Training Principles – Progressive Overload

Training Principles – Progressive Overload


A principle is a fundamental law of truth and sets the rules for how something must be done to achieve the desired outcome. Within the realm of fitness, there are four key principles that must be employed to ensure continue progress:

  1. Specificity – the type of stress you place on the body will dictate the specific change ‘you get what you train for’
  2. Individuality – each individual responds differently to the same training stimulus and therefore training variables / exercises need to cater for each specific person.
  3. Variety – changing up the programme to allow for continued progression and avoid being stuck in a plateau.
  4. Progressive overload – the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise to elicit a continued training adaptation.

The principle of specificity, individuality, and variety should all be taken care off within the programming stage. Progressive overload however, needs to taken care off within the workout itself – otherwise muscle growth and strength gains won’t be achieved long-term.

Why is progressive overload so important?

After each training session a training adaptation takes place. Once we have recovered from the workout, the specific trained component increases. For example, after a session of lifting heavy weights you will make gains in maximum strength via, increases in muscle fibre size, increase in the strength of each muscle fibre, increase in the number of muscle fibres activated, and an increase in tendon stiffness. These adaptations that take place increase our capacity to do more in the subsequent workout – perfect! Progressive overload is basically the way in which we take the adaptation resulting from the previous workout into account, when performing subsequent workouts. The specific adaptation being trained only takes place when the training stimulus exposes the body to an unfamiliar and greater level of stress than previously experienced. As each adaptation increases the capacity to do work, a gradual increase in the work done is essential for continued long-term progress.

Note: This does NOT mean that you have to train harder and lift heavier weights every-single session. Although this is an effective strategy for beginners who can make accelerated progress via newbie gains, more experienced athletes need to implement the principle of progressive overload more intelligently via a well-planned long-term programme.

Just add more weight?

A very simple and very effective strategy to implement progressive overload is lifting more weight on the same exercise every week. This strategy is best for beginners or when performing a new lift because the improvements come quickly. However, as one progresses to the intermediate or advanced level this strategy becomes less potent. Therefore, relying on other strategies that result in progressive overload becomes imperative. But what other strategies do we have available?

Well, this really depends on what adaptation you are seeking. But let’s give some example in relation to building muscle. Muscle growth occurs when a high % of muscle fibres are recruited and exposed to high mechanical loads. Therefore, progressive overload can be successfully implemented in the following ways:

  1. Improving Form – Do NOT underestimate the power of good form. Improving your form can result in progressive overload to the actual muscle/s you intended to target. (e.g. by simply reducing the movement of your shoulder during a bicep curl you will better isolate the muscle you intended to work in the first place). Here it really helps to train that mind-muscle connection by allowing you to really isolate certain muscles.
  2. Increasing Reps – Another simple and popular strategy is to increase the number of reps lifted at the same load, this will ensure that the muscle continues to experience a sufficient level of fatigue to recruit high-threshold motor units.
  3. Increasing Sets – Adding an extra set will add volume to your session and therein, result in accumulative fatigue that will ensure that the muscle continues to experience a sufficient level of fatigue to recruit high-threshold motor units.
  4. Adding Slower Tempos – By slowing down the speed of each rep, while lifting the same load and volume, will result in the muscle fibres experiencing more fatigue and therein, will ensure that the muscle continues to experience a sufficient level of fatigue to recruit high-threshold motor units.
  5. Increasing Range of Motion – Lifting the same load for increased range of motion will place more mechanical tension on each individual muscle fibre while also recruiting different muscle fibres form different areas of the muscle.
  6. Reducing Rest Periods –Increasing the density of your training by minimising the rest periods between sets can potentially increase muscle mass via metabolic stress (the pump)
  7. Increase Session Density – Doing more work in the same amount of time.
  8. Increased Frequency – Adding extra training sessions / days to your workout is a good way of adding more volume throughout the week and the opportunity to stimulate the muscle more often.

Take home message

  • Progressive overload refers to the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise to elicit a training response.
  • Overload is necessary otherwise the body will have no reason to adapt and prepare for a greater level of stress
  • Progressive overload can be implemented via many different strategies and a mix of strategies should be employed with reference to the principles of septicity, individuality, and variety.