the Strength and Conditioning (S&C) coach to display his ability. An S&C coach cannot control an athlete’s genetic potential or their behavior outside of training sessions (nutrition, sleep, rest), so they are faced with quite a difficult task…


If at a Loss, ask “Does it Apply to the Principle?”

The ‘principle of progressive overload’ combines the “principle of overload” and “principle of progression” above. I consider this ‘principle of progressive overload’ a pillar of my S&C training. When I’m worried about whether one of the training programs I have created is appropriate or not, I always go back to the ‘principle of progressive overload’ and check whether my program holds true to this principle. I also base my decisions on whether to introduce new exercise and training equipment on whether the ‘principle of progressive overload’ can be applied. Recently, flashy-looking, eye-catching exercise and training equipment seems to be in fashion, but can load be increased little by little as the athlete adapts in training utilizing this equipment? That is the criterion. Exercises that do not meet this criterion are no longer considered training exercises; they are positioned as simple drills. You may wish to introduce these drills in between warm-ups and the sets of training exercises if they help you to better perform training exercises that make up the main component of an S&C program. However, drills are not the main component of an S&C program; they are auxiliary components that occupy the same position as warm-up and mobility drills.

The same can be said about training equipment. There is a lot of training equipment that claims to train functional movements, however I feel that the ‘principle of progressive overload’ can only be applied with a few pieces of equipment. And I’m really forced to say that the general versatility of training equipment that doesn’t fit the ‘principle of progressive overload’ is extremely low. I am sure to hear the counterargument of “No, no, the purpose of functional drills and training equipment is to train “movement”, so as long as you are able to reach a decent amount of weight, it doesn’t matter if you don’t add any more.” But if you ask me, that is not training.

I have no problem with sports coaches using these kind of drills and training equipment as part of skills practice, but I cannot understand why an S&C coach, who is not expert in the athlete’s actual sport, would devote the athlete’s precious time to “training movement” through these kind of drills and training equipment. It is possible to apply the ‘principle of progressive overload’ if implementing basic barbell and dumbbell training exercises; you can increase both muscular strength and power and train basic “movements”. It is far more efficient.

So, you have just learned about the ‘principle of progressive overload’. Those with a little background knowledge of training theory and exercise physiology may be thinking “That rings a bell. Was it in the textbook?”

Alternatively, there may be many of you who feel that this is merely conceptual and not a concept that can actually be employed in S&C training. There was a time where I thought that way, but actually working with athletes made realise that it it is actually a really valid concept.

Your training methods (the manner of manipulating training variables such as exercises) will change as you study, obtain new knowledge, and gain experience. However, the principles of training will always remain unchanged. The principle I introduced today, the ‘principle of progressive overload’, is the most important concept and serves as a pillar of my training.

I hope all readers can maintain strong S&C training pillars and continue to make steady progress with an appropriate training program without being drawn in by trendy pseudo training.

*********************

Naoki Kawamori Japanese Strength ResearcherNaoki Kawamori is a Strength and Conditioning (S&C) coach and is employed at the National Sports Science Centre in Japan. After studying sports science at Waseda University (one of the top private universities in Japan), he studied abroad in the U.S. and Australia where he obtained his master’s degree and PhD. He then became involved in improving the physical strength of top-level athletes in Japan and Singapore. He specializes in the collection and analysis of S&C-related papers and their application to the field, and supports athletes as an S&C coach with both his scientific and practical knowledge.

On a personal note, my research geek friend, Bret Contreras, told me that Naoki is one of his favourite strength researchers (on his website Bret talks about the studies that Naoki did, here and here) and we feel lucky and privileged to have him as a guest writer on our Japanese site. His blog can be found here (Japanese).

Excellent companion articles to this: 

Questions welcomed in the comments.

About the Author

Andy Morgan

I am the founder of RippedBody.com, this is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I’ve been doing online, via email, for the last six years. If you’re interested in individualized, one-on-one nutrition and training coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let’s start the conversation.

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