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Progressing from one workout to the next is what we all strive for in the gym, however, some stick to what’s more comfortable, such as always doing the same reps/sets or constantly using the same weight. The latter conflicts with one of the major training principles (the principle of progressive overload) and will actually stall your progress.

Progressive Overload

The progressive overload principle states that in order to make progress, (bigger muscles, more strength or a more efficient energy system) your body and muscles need to be continually challenged with new training stimuli or they’ll cease to adapt.

Get comfortable with the uncomfortable, pushing’ more weight, completing more reps, doing an exercise faster, etc. Once that becomes comfortable, get uncomfortable again. This is what training is all about, continuous progression and improvement.

Take the example of Milo, a 6th Century wrestler, is most famously known for lifting a baby calf every day, until eventually it becomes a fully grown bull. Doing this every day, in turn, increased Milo’s muscle mass and strength. This illustrates a clear example on the practice of progressive overload.

The Problem with Progress

The story of Milo lifting the calf every day, and as the calf grew day by day, so did Milo’s strength and size. While this makes for a great story, there’s one problem. Progress is never linear. It comes and goes, more so in waves. You’ll make progress in some months. Others, you’ll stay the same and sometimes you may even go backwards. But, over the long run, the trend will and should be going upwards.

In the real world, there’s only so much you can keep progressing, both in strength and size, before you can’t progress anymore. When you initially start training you can make progress extremely fast, as your body adapts to the new stimulus and has more ‘room’ for growth. This is why you make some of your best gains during the first 6–12 months of your lifting ‘life’. But the more you keep lifting; progress begins to slow and becomes harder to come by.

This is where the story of Milo is flawed. While it would be great to keep progressing and getting bigger and stronger for the rest of our lives, unfortunately we have built into us a little something that stop us from being able to do that.

The Plateau

The plateau is a biological phenomenon that occurs as a result of our bodies becoming accustomed to a certain stimulus and stops responding. For example, you go into the gym and do 3 sets of 12 reps on the Bench Press. Initially, your Pectoral Muscles (your chest) respond to the new stimulus and your body adapts to it by growing (bigger chest) to be able to handle that load the next time.

However, if you keep going into the gym and doing the same weight and/or reps week in week out your body has ‘adapted’ to this stimuli and is no longer responding as there isn’t a new stimuli for it to ‘adapt’ to. Ironically enough, the plateau is actually a defence mechanism that’s built into us to help us survive. Our bodies can only keep progressing so much before we put ourselves at a higher risk of injury or even worse, death. The plateau helps to stop us getting to that point (hence why you can’t keep growing forever or keep getting stronger forever)

More than One Way

When most lifters think of progressive overload, they tend to think that there’s only one way to keep progressing and that is to continuously add weight or do more reps every session. You will eventually get to a point in your training where you can no longer simply keep adding weights or reps in a linear fashion, as you reach a point where physiologically, your body just won’t allow this to happen.

So what do you do then? Well, luckily there’s more than one way to approach progressive overload.

The most common variables of weight/strength training progression that come to mind are:

Volume, Intensity and Frequency

These are the basics of proper programming in strength training. If your program doesn’t deliver the results you expect, then you may have missed out on one of these key requirements. I’ll explain each one of them to you now:

Training Volume

Training volume simply means the amount of work being done. There are a number of different ways to measure it. For example, training volume can be estimated in total reps per exercise, in total amount of sets per training session, in total amount of weight lifted in exercise per training session, in total amount of sets or reps per day or per week, or per year etc. Proper training volume is regulated by the recovery ability of the person and his/her goal. If you want to build strength on your program, or avoiding muscle loss and strength during calorie deficit, then you’ll need less volume. If, however, you want to build muscle, then you’ll certainly need more volume.

Training Intensity

Training intensity refers to the amount of weight you’re lifting, which in turn also refers to how hard you’re working. Take the example of working off a percentage of your 1 repetition maximum. The closer you’re working weight to 1RM, the harder you work, the higher the intensity, the less reps you will be able to perform in set, the more time you’ll need to fully recover between sets, the less total sets you’ll be able to perform etc. Intensity is very important in gaining strength as well as in building muscle, as well as in sparring muscle during calorie restriction diet. It should be kept pretty high if your goal is pure strength and/or getting ripped. However, if your goal is building as much muscle as possible you need a bit lower intensity to allow more volume.

Training Frequency

Training frequency is how often you perform certain move, practice certain exercise or train certain muscle. Frequency can be high and low. High frequency means at least 3 times per week, but usually even more. Low frequency is no more than 2 times per week but usually even less. Well, there’s no hard rule on this but in my opinion such classification is not far from the truth. Frequency is great for neural adaptation. This means that it’s great for building strength and skill. Also it’s pretty good for building muscle as you get stronger faster while adding more total volume. For fat loss it’s probably not the most important variable.

Mix it up

Training volume, intensity and frequency are mutually exclusive variables. The more you increase one of them, the less should be two other. This means that if you increase the volume, then your intensity and frequency should go down for you to be able to progress. As well as if you increase frequency, then intensity and volume should go down.

The Importance of Recovery

To enhance progression, you need to recover between training sessions. In other words, if you’re not improving on your strength, if you’re failing to hit the recommended repetitions or weight from session to session (or at least several sessions per month) then you’re probably not recovering adequately enough between your sessions. In such case you need to decrease one of the variables (or all of them) and see how you doing. You will probably need to do this until you find the right amount of each variable individually for you. If you need to lower one of these training variables, I would recommend you go with volume first and intensity and frequency second.

In my experience, most of the people progress nicely on low volume high frequency programs. On the other hand, high volume low frequency mid intensity programs works with much less success. The same goes for de-loading. I would rather do less reps or less sets with heavy weight to de-load than the same set-rep scheme with lighter weight. It seems former actually refreshes you, while latter makes you weaker. But that’s just experience.

So take on the points above and, along with an appropriate nutritional routine, implementing this information will help you continue forward on your journey

Gavin Meenan